Picture Books · Reading

The Glorious, Oft-Sung Art of Word-Collecting

I can remember always loving words. The first big word I learned to spell was ‘elephant,’ and because I ran around for maybe half an hour singing the letters, I still have an audio memory of their order. I grouped them in to e-l-e, p-h, a-n-t mostly because of the sound of those letters together, but 4th grade me thought younger me was clever keeping the p-h together, since it spelled a single sound.

And that song evoked an elephant for me—every elephant tiny me could imagine, which included Dumbo and Pooh’s heffalumps, as well as more real ones I’d seen in books. As I sang, heffalumps danced in my mind’s eye with African elephants to the rhythm of my song.
That was just the first word I fell in love with.
Since then there have been so many wonderful words that have enchanted me—and I mean enchanted. They sing and they chant and they cast a spell. Mellifluous. Defenestrate. Nefarious.
Then I learned more languages. Éclat, mariposa, Kunst, grembo, uppivözlumaðr. I am an addict.
But I am not alone. And this is actually a blog about picture books.
In the last several years, there have been two picture books entitled “The Word Collector.” The first one was published in Spain in 2011 (La coleccionista de palabras) by Sonja Wimmer and features a girl named Luna, who lives “high, high up in the sky,” above people, apart from them, either in a lighthouse or in the clouds (or in a lighthouse in the clouds—the illustrations are delightfully ambiguous.)
The second book is by Peter H. Reynolds and features an African-American boy named Jerome (although the title is gender-neutral in English, of course—for just a second I had imagined another girl), who lives among people and draws the words he collects from his environment. He writes down words he hears, words he sees in the world, and words he reads in books on strips of paper and puts them away carefully.
Both of these children collect words of all different types, for all different kinds of affinities. Sometimes they like what the word means; sometimes they like how it sounds. But they also like words that seem to fit their referent—‘molasses’ tends to be drawn out, like a slow pour. That’s really a response to the inherent order of the universe, to my eye—to form following function.  And sometimes they just like how the words make them feel.
Their crises differ, though. Luna notices the world has become too busy to use—let alone appreciate—words, so she contrives to redistribute the ones she has collected like a benevolent goddess, sowing, weaving, and scattering words like seeds. She gifts the world with the fertile imagination that a substantial vocabulary fosters so well.
Jerome’s journey is both smaller and bigger than Luna’s. He drops his scrapbooks and boxes, in which he’d stored his sorted words, and ends up putting them back together in new, unexpected combinations, discovering poetry and music and seeing that they are good. He thinks about words, learning that sometimes the simplest are the most powerful—“I’m sorry” and “You matter.”
Finally, he comes to realize that his big word collection has improved his ability to understand who he is and to share his ideas and dreams with the world, and he wants that for others too. He releases his words from the top of a hill, and children below scramble to gather them.
Jerome’s story is about self-empowerment and paying it forward. Luna’s, with its visual artistry of the text as well as images, is more about sharing the gifts of beauty and connection to others. But they both begin with a sense of wonder at words and end with sharing their beloved words with the world.
Why do they both feel like gods to me when they dispense their words? Is that what Little Me was responding to—the power that words confer on their wielders? Maybe. That is old magic, as we know from lots of traditions (the songs of Orpheus, the logos of the New Testament, the runes of Germanic paganism, or the tradition of true names that can be used to control people or entities).
But so much of the appeal for me is wonder and joy at the music of a word or the perfect capturing of an idea, or—as Jerome discovers—the serendipitous collision of a few words that make something new, unexpected, and utterly splendiferous.
The Anglo-Saxons referred to language as their “word hoards.” (First—obviously—that’s that’s why I fell in love at first sight with Anglo-Saxon.) Second—I am heartened to know this glorious tradition has not lost any ground in the intervening centuries. Words are still gemstones to be marveled at, collected, and shared.
E-l-e… p-h… a-n-t. I dare you not to see one dancing in your head.