Back in the good old days when little children went to school and kindly hung out with their teachers and friends instead of their parents, I used to make the rounds of several preschools for my work. On one such day, I heard a teacher read aloud some familiar words from a book -- "It was the summer of the year when the relatives came..." -- and felt immediately as if I was among friends. I later inveigled an opportunity to peruse the bookshelf where Cynthia Rylant (writer) and Stephen Gammell's (illustrator) Caldecott Honor winning classic was waiting for me. Battered, stained and dog-eared, it had all the badges that a well-loved children's book wears with pride. It was still firmly in business more than thirty years after its publication, having seen everything from the beginnings of the World Wide Web to the advent of video chats.
Turning just a few pages should convince you why this book can't be shoved aside by a young 'un potentially more in sync with the times. A large brood of relatives pops up for a visit in a bouncy, quirkily coloured vehicle with luggage and elbows jutting out every which way. They spill out of the car into the house and onto the landscape, weaving themselves happily into the fabric of the family's meals, games and routines. It is summertime -- warm with hugs, mellow with music, cool with melons. Now, doesn't that sound ideal right about now?
Rylant and Gammell's genius shows itself in many ways. The gently nostalgic turn of phrase and somewhat gently shading coloured pencil illustrations, making it easy to remember your own life while ostensibly reading about someone else's. Simple words, equally accessible to children and adults, with enough room between the sentences to accommodate all our imaginations. Nestling the text, soft pastel colored double-spread images which seem to continue well beyond the page into the room where you're reading. Rylant's collective of 'relatives' being granted individual faces through Gammell's artwork, so that you learn just a little more about different folks at every page. Gammell makes this book perfect for young readers whose alphabet hasn't yet caught up with their thoughts. As someone tells them what the text says, they could be doing their own reading, tracing the trajectories of different unnamed characters, or giggling at the silliness that must ensue when such a tumbly bunch of people attempts a family photograph. Finally, his landscapes perfectly complement the words to lend emotional weight to a beautiful but intangible truth -- that sometimes a ‘goodbye’ carries a promise to never really leave, and missing people is a good way to be together while apart in this big and lonesome world. Whew. Try doing all that as a self-taught artist.
I've met this book several times. I first found it hiding snugly in an anthology of children's stories that my mother had hauled home from a used-books sale in Vashi, in a very different place from its origins in rural United States. Growing up, when our relatives visited us in Vadodara, they arrived by the train, not a station wagon; we ate mangoes, not strawberries; and we had our own special brand of shenanigans -- but these differences didn't matter much when it came to this book. Reading it more recently, those experiences again trickled out of the pages and into my home for a few lovely hours. Rylant’s readers wouldn’t be surprised to learn that she wrote this book around the time that she was mining "the gold mine of memories stored up in (her) head". Remembering with love and bringing our folks closer: possibly the most cherished pastimes of anyone who finds themselves at a distance from others for any reason. Wouldn't it be nice, today, to sit down with this book and have your friends and family pop out, all time and distance vanquished for a little while? Wouldn't it be the absolute best?
Written by Abha Basargekar. June, 2020