by Gus Gordon – Penguin/Viking, 2016
ages 2 to 8 years / emotional resilience, funny
Maya Angelou wrote "The ache for home lives in all of us, the safe place where we can go as we are and not be questioned."
She was talking about returning to ancestral homes—but that same ache sometimes flows from fear. The desire to feel safe can keep us from exploring all that the world has to offer (both metaphorically and physically).
George is a bird who stays home. All the other birds go Somewhere Else, and they try to persuade George to go with him. But there is always something that holds George back—brownies baking, ironing to do, a yoga class.
Important and satisfying as those things unquestionably are in George’s (and everyone’s) life, he misses many life-enhancing experiences. His friends fly off to the Andes, to Paris, and to Alaska—but George makes his excuses and stays at home.
Eventually George turns down so many offers to go Somewhere Else that his friends stop asking and George finds himself alone. Except for his bear friend Pascal who starts wishing, in the depth of winter, for a Caribbean holiday.
George comes up with a cluster of absurd excuses but is finally forced to confess that he would have gone Somewhere Else:
“If only I knew how to fly.”
It’s a vulnerable moment for George and tender to read. All of George’s bravado fades away and the home loving façade is no more.
It turns out that George had simply missed the day when the other birds learned to fly and “He had been making excuses not to fly, ever since.”
In a very charming series of attempts, George and Pascal come up with a solution—a hot air balloon allows them both to fly! They travel the world and discover that “The world was bigger and more brilliant than they had ever imagined.”
Still, that ache for home, the safe place to go and not be questioned, brings them home again—for pie and to decide where to go next.
This is a lovely book, with disarming characters displaying a whole gamut of very human idiosyncrasies. George tries to hide his inadequacies, Pascal talks up his abilities and then has to renege, George’s other friends are so busy with their own adventures that they fail to notice George’s problem and so on. Each character is delightfully flawed and wholly likeable.
The pictures are full of detail, giving a sense of George’s quirkiness. I especially like the collage effect—it’s fun to scour each page looking for the minutiae. And there’s a breeziness to the pictures and words combination that makes reading fun and light-hearted even in the midst of emotionally intense moments.
Some bits of philosophy to love in this book:
Fear of being discovered as less skilled than others can keep us from truly wonderful experiences. Those experiences don’t have to be world travel—they can be as simple as trying to roller skate. This is a great story for talking about overcoming fears. Everything doesn’t go smoothly as George and Pascal work together to find a way to fly, but they get there in the end.
Home is wonderful and safe, as it should be, but it’s often Somewhere Else that most personal growth happens. (Still it’s good to come home as George and Pascal do, to plan and to enjoy some pie!)
Sometimes, when we turn down offers of adventure over and over again, those offers might stop. There’s a lot to be said for taking chances when they’re offered.
It’s worth finding a way around our personal shortcomings. And it’s worth paying attention to our friends and helping them to do the same. (Or we might not notice someone who doesn’t know how to fly.)
It’s while George and Pascal are sitting quietly and feeling a little defeated, that they come up with the inspiration for a hot air balloon: a bit of downtime can be a wonderful thing.
A small reading hint:
George’s many skills (baking, yoga, homemaking) deserve to be played up and read as being very cool and interesting—they are important after all. Playing them up helps when George comes to confess that he can’t fly. The idea is to make it clear that flying is only one really great skill and simply lacking that particular one doesn’t make George any less interesting.
There’s a bit of George in all of us, seeking security in the familiar, averse to risk-taking. There’s a bit of Pascal too, helpful, encouraging and willing to give things a go. And George’s friends will probably feel familiar, looking for the next adventure, inviting others along for the ride. It’s in the embracing of all these different parts that we free ourselves to embrace home and seek adventure, be it in the wide world or in the corners of our imagination.