A story of wistfulness and whimsy, told with scruffy tenderness.
By Maria Popova
“Genius is nothing more nor less than childhood recovered at will,” Baudelaire wrote in his abiding case for the genius of childhood — “a genius for which no aspect of life has become stale.” What keeps the world ceaselessly fresh for the child is the tireless imagination — particularly, Baudelaire believed, the voraciousness with which children absorb and play with form and color, building entire worlds out of the smallest hint of curiosity.
And what more curious a creature of form and color than a zebra to unlatch that irrepressible imagination? That’s what French writer Nelly Stéphane and legendary graphic designer and illustrator André François cast as the protagonist’s whimsical sidekick in the 1958 gem Roland (public library) — the story of a little boy with the magical ability to dream up animals and animate them into life simply by uttering the incantation “Crack!”
Roland discovers his superpower while finding himself in various situations with “nothing to do” — a testament to the creative purpose of boredom, so gravely endangered in our age of distraction, and a lovely counterpart to How to Do Nothing with Nobody All Alone by Yourself , that charming vintage field guide to self-reliant play published the same year.
François — who studied with Picasso, illustrated a number of New Yorker covers, and made his American children’s book debut in 1949 with Little Boy Brown — renders Roland’s adventures in his distinctive style of largehearted scruffy tenderness.
We follow the young imaginator as he first dreams a benevolent beast into being — “Crack! — when the teacher sends him to stand in the corner and he brings an imaginary tiger to life. What makes the story so wonderful is the sincerity with which, just as in the child’s mind, the real world and the imaginary world are integrated. “We have no room for you here,” the teacher calmly says to the tiger, and the tiger simply exits. What could be more ordinary?
Next, bored in the classroom, Roland draws a zebra into his notebook and — Crack! — it leaps to life and disappears over the schoolyard wall.
In the street, Roland touches his friend Isabel’s fur coat and — Crack! — it turns into a menagerie of small furry animals, who run away. She accuses him of theft, so Roland is taken to prison. But one of the furry animals comes to find and rescue him.
Together, they trek across rooftops until they dive down a chimney and into the bedroom of a destitute little girl.
To cheer her up, Roland dreams up a dancing doll and — Crack! — she comes to life as the little boy and little girl watch together in enchanted silence.
The deliberate discontinuity between the vignettes winks at the wilderness the imagination with which the child fills what the adult sees as barrenness. The zebra reappears in the town square, pulling a cab over which two fancy ladies are arguing. They go on bickering as the zebra frees itself and runs to Roland, who leaps onto its back and gallops into town.
The zebra slips on a banana peel and Roland flies into the canal, where he catches a swordfish and glimpses a marvelous glowing fish, which he puts in his pocket before walking home. Again, what could be more ordinary in the child’s imagination?
Wistful about having lost his zebra, Roland draws a pair of donkeys and — Crack! — brings them to life to take home, where he receives a great big jug from his mother to house the glowing fish. But the fish has stopped shining and Roland still misses his zebra.
His mother encourages him to go visit Isabel and apologize. Roland finds her in bed, ill on account of her runaway coat. An affectionate gesture of apology is due.
After Roland gives Isabel the fish, it begins to glow again, and he goes home to discover that his zebra has returned and joined the two donkeys — a sweet and redemptive ending, celebrating the greatest animating superpower of all: human kindness.
The immensely delightful Roland comes from Brooklyn-based indie powerhouse Enchanted Lion, publisher of such imaginative treasures as What Color Is the Wind?, The Lion and the Bird, Cry, Heart, But Never Break, Pinocchio: The Origin Story, and Louis I, King of the Sheep.
Illustrations courtesy of Enchanted Lion Books; photographs by Maria Popova