Like a lot of households nowadays, ours is in the midst of a Marie Kondo assault. If you haven’t seen her Netflix series, Tidying Up, or read her book, The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up, then in all likelihood, you know someone who has. She is everywhere. Her name has become a verb. The other day, a friend on Facebook crowed that he had Marie Kondo’ed his closet and that he felt amazing. Across the country, thrift stores are reporting record levels of donations, as folks divest themselves of all the stuff they really don’t want anymore.
The magic Kondo creates has to do with the idea of joy. Some things bring it, but most things do not. We surround ourselves with stuff, but probably only a fraction of it gives us any real happiness. By getting rid of everything that does not “spark joy,” we can declutter our living spaces and build intentional environments designed to make us happy.
I love this phrase, “spark joy.” It captures the electric effect that some items have on us, and seems to speak to a kind of potential energy that particularly potent items store inside themselves. They wait on the shelf of a junk store or in a dark attic, just hoping for the right touch to come and close the circuit, releasing that spark. To my mind, these items are almost always old, well-used, maybe even a bit broken down. Part of my particular spark comes from the knowledge that other hands have touched them, other bodies have worked them through the world. It is as if the item itself was a kind of medium for communing with bygone days. I don’t get that feeling from new things just off the rack, but that’s just me.
Which gets me, finally, to my point.
You can tell a lot about a person based on their stuff.
Or, perhaps even closer to the point, you can SHOW a lot about a person based on their stuff.
I am thinking now of illustrations, particularly illustrations that show characters in their environment, and how that environment does the work of characterization. For my examples, I want look closely at the wonderful book The Storm Whale, by Benji Davies (2013 Henry Holt). In The Storm Whale, a lonely little boy named Noi finds a beached whale and tries to bring it home. Keeping the whale is an impossible task, but the act of dealing with it brings Noi and his dad closer together, changing their home forever. All this in, by my count, 267 words! Brilliant.
So how does Davies make us understand this transformation? One way, I think, is through his depiction of the things in Noi’s environment. In the first page, we see little Noi standing outside his house playing with shells and sticks and leaves. The text reads “Noi lived with his Dad and six cats by the sea.” That doesn’t sound lonely, does it? But if you look, these cats aren’t playing with him. In fact, it’s really hard to even find the sixth one, which (I think) is just a black smudge under the flower pots by the shed. Instead, Noi is on his own, playing a made-up game with stuff the ocean has left him. The house is big and dark and weather-beaten, but the colorful flags outside keep it from being foreboding or scary.
In the next spread, we see Noi at the kitchen table, eating breakfast. Again, some of the cats are around, but they’re not necessarily playmates. The space is wonderfully utilitarian: one table, two chairs, a couple cooking utensils, the old wooden stove and the cuckoo clock. These details seem to describe Noi’s life: pared down, spare. They set the mood of the home completely. Davies includes little homey touches like the toy boat, the picture of the cat, and the porcelain bowl, but overall it seems like a pretty simple life. No TV or radio, hardly any toys other than the twigs and pebbles Noi brings in.
For all that though, it is not a sad place. Yet something sad is happening: Dad is leaving. The text of the next page reads “Every day, Noi’s dad left early for a long day’s work on his fishing boat. He wouldn’t be home again till dark.”
So we’ve got a curious and loveable kid who’s used to bringing home flotsam and jetsam, and who’s left alone most days with nothing to keep him company but the ocean and six ambivalent cats. Is it any wonder that he tries to take care of a beached baby whale in his bath tub?
Like the kitchen, Noi’s bathroom is spare but homey. Two robes, one little towel, a couple prints and a houseplant. All the items Davies includes seems really of the place, like you could reach out that window and find most any of them nearby. And like so many good picture books, he gives you just enough to feel full, for the place to feel real.
Towards the end of the book, once Noi and Dad have taken the whale back to the sea, we return to the kitchen. A lot of it is still the same. Same wood stove, same cuckoo clock, same cats. But there are two major differences. One is that Noi is painting his memories of the whale. We can see an earlier painting hanging on the cupboard. Maybe I am biased, but any depiction of art making is , to my eyes, positive.
But the biggest change is that Dad is there. The boy doesn’t have to be lonely any more..
Then, in a wonderful final image, the whale and its parent echo Noi and his dad, promising that neither of them would ever have to be alone again.
So. Interiors. Things. I have to admit, I sometimes give them short shrift in my illustrations. But what I’m learning is how important they can be to establishing place, mood, and character. They can define a life, and when done well, can spark joy.
Do you know of picture books that have fabulous depictions of interiors? What about characterizing things? Let me know by posting in the comments below. I am always on the lookout for more. Thanks!