Is it just me, or are we losing our writers more quickly these days? There was Maurice Sendak's stroke in May, Ray Bradbury's passing in June, Donald J. Sobol (the mind behind Encyclopedia Brown) left us in July, and already this month David Rakoff succumbed to cancer. And now the supremely talented and darling children's author Remy Charlip is gone.
A very specific set of circumstances brought him to my attention — I otherwise might have gone my whole life without hearing his name or knowing his work.
It began with an author event for Brian Selznick in celebration of his latest “novel in words and pictures,” the magnificent Wonderstruck. The crowd would have been far too large for our bookstore, so we managed to host the event at the Alameda Theatre & Cineplex. The bustle in preparation of the event was immense and electrifying: the occasion was packed with more children and parents than I've seen since my old ACMT days. I can't describe his presentation itself for I was on lobby duty, selling Brian's books until the event started. I did manage to catch a few minutes of it, and was delighted and impressed by what I saw. Shortly thereafter I returned to my station in the lobby, where I awaited the event's ending and the second rush on books.
The doors opened, families poured into the hall, and business was buzzing once again … when Brain Selznick began applauding, and calling upon others to do the same. I looked around, clapping with everyone else, until I saw the subject of applause standing by the exit door: a kind old man, smiling, looking tired and humble and incredibly happy, gratefully waving back at the roaring mass of love and affection in front of him. That was the one time I saw Remy Charlip, and the next day we brought copies of his books into the store.
His most famous picture book is Fortunately, which I later heard was referenced by Brian Selznick during the event. I like Fortunately and recommend it highly, but the book that struck the strongest chords with me, the one I loved immediately upon picking it up, was his strange and beautiful picture book, Arm In Arm.
While Fortunately follows a single narrative, Arm In Arm is a delicious blend of mini-stories, plays, songs, rhymes, jokes, and some of the most lush and enchanting illustrations I've ever seen. Its cover alone is worthy of portraiture and is as captivating as its contained pages. Strange costumes, flowers and rainbows, crying faces and smiling faces and faces with meaningful glances, weird animals and warped lines and interconnected mazes, everything that is a thing can be found in this book. The illustration is simple enough to be evocative, but complex enough to show true sophistication. Colors abound, words wriggle and squiggle all over, drawings spill into one another, dotted with silly wordplay and loving stories.
To give you an idea of this book's style and sense of humor, one need look no further than the book's title. Arm In Arm comes from the beginning of the book: a pair of newlywed cephalopods are dressed up on one page, and on the other it says, “Two octopuses got married and walked down the aisle arm in arm in arm in arm in arm in arm in arm in arm in arm in arm in arm in arm in arm in arm in arm in arm.”
The whole book is as simple and delightful and profound as that. Whether a page is crowded with a mass of psychedelic creations, or only a one-act play typed over purple paper, or super-chromatic hybrid imaginations, or just a small yellow sign saying “DO NOT READ THIS SIGN,” it is a work of true fun and sweet love. It blends ambition, honesty, celebration, and understanding in ways I'd forgotten a children's book could do. I really wish I knew about it when I was small — I count myself very lucky that I know it now.