Those of you who know me also know I’m going through a hard time in my life. I’m looking for moments of joy anywhere I can, and recently found many of them in Remy Charlip’s book Arm in Arm, a book thoughtfully recommended to me and my son by the artist Josh Atlas who I met during my recent fellowship at the Vermont Studio Center.
It’s categorized as a children’s book, but I’ve already lived in it for hours, turning the pages back and forth, watching the words turn into art, the art turn into play, the play turn into peace. There are no genre limits here. Only wishes to continue. Octopi get married and have eight arms to hold instead of just two. Birds and cats and spies follow one another until the idea of origin is irrelevant. On one page a chicken asks an egg, “Who was first, me or you?” and the egg answers, “Don’t question it. Be grateful we have one another.”
Many of the writers I admire, Charlip now included, are often labeled as whimsical writers. Whimsy, the art of sharing an unpredictable thought in a fanciful way, is too often used as a derogatory word that denies the necessity of imagination and desire. Often, the term whimsical is used as a synonym for “slight,” or “frivolous,” as if nothing can be built on whimsy, as if nothing substantial can spring from it. This is certainly not the case. Charlip’s essay “A Page is a Door” demonstrates how architecturally sound the concept of whimsy can be. In this short essay, he completely dismantles the typical idea of what a book is and reimagines it as something both very concrete and filled with desire:
A book is a series of pages held together at one edge, and these pages can be moved on their hinges like a swinging door. . . Of course if a door has something completely different behind it, it is much more exciting. The element of delight and surprise is helped by the physical power we feel in our own hands when we move that page or door to reveal a change in everything that has gone before, in time, place, or character.
For Charlip, then, a book gives the reader and the writer a chance to do something together. The reader opens the door and the author fills the room. The reader has control over how long to stay there, when to open a different door, when to return. How many things change in our lives! Things that can’t be controlled. And how wonderful to have Remy Charlip give us a chance to practice this sometimes devastating reality through his series of beautiful doors. In Arm in Arm there is no beginning and no end. There is only continual opening.