This week we’re taking a closer look at Powell’s Pick of the Month The World Belonged to Us by Jacqueline Woodson and Leo Espinosa.
I’m a nostalgia skeptic. I say that as someone in the final days of his thirties, an age when all the normal human inclinations — pushed along by Big Culture
— are driving many of us elder millennials to remember just how good things — especially products — used to be. (Exhibit A: The Garbage Pail Kids Tarot Deck
, coming in August!)
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with looking back fondly — many people enjoyed their childhoods, I’m told. But nostalgia as the basis of storytelling is tricky, at best. There’s no shortage of movies being made today with legacy intellectual property that are just going through the motions, but with better CGI (it’s not even better, sometimes).
If you read other discussions of Jacqueline Woodson and Leo Espinosa’s glorious picture book, The World Belonged to Us
, you may see the term “nostalgia” applied to it, but I think this isn’t strictly accurate. Nostalgia is characterized by excessive sentimentality, and that isn’t the project of this book, in my estimation. No reader will doubt Jacqueline Woodson’s affection for the Brooklyn of her youth, but the overwhelming sensation of reading this book is of joy, not longing.
The overwhelming sensation of reading this book is of joy, not longing.
If I’m going to stick with cinematic comparisons, this is more like a period piece, where the modes of transportation and fashions look different, but the experiences are otherwise completely relatable (memo to Big Culture: please bring back floral blouses and plaid pants, thank you). Leo Espinosa’s illustrations are wonderful at accomplishing this: the many characters in the crowd scenes are distinct and emotive, and the period details are perfect — stylistically, this book looks simultaneously classic and completely modern.
Perhaps there are readings of this book that are nostalgic, and ruing the different experiences of children today, when neighborhood-wide unstructured play is less common and screentime is ubiquitous. But I think this is a book made with love and gratitude. And the message I take is that the youthful process of learning how to live in a society is crucial, and to be able to do it in an environment where one feels both free and protected is a joyous gift.
I’ve been delighted by so many picture books already this year, but this one is special. It is a celebration of having the space and time to play, and I reexperience that feeling every time I read it.
Check out the rest of our Picks of the Month