The month of December is often a month of gift-giving, what with the various holidays that take place during that time. Later this month I will be giving my nieces and nephews books for Christmas, as is my custom. I have been considering prospective books all year long and recently made my purchases from a local bookstore. I cannot wait to give my nieces and nephews their gifts, and to read aloud the new additions to their home library.
Picture books are of course great gifts for children, but do not discount a beautiful picture book as the perfect gift for an adult. A beloved classic from childhood may be well appreciated, but there is something particularly compelling about weird, unconventional, and visually stunning picture books for the adult readers on your gift-giving list. For those persons who are especially hard to shop for, a picture book might just be the solution.
The Lizard is the perfect example. Written by the Nobel Prize-winning Portuguese writer José Saramago, this “fairy tale without fairies” invites the reader, no matter their age, to sit with ambiguity and unanswered questions.
As the book opens, the eponymous lizard has appeared in Chiado, a fashionable and historic neighborhood in Lisbon, the capital city of Portugal. It is “a big, green lizard, its eyes like black glass, its writhing body covered in scales,” with a forked tongue to boot. It is a “superb creature,” but no one knows why the lizard is in Chiado, only that it is inciting fear and indecisiveness as to the best course of action.
An old woman’s shouts seem to break the spell. In a storm of confusion, the people desert the street, which is then occupied by soldiers at one end and fire fighters at the other. A squadron of planes assembles, and armored cars approach by Rossio Square, in the heart of Lisbon. In the face of such overwhelming firepower, the lizard seems to be facing its demise.
But this when the fairies intervene, Saramago writes. The lizard is transformed into “a crimson rose, the color of blood.” The militarized forces are at a loss. Events become even more confounding as the red rose turns into a white dove, which then “takes flight into the blue sky.”
This is not an easy and tidy story. Where did the lizard come from? Was the authorities’ response to the lizard warranted? And why did the lizard further transform into a rose, and then a dove? What does it all mean, anyhow? That is up to the reader to decide. The original conditions of the The Lizard´s publication may hold a clue, as it was first published in 1973, during Portugal’s transition from a dictatorship to a democratic state.
Adding to the The Lizard’s uniqueness are the boldly colored woodcut illustrations by Brazilian artist J. Borges. Borges is recognized as the foremost interpreter of Brazil’s tradition of cordel literature, a folk art originating from that country’s backlands. There are some wordless panels in the book, allowing the reader to more closely examine the detail with which Borges creates his woodcuts. The illustrations and the text both work together to present an almost mythic story of our sometimes outsized and fearful reactions to what is new or unexpected.
The Lizard would make a wonderful gift for the artists on your list, for readers who like stories about fantastical creatures, or others who enjoy discussing and reflecting on interesting questions. Teachers in the classroom and programming librarians could use this book to explore printmaking, along with other forms of folk art. Teachers at any level could use this book in an unit on Portugal, or in a discussion of world literature. Librarians should have this book in their collection to show perhaps skeptical patrons just how transgressive and unconventional picture books can be, if we know where to look.
Written by José Saramago; Illustrated by J. Borges; Translated by Nick & Luca Caistor
Klem-Marí Cajigas has been with Nashville Public Library since 2012, after more than a decade of academic training in Religious Studies and Ministry. As the Family Literacy Coordinator for Bringing Books to Life!, Nashville Public Library’s award-winning early literacy outreach program, she delivers family literacy workshops to a diverse range of local communities. Born in Puerto Rico, Klem-Marí is bilingual, bicultural, and proudly Boricua.