Post by guest author Helle Kirstein from the International School of Amsterdam.
“I WISH I wasn’t scared of dying.”
“I WISH I never had to blush.”
“I WISH I had more courage.”
“I WISH happiness was a thing and I / found it somewhere and took it home with me.”
“I WISH I had a friend and we’d both / saved each other’s lives at risk of our own.”
“I WISH I had an extremely unusual pet.”
“I WISH I knew what life is.”
What do you read in a person’s face – what are they thinking, what are they hiding? How do you convey the human condition whilst keeping a beautifully poetic tone?
This is I Wish, a gorgeous collaborative piece of art that came about when Dutch author/poet Toon Tellegen learned that Flemish artist Ingrid Godon had created a book of portraits. Portraits of ordinary people, mostly children, of whose thoughts, emotions, and wishes the viewer can only guess, but is invited to wonder about. Being an admirer of her work, Tellegen contacted Godon and suggested he write the poems accompanying the portraits. And almost a decade after the book was first published in the Netherlands, Elsewhere Editions gifted the title to the English-speaking world in the masterful translation from the Dutch by David Colmer. This order of events is honored on the cover of the book where the artist’s name is placed above that of the author, and the translator’s name has a deserved prominent placing as well.
Tellegen started writing the poems before he saw the portraits which were all named by Godon. We meet Alice, Paolo, Carl, and 53 other people staring out from the pages. On most spreads a portrait and a poem sit together on opposing pages. Each written piece is a free-verse poem in complete sentences presented in small rectangles of text on a white background making the text stand out. Throughout the book, transparent pages introduce stand-alone poems adding to the sensation that these are indeed somebody’s thoughts, veiled and hidden, and that we are fortunate to be given a peek at them.
The intended audience, children, is held in high esteem by Toon Tellegen and is presented with philosophical subjects and life’s big questions:
In the poem JULIA, she muses, “IF I think about it, it’s actually pretty weird / that I’m me.” She continues imagining being the ant she is watching in the forest:
Imagine if I was that ant! But then who’d be me?
It’s best not to think about things like that.
There are so many things it’s best not to think about.
Maybe more than what you can think about. (p.40)
Toon Tellegen never shies away from difficult themes in the book, but brings the portrayed quiet existences’ intimate thoughts and desires into the light. Death is a recurrent theme as is the search for happiness, worry about appearance, and fitting in:
THIS IS my last request.
When I die, I want them to check
how long someone’s still thinking of me.
There’ll be a machine they can use.
There isn’t one yet. But when I die there will be.
Mark my words.
After one year, ten days, six hours and nineteen
minutes: tring-tring, tring-tring.
Nobody’s thinking of me anymore.
I’m forgotten forever. Deleted is what they’ll call it.
And if someone thinks of me again later by mistake, just for a moment,
maybe because they looked at a photo and somebody pointed me out
and asked, “Who’s that?” and somebody else racked their brains
and managed to remember that it’s me, that won’t count anymore.
Once you’re gone, you’re gone. (12)
But don’t forget that these are children’s wishes, and so we also encounter a wish for an unusual pet, a rhinocerous, a surprise that lightens the mood but is just as seriously described as the rest of the pieces.
Curious children will be enthralled by this book. The artwork is intriguing and the poems’ full sentences and relatively simple language will make it accessible to most readers 9 years old and up. It will lend itself beautifully to a collaboration between the visual arts and language departments, inviting children and young adults alike to explore the creative processes of painting a portrait and writing an honest poem in free verse about their ponderings to go along.
Art work by Ingrid Godon
Written by Toon Tellegen
Translated from the original Dutch by David Colmer
Published by Elsewhere Editions, 2020
Originally published 2011 as Ik Wou by Lannoo Publishers
You can buy a copy of I Wish here.
Listen to Daniel Handler, aka Lemony Snicket, read the book, I Wish, here for DC Family Reads.
For further exploration:
Visit artist Ingrid Godon’s website here.
Read the dossier on Toon Tellegen, nominated for the Hans Christian Andersen Award 2020
Watch I Wish – The Movie, “Elsewhere Editions, the children’s imprint of Archipelago Books, is pleased to announce I Wish by Toon Tellegen and Ingrid Godon, translated by David Colmer. A melancholy and hopeful book of portraits and meditations for our melancholy and hopeful moment.”
“This Dutch import pairs portraits with poetry to articulate wrenching individualism, yearning, humor, desires, and pathos … This probing psychological journey makes for an exciting exploration in empathy.” — Kirkus Reviews
“Each face is round as the moon, with small shining eyes that sit curiously far apart…The figures rarely smile. One boy wears a bellhop’s uniform; another, a red jersey and cap. Tellegen’s inward-turned, free verse poems, gracefully translated by Colmer, give them voice…By voicing the fears, angers, and secret desires of the figures, Tellegen spurs readers to embrace those of others, and their own.” — Publishers Weekly
“I Wish isn’t going to sit quietly in a category. It’s the kind of book that would rather wander off and make up its own categories, expecting you to follow dutifully behind. And you will, because it is strange and wonderful and ultimately very very memorable. Can many other books out there say half as much? … If ever there was a book worthy of a Batchelder Award, or some similar medal for translation and writing, it is this. A strange, melancholy, oddly hopeful book for our strange, melancholy, oddly hopeful little world.” — Elizabeth Bird, School Library Journal‘s “A Fuse 8 Production“
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