By Julius Lester, illustrated by Carl Angel. Creston Books, 2016. 32 pages. $16.99/hardcover. Recommended for ages 4–9.
A fable, or perhaps even a parable, The Girl Who Saved Yesterday is about the importance of remembering the Ancestors. Silence was raised by forest trees, but now she is told to return to the human village “to save Yesterday.” The villagers are hostile, and the mountain shoots out lightning like an eruption, and Silence realizes she must climb to the top and uncover the stones that represent the Ancestors. The villagers eventually join her and celebrate, with the love of the Ancestors joining them.
This is a beautiful book with richly colored, dramatic paintings and intense, poetic prose, but I wonder whether it is truly a book for children. Lester points out in his author’s note that this book comes from his own experience of loss as a child, and says this book “is also written for all the children who know someone who has joined the ancestors.” Elements of it will resonate with anyone who has felt loss, and perhaps the message will be clear to children that we must not bury our sorrows and losses, but must remember and cherish them. Nevertheless, I confess that much of the story left me baffled, and I suspect that many children will also be baffled. Part of the difficulty may be the language, which is dense with similes. Some are wonderfully imaginative, such as Lion’s roar so beautiful “that it turned into silver birds that took flight.” But what is a child to make of light like “bolts of lightning sharpened by hopelessness,” grass that grows “like tears of unseen sadness,” or a sun setting “like disappointment that would never be redeemed”?
I found myself puzzled also by some of the elements of plot and character. Why does Yesterday sicken trees? Why is it “Silence” that saves the memories if the message of the story is that we are not to remain silent? Do these details matter to the message or will they matter to children? Perhaps, as with any parable, we aren’t meant to analyze too closely or to dissect the elements. If that’s the case, then the book could be shared with anyone, from children as young as four or five, right through adults wrestling with difficult memories, and the glowing illustrations and message of reclaiming our past may resonate. However, I can’t help but suspect that most children will be confused. As such, it may be a valuable book to have available to share with a child in specific circumstances of loss, but I do not think it is particularly appropriate for use more broadly with First-day school classes.