The Girl Who Saved Yesterday
written by Julius Lester, illustrated by Carl Angel
(Creston Books, 2016)
Readers young and old will be struck immediately by the conundrum created by the title of The Girl Who Saved Yesterday, Coretta Scott King Award-winning author Julius Lester’s first book for several years (and well worth the wait). The beautifully crafted narrative can be read on many levels, and in theis lovely edition it is laid over Carl Angel’s colourful illustrations that are expansive both physically in their spilling off the pages and through the multiplicity of meaning they echo from the story itself – from the tenderness of the trees at the beginning, with their ‘clattering of limbs and branches’, to the sharp ‘arrows of light’ that rain down from the misunderstood mountain, to the gentle embrace of the ancestors at the end.
In bald terms, the story is a simple one: an abandoned orphan girl is brought up by ancient trees who eventually send her back to her village to prevent future disaster caused by a disregard for the past: but of course, in essence it all goes much deeper than that – and through the names given to the characters, including the personification of abstracts, the story takes on a depth of meaning that is only limited by the reader’s own experience and/or imagination. In fact, the story has an epic quality and feels significant in what it conveys to us here and now in the twenty-first century about memory and the importance of not allowing those who have gone before us to be forgotten.
The girl’s name is Silence; and the trees, who have names like Gloomy Night and Wonderboom, and ‘who do not speak with words, of course, but like winds whispering to clouds’ (isn’t that beautiful?), send her back to the village to save Yesterday. She doesn’t even know who or what Yesterday is but she instinctively climbs the mountain that overshadows the village. Though the villagers are frightened of the mountain, believing that it threatens them with fiery anger, Silence recognises its cries as ‘the sounds of a heart that was not loved’. At the top, she does indeed find Yesterday – the stones of the Ancestors that are being choked by weeds and neglect. Gradually the villagers join Yesterday in clearing the ground, and in so doing, their care of Yesterday, brings hope for the future. Meanwhile, Silence is called by the trees to go somewhere else to save another Yesterday – and so the quest at the centre of the story is opened up for readers to ponder and share in if they choose.
The illustrations are as finely-tuned as the text – I think it is especially astute that the stones of the ancestors are very simple – like large, flat river stones, polished through time. As Silence cleans around them, they ‘glow a pink as gentle and soft as a first kiss’ and by the time the whole village arrives, the illustration shows the stones as a vast mass that really does seem to be ‘pulsing with life’. Whilst the emphasis of the words is on the importance of remembering the past, the illustration has futuristic overtones that can only add to the depth of meaning of the story.
I’m probably making it sound much more complicated that it is – in fact, like any good fable, The Girl Who Saved Yesterday can, of course, be taken at face value. However, the book does allow readers to set the imagination whirling as it contemplates the paradox inherent in its title, which, for me, is where the joy of it lies: that coupled with the beautifully crafted writing and illustrations. And although young children may not be able to put their intuitive understanding of the conundrum into words, they will certainly be touched by its essence; and their demands to have the story read again and again will be proof enough that they are tapping its depths. Wonderful!