We all know what it’s like to fall down.
Maybe we fall in love, and the person we desire does not (or cannot) return our affections. That is a fall that hurts.
Maybe we finally muster up the courage to pursue our creative dreams, and the first critique we get back from an agent or editor feels so soul-crushing that we want to stuff those dreams right back into the drawer inside of us from which they came. That is a fall into despair.
Falling down is something that unifies us all. And yet, there is one thing that differentiates us: What we do after we fall down.
This is where picture books, with their imaginative re-telling of familiar tales, can be so illuminating. We all know the story of Humpty Dumpty falling off his wall and shattering into a million pieces. But until now, no one has bothered to tell us how he put the pieces back together again. And if we are going to heal our own wounds; that is the story we need to hear.
Leave that to Dan Santat, a former Caldecott winner with a gift for melding inspiring (and downright funny) prose with alluring illustrations that practically swim off the page in their efforts to catch our eye. His newest picture book, After the Fall, begins with a patched up Humpty Dumpty complete with bandages and glue. While he may be recovered on the outside, on the inside, he is far from healed. He is terrified of heights now, which poses a problem for his most ardent hobby: bird-watching from the wall.
Humpty’s anxiety shows up in a million ingenious ways in this book. Unable to climb the ladder at the grocery store to reach his favorite sugary cereals, he must settle for the bo-ring ones at the bottom (like flax and fiber flakes, the kind that – horror of horrors! – adults eat). As the season changes from fall to winter, Humpty must find something else to do that he loves, if his happiness is ever going to return.
Making paper birds seems to be just that thing – until it puts him in the very same predicament at the very same wall. This is where Santat’s powerful message will appeal to adults as well as young readers. Until we actually face our fears, we will keep attracting similar situations into our lives that force us to heal them – or else give up our very souls. The solution that Humpty comes to, and the brilliant reward for his efforts, is so delightfully surprising that you must encounter it on the page.
In interviews, Santat has spoken eloquently about his wife Leah’s long-time struggle with anxiety. As is evident from the book’s gorgeous dedication page, this Humpty Dumpty retelling was inspired by her. Because eventually, she did get back up again, and that is what saved their marriage.
Falling down really doesn’t matter. It’s going to happen; we all do it. What does matter is the story we tell ourselves afterwards. Do we tell ourselves that our next time out there – with love, or with following our dreams – we are bound to get shattered again? (And in that case, why bother?)
Or do we tell ourselves that the next time out there we will soar?
Dan Santat’s book After the Fall came out with Roaring Brook Press in 2017. You can find the book here on Amazon, and find the author/illustrator here.