Famed fantasy illustrator Charles Vess has been collaborating with Neil Gaiman since 1989, producing three acclaimed issues of The Sandman and the novel Stardust along the way. Their collaboration has also led to the creation of two eminently lovely and memorable children’s picture books. Not surprisingly, neither of these books is approached conventionally—in both Blueberry Girl and Instructions, Gaiman doesn’t employ a traditional narrative, but instead creates whimsically earnest prose poems that almost seem like songs for the page.
Blueberry Girl is written as a kind of lullaby to an unborn magical little girl (the poem was originally inspired by his godchild, Tori Amos’s daughter Natashya, born in 2000). Lyrically, the narrator frames the book as “a prayer for a blueberry girl.” Though not overtly based on any one specific type of fantasy world or mythological reference, Gaiman’s words evoke a kind of ethereal magic. But even as Gaiman’s poem catches the imagination, Vess’s illustrations take the words to soaring new heights, depicting the future Blueberry Girl flying around on giant owls, diving with whales, and traipsing around on treetops. Every parent wants a charmed life for his or her child, but this prayer goes a step beyond and hopes for an enchanted one.
Similar to Blueberry Girl in form, Instructions isn’t a straightforward story, but rather a story about stories. It’s a nice touch because for a child, the adventure of reading a book is not just an immersion in another world, but also brings with it the hope that you too will go on your own adventures. Children who love books want to become part of their books and live them out, not simply read them. Instructions, then, is a perfect manifestation of a book-as-a-personal adventure guide. If I were a kid, I’d have no problem imagining myself as this swashbuckling cat-person in the Vess illustrations. And if you were really swashbuckling cat-person, occupying a fairy tale narrative, these instructions would invaluable: Feed hungry creatures! Trust the wolves! Keep the eagle feathers safe!
The meta-fictional structure of Instructions will be familiar to Gaiman fans of all ages, as his work tends to underscore the vital importance of storytelling and its place in our lives. When we are young, we love stories because they seem like they come out of the ether, completely formed, just like the magical creatures who inhabit them. But as adults, when we return to the stories we love, we realize that they are created by people, woven together carefully over time. Stories are living, breathing things, a fact which might escape us as children. The ending of Instructions finds the cat-person returning to the humble little house from which his journey began. From the book:
When you reach the little house, the place your journey started, you will recognize it, although it will seem much smaller than you remember. Walk up the path, and through the garden gate you never saw before but once.
We don’t notice we’ve entered the real world and left the world of stories until we’re all grown up, but the brilliance of Gaiman’s picture books is that they invert that process. By approaching the notion of stories as a way of paying tribute to the power of fantasy, imagination, and storytelling, these picture books not only capture what childhood is all about, but also do what is nearly impossible: remind adults that their adventure never really ends. If you need a quick, magical shortcut back to the childhood fantasies you forgot you even had, both of these Gaiman/Vess collaborations should do the trick. Just go on the journey; chances are you’ll find something you might have lost, long ago.
Ryan Britt is a staff writer for Tor.com.