I Talk Like a River – A Perfect Pairing of Text and Illustration

Cindy:  It mystifies me that people can still be mean to others for their looks, their disabilities, and other things out of their control. Little is more isolating or heartbreaking than the loneliness of being singled out or mocked or bullied for something that is just a part of who you are. No matter how many “Kindness Matters” or “Be Kind” movements there are, we still have work to do to spread compassion. I Talk Like a River (Holiday/Neal Porter Books, 2020) by Jordan Scott and illustrated beautifully by Sydney Smith, shines a light on one such effort. The young boy in this book stutters. With poetic metaphor, Scott writes of words that take root and stick and turn to dust in his mouth. Speaking aloud in front of a class often makes for a “bad speech day.” His father can tell and offers to “go somewhere quiet.” They head to the river, a favorite place, where his father one day points out the movement in the river, the bubbling, churning, whirling, crashing. But after the rapids are calm places where the river flows smoothly and he tells his son, “You Talk Like a River.” That line comes from Scott’s own father, who helped him with his own stuttering. This will make a beautiful read aloud in a classroom and would pair well with Jacqueline Woodson’s Each Kindness.

Lynn: We were lucky enough to see this book in galley at a Midwinter preview a year ago and it has been on my to-read list ever since. The finished copy is even more outstanding than I remembered. Sometimes the text of a picture book and the illustrations aren’t always equal in quality but that is not the case here. Rarely have I seen a case of the two coming together so perfectly. The text is deeply moving with writing that is ideal for a young audience and metaphors that every child can grasp.

“The P in pine tree grows roots in my mouth and tangles my tongue.

The C is a crow that sticks in the back of my throat.”

The illustrations are perfectly partnered with the text. Some are luminously beautiful, especially the scenes of the river. Some are ominous and threatening such as when the class has turned to stare when the boy is called on to answer in the classroom. Using watercolor, ink, and gouache, illustrator Sydney Smith’s art doesn’t just extend the text, it amplifies each emotion and experience. There is a gatefold center spread that opens to a shimmering image of the boy standing in the river backlit by the sun that is stunning! There are no words here but the images refract the overall healing sense of the place, the experience, and the father’s love and support.

Readers will come away from this book with a clear sense of the struggles the child experiences with his stutter and that is valuable. Perhaps more valuable is the underlying knowledge that the child is loved, supported, and understood and the strength that provides.

Update: We had this post in the queue and missed getting it published before the book was honored at ALA Midwinter with a 2021 Schneider Family Book Award for Younger Children. Congratulations!