Nothing at All is Wanda Gag’s 1941 Caldecott Honor book about an invisible puppy. Invisibility suits him fine until the day that he needs to be seen. Before that day, though, his sweet tempered brothers give this very cool justification for believing he exists even though they can’t see him: “We can’t see the wind either but the wind is real. And we can’t see smells but smells are very real.” With a deft side-stepping of religion, I’d like to come out and say that this really is a book about belief. His brothers believe in him. The beneficent jack-daw encouraging him with a daily “Keep it up!” believes in him. And Nothing-at-all believes and believes and believes until he believes himself visible. And he keeps on believing, and the good things never stop. Soon, you find yourself at a happy ending. If nothing else, this is a feel good story. As would any story be that’s about the success of believing.
But that’s the trouble with belief, isn’t it? You can have every conviction that things are or will be, but that doesn’t mean they are or will be. Now, I’m not really one for sentimentality or kids’ books that blatantly throw messages in your face. This one is pretty blatant: Nothing-at-all turns into Something-after-all because he wants it real bad, and he believes in himself. Sounds like a proper pull yourself up by your bootstraps success story, the same sort that props this country up. Cliche and vague enough to set some hearts pumping and others crying. But, all that cynicism aside, Nothing at All does have something that we’re missing these days. I’m not going to go anywhere near that New York Times article on hipsters that elicited so many negative reactions, and rightly so. But I do think that in more vague and less identifiable ways, we face the challenges of being bottle-fed on post-modern relativity and an ever-pervading sense of our smallness in a world that just keeps getting bigger. And here, with Wanda Gag’s Nothing at All, at least it encourages that sincere desire to believe in your own ability to make something happen. So good on it. Let it be sentimental and cliche. I’m sure all kids can use a heavy dose of encouragement to believe in themselves when facing the bog of the post-post modern. Besides, what’s really so wrong with feeling good?
Thanks for featuring this quirky little picture book by Wanda Gag. She is a treasure! You might like to check out a post I did a couple of years ago for Kidlit’s Celebration of Women’s History Month. You can find it at http://kidlitwhm.blogspot.com/2011/03/wanda-gag-millions-of-cats-and-one-well.html
Yes, I admire Wanda Gag almost more than I admire her work. Almost… Thank you for the link to your wonderful essay. I had no idea that the ABC Bunny was the first alphabet book to tell a story!