I Talk Like a River

Holiday House/Neal Porter Bks. Sept. 2020. 40p. Tr $18.99. ISBN 9780823445592.
Gr 1-4–In first-person narration about the author as a boy, this debut brings readers into the world of dysfluency, that is, stuttering. The narrator, a white boy, sits alone at the kitchen table before school, imagining how badly his day will go, and it’s even worse. The letters M, P, and C bring special terrors for the garbled sounds they demand of him in a school day, when the teacher asks students to describe a favorite place. His solitude is, for readers, almost unbearable until he returns to his understanding father. He knows about a “bad speech day,” and takes his son to the river. There, without many words, he explains how his son talks like the river, with ebbs and flows, a rush of sounds, emotion, and meaning streaming. The boy’s dawning realization brings the story to a resonant pause, in a foldout that opens to a vast four-page spread of the sparkling waters that surround him. And then the remembrance resumes, for when he returns to school, he talks about his special place in his own manner, his dysfluency making him and his telling unique. Smith’s lyrical, color-saturated paintings capture mighty nature as well as the blurred, staring faces of schoolmates, who mock and laugh but mostly do not understand the main character’s inner world. An author’s note, in tiny type but very personal and expressive, outlines the journey Scott has taken to make peace with himself.
VERDICT By turns heartbreaking and illuminating, this picture book brings one more outsider into the fold through economy of language and an abundance of love.

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