In every culture, for as long as anyone can remember, parents have sung to their children. And anyone who has raised a child knows that it’s easier to teach if one entertains at the same time. But will the words stand on their own?
Both Sides Now, illustrated by Alan Baker, proves they will. Joni Mitchell’s famous tune (introduced by Judy Collins in 1968) takes the listener on a quizzical, magical journey through stages of life toward enlightenment. On paper, the metaphorical lyrics have to do with aging, yet their tone remains youthfully optimistic. The song doesn’t have a plot, yet somehow it translates into a beautiful story.
Although they evoke adult emotions, Joni’s words are full of childlike imagery: The opening verse — ”Rows and floes of angel hair/And ice cream castles in the air” — immediately conjures up a wonderworld that any child would be thrilled to inhabit. Such imagery will help keep younger readers from stumbling later when the song takes a more complex turn (”It’s love’s illusions I recall/I really don’t know love at all”).
As a matter of fact, these intricacies of emotion offer an ideal opportunity for a discussion between child and parent about all the feelings involved with growing up. The song’s emphasis on perspective, on seeing things from above as well as from below, holds a valuable lesson for youngsters who may be experiencing their first disappointments. At such moments, the reassurance and love a parent can provide will last for a lifetime.
For all the maturity of Joni’s language, Alan Baker’s illustrations always bring the book back to a kid’s level. His bright, beautiful drawings of caterpillars, birds, and butterflies give the book a cozy feel, making the lyrics friendly rather than intimidating. I can see why Joni decided not to illustrate Both Sides Now herself: While the book doesn’t necessarily look like her (at least to a longtime fan like me), her own artwork might have been too abstract.
Besides the book’s gorgeous pictures, the song remains a beautiful poem and a meaningful one, and it makes the transition to a children’s story gracefully. Giving voice to the mixed feelings involved with growing up, Both Sides Now sings to adult and child alike. A
Singer-songwriter Carly Simon’s fourth book for children, The Nighttime Chauffeur, is due next year from Doubleday.