ISOL’S ‘THE MENINO,’ AND MORE
A few years after the fact, my youngest daughter asked, “How’d you get milk to come out of your boobs?” My first answer was a stilted, “Uhh.” I was embarrassed to have such a loose grip on my own biology. “I don’t really know.” She proposed a miniature cow inside my rib cage. She waded fearlessly into the unknown. When everything is strange and new, minor mysteries (popcorn, tuning forks) carry the same weight as the nonminor mysteries (biology, birth, death and the sometimes lonely in-between). Three new books rely on the supple child mind to help us see the familiar as something wholly new and surprising. Like the farsighted reader who requires distance to see clearly, these books make room for mystery in order to understand the wondrously complex and totally basic bond between children and their parents.
W.G. Sebald once said, “The astonishing monsters that we know . . . leave us with a suspicion that even the most fantastical beasts might not be mere inventions.” The fantastical beasts in “The Menino,” by the Argentine author and illustrator Isol, are newborn humans. In this telling of the strange story of what happens when a child comes into existence, the Menino (Portuguese for “child”) seems to enter our world like an alien on a surprise visit to planet Earth, bringing with it bizarre customs and characteristics. “The Menino arrives naked and yelling, as if to make sure everyone notices.” The Menino has “two little windows up high,” complete with curtains; a pump in his mouth to sip and suck milk “prepared by the woman of the house”; and between the windows and the pump “two little holes that are tunnels. . . . The Menino checks them frequently and is personally responsible for keeping them open. That’s because the Menino loves to breathe.” Human biology is made fresh and magnificent again. The shocking perfection of our bodies and our mode of growing these bodies is celebrated. “Everything is useful in the Menino.”
Isol’s jangly, hand-wrought illustrations are expert companions to both the humor and the poetry of her book. Her images are layered and slipped slightly off their undercolor as if a small creature has given them a good shaking. Expected patterns are disrupted, as when a new baby arrives. “The Menino illuminates the middle of the night when he turns himself on. . . . The Menino sets his alarms just in case. Night is a thief that steals all the colors.”
Naturally, questions arise. “Where does he come from? Where was he before?” And: “Why does he move as though he were swimming through the air?” Isol answers these questions truthfully, if magically. “The Menino has been on a long voyage and needs to sleep.” A reader might find his or her own questions cropping up. Why do we know so little about what it will be like to parent? Why is the experience of parenting often couched in clichés or made to sound simplistic when it is, by any measure, the most essential and astonishingly bizarre human relationship?