What We Know by Heart by Jamie Michalak
As a children’s book author, I spend a lot of time visiting rooms that no longer exist. I try to magically transport myself to the past by recalling the specifics. The names of the board games in my playroom. Or the scent of my first grade classroom—a combination of eraser dust, floor polish, and my teacher’s tea rose perfume. But the place I visit most often is the bedroom I shared with my little sister when we were young.
Julie’s side of the room was meticulously tidy compared to my messy half. Her side was also a museum. A carefully organized museum of tiny treasures and picture books. (It’s probably not a coincidence that Julie was tiny, too — the smallest kid in her class every year.)
At age eight, Julie displayed her collection of tiny objects with the care of a curator. She might group them by type: the smallest seashells, lockets with photos, worry dolls, glass animal figurines, dollhouse furniture, and her favorite toys, Charmkins. (It was the 80s, after all.)
And like a true museum curator, when she grew bored with her displays, she rotated them. Maybe she’d create a story scene or group her tiny treasures by theme.
The only things Julie loved more than her tiny collection were her worn picture books, shelved and organized by illustrator — A Child’s Book of Poems by Gyo Fujikawa, Everyone Poops by Taro Gomi, The Mystery of the Missing Red Mitten by Stephen Kellogg, and everything by Mercer Mayer and Rosemary Wells, just to name a few.
When I try to remember other rooms in my childhood home, often their centers blur and only the peripheral details click into focus — the floral pattern of the kitchen’s wallpaper or the fuzzy duckling painting on my brother’s crib. But the bedroom Julie and I shared hasn’t faded. The wooden bench of stuffed animals that my dad called “the bus” is still there. I know every title on the peeling spines of my sister’s picture books.
Rooms might not stay with you, but picture books do.
Now tiny objects and picture books are forever intertwined in my mind. A dollhouse dish reminds me of The Nutshell Library. Lily of the valley is a Christina Rossetti poem.
When I think of picture books I loved as a child, it’s not the books I discovered on my own but instead those on Julie’s bookshelf that come to mind. At age ten, I was deep into middle grade fiction — From the Mixed-Up Files of Basil E. Frankweiler and anything by Judy Blume. But Julie was a student of the picture book, and she never outgrew it. She copied the illustrations, and she wrote and drew her own stories. She introduced me to new picture books, and rekindled my love for favorites I’d cast aside because I was “too old” for them. We read Rosemary Wells’s Noisy Nora, a story about a middle sister,so many timesthat we knew every word by heart: “‘But I’m back again!’ said Nora / With a monumental crash.” (Julie was Nora, of course.)
As a grown-up, those picture books sneak up on me when I least expect. I see a snowman and imagine a red mitten heart hidden within it. I hear a mother hush her child, and every word of Noisy Nora rushes back. And when I visit a museum, I wish it had The Small Hall, an exhibition of tiny objects from Julie’s copy of Grover and the Everything in the Whole Wide World Museum. Julie and I wanted The Small Hall illustration to go on forever. Why can’t there be a whole book just about THAT? we wondered.
We grew up. But picture books stay with you.
Now I try to write books worthy of Julie’s bookshelf. Several years ago, I wrote down a list of tiny treasures with a kernel of an idea for a picture book about them. But nothing I tried worked. The setting was all wrong. I didn’t have the right main character. It wasn’t until I remembered Grover’s The Small Hall that the storyline finally emerged. Then, one day, I finally found my main character. As it turns out, she was right there the whole time. Because people stay with you, too.
Dakota Crumb: Tiny Treasure Hunter, beautifullyillustrated by Kelly Murphy, is a seek-and-find picture book story about a tiny treasure collector. Dakota is small, but brave. At midnight, she daringly sneaks into the big city museum to find the rare Purple Jewel of Egypt (a gumdrop). But the best moment is at the end, when we discover the mouse’s day job — she owns a carefully curated museum of tiny treasures.
Thank you, Julie, tiny treasure hunter, for sharing your love of picture books with me. I hope you would have liked this one.
Jamie Michalak is the author of many children’s books, including Dakota Crumb: Tiny Treasure Hunter, illustrated by Kelly Murphy; Frank and Bean, illustrated by Bob Kolar; the highly praised Joe and Sparky early readers series, illustrated by Frank Remkiewicz; as well as the forthcoming picture book Niki Nakayama: A Chef’s Tale in 13 Bites, co-written with Debbi Michiko Florence and illustrated by Yuko Jones, and many more. When not writing, she can often be found singing off-key, drinking too much coffee, or hanging out with her two sons. Jamie grew up in Springfield, Massachusetts, and now lives with her family in Barrington, Rhode Island.
DAKOTA CRUMB: TINY TREASURE HUNTER. Text copyright © 2021 by Jamie Michalak. Illustrations copyright © 2021 by Kelly Murphy. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA.