The First Fully Illustrated Selection of Pablo Neruda’s Question Poems

By Pablo Neruda
Illustrated by Paloma Valdivia
Translated by Sara Lissa Paulson

There’s a reason children ask more questions than the rest of us: They have not been around that long. Almost everything they see is new. Asking questions is how they make sense of life on earth.

As a person who has spent a considerable amount of time in the company of young children – particularly while raising my own – I have sometimes felt exhausted by the relentlessness of the question-asking. (The classic, delivered from the back seat of a moving vehicle: “Are we there yet?”) In my better moments, I loved my children’s questions for their innocence and for the way they made tired stuff new again. To a 2-year-old, nothing – not snow or waves, not the taste of a lemon, the hoot of an owl or the transformation of a hard kernel of popping corn into something that puffs up and gets slathered in butter and eaten – is same old, same old. Children need to figure out every single thing. God help the child who feels she cannot ask.

Now comes a picture book devoted entirely to questions. Better yet, the text was written by one of the great poets of the 20th century. I’ve long studied Pablo Neruda’s words in English and in Spanish, sometimes reading them out loud in the original Spanish (even when the meanings of some words escaped me) for the sheer beauty of the sound of the language, and for Neruda’s unique quality of capturing both love and despair, all in the same few lines.

Among the vast body of poems the Nobel Prize winner left the world is a book called “Libro de las Preguntas” (“Book of Questions”). This work – published just months before his death (arguably murdered by political enemies) in 1973 – brings together 74 poems shaped around mysterious, playful, frequently metaphysical questions about nature, constellations, memory, numbers, oceans, the interior life of the mind. Not one of the questions contained in this book resolves an issue of fact. These questions raise other questions. They suggest ideas.

My Dominican daughter-in-law tells me that where she grew up, children were well acquainted with Neruda’s questions; she read them in school. Other Latin American friends express a similar familiarity with “Libro de las Preguntas.” North Americans? Not so much.

It’s good news that Neruda’s question poems (39 of the original 74) have been freshly translated into English by Sara Lissa Paulson and presented for the first time in picture book form, with stylized, dreamlike illustrations by the Chilean artist Paloma Valdivia – English on one side of the page, Spanish on the other. Some of the illustrations fold out to display a vast world of animals, plant life, stars, patterns. For a reader who takes her time, there are discoveries on every page – fossils hidden in the rocks, fish underwater, roots underground, milkweed blowing across the sky, a young man sporting a cap with a red pompom reflected in the water below his rowboat .

This is a physically beautiful book. Neruda likely would have approved of the way Valdivia has made his dream world real. (He was a man so in love with textures, colors, quirky objects and ironic juxtapositions of treasures with trash that one home was not enough for him; he created three in his native Chile and filled them to bursting with his possessions. Once I ‘ d visited his house in Santiago a few years back, I felt compelled to make a pilgrimage to the other two.)

For me, the issue with this new edition of “Book of Questions” lies not with the gorgeous illustrations, or the text, but with a question Neruda himself did not ask: For whom is this book intended?

This is tricky. The illustrations and the scale (generously oversize) suggest it might be intended for a lap-sitter. The text – lyrical, meditative, philosophical – tells me otherwise.

“With which stars do they keep talking, the rivers that have no mouth?”

“Where does the rainbow end, in your soul or on the horizon?”

“If we use up all the yellow, with what will we make bread?”

These are questions that require, of the reader or listener, the capacity to conjure abstract concepts. Few very young children possess that skill. (They might be highly skilled at coming up with nonsense, of course. But I’m not sure that’s what Neruda was after.)

I am thinking of my older granddaughter, a kindergartner who loves little more than good conversation. But as lively and curious as she is, if I asked her (as Neruda asks here), “Is there anything in the world sadder than a motionless train in the rain?” she’d be lost. I, meanwhile, might sit meditating on that one. When I read to my granddaughter, we are unlikely to discuss the possible scarcity of “yellow” or consider our souls. If I asked her, “When a prisoner recalls the light, is it the same light that illuminates you?” she’d ask for a cookie.

In my experience, young children like answers to the questions they ask. And they’re apt to favor what they can see, touch, smell and hear over abstractions and ideas. (Part of the beauty of Margaret Wise Brown’s classic “Goodnight Moon,” celebrating its 75th anniversary this year, is that the concept of reaching the end of the day and transitioning from awake to asleep is made understandable by saying good night to a series of physical objects: room, moon, comb, brush, bowl full of mush.)

“Book of Questions” is a wonderful picture book for a child who may no longer view herself as a reader of picture books. And for her parents and grandparents.

There are books an older child might pore over on her own and ones that lend themselves best to conversation. “Book of Questions” – utterly different but not dissimilar in this way to Chris Van Allsburg’s brilliant picture book “The Mysteries of Harris Burdick” – is one of those. If you’re sharing “Harris Burdick” with a child, you talk about what’s going on, make up a story, dive deep. With the Neruda book, a child of the right age (older than 8, I’d say, and more likely 10) might find richness and joy in doing the same.

Here’s what I could do if my granddaughter asked me to read this book with her. Curled up on the couch together with “Book of Questions,” I could ask Celeste to find the four-leaf clover, or the tiny image of a bird tucked in a turtle’s shell. I could read one of the questions to her in Spanish to let the words wash over us both and listen to the sounds they make, whether we understand their meaning or not.

“Why do you live in all the hypocrisy of sedans?” “Why do silkworms spend their lives dressed in such rags?” The English translation might be barely more comprehensible to her than the Spanish, but never mind. We’d be listening to the music of language. And maybe somewhere along the line Celeste might learn the Spanish word for silkworm, though first I’d need to tell her what a silkworm is.

We’d study the pictures some more. Then we’d draw a few of our own or go outside to look for worms. The questions are only the beginning of the experience. It’s where they take you that matters.

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