Instructions is a picture book I’d love to love. It’s by Neil Gaiman and illustrated by Charles Vess, both of whom are wonderful. I looked at Coraline here, here and here. I loved The Graveyard Book and I’m tempted to post on why I love it. (I also love his adult stuff like American Gods, The Anansi Boys, Good Omens and Neverwhere).

Instructions is what it sounds like: instructions. These are instructions given to a traveler by someone who’s gone before, with all the metaphor that implies. Kirkus Reviews calls it a “magical, incantatory poem” and says that “It could be instructions for a child, a writer, a newly minted adult or an elder.”

Touch the wooden gate in the wall you never saw before,

Say “Please” before you open the latch, go through,

walk down the path.

The instructions are ambiguous, some have layered meaning, some just seem as though they should. You may pick strawberries in December’s frost. Trust the wolves, but do not tell them where you are going.

image from

Each instruction is illustrated, and most are given a one or two page spread. The illustrations give a window into a different world, a world where the traveler is an anthropomorphic fox, where the denizens are fairy tale creatures–some familiar, some not. Was that Little Red Riding Hood walking with the ogre? When the text talks of another land at the bottom of a well, “Winter’s realm”, the illustration shows us as ghost of a city scape: our own reality.

We know this journey; it is the hero’s quest. We don’t know the object for which the hero searches, but we know there are guardians at the threshold and there are mentors and helpers along the way. We know from the instructions of the tests and trials.

But that being said, this is an instruction book, and we see only an illustration of one who followed those instructions on a quest and never get to know him well enough to make it our journey. This is a not-quite story, a not-quite fairy tale . . .at least for those who might read picture books.

I think Instructions may be an instruction book for “a writer, a newly minted adult or an elder,” but I don’t see it as a book for the 3-5 year old crowd. The journey is both too complex and too general. The words require too much operational abstraction for a child of picture book age, and there is no concrete story for the child’s unconscious to work with.

Still, I could be wrong; the illustrations might be enough to carry a young child through. I’ll try it on my granddaughter tonight.


2 Responses to “Instructions”

  1. Actually, Instructions wasn’t written to be a children’s book. I believe it first appeared years ago in Gaiman’s book of poems and short stories “Smoke and Mirrors.” I love it–it’s actually one of my favorites from the collection, so I’m tickled that you chose to write about it. It feels like instructions for writing a story, I agree.

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