I Talk Like a River

Illustrated by Sydney Smith

“I wake up each morning with the sounds of words all around me. And I can’t say them all.”

Narrated in the first person, I Talk Like a River shares the experience of a young boy with a stutter who sees and hears the beauty of words around him but struggles to speak them all. The first eight openings describe his everyday experiences of waking up and getting ready for school “with these word sounds stuck in my mouth” and the immense stress of saying anything in class. “All they hear is that I don’t talk like them.” From opening 9 through the end of the book, the setting changes. The boy’s dad takes him to the river, where they watch it flow, gurgle, churn, whirl, and crash. “See how that water moves? That’s how you speak.” Opening 14, the middle of the book, is a double gatefold with two extra pages. When unfolded, they represent the boy’s internalization of this message: I talk like a river. The next day at school, the boy tells the class about his favorite place, the river. And he talks “like a river,” too. The book ends with the author’s note on how he struggled with a stutter and how watching the river taught him “to think differently about fluency.”

Winner of the Schneider Family and Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards, I Talk Like a River is an uplifting story that sheds light on the power of nature immersion to nourish human well-being (see People Care, ecosystems services). From the very first opening, the boy’s stutter is linked to his inability to say the words that describe the natural world: “P for the pine tree outside my bedroom window,” “C for the crow in its branches,” and “M for the moon fading in the morning sky.” Healing likewise happens in nature through literal immersion in the river and watching water speak: “This is how my mouth moves. This is how I speak. Even the river stutters. Like I do.” The soft watercolor illustrations amplify the boy’s perspective. For example, in opening three, the reflection of the boy’s face in the window reinforces his sense of separation from nature outside or how he describes it. In opening 5, a sharper illustration on the left represents his hiding at the back of the class.

In contrast, a blurred illustration on the right captures his anxiety when a teacher asks a question and “all my classmates turn and look.” This visual strategy brings readers into the boy’s struggle to express himself but also highlights the healing power of nature in the imagery of his quiet afternoon by the river. Although not directly addressing nature’s aliveness, the book suggests that identifying with the river builds the boy’s confidence, resilience, and strength to see his stutter not as disfluency but as a river-like fluency that proceeds in its natural rhythms: an effective switch from the anthropocentric to an ecocentric perspective. Besides addressing the challenges of living with a stutter, I Talk Like a River can thus help open conversations about the different languages and ways of speaking we encounter in nature.

©2024 ClimateLit (Saralee Reed)

Author Talk: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xNL-bNguy2o

Publisher: Neal Porter Books, 2020

Pages: 40

ISBN: 978-0823445592

Audience: Little People (4-7), Questers (8-13), Rebels (14-older)

Format: Picturebooks

Topics: Biophilia, Ecocentrism, Ecophilia, Ecosystem Services, Empathy, Nature, Nature Immersion, Nature's Aliveness, Nearby Nature, Outdoors, People Care, Water