Written with precision, lyricism and compassion, I Talk Like a River is a story about stuttering drawn from author Jordan Scott’s personal experience.
A boy is ashamed of his efforts to produce words and the resultant facial contortions: “All they see,” he says, referring to his classmates, “is how strange my face looks and that I can’t hide how scared I am.” The boy’s father recognizes that his son has had a “bad speech day” and takes him to a place where they can be quiet. At the river, the pair watches the water as it churns yet is “calm . . . beyond the rapids.” Pulling his son close, the father points to the water. “That’s how you speak,” he says.
Illustrator Sydney Smith (Town Is by the Sea, Small in the City) uses thick, impressionistic brushstrokes that dazzle as he represents the boy’s roiling interior world. In one gripping spread about the boy’s fear of public speaking, we see the classroom from his point of view. Students stare, their faces indistinct smudges of paint, the entire room distorted by the boy’s panic. But at the river—where Smith showcases the mesmerizing play of light on water in a dramatic double gatefold—the world becomes clearer.
Smith also plays visually with some of the book’s figurative language. The boy cites elements from nature as examples of the letters he finds most challenging to pronounce (P, C and M). Smith incorporates them into a striking spread in which pine tree branches, a shrieking crow and the outline of a crescent moon cover the boy’s face.
Without providing pat answers or resorting to sentimentality, I Talk Like a River reverently acknowledges the boy’s hardship. Scott’s story is as much about observant, loving parenting as it is about the struggle to speak fluently, as the boy’s father generously equips his son with a metaphorical framework to understand and even take pride in his stutter: “My dad says I talk like a river.” This is unquestionably one of the best picture books of 2020.