Lenny & Lucy: A Lovely Illustrated Parable of Befriending Change and Transcending Our Fear of the Unknown
By Maria Popova
“Every new form of life we try is, just at first, irksome rather than pleasant,” Lewis Carroll wrote in consoling a little girl who was having a hard time with change. “We feel first and most keenly, the dis-comforts of any new form of life.” At no life-stage is this discomfort more constant a presence than in childhood, when all change happens all the time — the body transforms by its own uncontrollable rhythms and adults bend the circumstances of the child’s daily life to their will. A central part of growing up — the kind of growing up we spend our entire lives doing — is learning to befriend even the most unwelcome and uncomfortable of changes; learning that, like art, life is a matter of active surrender.
That’s what writer Philip C. Stead and illustrator Erin E. Stead explore in Lenny & Lucy (public library) — a lovely parable of transcending the fear of the unknown that change brings, explored through one of the most difficult disorientations of childhood: the uprooting and rerooting of relocation.
We meet young Peter, who is moving with his father and his dog, Harold, to a new home on the other side of the hostile woods.
Winding along a bumpy road, through the dark unfriendly woods, Peter said, “I think this is a terrible idea.”
And when they’d finally left the woods and stood safely on the other side of the wooden bridge, Peter said, “This house is not as good as our old house. I want to go back.”
There is, of course, no going back, so Peter has no choice but to make peace with his new life — with the strange house, with the wooden bridge, and with the unknown of the “dark unfriendly woods” that lie across it.
A deep loneliness permeates the minimalist yet hauntingly expressive illustrations. But it is in loneliness that we locate our own boundaries and in solitude that we learn self-reliance, so after a sleepless night of staring into the dark woods with Harold, young Peter takes it upon himself to alleviate his fear of this novel unknown.
The next day Peter made a tall pile of pillows. And after they’d toppled the pile six times Peter ran inside to find just the right blankets. He stitched and sewed and wrapped the pile up, tying it shut with string. He pushed and pulled and kneaded the wrapped-up pillows like dough.
He names his pillow-dough creation Lenny, Guardian of the Bridge, and entrusts him with keeping the dark woods “on the other side where they belong.”
At night, Peter checks on Lenny to ensure that he is performing his guardian duties. But eventually, as empathy is one of our most elemental instincts, he worries that Lenny might be lonely and sleeplessness sets in again.
The next morning, Peter brings Lenny breakfast. But still the worrisome loneliness looms, so the boy decides to build him a companion — a pillowy friend he names Lucy.
Night and day roll by, and Peter’s fear of the woods loosens as he peers into the trees with Harold and his two guardian friends. Meanwhile, we see the pillowy creatures come subtly alive, animated by the boy’s imagination and his tentatively awakening enjoyment of this new life.
One day, an equally forlorn-looking little girl named Millie wanders by, looking for an owl — a neighbor, it turns out, and an assurance that even in our lonesomeness we are never alone.
Millie sits down with Peter, Harold, Lucy, and Lenny, and together they peer into the woods. But this time they aren’t on the lookout for dread; they are “watching out for interesting things” — a gentle reminder that the hostility of the world is in the eye of the beholder; that, as Anaïs Nin memorably put it, “it is a sign of great inner insecurity to be hostile to the unfamiliar” and it is only by befriending our inner vulnerabilities, by feeling less alone in them, that we can begin to view the world with openhearted curiosity rather than fear, which is what transforms the intimidating into the interesting.
Illustrations © Erin E. Stead courtesy of Macmillan Group; photographs by Maria Popova
Published April 18, 2016