“The first time I looked into a mirror,” my 10-year-old son, Eli, says, “I knew it wasn’t me.” Often the spiritual guide of our family, Eli has a center so rooted I sometimes wonder if it’s possible he is the oldest tree in the world living inside the body of a boy. Mirrors, throughout literature, are omens and traps. They are soft enough to walk through, like mist; they are riddles that shatter upon reflection; they are magic. And what they reflect back may not have anything to do with us, or if it does have to do with us it’s the hide to our seek. What did Eli see, I muse. A child’s hand where an old branch should be?
On the cover of ZEBRA IN THE MIRROR (Crocodile Books, 36 pp., $18.95, ages 4 to 8), written by Tina Arnuš Pupis and illustrated by Marta Bartolj, a bright sun’s center cheerfully exclaims, “Read this book from front to back or back to front!” What at first feels like a magic trick, or a two-for-one, reveals itself to be a potential palindrome broken by an existential crisis. When read from front to back, the book imparts an essential message about being kind to your reflection. When read from back to front, the sky gradually darkens and the story ends with Zebra staring into still waters that reflect an animal she cannot seem to love, reminding us that self-acceptance is not a straight line but a ruminative spiral. Each page is dappled with black ink, as if Zebra’s stripes have permeated the air of the grasslands she grazes, because don’t landscapes reflect the beings that inhabit them?
When a bride and groom are seated in front of a mirror in ONCE UPON A TIME IN PERSIA (Tate Publishing, 32 pp., $16.99, ages 5 to 7), written by Sahar Doustar and illustrated by Daniela Tieni, the bride — having come to recognize herself in the shapes of nature — sees her reflection for the first time and despairs, thinking the groom has chosen another woman (“that girl has nothing to do with me … I have another form”). The book’s exquisite illustrations feel like images from an old scroll rubbing their eyes and waking up to remind us that we are one with the world. (As the 13th-century Persian poet Rumi once wrote, “Do not feel lonely, the entire universe is inside you.”) Tieni plays brilliantly with surrealistic proportions to tell the story of a bride who is “the shape of the water in the lake … the shape of the moon, when it is full and when it is a crescent … the shape of the trees and flowers in the garden.” (Fortunately, the groom is a kindred spirit. He turns the mirror so that all of nature is in the room with them.)
Vashti Harrison’s BIG (Little, Brown, 60 pp., $19.99, ages 4 to 8) explores how language marks the body. A Black second grader is called “too big” so many times and in so many ways that the words appear as tattoos when she looks at herself in the mirror. A teacher the size of an insect paints the girl gray because she considers her too big to be a flower in the school’s ballet recital, and puts her onstage as a mountain carrying a cloud that drifts alongside her. Having grown almost larger than the book, the girl pushes her feet against the walls of its pages, until the mirrored shards she cries out as tears (“ha ha,” “moose,” “cow”) pierce the reflections that trap her and open a gatefold. Dripping, she hands the words to a small, palely silhouetted crowd, half-drawn in pencil. “These are yours,” she says. “They hurt me.” It’s a moment as small as it is gigantic, and it returns to the girl the glow that lives inside her.
Corey R. Tabor’s SIMON AND THE BETTER BONE (Balzer + Bray, 40 pp., $19.99, ages 4 to 8) reimagines Aesop’s “The Dog and His Reflection,” shedding the stern and forbidding tones of the original in favor of a more playful tale. Simon challenges his reflection to a winner-gets-the-better-bone staring contest, “chase[s] his tail while playing dead while reciting his favorite poem” and loses his bone, as the fable dictates, not to his reflection but to his greed. The illustrations are so warm and scribbly I can almost feel the yarn and fluff of a dog who, after losing his bone, magically finds another and returns it to himself by dropping it back into the water, where it sinks into the depth of his reflection, doubling now as a brand-new friend. The moral here is that our reflections contain not only what we possess, but also what we have lost and what we have given — in an act of kindness — away.
Sabrina Orah Mark is the author, most recently, of “Happily: A Personal History — With Fairy Tales,” based on her Paris Review column.