Review: La coleccionista de palabras

I read a lot of e-books on my computer because it’s easier on me, and a friend sent me a device for Christmas that I’m diligently tinkering with. I am making use of it. It’s certainly true that a portable reading device makes it easier for a lot of books to go with you. At the same time, though, I think sometimes a physical book can be the better companion.

It may be easier to reach for in great need. It may carry something of the memory of the person who gave it to you. Or you might just like seeing proof of words upon words, solid. You might like to lean very close, and imagine you’re holding the words as well as the page, and sift them. It might be easier that way to think of words as things that move, that touch people. You can feel them. Words are for manipulating — they have textures and tastes, shapes and moods. You get to know them through your eyes and fingers, lips and ears. And then your mind. The sense of a word is how its spelling or sound feels in your head. If an author knows many words intimately enough to use the soft word or the crooked word for just the right thing, you can feel the story. And afterward, you have new words you can arrange yourself to do different things.

Perhaps that’s why I’m fond of the heroine in Sonja Wimmer’s Spanish-language picture book: La coleccionista de palabras, The Word Collector. Luna is a most unusual girl who lives high up in the sky and collects words the way other people collect stamps. But one day, the words start disappearing — all over the world, people are just too busy to appreciate how beautiful words can be. So Luna packs a suitcase and climbs into a hot air balloon…

I can’t pick a word to describe the illustrations. Surreal, quirky, whimsical, bizarre? Characters’ facial expressions are both comical and affecting. Luna’s home has the atmosphere of an overturned magic shop, a happy chaos made of alphabet. My favorite illustration is a two-page spread: the ransom note letters of “Y tenía una pasión muy peculiar” hover in a jar, glowing like fireflies. Luna is gazing at them solemnly, their glow warming her hands and reflecting in her eyes and catching in her hair. The light seems to spill off the page.

The words, too, are illustration, mingled among the pictures. You chase them: you follow them where they unravel, you find them swinging in a bird cage or swimming in a fishbowl. You turn the book this way and that to make sure you’ve caught all the letters, like Luna. You string them together. You have to concentrate — to focus on the words the letters make, and the feelings the words make because of how the letters move. Are the words ticklish? Friendly? Gentle? You can’t be like the people in the story; you can’t be too busy to notice the words. (However, if trying to follow all the twisting words makes you dizzy, Wimmer provides a text-only “transcript” at the back of the book.) Luna is a friend of anyone who cares about words in any language.

Note: If you try to read La coleccionista on a portable device, you will need the text at the back, or else you’ll need a computer screen. Otherwise, you can’t see all the words twining through the pictures. The hardcover seemed truer to Luna’s spirit, and the peculiar light of the alphabet glowed more strongly. All the better to see the words — as Luna believes, what’s the good of collecting something if not to share it?

For a similar sentiment in English, try The Boy Who Loved Words.

About Amy

Children's librarian, Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh
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