Whichever way you read it, it’s a Danielewski book
Mark Z. Danielewski has always been interested in formal experimentation. He even takes it to the point of physical experimentation, writing books like House of Leaves and Only Revolutions that require the reader to turn the books (or themselves) sideways or upside down. The techniques hint at postmodern parlor tricks, but Danielewski uses the process of reading as part of the narrative. Turning the book becomes part of the immersion in his world and the thought of the book. The writing becomes increasingly encompassing.
It’s no surprise, then, that his turn to (ostensibly) children’s lit would involve similar sorts of adventures. Danielewski, with his planned 27-part Joycean series of novels “paused,” pares everything down to less than 100 illustrated pages, but you might struggle to adapt it to your typical library story hour. The story, it turns out, is actually three stories, though they function more as expanded versions of a coherent thought rather than disparate narratives. The print in the book comes in different colors, so to read the shortest version, you read the rainbow-colored type. For the next story, you add in the blue and red words. For the full edition, you read everything.
The structure sounds like a gimmick, but it works. Danielewski doesn’t go for any major Rashomon-style twists; he simply adds more understanding and complexity to subsequent levels of reading, building on his ideas with each expanded read-through. The variations give each version of the story some surprises both in plot and ideas. Danielewski never allows readers to shut off their brains, even in what could be a retread of a book for kids.
The story itself mostly works. It follows a boy named Kai who suffers from fear. He has to overcome the claustrophobic encroachments of the Murk as well as “The Immense Monster Too Immense for Any One Name and Hungrier than All the Emptiness that Haunts the Space Between All the Stars.” Kai learns something about how to let go, who he is and what it means to do good. The biography of Kai changes enough between stories that these components work on different levels.
While it makes for a nice tale of courage and understanding, the more philosophical elements are a more demanding read. The experience of Kai being a kite or finding freedom in an ever-expanding mind doesn’t go down easily. New Agey touches push into a space beyond easy paraphrase, a move that fits in with Danielewski’s work on texts. Kai’s experience becomes something to be processed in ways other than straightforward denotation. The book goes well with juice and cookies.
The book’s illustrations have to walk a fine line. Relatively simple, they work more on suggestion than delineation. The Little Blue Kite requires this approach from artist Regina M. Gonzales, who needs to use one image to represent Kai at different ages (depending on which color text it aligns with) and to suggest less articulated concepts like the Murk. She captures these ideas well, helping create Kai’s mindset rather than simply depicting it.
In the end, The Little Blue Kite remains a bit of a puzzle. It’s a simple story for children about overcoming fear. It’s a philosophical puzzle. It’s a text-based work that examines textuality. In short, whichever way you read it, it’s a Danielewski book.