Hope Larson’s Salamander Dream is a dream of childhood told in lime green and black ink on cream-colored paper. The book begins with a map of woods and creek that looks like a crayon drawing, reminiscent of the sketch of the 100-Acre Wood that opened the Winnie the Pooh stories.
Hailey lives at the edge of the woods, and that’s where she spends her summer, amongst the trees and the birds. She’s exploring the wonders of the world and her imagination, running down hills, walking barefoot in the grass, singing to herself, and laying on her stomach watching the creek water go by. Realistic greenery gives way to fanciful iconic creatures, transitioning the reader into Hailey’s daydreams, punctuated by labeled pictures of creatures that resemble the careful drawings of a science report.
Salamander, who resembles an acrobat with a face mask and a tail, tells her stories of his adventures swimming with fish and flying with birds. As she ages, he disappears for a while, reappearing to her once before she realizes she’s developing other games, her friends taking her away from the woods. In the final chapter, she’s gone from child to woman, with her knowledge leading to a different kind of appreciation of nature. Although more scientific, involving blood cells and DNA, her experiences can still be imaginative, even magical.
The self-bordered panels have rounded corners, and the lines contained within are often sinuous, like a river. The panels resemble old-fashioned snapshots, and without strong borders, they’re uncontained, implying a much wider existence beyond the window the reader’s looking through. Perspective shifts, flying in and through natural growth. Interspersed throughout the book are more crayon sketches, occurring at Hailey’s most imaginative moments. The surreal, non-verbal imagery incorporates the reader, as they bring themselves to the work. They’ll find something new every re-read.
On the literal level, this is the kind of childhood many wish they had and too few these days know, set in a timeless period where a kid could wander and explore without observation or schedule. The book is also about the different kinds of creativity life brings at different stages. It’s not a choice between knowledge and magic, since one can become the other. Hailey moves beyond her woods without letting go of them; she continues to dream in different ways as she ages.