One Little Bag: An Amazing Journey by Henry Cole

One Little Bag: An Amazing Journey 
Review Copy from Scholastic Books

A marvel of wordless storytelling, Cole's book is a love story - of family and the environment - that ends with an unforgettable author's note that makes One Little Bag: An Amazing Journey all the more amazing.
Illustrated with Cole's trademark finely detailed, black-ink drawings, every visually rich page invites readers to linger. The only colors in the story come from a tan-brown used for the trunk of the tree that is milled and manufactured (by the J.W. Hart Company, maker of the "Hart-Felt" paper bag) into the titular bag and the red of the ink used to draw on the bag. The amazing journey starts in the forest, but it really begins when a boy and his father, both white, carry groceries home in a brown paper bag, sometime during the 1960s. On the first day of school, the boy's father (there is no mother in the pictures) draws a heart on the bag, now a lunch bag. Over the next few pages, we see the boy grow and we see the bag being a useful carry-all in a variety of situations, even standing in as a lampshade for a nightlight, dimming the glow of a flashlight. The boy heads off to college, the bag, which gains a second heart, becomes the holder of an engagement ring for the protagonist's girlfriend, a black woman, then a holder of petals strewn by the flower girl at their wedding. When a baby arrives, the bag gets a third red heart, becoming part of a homemade mobile. The bag gains a fourth heart when the boy (man's) father, now a grandfather, moves in. Grandchild and grandfather carry the bag with them, filling it with new and wonderful items and memories. A penultimate page spread shows grandfather's chair, empty, the paper bag and a sapling on the table next to it. The final pages show parents and child planting the sapling, nestled in the brown paper bag with four red hearts, in the forest.

I have to admit, reading as an adult, I felt that the tender story of family eclipsed the "reduce, reuse, recycle" message I was looking for. Then I read Cole's author's note, which gives the story added dimension. Cole shares a brief, powerful recollection of participating, along with his entire high school, in the very first Earth Day on April 22, 1970, writing, "everyone was talking about conservation, recycling and ecology." On that day when students made their way to school without cars and busses, Cole, brown bag lunch in hand, walked to school across "three fields and through the woods." Inspired by the day, Cole folded his lunch bag and slipped it in his pocket instead of throwing it away like he always did. He used the same bag every day for the next three years and, taped, stapled and filled with graffiti, "willed" it to a friend when he graduated. Cole estimates that the bag was used over seven hundred times! Cole ends his author's note with these words;

These days, when so many things are used once and tossed away, I think of that bag. And I think of all the precious resources and energy that go into creating just one little bag. What if every bag was used seven hundred times? There is an enormous amount of waste each and every day as things are given up for garbage before their usefulness is gone. Just one little bag. One well-used, well-recycled life.

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