The Power of Small Things, guest post by Elizabeth Jennings, author of THE BUTTON COLLECTOR

button_final_1Elizabeth Jennings, author of THE BUTTON COLLECTOR

Years ago, I began writing a novel based on a family’s collection of discarded buttons because I liked the idea of small, tangible items telling stories that weave together to form a larger truth.

At the time, I had no idea how many button aficionados exist in this world.  Or how devoted they are.  Or talented.  Or insightful.  Since then, I’ve come across countless button jewelers, button crafters, and button florists who create objects of beauty ranging from whimsical earrings to festive bridal bouquets.  I’ve discovered artists who transform buttons into complex, sophisticated mosaics, mandalas, and even sculptures.  I’ve become aware of clubs and organizations just for button collectors, including The National Button Society, which is made up of 3000 serious collectors who research buttons as historical artifacts.

Button fans, it would seem, are legion.  But beyond the hard-core button contingent is an even greater number of regular folk who have vivid memories of playing with their own family’s collection of buttons.  Here are some typical reactions I get when I tell people the basic premise for my book, THE BUTTON COLLECTOR:

“I did that! My grandmother had a box of buttons I used to play with.”

“I can see my mother’s button jar right now.”

“I loved the sound they made when I poured them out of the tin.”

The memories are obviously visceral, the kind of memories that serve as a time portal.   As I talk with these people, in their eyes I can almost see the switch flip and the past come to life.

In my casual, on-and-off study of people and their buttons, I recently came across one of the most poignant examples of all—The Holocaust Memorial Button Project in Peoria, Illinois, which I discovered through a wonderful blog called Bonkers About Buttons.   The memorial is made of glass stars and triangles encasing 11 million buttons, one for each person murdered in the Holocaust.  As Bonkers about Buttons explains:

The visual image the group selected to use was a simple button, which was chosen to represent each life because of their circular shape reminding us of the cycle of life. Buttons are also enduring – they last long after garments have faded and unraveled to remind us of the past.

The memorial contains a staggering 11 millions buttons – some big, some small, some fancy and some plain and provides a visual representation of what is too startling and too staggering for the mind or heart to comprehend.

The idea is similar to a popular middle school exercise in which students collect paper clips to represent people killed in the Holocaust.  While paper clips work well to show the scale of atrocity, I believe buttons give the memorial added depth because they are personal. They remind us of our own clothing, our own details, our own humanity.  I like the fact that people donated their buttons for the project.  In this situation, the buttons have an almost talisman-like power that appears to demand memory, respect, and justice.

From time to time over the years I’ve doubted the whole idea behind my book.  Who wants to read about buttons anyway?  People might think the idea is silly, frivolous, childish.  Fortunately, realizing that I’m not alone in my appreciation for these little objects of art and history gave me confidence to keep going until now, I’m happy to say, I have a book.

As a writer, I also feel validated when I notice buttons making appearances in other writers’ words.  About half the books I’ve read this year have included details, passages, or even recurring themes focused on buttons.  I don’t think these references are anything another reader would notice, but I do, and it underscores one of my guiding beliefs as both a writer and a person—small things matter.   They matter a lot, even more, usually, than big things.  Small things are the way you make a story true and alive, how you give it the power to reach out from the page and crawl into a reader’s soul, how you make memory dance and dreams shimmer.

The big things in a story—epic battles, age-old betrayals, mountaintop experiences—only have power if they can be made particular, if the reader can experience them up close and personal.  That’s why it’s possible for me to read accounts of Roman gladiators and feel only a whisper of unease–I can’t relate to those people.   I don’t know what they ate, how they played with their children, or any other details of their daily life.  On the other hand, just glancing at the guide for the Anne Frank Memorial is almost more than I can bear because the little details in it make it easy for me to imagine myself and my children in her place.

Small things have the power to make happiness come alive too, and that brings me back to buttons. Imagine 30 satin buttons tracing down the back of a wedding gown.  Imagine three baseball buttons on a baby boy’s playsuit.  Imagine a single metal button shining on a new leather satchel.

Imagine elegance, innocence, possibility.

Imagine the details of the stories.

Imagine life.