October 9, 2003

I Can Read it All by Myself

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So you have three prelims and five papers and ten job interviews and you have to go look at a house for next year and sleep is a thing of the distant past, and it hits you: growing up is way overrated. Things were easier when you were a kid, when long division was higher math and Tiny Toons was prime time TV and the books had lots of pictures. There’s no reason you can’t recreate some of that. So grab a cookie and a glass of milk, we’re boarding the regression train with 12 of our favorite children’s books. There’s no real common thread to our selections. Some are classics, and some we didn’t even read until we were babysitting younger siblings. Some are as comforting and soothing as an old sweater, and some should come with a complementary Prozac prescription. But every one of their authors plainly respected their audience and their own work. Sometimes that’s all that matters.

The Giving Tree — The ultimate text of childhood. Has the spare elegance and inevitability of a classic fairy tale. Like all fairy tales, it’s pretty deeply disturbing. Seriously, even as a kid weren’t you thinking: “stupid boy, you’re hurting the tree! At least say thank you. If I had a cool tree like that, I’d treat it better than you.” Of course, viewed with the educated eye of adulthood, the story is even more unsettling. Whether it’s a metaphor for humanity’s destruction of nature or the parent’s self sacrifice for the child or even the tree as martyr, there’s just something seriously wrong with the last page, with its image of a man with a wasted life sitting on a rotted stump and the legend: “And the tree was happy.” Yeah, we’ll just bet it was.

Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day — Everyone’s first introduction to realism and philosophy. The universal pettyness of sibling rivalry, the importance of getting the right pair of sneakers, and the seemingly oblivious parents are drawn so dead on that it’s hard to believe the book wasn’t written by a ten year old boy. The realization that “sometimes days are like that, even in Australia,” is inexplicably satisfying instead of depressing, but we still want to take a trip, just to make sure.

The Story of Jumping Mouse — This Caldicott award winning retelling of a traditional Native American tale has some of the most gorgeous pen and ink drawings we’ve ever seen. We reccomend concentrating on that instead of the Job-like trials of an optimistic mouse who just wants a better life. It all turns out for the best though, as he’s rewarded for his bravery by being turned into an eagle. Um. It’s happier if you ignore the fact that he’s probably now going to eat his former mousy brethren.

Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs — We don’t know where this town used to be, but we really, really want to move there. Actually, what would be perfect is if Ithaca were built on the Chewandswallow model. Imagine if rain was orange juice, clouds were mashed potatoes, hail was steak, and storms were salad. Ithacation suddenly sounds so much more appealing.

Polar Express — There’s an otherworldly hush drawn over the whole book by the beautiful painted illustrations and everything seems shrouded in the kind of perfect snow where it doesn’t seem at all impossible to meet the real Santa Claus. You’re drawn in so quickly that the fate of a certain bell seems overwhelmingly important and there’s real triumph in the boy’s closing declaration that he can still hear the ringing. Also, we want a reindeer really badly.

The True Story of the Three Little Pigs by A. Wolf — There’s always another side to the story. All the poor guy wanted to do was to borrow a cup of sugar and those mean little pigs framed him! And they didn’t even care that he had a horrible cold. Yeah, we don’t buy it either, but it’s so great to see a postmodern children’s book which trades successfully on its audiences knowledge of tradition without jumping up and down in a frenzy of self congratulation that we’ll let it slide. Besides, we hear that wolves are really very misunderstood.

Goodnight Moon — This has got to be every parent’s secret weapon. How can you not want to snuggle down and close your eyes when you hear this read? And this is one of the few books which must be read aloud. Just doesn’t work as well otherwise. Prime literary comfort food.

The Ox Cart Man — On the face of it, Donald Hall’s 1979 book is a quaintly pastoral story about the yearly cycle of the seasons and the intimate ties nineteenth-century farmers in rural New England had to the land they harvested. Behind the stunning illustrations and satisfying text, however, lies Hall’s frightful analysis of the difficulties facing twentieth century small-time farmers who have no “market” to sell their goods. On a more superficial level, the story itself also offers children some questionable messages as the ending makes clear that every ox is replaceable. We, for our part, consider ourselves to be severely traumatized by the farmer’s decision to sell such a loyal animal at the end of the book.

Casey at the Bat — Most of us probably read one of the later picture-book versions of the Ernest L. Thayer poem, but the text itself actually dates to June 3, 1888, when the author, who was a humor writer for the San Francisco Examiner, published the poem on the paper’s editorial page under his pen name, “Phin.” Few pastimes have captivated American discourse and imagination the way baseball has, and Thayer’s poem captures all of that intrigue and energy perhaps more succinctly and gracefully than any other. Just to let all of you Red Sox fans out there who still have your hopes up about seeing your boys in the World Series know, Thayer’s Mudville was actually Boston. What a shock.

Eloise — Every little girl growing up in New York City couldn’t help but love the title character in Kay Thompson’s classic. After all, the precocious six year-old not only got to live in, but also seemed to run, the Plaza Hotel. She certainly ran around the place enough. But, looking back on the annoyingly pink book, we couldn’t help but wonder, where were Eloise’s parents during their progeny’s childhood? There is one reference to Eloise’s mother in the entire story, and that is to explain who hired the tutor the girl despises so much. Rather than have her parents around, a nanny seems to be in charge of Eloise, which is perhaps why this book remains a favorite with the rich Manhattan set.

Owl Moon — Jane Yolen was inspired to write the book by her experiences going owling with her own children. At its core, therefore, Owl Moon is about a father/daughter relationship. It is the story of one father taking his daughter into the scary woods and showing her the beauty hidden within. The comfort she finds in his presence makes the snow glitter and the trees soar in the most magnificent fashion.

Busy, Busy Town — For those of us who grew up far from the woods, however, Owl Moon remained little more than a fantasmagorical journey into a place we would never go. It was Richard Scarry’s books that taught the important lessons in life, namely that “Uptown from downtown is midtown.” The inhabitants of Busytown each have busy jobs that keep the complicated town running and profound thoughts to go along with them. In one rather self-indulgent moment that perhaps sums up the feelings we all have towards the books of our childhood, Scarry’s artist/writer character says, “There are all kinds of writers. The best writers write children’s books.”

Archived article by Erica Stein