(Lev Grossman writes about books here on Wednesdays. Subscribe to his RSS feed.)
For the past eight years, off and on, I’ve been reading picture books aloud to my children. You read the same book out loud every night for two years, and you wind up spending a lot of time thinking about it.
A lot. Of. Time. Arguably too much time.
Inevitably you start to develop strange, intense, sometimes unhealthy relationships with those picture books. Especially the ones that are in heavy rotation.
Part of the problem, of course, is that the books you’re reading aren’t always the ones you want to be reading. The fact that my children’s taste is not my own, while obvious, is one I’ve found strangely hard to accept. The idea that my two-year-old daughter, whose every cell is programmed by half my DNA (and the other half by the DNA of an English professor), could want, night after night, to read Maisy Goes to the Library, is difficult for me to understand.
I rather like Maisy, actually, the headline of this post notwithstanding, and I appreciate her blobby, semi-abstract mousiness. I think Maisy Goes to the Hospital has a lot of integrity to it, I really do. But I have hidden Maisy Goes to the Library, because it is inane beyond words. Don’t look for it. You’ll never find it.
Though you do develop a tremendous respect for the authors of the books you love, and the economy with which they create people and whole worlds using only a few necessarily simple words and pictures. There are distinguished novelists I could name who have gone their whole careers without creating a voice as distinctive and convincing (and fraught with buried sadness) as that of Eloise, the wealthy quasi-orphan who lives at the Plaza.
Or take Margaret Wise Brown, whose semi-hallucinatory stories follow a para-logic that is totally alien to the adult brain. What is the strange power of Goodnight Moon? And who else could have achieved it in so few words? I have seen adults mop their eyes when they reach the second-to-last spread, the one that reads “Goodnight stars/Goodnight air.”
And what exactly are the creatures who make up the Little Fur Family? Not to mention the miniature—but still bipedal—fur-person that the fur-child encounters? What was Brown on when she wrote the unforgettable entracte to The Color Kittens, which could plausibly have been sung by Jim Morrison: “Blue is the door/That takes you through/Into the world of the color kittens… ” (Brown died at only 42; her Wikipedia entry bears witness to an intriguing, intensely lived life.)
Or Ludwig Bemelmans—who was that guy? If I were writing for children—which I will never do, because it’s obviously a game for masters only—I would never have thought to give Madeline appendicitis, let alone an appendix scar. But Bemelmans has her yank up her pajama top and display the scar to her awed fellow students, and she does it with the proud, dignified, closed eyes of a Michelangelo yanking the sheet off his David for the first time. How did he know?
And then again sometimes your mind just wanders. In Babar, is there a late-life romance going on between Cornelius the elephant and the Old Lady? And how exactly would that work? They’re always having tea. Like always.
After you read a book two dozen times, even small omissions become strangely evocative. Sometimes I worry about Maisy. Where on earth are her parents? Why must she ride to the hospital in a taxi, with just her sinister crocodile friend Charley (who always looks just a little bit hungry)? Where is the father in The Cat in the Hat? Is mother—whom we feel like we know, even though all we ever see of her is one elegant, eloquent foot—a single mother? Judging from her narrow bed, with its single pillow, she sleeps alone. (Fathers are in short supply in these books. Olivia’s dad is in and out in a flash, and we never meet Eloise’s father at all, I don’t think.)
Inevitably, bad feelings develop. Your own unresolved neuroses and secret fears get involved—picture books can be kind of like Rorschach blots that way. You see what you want to see. For example: I’m convinced that the parents in Harry the Dirty Dog are secretly evil. I’m sure they recognize their own dog when he comes home. How could they not, however dirty he might be? He flop-flipped! (And why else would they allow their children to give an otherwise strange, filthy, feral stray dog a bath?) They’re toying with the poor thing’s emotions! It’s just cruel.
And I find Raymond Briggs’ The Snowman creepy beyond belief—that snowman reminds me of the frightful Other Mother in Neil Gaiman’s Coraline. The way he tries on the boy’s sleeping parents’ clothing…you can see he’s thinking about doing away with them, right then and there, with his bare, blobby snow-hands.
But I reserve my most special loathing for Judith Kerr’s The Tiger Who Came to Tea. Yes I know it’s a beloved classic. When I read it all I see is a parable about an emasculated, alienated father. Think about it: mother and daughter happily open the door to a tiger. Why would they do that? He’s a stand-in for the mother’s adulterous lover, obviously. Smiling smugly, the tiger proceeds to eat and drink the family out of house and home, while mom and daughter look on, delighted. Then daddy comes home from work, dead on his feet, dying for a drink—but no. It’s all gone. All for tiger! So instead he has to go right back out and take everybody out to dinner.
I’m just saying: this daddy would lock the door and go tiger-hunting. Tea is all well and good. But nobody drinks daddy’s beer.