Hey all, sorry it’s been awhile. As most of you know by now, I’m not the only wacky pre-teen in the house anymore. That’s right mofos, a big shout-out to Carlos Ricardo, aka Charlie Richard Marsh, my new little brother! At first I thought he was my grandfather, because he was all wrinkly and had that I haven’t been regular since the war look on his face. But now his skin is smoothed out, and his hair is red for some reason (uh, mom? got something to tell me and Dad?), and he has turned into a delightfully immobile source of easy-to-steal pacis and target practice for the head-smack game. Seriously, though, he’s a good kid. Solid.
But that’s not why I’m writing. As regular followers of this page are aware, I’m a big reader, primarily of crime novels — Elmore Leonard is a big fave. But I also like the kids’ books, with their stiff, colorful pages, and big fonts and sturdy bindings. There’s nothing more fun, once you’ve really digested a good Sandra Boynton novel (more on her as we go), than discussing it with others. So without further adieu, welcome to Ava’s Book Nook!
So let’s discuss my admittedly limited knowledge of the universe of kids’ books. Let me say this first: these books target a vulnerable and easily swayed demographic: Parents, and those who give to parents for their kids. Seriously, these people are among society’s most gullible populations. “Oh look at the bright colors and the multiple pages! My Stuart would just love it. I’ll take two, please!” They don’t notice the slight smirk from the Barnes & Noble lady as she rings up the purchase, or the almost imperceptible chuckle from the laptop as the purchase is processed on Amazon Prime, along with the 899th wubanub they purchased on a whim (Free delivery! It’s like I’m gettin’ paid for this!), and the Betty’s Chocolate Delights Sampler Pak.
But I digress. The point is that there’s a wide variety of children’s books, and like anything, there’s a range of quality. You have to start with the Godfather, the Boynton ouvre. This lady can write like she’s on fire, but more importantly, she has a plan. She’s either telling a story or just having fun with words and pictures, but either way, you know she had a thought in her head that she’s executing. The first Boynton I read was Barnyard Dance. I’m going to just go ahead and say that BD made me the kid I am. There, I said it. It’s a song, a poem, an elegy (I have no idea what an elegy is other than it sounds like it’s a speech for a dead person but it’s not), but most important, it’s got a cow wearing sunglasses playing a violin. Seriously, it’s a little depressing, knowing the highlight of your life occurred when you were 8 months old when you first saw this cow. Life will never get better than that moment, except for when you get to eat pizza and look at that cow. That’s the best!
We could do an entire series of ABN just on the “Boynton Idea,” as I call it. But today is just an informal gathering of Ava’s literary thoughts, so we have to move on. While we’re throwing out some of the greats, let me throw some your way: Is there a more adorable example of early-onset senility in the public safety profession in children’s literature (chil-lit) than the hilariously incompetent security guard in Rathmann’s Good Night Gorilla? Such a cute story, such fun zoo animals, and such a rock of a wife, but what pre-toddler hasn’t been distracted by the possibility of a much darker ending? of course, the beauty of GNG which you really can’t appreciate until you’re at least 14 months old, is that it can also be read as a cautionary allegory about NATO’s role in the post WWII world. But you really want to hold off on that aspect for as long as you can. Kids should be kids.
Then there’s We’re Going on a Bear Hunt, by Rosen and Oxenbury, the ridiculous story of a father and his kids literally going on a bear hunt. We’re going on a bear hunt. We’re going to catch a big one, opens the book. Seriously. It’s a father, his maybe two-year old son, an older daughter, and another boy and girl who look to be seven or eight. And they’re going to catch a bear. Why? To kill it? Cook it? Never explained. But (Spoiler Alert), they find the bear, alright, and they high-tail it home. Ha ha! My dad almost killed us all! What perfect fodder for little children’s dreams! Here’s something telling about this wretched nightmare of a book: there’s no mom in sight. And she’s not there when the family gets back to the house. You don’t have to read between the lines much here to see this for what it is: an irresponsibly passive-aggressive move by newly divorced dad to get back at his ex by endangering the kids and playing the Fun Dad. WGOABH sends all the wrong messages. Ava Reese says Thumbs Down.
And then there’s Welcome to the Mouse House, an enticingly enchanted book in every way that, tragically, leaves the reader at the edge of a cliff and then just goes away. First off, WTTMH is a larger board book with strong, solid colors. It takes place in a big house with an extended mouse family, telling the story of the second-generation immigrant mouse experience. The story proceeds jauntily, as the narrator describes — in rhyme — the goings on of the house. It ends, however, quite suddenly: Uncle’s in the attic, watching the sky. Pete is painting, while Gemma jumps high. At dinnertime Mom shouts, There may be delay…the children are cooking pies today! And then….. and then… nothing. That’s the end. What does Uncle Mouse see in the sky? How does Pete’s painting turn out? Does Gemma hit the ceiling? Does hilarity ensue? Or is there a tense scene at the mouspital? We don’t know, because the story’s over. Makes a kid say, WTF (Where’s The Followthrough)? This, unfortunately, is the fate of far too many children’s books. Which is how you can separate the jelly beans from the broccoli: a good children’s book, like any good book, has a plan. It either has a strong narrative arc, like Goodnight Gorilla (don’t get me started), or presents a number of compelling examples of a concept, such as dinosaurs, in Boynton’s Oh My Oh My Oh Dinosaurs (but let’s face it, Boynton could do the phone book and we’d all read it), or moods and colors, as expressed in Dr. Suess’ surprisingly dark My Many Colored Days (with paintings by Steve Johnson and Lou Rancher).
Here’s an extreme example, and perhaps it’s unfair to compare the teasingly compelling yet negligently executed Mouse House with one of the best children’s books ever, but for the sake of illustration, I’m going to talk about Martin and Archambault’s Chicka Chicka Boom Boom. Yes, I’m going there. Never mind Lois Ehlert’s powerful and haunting illustrations, and even the irresistible repeating chorus, Chicka-Chicka Boom Boom, Will There Be Enough Room?. I’m just talking about plot structure here. The letters decide to meet at the top of the coconut tree. Already we’re sucked in. How are letters supposed to get to the top of a tree? And not just any tree, but a coconut tree? Coconuts! Fun, and yet potentially hazardous. We want more! And with CCBB, we get it. Vive la difference! There’s so much more to CCBB, but I’ll just leave it at that. (If you don’t have CCBB, click here to whet your appetite.)
My point here is just to hint at the incredible diversity of the kid-lit genre, and to say, also, that it takes more than a few cute animal characters and a few colorful board pages to make a good kids’ book. But unfortunately, we’re not the most discerning consumers we can be. So let’s think about quality as we go forward in our attempts to entertain and educate our little ones. And please pass the pepperoni.