In which Annie (high school teacher, mother of two young girls and a younger boy) and her aunt Deborah (children's bookseller, mother of two young women in their 20s) discuss children's books and come up with annotated lists.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

The staying power of children's books

Dear Aunt Debbie,

Hearing about your work in the store always makes me happy -- so good to know you're there, making excellent book to person connections every day. I've just put the first two books in the Whatever After series on my library hold list -- they sound like a perfect fit for Eleanor, who loved the Sisters Grimm. We're constantly on the lookout now for new middle-grade series to keep her happily in books. Yesterday, she picked up The Lightning Thief, the first Percy Jackson book, and stayed up past midnight to finish it, thrilled and a little frightened by the end. She must have stopped 25 times during the day to tell me, "This is a really good book!" Any other suggestions?

I've been thinking this week about the staying power of children's books. As I'm sure you've noticed, a recent meme on Facebook has people listing 10 books that have stayed with them and/or made a difference in their lives. A little data analysis done by the folks at Facebook was reported in Mother Jones, under the headline, "Almost All the Books People Say Influenced Them Were Written for Children." Many of these are YA titles, with Harry Potter topping the list, but a few are picture books as well.

My own list (when I succumbed to being tagged and posted one) was no exception: half children's books. The one straight-up picture book I chose was Maurice Sendak's fabulous In the Night Kitchen. Immediately, my friend Ann messaged me about this choice. She said she'd bought the book for her daughter on my recommendation, but found aspects of it "surreal and horrifying," and wondered what I did with the Holocaust references. 

Holocaust references! I had to think, because that's something I'd never seen in In the Night Kitchen. I've always read the book in the way my father read it to me, with great joy: as an assertion of individuality, and a triumphing over people who try to force you to be something you're not. The bakers want to put Mickey in the cake, and refer to him as milk, but he breaks out: "I'm not the milk, and the milk's not me! I'm Mickey!" Then he goes farther, finding the real milk and adding it to the batter, helping to create the cake which will feed everyone in the morning: "I'm in the milk and the milk's in me! God bless milk and God bless me!"

Mickey isn't in control at the beginning of his journey -- the fall out of his clothes and into the night kitchen -- but he has gained control by the end. It's always felt to me like a vivid depiction of something children feel all the time, as they are thrown into situations not of their own making. So while I can look at it now and think, oh, the bakers have mustaches and they're trying to put Mickey in an oven, and Sendak wrote other things specifically referencing the Holocaust, I can't feel that that is the meaning behind this book. And of course it's not a meaning a two-year-old would have access to.

Sometimes being a parent requires you to put aside your own references in order to make space for your child's interpretation, or at least to combine your understanding with theirs. I know that my understanding of In the Night Kitchen was shaped by my father, who also read me the Chronicles of Narnia without ever hinting at their Christian underpinnings, but was willing and able to discuss that meaning with me when I figured it out later.

This goes beyond books as well, of course. Will is fascinated by airplanes, and points up at them every time he hears one go by overhead. This past week, with the anniversary of September 11th hovering, I was terribly aware of the resonances of airplanes in a cloudless blue sky, even as I watched Will's enjoyment of them.

This week, I will make time to read The Lightning Thief, so that Eleanor and I can talk about what thrilled her and what scared her yesterday. I'll continue to read The Phoenix and the Carpet to both Eleanor and Isabel when Will is distracted by something else, and will read Will Ollie the Stomper (sequel to Ollie) roughly 500 times. And I wonder, as I often do, what will have the greatest staying power for them.

Love, Annie

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