Two to Three Books
Two to three books. That is our average bedtime routine. Not for myself unfortunately, but for my kids. I use to have exclusive rights to the choosing of titles but recently I have let them choose for themselves as well. Sometimes my two year old picks out a book about the geographical features of Japan and sometimes (and this is much, much worse) my four year old picks out Dora the Explorer books. As a parent I want to forcibly instill values into my unwilling children by sneaking them in through literature. To do this the books need to do three basic things. Agree with my personal philosophies, be age appropriate, and entertain my children so they will listen and not race around the room making jokes that all have “underwear” as the punchline. It is easy to find an age-appropriate book with a message that encourages children to act in a responsible and pro-social manner. Less handy is the book that does those things and holds their attention long enough to jam the message into their cartoon-damaged psyches.
So when my daughter Marley picked out Mo Willem’s “Can I Play Too?” I thought “this must be by that pigeon guy”. My assumption based on illustrations was correct. Pigeon guy it was but this book turned out to be a much finer thing than the slightly neurotic accounts of the pigeon who wants to drive a bus. We read it that night. It stood out amongst the other selections (not all that difficult as my son Solomon continues to choose only Lego City books or books featuring a ball of any type on the cover).
It met all three of my criteria for a winning book. My kids could follow along, they knew what was happening and they laughed at all the right places and better yet, they demonstrated the sympathy they felt for the characters. The book is about an elephant and a pig that are playing catch; a snake comes along and wants to play. The two do not agree at first to let him join then hesitantly explain to the snake it is because he has no arms and therefore cannot play catch. The snake pretends to be shocked but this turns out to be a joke and he expresses a willingness to try and play anyway. What follows is preschooler slapstick gold. The snake’s attempts result in many bonks to the head and ultimately to a feeling of failure. The snake begins to slink away but then pig buckles down and sets determinedly out to resolve this unfair predicament of nature. The issue is resolved when Elephant and Pig include their friend in the game of catch by using the snake as the ball, throwing him back and forth. Everyone is happy. Pig, Elephant, Snake, Marley, Solomon, and myself.
What does such a silly book show us? It clearly isn’t a page from Aesop’s Fables because it ends happily for everyone and the audience is still awake at the end (although this may not be a point in its favor considering its being read at bedtime). There is a message hidden comfortably within the light hearted play of the talking animals. Elephant and Pig are able to play catch because they have arms and Snake is physically unlike them, unable to partake in the game as they do. This is not unlike the child who may have a disability; be it poor vision or being confined to a wheel chair. No matter the degree of the difference between a child and what is considered by culture to be normal there will be an effect on that child’s development and how they interact with world around them.
When the Snake became discouraged in the book my daughter clucked disapprovingly at the situation. It offended her understanding of fairness that the Snake should be unable to do something the other friends were doing. When Pig decided that s/he would not accept the situation for what it was and set out to make it so that Snake would be included, Marley cheered. She was recognizing the behavior as being kind and correct. Exactly what I would want from her if she was faced with a situation where a disabled child wanted to join in on her play. I would want her to not accept defeat or the exclusion of the child but to seek out whatever change was necessary to include everyone. This sounds a bit idyllic I know. But teaching ideals is what I do and when the lesson is wrapped up in an adorable tale of talking animals, all the better.
Unfortunately, it is not all idylls and acceptance on talking animal island. You know when your relatives buy your kid a book and you peruse the thing making sure there isn’t a cusswords or misplaced syringes in the pages? Last September after checking a book given as a birthday gift to my son I had to pull a slip-it-under-the-couch maneuver. The thing was awful. By the third page I was ready to pull out my soap box (luckily the box is banned at birthday parties and other noncompetitive family-functions).
I can see why my sister-in-law purchased it. It is an appealingly sized hardback book with adorable illustrations and the dog in the book has the same name as our family dog. Obviously this book was meant for us, right? Well, it would have been if they had forgone all the words… or at least about three quarters of them.
“OHNOTWINKIEZ” begins with a picture of a yellow dog spending time with his owner BELINDA. Harmless except he is on a treadmill trying to lose weight because he is fat. Now I would have said overweight but the book actually uses the word fat. It also implied that ESCABAR became handsome only after becoming fit and losing twelve pounds. All of this happens on the first two pages. After ESCABAR becomes a more beautiful version of himself and loses the weight BELINDA gets him into agility training. Each task is timed or if failed met with a pronouncement of “fault!” Occasionally some disconnected information about what ESCABAR and BELINDA do besides train is interjected. It does nothing to make me like either of them more, only confuses the storyline. BELINDA hears about a dog show and ESCABAR agrees (via tail wagging) to compete. BELINDA grooms him and brushes his teeth because “…nobody likes a dog with bad breath.” I personally disagree with this statement. If my dog didn’t have bad breath (aka dog breath) I would suspect he was an alien imposter sent to overtake our planet and not my dog at all. And if I did agree with it, I would certainly be more polite in saying it to my poor dog.
So they go to the competition, BELINDA scopes out the obstacles, six other dogs are competing, ESCABAR goes third, they walk to the starting line… (wondering why waste time giving such detailed nonessential information? I was wondering that too). ESCABAR completes the course perfectly but not fast enough. ESCABAR is unhappy to receive the third place ribbon, BELINDA is happy. They end with BELINDA suggesting they increase the treadmill time from 20 minutes to 25 minutes. See? Awful.
Besides the fact there is serious writing and storyline flaws there are other more insidious things at work here. Teaching children to refer to sensitive topics such as weight indelicately and worse, to associate weight loss with attractiveness. Let children be taught that beauty is achieved through health and the pursuits of the heart and mind and not a 20 minute run on the treadmill. I flipped through the book ignoring the words and looked only at the pictures. The story is much improved except the one image of a portly disgruntled and unhappy looking dog staring down at the dial on a scale.
Two to three books. A small window of opportunity to fit sneaky ideals and values into my children during their formative years. How long before they choose their own books and read them without my supervision? What books will they be inspired to read after reading “Can I Play Too?”? Atwood, Lee, Salinger? And what literature follows stories like “OHNOTWINKIEZ?”? Elle, YM, Cosmo, Stephenie Meyer? Thankfully some 22,000 children’s books are published each year and I have the luxury of being hyper-vigilant and selective and I can still come out with maybe 5000 books to safely read and enjoy with my children. So even if we do manage to read two to three new books every night (instead of the same books over and over and over… and over) I would still have some 4000 to spare.
My point in this report is that a message need not be overt (like a fat dog needing to lose weight) to affect children. The more subtle message leaves room for introspection and personal interpretation, making the experience more relatable for the child, easier to apply to their own lives. Children often flourish with structure and parameters for behaviors but they don’t long to be preached to.