It’s been a long time since I sat with a child in my lap and read a picture book out loud. And, as I’ve said in an earlier column, I don’t usually miss those days much; it seems, as a friend once said, that I have nostalgia deficit disorder.
We’ve hit a new stage in Mariah’s development that’s been a little harder to welcome, though. It started with driving: it wasn’t that long ago that I sat in my office and just breathed deeply, knowing she was out on the highway for the first time. Then there was the day I called to add her to the insurance and nearly wept when the agent on the other end of the line commiserated with me. The day she drove to school 20 miles away for the first time and I had her call me on arrival, again as she was leaving school, and when she returned home. Those days had me thinking how much easier it was when she was learning to walk. But we’re about to go on a road trip now and I’m beyond delighted to realize that she can share the driving — I honestly don’t think I could do it without her.
But it’s our road trip that really has me nostalgic for her earlier years. This trip, after all, marks yet another milestone: we’re off to visit the three northeastern colleges that seem to be competing for her time (and our money!) for the next four years. And I have to confess, this one’s bittersweet. I’m starting to realize that she’ll be moving out before too long, and while I realize she’ll be coming back home, I know it will be different.
And then I remember some of our favorite read-alouds from her childhood and I realize that in this new stage, as in others, I can call on the wisdom I’ve gleaned from children’s books. Three of my favorite read-alouds are Beatrix Potter’s The Tale of Peter Rabbit, Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are, and Ezra Jack Keats’s The Snowy Day. These three — one from the early twentieth century, the other two from the early sixties; one by a woman, two by men; one about a little rabbit in boys’ clothing, one about a little boy in a snowsuit, and one about a boy in a wolf suit — wouldn’t seem to tell me much about a child going off to college, and indeed they don’t. But they do tell about the power of the imagination, the appeal of the unknown, and the comforts of home, in ways I’m finding helpful right now.
Beatrix Potter’s Tale of Peter Rabbit began life as an illustrated letter to a young nephew. Potter, an Edwardian spinster, showed promise as a scientist but was unable to present her scientific papers (on lichens and fungi) at the Royal Academy of Science, because she was a woman. She had always kept pets and drawn pictures of them — going so far as to boil down the animals’ carcasses after they had died so that she could study their anatomy — and Peter Rabbit was named for one of those early pets. Although she had some trouble finding a publisher for the book, Potter refused to compromise on its production, insisting on the color illustrations and the small size, realizing that both would make the book more appealing to children.
And it is, despite language that can sound dated (the sparrows who “implored him to exert himself” still make me laugh) and gender ideology that gives me pause. While I might wish that Peter’s sisters could go adventuring as he does, though, I also realize that Potter knew something about families: there’s usually some kind of contrast between rebellious and conformist siblings, and it’s the rebels who generate the stories. Potter herself rebelled quietly, earning enough money through the genteel occupation of writing and illustrating children’s books to move out of her parents’ house, buying her own farm, and ultimately contributing large tracts of land to the British National Trust for conservation. Peter Rabbit’s adventure actually takes place in the garden Potter established for herself at Hilltop Farm: his escape was her home.
Max, in Where the Wild Things Are, is another rebel. We first see him chasing his dog with a fork and standing on a pile of books to hammer a nail into the wall; sometimes I wonder if “mischief of one kind or another” is quite strong enough to describe the behavior Sendak depicts. Although Sendak had illustrated books for others, Where the Wild Things Are was his first words-and-pictures effort. The tale has always been a bit controversial, since some parents — and, it must be said, some children — object to the nightmarish qualities of the “wild things,” but Mariah and I always loved it. I read it to her again and again, growling in my throat as the wild things “roared their terrible roars.” Max’s adventure, like Peter Rabbit’s, seems threatening at times, but he — again like Peter Rabbit — returns to the safety of his home and his mother — who, though never seen in the book, animates both its beginning and its end. Sendak’s continuing insistence in this and other books that children deserve to be taken seriously — their fears as well as their hopes, their nightmares as well as their dreams — can make some of his books hard to take, but all of them worth the effort.
The Peter of Ezra Jack Keats’s lovely The Snowy Day is no rebel at all. Keats, like Sendak, grew up in Brooklyn, and he used the urban landscape much as Potter used the rural landscape of her beloved Lake District, as a setting made almost tangible in his illustrations. Throughout his career Keats — himself white — told stories and drew pictures of African American and urban children without comment; his books were among the first to present African American children as protagonists in stories without explicit “racial content.” The Snowy Day — which preceded Where the Wild Things Are as a Caldecott Medal winner, in 1963 — demonstrates that adventures can take place close to home as well as far away. In simple collage-style illustrations, Keats tells the story of the boy Peter who spends a day in the wonderland of the urban snow day, surrounded by apartment buildings and streetlights rather than gardens or monster-inhabited islands. His adventures — like Peter Rabbit’s and Max’s, undertaken solo — also end with a return to his mother’s embrace.
What unites these stories for me — besides the nostalgia of recollecting them as much-loved read-alouds and the inventiveness of their authors — is, of course, the simple structure. All three of them tell the story of a child who leaves home, has adventures, and returns. In their wonderful textbook, The Pleasures of Children’s Literature, Mavis Reimer and Perry Nodelman dub this the “home-away-home” structure, and demonstrate its ubiquity in the genre. Indeed, in all three cases, the child returns not only to his home, but to his mother, or the idea of his mother. They seem, in other words, to tap into some deeply-held notions about parental love and acceptance as well as about the pleasures of adventure. Adventure is most pleasing when we know we have a home to return to, or so these books seem to me to say.
Mariah is no rebel — she’s much more like Peter of The Snowy Day, eager to explore but wary of anything too dangerous. (“He thought it would be fun to join the big boys in their snowball fight, but he knew he wasn’t old enough — not yet.”) Like Max, she can certainly conjure wild things out of her imagination, and I hope she has a wild rumpus or two in her future. And I also hope that if she finds herself in difficulties she will, like Peter Rabbit, find others (like those imploring sparrows!) to help her out.
On this road trip, I’m sharing the driving; Mariah’s not yet on the kind of solo adventure the books detail. As we move into the future, my job may simply be to keep reading the stories — and, while still getting on with my own life (what does Max’s mother do while he’s off in his dream world?), to keep the supper hot.