A colleague had a new baby recently. A new baby is always a time for rejoicing, for gift-giving, for celebrating. So I went over with a meal and a couple of books. It took me a while to come up with just the right meal for the family; I remembered the somewhat bland quiche a neighbor brought when Nick was born — we ate it gratefully, even as we wished for a bit more flavor, maybe a riskier choice. After poring over my cookbooks for a couple of hours, I settled on a meal (asparagus-mushroom strata and a blueberry-lemon cake). Picking books though, proved even more difficult than cooking.
Most of us have our favorite read-alouds from our own childhoods or from our children’s. My own favorite read-aloud from childhood, Nomi and the Lovely Animals, is no longer in print, though many others from my childhood are. So I went to the bookstore to browse books for this new baby thinking of all the wonderful books for young children — Make Way for Ducklings and Blueberries for Sal, from my own childhood; the Dr. Seuss early readers that so charmed Mariah; the P.D. Eastman books like Go, Dog, Go! and — for some reason a family favorite — Sam and the Firefly; the board book versions of Good Night, Moon and The Very Hungry Caterpillar that we read until even their sturdy covers were battered and torn. Seeing the books new and fresh, spines unbroken, pages untouched, reminded me of my children’s babyhood, now years past.
As I picked up each book, the anonymous big-box store faded away as the memories flooded in: sitting in the frayed armchair with Nick in my lap, late one night, reading Little Bear’s Visit until we reached the part we wanted to hear. Initiating the call-and-response of Eric Carle’s Do You Want to Be My Friend? with Mariah, and hearing her echo back the text. Laughing together over the smart dog who travels along with the safety officer in Officer Buckle and Gloria. I could outfit a different library for a new baby every day of the week, if I had money enough and time, and all the libraries would be good.
Though there are many fun read-alouds, the qualities of a good one can be a bit elusive. Charming water-colors illustrations or museum-quality oils, for example, may not grab a young child’s attention; on the other hand, my kids often loved books of dubious literary or artistic quality, as much–I sometimes thought — for the pleasure of getting me to read something I didn’t like as for the book itself. Our favorites, though, stood up to multiple re-readings with clear and vivid language, interesting illustrations, and stories that engaged us. A good picture book is like a haiku or a sonnet: it’s a constrained form, sometimes conveying only the merest sliver of anecdote, other times a whole world, in its 20-30 pages.
As I stood in the bookstore browsing, I kept coming back to a trio of books by Rosemary Wells, of Max and Ruby fame. This little trio, Voyage to the Bunny Planet, contains three brief tales, linked by Wells’ characteristic illustrations (a brightly colored world populated by anthropomorphic bunnies) and by the “voyage” that each story details. In each tale — Moss Pillows, First Tomato, and Island Light — the bunny-child is having a bad day. Though the details differ, the feeling is the same: she or he needs an escape. Robert, in Moss Pillows, is set upon by a forced family visit, uncomfortable relatives, and really bad food (cold liver chili — could it get any worse?). Claire, in First Tomato, has her shoes fill with snow on her way to school — and things go downhill from there. In Island Light, Felix gets sick at school and then can’t get the attention he needs from his parents. These aren’t tragedies; they’re the everyday stuff of kids’ lives, without the sentimental haze of nostalgia.
Enter the Bunny Queen, with the decidedly down-to-earth name of Janet. Janet appears to each bunny-child just as the day goes from bad to worse (Claire, for example, is freezing at the bus stop after failing to do a cartwheel in gym class). The whole story changes with Janet’s appearance: she envelops the child in her furry arms and carries him or her through a brilliant night sky. The text changes, too, moving into a rhyming tale of “the day that should have been.” In each case, the child gets just the solution to his or her specific problem: Claire has a warm sunny day and “first tomato soup” with her mother; Felix — who has gone to bed without a goodnight kiss — spends a blissful day in a lighthouse with his father, mixing “an apple pancake batter [and] singing while the shutters clatter”; and Robert, set upon by his cousins, spends the day in “my house in a sweet-gum tree/Where I sing to myself in the whispering woods,/And nobody’s there but me.” The rhythms shift and sway as the poetry moves the children into a comforting dream of a better day. These are escapes from the ordinary, but they are hardly wild fantasies; what I like best about the Bunny Planet is how ordinary it is, too. These are achievable fantasies, then: the very best kind. As I reread them now, I notice where the binding is giving out, and which pages are seem particularly well-loved; these books are part of the history of my family, now.
The best children’s books appeal equally to adults and children, speaking to us at different stages of our lives. When I was a new parent I needed the Bunny Planet myself; when days went just a little bit awry, the idea that a small change could improve things was comforting. When I first began reading them to my daughter, she was three, and was mostly entranced by the pictures and the rhythms of the poetry. She hadn’t yet had a bad day in school or an awkward visit with relatives. Now, at 18, she tells me she recalled the books the just other day, after a planned date had gone almost comically wrong. “Here’s the day that should have been,” she said as she recounted what hadn’t quite happened. As I slipped the books in a gift bag for my friend with the new baby, I hoped he wouldn’t need them right away — but knew, too, that the day would come.