A good peek-a-boo book is like love. It catches its reader by surprise. By nature, the book’s layered structure builds suspense; a new surprise hides on each page for the reader to lay bare, and if all is known outright, the peek-a-boo book fails to fulfill the basic promise it makes with the reader—to reveal.
Despite its many flaps, Mommy, Daddy, Peek-a-boo! by Molly Burque leaves the reader with little to uncover as they follow young “Baby” through a typical daily routine. Child Psychiatrist Jonathan Schwartz, PhD, who—full disclosure—is also my husband, claims that the book’s predictability is perfect for young readers. Although my background is less illustrious, I have read said text an estimated thousand times more than Jonathan Schwartz, PhD, and while this doesn’t negate his expertise it should at least count toward my own qualifications as reviewer.
This would not be a fair critique if I did not admit that my daughter loves lifting the Peek-a-boo! flaps, and she reaches for the orange cupboard on page two as if she were reaching for chopped banana. Unfortunately, my daughter cannot articulate what she enjoys about opening the cupboard, but my husband reminds me (and I can remember from Psychology 101) that our daughter’s enthusiasm might have something to do with her lack of object permanence.
The cupboard sweetly obliterates, and my daughter rides the thrill.
Similarly, I rode the soft kiss of apartment door drawn behind Jonathan Swartz pre-PhD. Back then, impermanence lit us and everything else: our worn furniture and favorite restaurants, those foolhardy cigarettes. This sad-eyed boy from Brooklyn made me laugh until yogurt seared in my nose, and after six months of I-love-yous and the receding whine of his Volvo, I still swung open the door just to feel my heart clutch. Just to convince myself that he was real.
“Constancy is everything,” says Child Development Expert Jonathan Schwartz, who, much to our surprise, received a position at Boston Children’s Hospital immediately following his residency. And this might be true, but what about on page four, when the narrator asks, “Where is baby’s rattle?” only to offer the reader one place to look? I don’t care what Dr. Schwartz has to say, this is lazy writing. Pity, because the toy box held so much potential! Burque could have hidden anything: a stuffed squid or disco ball. She could have placed a popgun in the toy box, and see, you’re already leaning in. What if Burque wrote, “Where is baby’s gun?” Such intrigue and controversy! Where is baby’s Mommy?
It so happens, you get to meet Mommy on page five. You get to peel back her paper hands and see her flat, lashy eyes. Jonathan Schwartz suggests I’m overanalyzing, but Dr. Schwartz analyzes people every day, and I think Burque might have considered a more nuanced aesthetic. Perhaps, Mommy wants something, too.
Maybe Mommy’s playing peek-a-boo and simultaneously thinking about a line from a poem she’s just read. Maybe she’s read “Animals” by Frank O’Hara and she’s thinking about those first lines: Have you forgotten what we were like then / When we were still first rate / And the day came fit with an apple in its mouth? Here, it’s possible for Mommy to enjoy the game of peek-a-boo and seek something more.
Jonathan Schwartz used to read poetry, but five years of psychiatric practice have revealed new and surprising priorities. New and surprising fears. He says that children need order. They need predictability, and that must be why Molly Burque chooses to place the same polka dot rattle that appears in the toy box on page four inside of Baby’s book on page six. I get it. The world is chaos. Trusted adults do horrible things and accidents fall from the sky. One moment a literary agent might tell you your novel is going to be a huge success, and another moment, after a year of furious late night revision, he tells you he no longer thinks you’re the right fit. But without the potential of surprise, what’s the point of opening the cupboard? Why go through the trouble of peeling the paper fingers off the paper face?
Toward the end of her book Burque asks, “Who’s at the door?’ and it could be anyone. An astronaut with a birthday party invitation. Or a monster with a knife. Maybe it’s pizza delivery, because instead of feeding Baby the healthy portion of peas on page five, Mommy’s thrown caution to the wind and ordered pizza, instead.
But of course it’s Daddy, which is good, because we love Daddy. We love Daddy so much, and it’s exciting when he comes home, because our day usually resembles a poorly written peek-a-boo book, and Daddy could talk about anything. He could talk about the children he’s met and the drawings they’ve drawn. He could describe what the child looked like when he finished his tower of blocks, or he could explain how it felt when the six-year-old told him she wanted to die. He could paint his own fears in vivid colors, and I could peel back my arms to give him a hug.
But it’s the end of the day and we’re tired, especially Baby, who needs to eat and sleep, but it’s here, where my daughter wants to linger. She has no need for Teddy. Neither do we open the blinds to look for the moon. We stay on this page.
She yells, “Peek-a-boo, Daddy!” and opens the flap. She closes and opens it again. She laughs, claps, reddens, and spits until she looks like an actual apple all glowing and freshly shined. Does she think she’s found infinite Daddies or does she see the same Daddy with fresh eyes? I can’t help but envy her good time, because, frankly, Molly Burque doesn’t deliver. Mommy, Daddy Peek-a-boo! relies too much on my daughter’s innate appreciation for the fleetingness of things. Hers is a delighted understanding that will give way to other understandings, the need to take things for granted which will soon give way to the still greater need to hold on. But for now, my daughter throws open the door the same way, as if she’s tearing open a present. It doesn’t matter it’s the same present. She yells “Peek-a-boo!” and uncovers a new gift every time. She sees him brand new every time.