I was recently at the bookstore looking for board books for my son, and left feeling thwarted and disheartened. It was all barnyard animals making noises and counting and going to bed on time. It was light, light stuff. I left empty handed.
How light are board books? Lighter than you think, sweetie. Insufferable lightness that would have been considered too sentimental or educational forty years ago* is now the norm: fluffy bunnies who don’t get into mischief, well-behaved children who love learning manners. The books present a fun house of mirrors in which small children can see nothing but reflections back at them of sunny days, loving mommies, and talking cars.
It’s true that some of these books have, upon initial glance, appropriately downbeat messages to prepare small children for the arduous realities they are about to face. Take, for example, the Mercer Mayer book Where is My Frog, which takes up the issue of inevitable abandonment by a loved one — in this case, a frog, belonging to what I think is a porcupine. As the young porcupine searches for his lost amphibian, I felt each turning page cemented for Byron the futility of trying to regain a lost loved one. But the stupid frog shows up on the last page, reinforcing a glib message of hope.
Too, I found the plight of a nameless chimpanzee in Jez Alborough’s Hug to be promising. The wandering ape sees love everywhere, and is gradually worn down by it as it magnifies his/her loneliness, until he/she cries out in anguish and falls helpless and teary-eyed to the ground on what should have been the last page. But in this case, the mother chimp returns, and a hug is enjoyed, affirming the futile wishfulness that love always arrives when we need it most.
A third example is Grumpy Bird by Jeremy Tankard, with its irascible antihero, Bird, who is, at the tale’s outset, “too grumpy to eat…. too grumpy to play…. [and] too grumpy to fly.” He ends up leading a myriad group of other animals on a pointless journey, one which shows the true nature of all brands of leadership and trust, but the book ends on a note of whimsical impossibility and escapes the existential message I’d hoped for.
Anyone looking for a more appropriate board book — one which are not insufferably gleeful — will be as disappointed as I was.
The argument for such books is that they brighten the day of tykes and turn them onto reading, as well as instructing them on important topics like shapes, colors, parts of the body, and counting to ten. I think it sets expectations unrealistically high for the real world, simultaneous suggesting the demands of life are much lower than they really are. I worry that my son will expect the reality to be soft-toned, primary-colored, and full of smiling and well meaning adults and animals who never eat one another… and that he can get by knowing that ducks say “quack” and that the color red is, well, red.
So it may be that the book industry’s ever-more-appalling offerings for preschool-aged readers spring from a desperate desire to keep books fun for the very young. Still, everyone does not share the same objectives. The book business exists to sell books; parents exist to rear children, and oughtn’t be daunted by cries of censorship. No family is obliged to acquiesce when publishers use the vehicle of fundamental free-expression principles to try to bulldoze cheerfulness or learning into their children’s lives.
* I assume. I haven’t researched this.
Two editorial notes:
1. This is a parody of this article, and makes little sense without having read it.
2. The books mentioned are delightful, and three of our favorites to share with the baby. He picked out Hug himself at the bookstore.