Yesterday was a warmish, if slightly windy, brisk-feeling day. I felt invigorated, and talked earnestly about a beautiful, deep, soul-enhancing book. Today is grey, rainy, and I feel the need for lightness, laughter, and a bit of silliness. Or that’s what I thought when I picked up today’s book. Then I thought a bit more, and realized maybe there’s less of a difference between yesterday and today than I’d thought.
Let’s talk about Robert Munsch— Bob Munsch, as I grew up thinking about him, because, well, he felt like a friend. I think all Canadian kids felt like he was our friend, honestly: Who spoke for us when we wanted markers? Bob Munsch (Purple, Green and Yellow). Who spoke for us when we got muddy? Bob Munsch (Mud Puddle)! Who, always and forever, told us we were loved? Bob Munsch (Love You Forever). I don’t think it’s quite easy for adults to understand exactly what Bob Munsch means to kids. I remember going to one of his storytelling tours when he came through the bustling metropolis of Moncton, NB, and I was a kid growing up in the little town of Sackville, NB about 30 minutes’ drive away (wait– in those days I think it was 45 minutes away: that was before the big highway). I loved my little town, and Moncton was a bit scary, but Bob Munsch was coming to talk, and I was thrilled. I didn’t get to meet him in person, but, somehow, it still felt like he was talking just to me. His voice and personality have that quality (to hear him read, click those titles up above), and it permeates his books, too. He’s an adult who knows how to talk to kids, and if you’re that kind of adult, you’re special. And kids will love you. Every Canadian kid I know loves Bob Munsch.
Americans? Well, those Americans I know who know Bob Munsch also love him. I can count those Americans on the fingers of two hands– um: my cousin, my aunt, my other cousin, my uncle… um…
See, this is just another one of those cases where something really, really good didn’t quite cross the border properly. And I want to tell you why it’s so good it’s worth seeking out. The book we’re talking about is one of the current favourites of my Changeling, who is quite interested in the topic these days: I Have to Go!, story by Robert Munsch, art by Michael Martchenko.
Do you know what? I’m going to recommend a little homework. Click that link, and listen to the story first. It’s not every day that I can give you the story I’m about to read, but today I can, so give it a listen– it’s only a few minutes long. Have you listened? Good. Now, here’s a secret: this is not exactly the story in the book on my desk, the one you can buy here. That’s because Bob Munsch is telling the story, developing the story as he listens to his audience, and, in fact, you can hear the story of how the book happened right at the end. That, in a nutshell, is Bob Munsch. The listener, the understanding storyteller, the mediator between child and adult.
Why do I say mediator? Well, think about another aspect of that recording– and, yeah, yeah, we’ll get to the story soon, but I want to talk about Bob Munsch right now. Did you hear something behind the story? The audience? Did you hear the kids talking and sharing their stories? I love that. Did you hear when the kids laughed? I love that, too. Did you hear the adults laughing? That’s why I’m an evangelist for Bob Munsch. Folks: not every kids’ book out there has kid and parent laughing together through the same experiences. Remember when my kid used up all the sheets in my house when she had her stomach flu? I know I grossed some of you out with that. Bob Munsch has all of you laughing at that, kids and parents both, and it gives you courage to live and go at it another day. More than that, he gives your kid the language to talk to you: You heard those kids chanting with him: “I have to go pee!” My Changeling does that, too… sometimes. And when she does, I can carry her at the speed of lightning to the bathroom, and, hey, presto! A diaper saved is a diaper earned!
What is it we’re laughing at, though? There’s a kid (his name is Andrew in the book), his parents are desperate for him to let them know when he has to go pee, but the kid refuses. No, no, no, no, no! He has decided never to go pee again! (Guys, I haven’t even opened this book yet– the words are ingrained.) This pattern repeats throughout the tale, the parents are exasperated, Andrew is doing his own thing… and at the end, he turns the tables on the grownups, asking his grandfather if he has to go pee. And the grandfather is not exasperated. He listens, and he answers honestly: “Why, yes, I think I do.” Note that, in the book, this beautiful moment is reinforced by Michael Martchenko’s illustration, showing the two of them smiling warmly at each other, holding hands, on the way to the bathroom.
There are two points I want to make about this. First, I want to answer my own question (what are we laughing at?) and second, I want to add an observation about what Bob Munsch is teaching us. I think we’ll see they’re related.
For my first point, let me point out how realistic these scenes are. Andrew is being a kid, the parents are being parents. When Andrew goes outside they “put on Andrew’s snowsuit. It had five zippers, 10 buckles and 17 snaps. It took them half an hour to get the snowsuit on.” And then he throws one snowball and yells, “I HAVE TO GO PEE.” Kids giggle, parents sigh and laugh simultaneously. We all look at it and say, “THAT’S ME!!!” And so we laugh, because it’s familiar.
But I think there’s something else, and that brings me to my second point. When we say, “That’s me!” Well, we’re also saying: “I’m not alone.” It’s a feeling of relief. “I’m not the only kid who wets the bed.” “I’m not the only parent who weeps at 3 am with damp, filthy sheets and a deliriously exhausted child at my ankles.” And what Bob Munsch is teaching us is: “It’s OK. Be honest. No one is completely whole and perfect.”
And that brings me to my final point: Bob Munsch has been open about his struggles with depression and addiction. When I found out about that, a little part of me said, “I’m not alone. If Bob Munsch has done so much, and spoken to me so much, while he’s been struggling, then I’ll be OK, too.” Addiction isn’t a problem of mine, but depression is, and I’m humbled by how much Bob Munsch has accomplished by his openness, his generosity, his honesty. He writes about this on his own website, in his own words, and finishes, “I hope that everyone will talk to their kids honestly, listen to them, and help them do their best with their own challenges.” No, I’m not crying. (Yes, I am.)
Listen to Bob Munsch, people, and buy his books. Get them down south of the border, if you can. We need his honesty, his openness, his warmth down here quite as much as Canada does. We’re all people, we all need books like these. I know my Changeling’s life will be better for Bob Munsch, just as mine has been, and I hope other kids will be able to say the same.