Yesterday, the Changeling and I were headed to the library. We were both happy. The Changeling was prancing along in front of the stroller, dancing and singing. The birds were singing. The Great Writer Who Wrote that first Word was pouring the loveliness of the heavens on us because that’s what writers do when they want to give a real sense of Impending Doom™, don’t they? Impending Doom™ just doesn’t work when things are already pretty shitty. Things have to be really idyllic to get that Impending Doom™ feeling rolling.
Well, sure enough, next thing you know, right in the middle of a tinkling rendition of “The ABCDs,” the Changeling goes flying: first her knees hit the ground, then her middle, then her face. All I remember is thinking: a) “Crap, I can’t reach her in time”; b) “Thank God her legs and stomach hit the ground before her face: she’s probably fine.” Fine she was (just a scratch on her upper lip, for those of you who are related to her and are probably worried right now), and we were right near a real, very good pharmacy, so we got her cleaned up and checked over in no time flat, but we were all shocked and scared for a bit. The library gave us balm in the form of a few bird books I’ve already reserved at my favourite children’s book shop. (Don’t give me that look, I’m investing in my child’s education.)
But it got me thinking about a book I’ve read to the Changeling fairly regularly for a long time now. It was a baby present from the same lovely person who gave us The Itsy Bitsy Spider, an old friend with excellent taste in books, and who actually keeps up with new releases. (Protip: Foster such friendships.) The book is I Will Keep You Safe and Sound, by Lori Haskins Houran, illustrated by Petra Brown, and it is as much of an antidote to nasty falls as the title suggests. This book is equivalent to a kiss on a booboo, a hug to the soul, or a Mickey Mouse bandaid to your courage.
When I watched my darling baby falling, I stifled my screams so I wouldn’t scare her even more, but those screams sort of cut me up inside a little. Well, she needed cuddles, and those cuddles helped me, too, but reading stories? Stories are the best medicine, I think we can all agree. (I mean, we’re on a blog about stories, so I’m assuming we’re on the same page here: stories are awesome, right?) But sometimes you need le conte juste, as it were. I am here to tell you that when you’ve just experienced a nasty invasion of safety and soundness, this is le conte juste to restore peace and harmony of spirit.
The first thing I noticed about this book was that it’s infused with a golden light. That comes first as a visual impact, through the lovely watercolor, gouache, and brown pencil illustrations by Petra Brown. (Petra Brown? I just want to check, would you maybe have time to do murals in my Changeling’s room? Or… uh… maybe my room? Please?) I think, in this case, it’s the brown pencil which really does it: each page has a very soft, very subtle golden glow. That means that each page glows with warmth, and that warmth means security. This creates a perfect harmony with the warmth and security and reliability of the text itself. The brown pencil of the text, as it were, is the security and reliability of the metre. Each page has a lilting verse about an animal, and each triplet of animals culminates in the chorus: “I will keep you safe and sound.”
Note the trochaic tetrametre catalectic of the chorus– excuse the jargon, I’m afraid poetry is my stock in trade: the point here is that the line both begins and ends on a stressed note. That’s what gives it that feeling of strength and firmness. The repetition from triplet to triplet reinforces that, and provides the backbone of the book. Safety is strong. The lilt of the old, familiar metre softens that strength (check your books of Romantic poetry for more of trochaic tetrametre: Blake, Wordsworth, and the rest of them use it), as do the gentle intermediary lines: “Brown bears in the den / While the first buds peep / Rabbits in the field / While the crickets cheep.” The softness both contrasts and merges with the strong yet gentle chorus line: “I will keep you safe and sound.” There’s an underlying complexity, or at least thoughtfulness, that goes into building the simplicity of the text.
I’m so sorry, but, as I said, I do study poetry. It was inevitable that I’d break into analysis of the poetic form at some point. I suggest breathing a prayer of gratitude that it’s over and wasn’t all that bad (hey, I could have done “Hoppity,” you know). Let’s move on to the story. After all, the metre is the vehicle for the story, yes, but the story, as I said, is the real medicine here. You’ve already met the bears and rabbits. That’s essentially our pattern: we meet robins and dolphins and beavers and squirrels. Each has a story to tell about the safety the parents provide for their young in the face of the world’s dangers. The illustrations glow with love: they’re precise drawings of each animal in its own habitat, and the realism is balanced by the softness of the watercolours and that lovely underlying glow. (Petra Brown, I wasn’t kidding. Let’s talk murals!)
At the end, we come to the key reason this book is loved in this family: “Kitten in the moonlight / Lost…” (“Oh no, where’s his mummy?”) “… then found” (“There she is! Oh, he found his mummy! He’s so happy!”) “I will keep you safe and sound.” (“There’s so many kittens! They’re so happy! Let’s count them! One, two, three, four kittens!”) Hey, folks? Did you know we’re cat people here? Surprise!
Such is the Changeling’s glow of happiness. I agree with it, but for an additional reason. Without that problem, climax, and dénouement the story would be saccharine. It comes just to the edge of the overly sweet, and this keeps it from crossing the line. More than that, this problem highlights our dilemma as parents: Our child will get lost, or fall down and scrape her lip, or fall from a swing, or… or… sorry, I need a moment. OK, the fact is this: we cannot prevent all dangers from occurring– nor, dare I say, should we necessarily. If we could keep our children from all problems and dangers, they’ll certainly crop up for our kids as adults, so they’ll need to learn to cope at some point. What we and they need to know is that, when push comes to shove, we’re there for them. We’ll listen, we’ll hand the tissues over, we’ll take them in and love them and support them, no matter who, no matter what… no matter how dumb they were to date that guy who was obviously a jerk, or how cruel that kid at school was, or how manipulative that first boss was. We love them, and even if the world is nasty, they will always have us. We’re there.
That’s what I want the Changeling to get out of this book, and that’s why I was so glad to have it after that tumble hurt me so badly (and her, too, of course): it reminded me that while I can’t prevent pain, I can be there afterwards; and I hope it reminded my Changeling of the same thing.