Today is one of the days I get to keep my Changeling at home. I feel a bit guilty about how happy this makes me, but not much. She’s normally in daycare, among kids her own age, happily learning how to communicate with them, “do bunny-hops,” socialize, and “do jump-jacks.” While she’s gone, I diligently work. I even enjoy the peace and quiet and how the floor will stay clear of Calico Critters after I put them away. (I decline to comment on how long it takes to put them away and whether this is related to any dressing of tiny panda bears which may or may not occur.) My days working alone while my daughter’s off with her own age group are often fun and rewarding for both of us. It’s a good arrangement. And I miss her. I miss her voice. I miss occasional feelings of frustration as I patiently wait for her to sort something oh-so-simple out, and more frequent explosions of amazement at how adept she’s become at something (like identifying a blue jay in a tree today!). So, when I do get her at home, I’m thrilled.
And I have a book to share with you, courtesy of the Changeling. “What book should I write about?” I asked her. She thought seriously. (She always thinks very seriously.) “A Bird Is a Bird,” she suggested. “That’s a wonderful book! I already wrote about it, though. Can you think of another?” She sorted through her mental library and turned up… “Little Bear.” “Thank you!” I said. “What a wonderful idea!”
And so, here we are. Little Bear, by Else Holmelunk Minarik, pictures by Maurice Sendak, is one of the first books my Changeling selected herself at the Children’s Book Shop. I’d say most of the books I talk about here fall into two groups: a) the very new; b) the Canadian or otherwise “hidden” classic. I rarely get to talk about books we all read, and all will read with our children and grandchildren, and so onward through the ages, amen. I need to thank the Changeling for giving me the nudge and permission to talk about some of these really good books– the ones which are popular for a really good reason.
The difference for me, of course, is that you all know what I’m talking about. Instead of trying to give you the feel and texture of an unfamiliar story, or pinpoint the big idea of a book you probably haven’t read, here I am in new territory: we’ve got something we all know, so what can I tell you about it? So I’m going to shift focus to the reading process. These books, after all, are all about the process– the process of reading with your child. Sometimes the Changeling likes to sit on the floor while we read to her, but that can’t be done with these: “These are lap books,” I tell her. You have to read these together, as a partnership, so I’m going to tell you all about these books as a partnership.
“Books?” you query. “But you said… Little Bear, not Bears or Little Bear Series or…” Ah, yes, fair point. As I said, I’m talking about these books as a partnership. When my daughter says “Little Bear,” she means all the Little Bear books. And that’s one of the great things about this series I want to draw attention to here. In general– and there are major, major exceptions to this rule, so I’m making an easily-punctured generalization here– young children’s books tend to be singles whereas young novel-readers expect series. I’m talking Each, Peach, Pear, Plum vs. Harry Potter here. That is: when a picture book author starts a book, my impression is rarely that they’re planning from the first to start the Curious George franchise. They wouldn’t mind if people want another book with Babar in it, but it’s a bit different from a 7-book series proposal. Very generally speaking.
So, for young readers like my Changeling, who are used to getting very contained books (Annabel lives in Extra Yarn, not elsewhere), it’s exciting to get your first taste of books where the characters go on to live out more adventures in a number of books. You meet a little bear cub who’s cold and goes through all kinds of clothes before settling on his own fur coat, and you want to know more about him. Well, it turns out he likes to visit his grandparents (Little Bear’s Visit), and he misses his father and looks forward to seeing him when he comes home (Father Bear Comes Home) and he really, really loves mermaids (likewise in Father Bear Comes Home). My Changeling loves to stand there with all the books in front of her and make a choice. (I will note that she has a very similar response to the Harold books, which makes sense; it’s a similar structure and dynamic.) Often she heads straight for the story of Mother Bear and the Robin (from Little Bear’s Visit), but sometimes she prefers a mermaid story (Father Bear Comes Home), or “Birthday Soup” (Little Bear).
The choice rests with her, and that’s the genius of this series. They’re constructed around getting kids interested in reading, and every element works towards that: of course there are the glorious illustrations by Maurice Sendak (which are minutely examined on a near-daily basis in this house), and there’s the simple, repetitive, but not at all boring text. Of course there are the stories themselves: the topics are familiar (hiccups, pets, birthdays), but the stories are adventurous enough in being set out of our world, in a warm parallel plane inhabited by animals rather like us. Yes, these are all very successful elements. But the gentle structure of being almost a series, where you’re learning to engage with a character and care about him and his family and friends as you move from story to story, getting pulled into a whole world– that’s something I haven’t seen remarked on (I may simply have missed it), and after reading these stories over and over again with my daughter, it’s something I’ve learned to notice and greatly appreciate. I’m not saying these books are a gateway drug to the big series out there right now– anything from Little House to Harry Potter to Cat Valente’s Fairyland and all the others out there. I’m not saying it’s like that. No, I’m not saying that.
I am saying it’s wonderful to watch my child learn to engage not just with a particular story, but with a character and a world. In other words, to learn to engage with how a story’s made, what a book really is: world and character and words. All of those elements that go to make a novel, and to make a series.
These books aren’t a gateway drug to series at all. They’re a gateway drug to reading in general, to books with more complex groups of characters, and richer worlds. And, sorry, Nancy, we aren’t saying no. We’re saying: “I love this so much I want my Emeh to write about it.” Now, that’s getting kids into reading.
P.S. She said she’s going to write about another book all by herself. A book about stories, she said. I’ll keep you posted. Can you tell I’m happy I have my girl home with me? (Not that I’m sorry she’s been taking a good nap!)