It’s cold and rainy and grey today in Cambridge. I’d hope it’s warmer where you are, except that I know this rain is good for my garden, and maybe your garden needs rain, too. But nothing apart from my garden wants rain. I know I don’t. I look outside and run to put on the kettle, wrap up in covers, and my eyes drowse over. I want soup and oatmeal and homemade bread, but I don’t want to leave my little cocoon. So I do the reading equivalent of oatmeal and fresh bread: childhood favourites. There are so many of them: Matthew and the Midnight Tow Truck, Freight Train, and, of course, today’s book for us, one which is quoted almost daily in our house… Red is Best, by Kathy Stinson, illustrated by Robin Baird Lewis.
This is a Canadian classic, and one which is fortuitously available (although not widely known) in the USA. I link you to Barnes and Noble, for example. I’d say that this unwonted availability is because the book is so damned good, but that would be insulting to reams of other damned good books. That said, the book truly is wonderful. Why? Well, this morning my daughter was painting– here, want to see her work of artistic genius?
Isn’t it beautiful? It’s a peacock for her daddy because she loves him. (I’m not bragging, why do you say I’m bragging?) But what I want to point out is that the base is red. Her first paint choice was red, “Because red is best!” This didn’t deter her from giving purple and brown their due after the red foundation was completed, naturally, since each of them is her “best of colours” in addition to red, green, blue, and yellow, but red paint had her chanting and dancing and painting. It got her excited.
Why is this? Well, first of all, red’s a pretty excellent colour. Red is bright and glowing and dramatic and beautiful. I’m a big fan of red. Red is fire and flowers and hearts and jewels. Red is dangerous and rich and lovely and warm. I consider it inherently beautiful and harder to screw up than yellow, for example, which can be a very strong colour in the right hands, or a pasty, weak one in the wrong hands. Who wants a pasty, weak colour on a day like today? On a grey day you want warm red alpaca mittens, or red flannel pyjamas, or a snuggly red sweater. Red warms you up. So, yes, I may be somewhat predisposed in both the colour and the book’s favour. That said, green is my best of colours (my snuggly sweaters are green, being honest, not red), so I refuse to own to complete prejudice here.
The real charm in the colour for the Changeling probably comes from the book as much as from the colour itself, however. I do think red lends itself to the book, that without the brightness and warmth of a perfect, primary colour red the book would have a different character altogether, but the book defines something other than the value of a colour: it legitimizes a child’s preferences. And, since it says it’s OK to love red best, the Changeling loves both book and colour: they tell her it’s OK to love something best of all.
Wait, I just realized you may not have read the book yet. My poor reader, why didn’t you tell me earlier? I forget that some people struggled through deprivation, not having memorized Red is Best at an early age. Let me tell you all about it, and you can be part of the cool kids’ club. There’s a girl, Kelly, who loves red. Her mother doesn’t get it. Over and over again her mother tries to get Kelly to wear her blue coat because it’s warmer, her white stockings because they match her dress, or paint with orange because there’s not much red left. Kelly patiently explains that she needs the red ones for many reasons: she can be Red Riding Hood in her red jacket; she jumps higher in her red stockings; and her red paint puts singing in her head. Whatever the situation, Kelly always has an answer why she needs red, but it’s all summed up in the final declaration, the declaration which is echoed in our house almost daily: “I like red, because red is best.”
I hear you, Kelly. Even though red isn’t my “best of colours,” I get it, I really do. In fact, I think we all get it. I think we’ve all had moments when we loved something so wholly and completely that it didn’t matter if the mittens had holes or the boots weren’t right for the weather or if we’d already poured juice in the other cup. We wanted those mittens, that pair of boots, or this cup right here. For adults, I think we sometimes deny ourselves what we want (or argue with our children that they can’t wear the same underwear three days in a row) because we’re very sensible now. For Kelly, she has the absolute clarity of a three-year-old. Red is best. That means the red mittens are best, and why would I wear anything else?
As I don’t need to tell you, it is very, very difficult to argue with a three-year-old’s logic. This isn’t because they aren’t logical enough; it’s because they’re so absolutely logical. Why would you wear second-best if first-best is right here? The question is practically unanswerable. The adult response is usually to try to prove that the first-best isn’t really so much the best after all. This doesn’t often go very well. The child knows what’s best: “I like red, because red is best.” (What does work for me, all you parents out there, is to explain that the first-best needs a time out for some reason: needs to take a bath so it’s ready for tomorrow, or needs a nap, or whatever I can devise. The Changeling knows what’s best; that’s unarguable. But sometimes best needs a break, and she can understand that. Our daily parenting tip is now finished. You’re welcome!)
The charm of this book is that it’s reassuring to both parents and child: it validates the child’s views, while sympathizing with the unseen parent’s frustrations. We’ve all been there: “Why do you need to wear your rain boots? It’s sunny and warm! Why do you need to eat only cheese? We have plenty of other food!” Oh, we’ve all been there, all of us, whether as parents or as children. But how often does a kid get told that it’s OK? Usually they hear amusement or frustration, and parents, even if we deep-down kind of sympathize, feel faced with obstinacy or tears, and we worry about being judged if we do let the kid out in rain boots when it’s too snowy or too sunny. (I’m totally writing from personal experience right now, yes.)
It’s glorious to be shown reality in a case like this. Just shown it, no judgment calls at all. Looking it in the face, I say: “Yes, I’ve been there. Both as the child and the parent. And, you know what? It’s OK. It’s OK to say yes to the kid. If need be, it’s OK to say no. And it’s OK for each of us to feel frustrated. And it’s OK to laugh. And it’s OK. We’re not alone.”
I like this book, because it warms me when I’m cold. And today I’m going to read it to myself, because I love this book best right now. And that’s OK!