I think we have covered my admiration of Kate Beaton before now when we talked about The Princess and the Pony. In a nutshell, I completely and unabashedly fangirl over her, and when I went to the Harvard Book Store recently and saw that they had her new book, King Baby, in a beautiful face-out display… well, I don’t altogether know what happened next except that I somehow was at home with a copy of the book (and a receipt to prove that, yes, I did remember to stop at the cash register and pay for it) and the Changeling on my knees asking me to “Read it again!”
Let’s cut to the chase: I love this book, and so does the Changeling. I bought it on Wednesday, and since then it has been read aloud countless times and I’m still not sick of it. By all rights I should be, but I’m not. Why is it so great for both of us? Two reasons come to mind: a) Kate Beaton is damned good at her job; b) the combination of witty text and engaging art is enthralling to both adults and children. I suppose those really come to one reason, when you think about it, but that reason bears being broken down to its component parts.
Let’s start by looking at the cover. What do we see? The first thing to jump out at me was the brilliant, bold colour scheme. It screams “children!” to me: a bright blue cover with big blocks of yellow, purple, and orange. The colours are in no way subtle or restrained, and if that’s all that was involved it would be appealing to children and get no more than an indulgent smile from adults. But then there’s the chair: restrained white outlines trace a beautiful Baroque throne for our King Baby, who reclines on it with a kingly expression of what I would describe as “hauteur” on his face. Our King Baby is decidedly aware that he merits such an elegant chair, and he suffers us to draw near and admire him. That cleverness engages all of our interest. Or at least the Changeling shrieked “Baby!” when she saw the cover, and I chuckled over the elaborate throne supporting the king’s little egg-like form.
That combination of wit and accessibility marks the entire rest of the book. The images are decidedly geared towards engaging children: there are the baby’s toys, his family, and all kinds of goofy situations for children to mull over. And let’s not forget King Baby himself! The Changeling loves to see what he’s doing on each page: eating, burping, playing and so on. But then there are King Baby’s parents for the adult readers to watch. Their pride, excitement, and exhaustion are all clearly visible and will get a sympathetic chuckle from any parent reading. More than that, there are Kate Beaton’s clever layouts: when King Baby is introduced, it’s in the form of a court scene. King Baby reclines graciously in his cradle, his parents standing proudly at his side, and a long line of grateful subjects coming to pay homage to the infant king. I will not tell you how long I giggled over that page; such mirth is unbecoming to your Serious Book Reviewer. I will, however, share a glimpse of that page with you:
Thus much for the art, but what of the story, what of the text? Well, the story is that King Baby has arrived, and is a gracious but firm monarch. He bestows many favours: kisses and giggles and coos. (Imagine the illustrations. Yeah, they’re great.) However, he also expects his subjects to fulfill their duties: feeding and burping and bouncing their infant monarch. This can sometimes be hard on the subjects, but it’s good to be the king. Then one day he issues an order which his subjects are too witless to interpret: they don’t bring him the toy he wants, and he’s forced to undertake serious measures… King Baby crawls to get the toy himself! That’s the beginning of the end of his reign as King Baby, for the gracious monarch has now become an independent, walking, talking Big Boy. But who will reign over his loyal subjects now? Never fear. Here comes… Queen Baby!
As for Kate Beaton’s prose? Well, let me put it this way: while I was summarizing her story, I had a foolish little grin on my face. It’s great, and, like her pictures, spans multiple age groups. It’s perfectly pitched for children: my three-year-old daughter listened very happily and was soon reciting her favourite lines (“King Baby will get the thing HIMSELF!”). And yet it’s in no way toned down for them; instead, it’s witty and fun for adults to read, too. Take the page I showed you above, the opening court scene, as King Baby greets his loyal subjects: “I will give you many blessings, for King Baby is generous.” I’m guessing your toddlers probably don’t often use “for” structures in their day to day speech. My daughter doesn’t. And yet she had no difficulty in understanding what was going on, and the line gave me a chuckle. And as the book progresses, we begin to hear not only King Baby’s narrative voice, but his actual voice in speech bubbles: “ehh bpp,” he says, and, “wrehh!” So much more expressive than the banal “gaga-goo” noises that you usually see, in my opinion. Well done transcribing actual baby noises, Kate Beaton!
The upshot is that we have a book which talks to everyone. King Baby, or Queen Baby, is all of our babies: needy and charming and endlessly surprising and rewarding. They do, indeed, grant us many blessings, even as they ask a lot of us. And the parents are all of us, too: devoted, exhausted, enchanted, and loving even when covered in baby goo. We all see our children and our parents and ourselves in King Baby and his family, I think, and that’s the genius of this book. When talking about This is Sadie, I stressed the importance of imaginative play for children. I think that this book is exactly the kind which gives you the impetus you need to play “let’s pretend”: the first step is to identify with a story, and every child should be able to see him or herself in King Baby and his transition to a Big Boy.
In fact, if we could somehow wangle universal access to the two books (King Baby and This is Sadie) I think the world would become a warmer, kinder, and more sympathetic place to live. So, do your bit and find a chance to read this book, and maybe pass it along to your friends, too!