Monday, February 23, 2009

Waiting for Mama

Lee Tae-Jun's Waiting for Mama, first published in a newspaper 1938, is unusual among the children's books I've read for its almost muted understatement. Its story and the language in which it's rendered are disarmingly simple. And like so many children's books, it has a repeated element: in this case though it's an ever-so-light ding-ding that sounds each time a streetcar passes without bringing the main character's mother home. This edition is gorgeously illustrated by Kim Dong-Soeng, and, interestingly, he's the one who provides a resolution to the otherwise ambiguous tale. This sounds like a recipe for disaster, but the subtlety of the final pages makes for quite a tolerable compromise between faithfulness to the original text and, I'm guessing, a contemporary demand the publisher perceives. (I would love to read a version without this imposition).

A sidenote: Waiting for Mama is the story of a (guessing) four-year-old boy who waits for his mother at a streetcar stop by himself. Intellectually, I resist the idea that reading with Sam is about imparting lessons, and I'm critical of my culture's hyperconcern with safety. I will at some point, however, tell Sam while reading this book that he should always be accompanied by an adult (who should ideally be accompanied by an adult him- or herself, and so on ad infinitum) when on the streets of Toronto. It's amazing how being a parent forces one to test one's ideals.

Here might be a good point to make mention of Darren O'Donnell's work, which, among other things, frequently issues challenges to the tendency to overprotect children.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

One Boy

Set in motion by die cuts that open windows from page to page to reveal words within words, Laura Vaccaro Seeger's One Boy is a delightful book that revels in "that virtuality of any letter or phoneme to form semantic aggregates inaccessible to normal reading habits." Yeah. I can't help but wonder though as I'm reading with Sam how he's experiencing the linguistic behaviours the book examines. Sam recognizes the letter s and knows it's his "special letter." He knows it begins "Sam" and "Sarah" (a teacher at school) and makes a sssss sound. It's even seemed on a few occasions that he recognizes the visual manifestation of his name. It's fairly obvious though that he likely isn't able to "get" One Boy. So what, if anything, is he getting out of our readings?

I think, in some sense, what he's noticing is more important and more profound than the book's particular conceits. He's probably noting that the repeating shapes are combining and recombining in ways that prompt me to say certain things each time we open the book. That is, there's some connection between these combinations and what I'm saying. But, at the same time, they're still repeating shapes combining and recombining. Sam likely recognizes a code he has yet to decode, and yet he's still also likely somewhere near equally aware of the materiality of that code.

I'm a bit jealous imagining this.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Sick-day interlude

Sam, at around 3:41: "Get up, Yonie. Get up!"

An appreciation of Yonie coming soon.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Some questions

Since questions relating to audience have developed in a comments box below, I figure I'll think more about them here, out in the open.

Initially, the immensely popular Knuffle Bunny pissed me off to no end. With the smarmy stage-of-life images of the parent characters on its opening pages and the unsubtle bra humour further on, it seemed to be taking the easy road to popularity: directly through adult-readers as an audience separate from child-readers. (After all, adults are the ones writing reviews and forking out the dough for the book, aren't they?) The book's plot seemed ultimately unthreatening to any familiar adult order (baby loses bunny, dad finds bunny, baby is happy). The photographic images that support its illustrations had, as a note helpfully explains, been sanitized of such eyesores as mailboxes, creating some form of ideal world. Its backgrounds were populated by types immediately familiar to the media-literate (big man with small dog, etc.). In each of these cases, the decisions seemed to have been made with the goal of entertaining an adult sensibility. The book's appeals to children, meanwhile, seemed to be primarily through loud, repetitious and not-very-interesting nonsense (e.g., "Aggle flaggle klabble!").

And it didn't help Knuffle Bunny's case that Sam and I started reading it while Where the Wild Things Are was on heavy rotation at our place. I find the latter striking for, among much else, its respectful, empathetic and compelling treatment of childhood misbehaviour, anger, and frustration. Wild Things opens as its main character's behaviour teeters on the edge unacceptability to his mother, and it takes his perspective in the story of his journey away and back. I liked this book because of the childhood emotions it helped me remember and because of what it was teaching me about the important role imagination might play in children's emotional lives and in their comprehension of the world around them. In short, I liked it because it took the concerns of children seriously while, as a secondary function, illuminating them for adults. This was a book written by an adult who had made the effort to understand children and the sometimes separate world they inhabit.

But then Sam started to ask for Knuffle Bunny as frequently as he did for Wild Things. He developed a sequence of gestures that he performed each time I read the book. He seemed to be becoming more involved in whatever it was that Knuffle Bunny was doing. Because I think it's important to allow Sam to find his own interests and preferences, I had been giving the book a fair reading, performing the various voices, especially the child's, with enthusiasm. Was it simply this that he was responding to? (Lisa had commented that I read Knuffle Bunny especially well.) Was it the simple cartoon-like characters and their loud exclamations that appealed to him? Or had I missed something else?

I still don't know exactly what to think of Knuffle Bunny. I still find it irritating, and I definitely prefer Where the Wild Things Are (and many other books), but I'm also less confident in my assumptions about how it is that books appeal to children. I'm sure, for example, that there are a wider range of effective and legitimate approaches to this appeal than I had thought. I also wonder if I had been using my ideas of what would appeal to Sam to authorize my own taste.

So I'm left with some questions: What function should my ideas about what makes a children's book good play in my reading with Sam? Should I dissuade him from reading books I consider weak even if he likes them? How should I think about my relationship to the books we're reading? Will this relationship vary from book to book? (Or will each book hold a slightly different mirror up to Sam and his dad, reveal a different aspect of their relationship, and pose its own set of questions such as the ones above?)

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Overheard at a Toronto children's bookstore

"We hope that every child will be thoroughly familiar with Mother Goose by kindergarten."

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

A holiday treat

Little did I know when I ordered The City ABC Book for Sam that many of the photographs in it were taken right in our neighbourhood. We're talking steps from our place.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

On this blog I'll keep track of my reading with my seventeen-month-old son, Sam. I figure writing about children's books as an adult is a slightly odd thing to do, since I'm not the intended audience. Still, having just started reading kids' books again, I think they're pretty interesting to think about. And who knows, if I keep this up long enough, maybe Sam can start getting his two cents worth in from time to time.