The little one’s gone to bed. I’m skinning garden tomatoes for sauce. The big kids are watching cartoons on Netflix.
“. . . I have a treat for you.”
Three sets of eyes look up.
“A treat? Really? What is it? Candy?”
One set of eyes strays to a pile on the other sofa across the room.
“Is it . . . books?”
“Yup,” I say, a smile in my voice. “A whole stack of them. You can finish your episode while I get these tomatoes on the stove, then we’ll all sit down and read them together.”
One on my right. Two on my left. We have to cuddle up close so everyone can see the pictures.
After a long day away from them, I don’t mind at all.
Our stack of seven new picture books (almost the entire fall list from EBYR, freshly received into the Eerdmans warehouse) is on my lap. We rearrange them in order, from serious to silly, before plunging in for our marathon reading session.
They are thoughtful and intent as we wend our way through I’m Right Here and I Am a Bear (though they do crack up at some of Jean-Franςois Dumont’s wacky illustrations). I wonder if the messages of these books — on fear and aging and homelessness — have actually hit home. Not quite, I think. Not this time. They will, though. When it comes to picture books, there’s always a next time.
They smile at Brother Giovanni’s comical frowning face in Brother Giovanni’s Little Reward, and seem to feel a keen sense of solidarity with the children who must learn their prayers — along with sympathy for the good brother who must help them do it. As parochial school children, they know only too well what it is to be taken gently to task for failing to learn their memory work!
They are enraptured by Fur, Fins, and Feathers — and more than a little jealous of Abraham Dee Bartlett, who, as a child, got to play with lion cubs in a family friend’s menagerie and, as an adult, got to care for all the animals in the London zoo.
They are charmed by the sweetness of Just Like I Wanted and Little Big, with their cute children triumphing over cute little adversities (adversities that almost certainly wouldn’t be cute or little to their toddling sister but that these older-and-wiser school-aged children have mostly transcended).
And then, finally, we come to book at the very bottom of the pile.
This is why.
The glossy pink cover grabbed the small one’s eye from the very beginning. She wanted to put it right at the top of the stack, but we all agreed to save it for last.
The scene opens serenely enough, with a typical picture book zoo, illustrated in bright shapes and colors.
Then the elephant discovers a beauty magazine, and things quickly start to get very silly.
“How to get rid of wrinkles,” it said. Oh? Get rid of wrinkles! Should I do that? thought the elephant.
We turn the page to see the elephant’s face slathered over with a grotesque green facial mask. A murmur of giggles hits the couch, as the fashion magazine begins to make the rounds at the zoo.
The zebra decides she needs vertical stripes, not horizontal. The panda discovers he has dark circles under his eyes — which must, of course, be dealt with. The snake finds “to his horror” that leopard print, not snake skin, is all the rage this season — and promptly buys a garish pair of leggings online.
Then comes the monkey:
“Do you have unsightly hair on your face, arms, and legs?” The monkey looked himself over. Sure do, he decided. I’d better get started.
The room is ringing with laughter even before this point, but the sight of a completely shaved monkey — with a band-aid on his cheek, arms wrapped futilely around his chest to hide himself, and a look of utter chagrin on his face — pushes us over the edge into full-out guffaws.
Waves of glee carry us through the lion’s new ‘do, the pink flamingo’s grown-up wardrobe, and (last but not least) the gray mouse’s total body makeover, which, of course, sends us into spasms all over again.
Cruising into the end, we cool down with a long, probing look at the final two-page spread, where the people outside the zoo mill about wearing many of the absurd “fashions” that have finally been abandoned by the animals within.
This is why I do it.
Story time over at last, the snuggles come to their cozy end. My older daughter rises, kisses my cheek, and says, “Well, good night.” When did she get so big? My younger daughter yawns dramatically and sets her eyelids at half-mast, hoping that’ll I’ll take the hint and offer to carry her downstairs to bed.
My son, though, has something besides bedtime on his mind. He grabs the book with the glossy pink cover and scrambles over to the love seat on the other side of the room.
“I’m going to read this one again,” he says.
This is why we do it.
This is why we publish children’s books.
* * *
About Rachel in Review:
Life for this kid lit enthusiast and working mother of four can be messy. Confusing. Painful. Funny. Breathtakingly beautiful.
Enter the Eerdmans books. So, so many of our books, whether they’re bedtime books for babies or coming-of-age novels for young adults, seem to have a single uncannily common quality about them: they just fit. These wise, wonderful books somehow manage to tie into — and by so doing, help me sort out — the knotty complexities of life as I actually experience them.