People who are happy to find out they are about to be parents get excited by different things. Some start fantasizing about themed nursery designs; others lose their ability to speak rationally when faced with tiny clothes. I spent the afternoon after my doctor’s appointment on the floor of the children’s section of a bookstore. I have always loved children’s books and needed almost no excuse to dive back in. My childhood heart was happy – but the longer I stayed, the more my adult brain had to say. And in the years since, those two entities have been trying to make peace about sentiments that are timeless and narrative worlds that will feel familiar to the young children of today. Some of the changes are stem from how physically different the world looks today, and some come from how differently we choose to focus the lens on the stories we want to tell.
The earliest reading we do with children mostly involves talking about what we see on the page. We point to clouds, we make the sounds that the animals make, and give names to objects. But much like the amazingly anachronistic rotary phone that came built into a toy created in 2017 (with digits only going from 0-7 being their own problem), many of the objects in my classic stories don’t look anything like what my child might see in a given day. Yes, someday we will have conversations about how ringer-washers were once a thing, but trying to use the same word for that and for the glossy, front-loading machine in our laundry room seems confusing. When told to lock something, my toddler is just as likely to hold out his hand and say, “beep” as use an imaginary key. Pointing to framed pictures of smiling faces yields calls of, “Skype! Skype! Hello Grandpa!” Pretend phones are no longer a pinky and thumb, but a flat hand. Hand-held calculators are more likely to be identified as phones than a wall-mounted set.
I am not ignoring the relevance of bikes and balls and birds and imaginary monsters, and I am not saying that all of the books my child reads need to have earbuds and 3-D printing. But I am admitting my own surprise at the parts of the book world that my toddler picks out as familiar. In Last Stop on Market Street, we not only get to see buses and churches and food kitchens and grandmothers with their grandsons – but we also get to see a man with tattoos (like my child’s teacher) and kids sharing earbuds (“Music! Music!”). Rooster Wore Skinny Jeans has all of the traditional, kidlit trappings – set on a farm, story told in rhyme – but involves online shopping, bullying, and, yes, skinny jeans. When “a brown paper package arrived on the stoop,” it was met with familiar cries of “Box! Porch!” How old will my child be when the line, “The shipping was free!” draws familiar giggles.
Reading is important, for all kinds of scientific reasons. Anecdotally, reading is important because my child is sad that Paddington is all alone and will check on Curious George for days after the monkey gets a stomachache from consuming too many chocolates, asking “monkey okay???” Reading is important, because it lets my child see faces and houses and problems that he might not otherwise get to see, and have them just be part of the story. Reading is important, because this year’s American Library Association Youth Media Award winners let us share a story with a bombing victim and her service dog, immigrants, scholarship kids from a multi-generational home, and a nerdy kid who speaks Klingon navigating a trip to Iran to meet the Persian side of his family for the first time. Reading is important because their friendships, troubles, triumphs, and doubts all feel familiar – even if the setting may not.
A lot of classic books still make it onto our shelf, but with extra discussions about smoking or kidnapping animals. I have learned to appreciate when my childhood heart and adult mind come up against each other, and take it as a sign I have something to learn. I am happy that since my youth we have started to say goodnight to construction sites as well as moons, letting kids see big, hardy machines tucked in with their blankies and stuffed animals. I know that we will still go to spend time with our own Wild Things, but maybe the wild rumpus will have solar lights. We will still get So Mad, but it may involve thwarted plans for an Instant Pot. The world populated by all of our old imaginary friends may have robots and androids joining the ducks and bears and pig-tailed girls. We will all have Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Days – but they may involve a phone charger or smart speaker. Just imagine what Harriet the Spy could have done with access to social media. Surely future children digging through the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler will have to do some digital sleuthing as well. I can’t wait.
Books referenced in this piece:
Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day: Judith Viorst (ill. Ray Cruz)
Curious George Goes to a Chocolate Factory: H.A. & Margaret Rey
Darius the Great is Not Okay: Adib Khorram
Dreamers: Yuyi Morales
From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler: E.L. Konigsburg
Global Babies: The Global Fund for Children
Goodnight Moon: Margaret Wise Brown (ill. Clement Hurd)
Goodnight, Goodnight, Construction Site: Sherri Duskey Rinker (ill. Tom Litchenheld)
Harriet the Spy: Louise Fitzhugh
I Was So Mad: Mercer Mayer
Last Stop on Market Street: Matt de la Peña (ill. Christian Robinson)
Merci Suárez Changes Gears: Meg Medina
A Bear Called Paddington: Michael Bond (ill. Peggy Fortnum)
Rooster Wore Skinny Jeans: Jessie Miller (ill. Barbara Bakos)
Where the Wild Things Are: Maurice Sendak