We’re honored to have Thomas Beller contribute his family’s favorite books to The Children’s Book Review. Tom is a wonderful writer, the author of two books of fiction, Seduction Theory, and The Sleep-Over Artist, and a collection of personal essays, How To Be a Man. A former staff writer at the New Yorker Magazine and the Cambodia Daily, he is currently a contributing editor at Travel and Leisure Magazine. He founded and for twenty years co-edited Open City Magazine, and created the literary website about New York, Mrbellersneighborhood.com. He divides his time between New York and New Orleans, where he teaches writing at Tulane University. In his column “The Examined Life” for Babble, he writes about his family. Many thanks to Tom for sharing his remarkable insights with us.
Twice Told Tales
“There are no second acts,” in American life, F. Scott Fitzgerald famously remarked. It is a statement that seems to have been disproven many times, but is interesting to consider on the subject of childhood. Adulthood was a much more distinct thing when Fitzgerald made his remark. Childhood as we understand it—a playful time when your task is learning, not working—was, too. I often feel that one of the biggest challenges of being a parent – besides the physical exhaustion at times – is dealing with the fact that being the grown-up means giving up parts of me that are still a kid. Most fundamentally it means sometimes giving up on the childish wish to be liked all the time.
On the other hand, there are many ways that having children reinvigorates your own childhood and makes things long forgotten fresh again. One of these things is children’s books. When you read your kid a book, you enter into a kind of bubble of storytelling, an entranced state within which are three parts.
1) The actual story at hand.
2) The slightly spaced out, bored, half present kind of attention of both kid and parent which itself creates space for further imaginings and daydreams.
3) The physical intimacy. My daughter is usually on my shoulder when I read. It’s this last part that is most evocative of your own past experienced with the same ritual–your parent reading to you – even if you do not remember the specific details.
In our family – and I suspect many others – there is yet another way in which reading books to our kids revives our own childhood: we are often reading them the same books that were read to us. I mean literally the same.
The other day we opened a box that had been with us, taped and closed, for five or so years. It came from my wife’s parent’s house—they were getting ready to move from the house where she grew up. The box in question had the word, “Books,” written on it. We let it sit for five years, until we moved yet again and vowed to this time take absolutely everything out of boxes. Which is how we came upon a collection of all her children’s books. A trove.
I was thrilled to find this trove. I grabbed one more or less at random, The Lion’s Bed. It is a lovely book, playful, colorfully illustrated, but also unfamiliar. I am sure there were more famous titles in that box—Dr. Seuss for example—but I liked the look of this one. My daughter liked it, too. At first she was wary of it, complained. But by the second night she was into it and by the third night she said she loved it. It’s made me think of all the other books that have had a second act—all those books at my mother’s apartment that had been silent for forty something years and then, miraculously, materialized and had a second life with my own kids. I read those books to my kids with this incredible double awareness—there is the present, the story and my kid’s reaction to it. And there is this other thing, a feeling or sensation more than a remembered thought, in which I can almost recall what it felt like to be the one peering at the pages, being read to, slowly matching the words there to the story being told. Most of all, the one for whom the story is a new, magical thing. It’s a strange double lens—these twice told tales—and wonderful. Herewith, five books that are having second acts in our family’s life:
by Diane Redfield Massie
The illustrations are great, and the characters are very likable, though one of the animals I had never heard of–Peccaries (kind of like pigs). There is some trash talk between an Anteater and a Python. The Lion – whose decision to move to the part of the jungle where all the animals live is the driving point of the story – is oddly likeable, even though he is cast as the villain who will eat everyone. In the end, he comes off as a kind of grumpy old man who can’t get a good night’s sleep and decamps for quieter parts. The hero who finally convinces him to leave is the Python.
Ages 4-8 | Publisher: Weekly Reader Book Club Xerox Family Education Services | 1974
I loved Babar as a kid. And I love him as an adult, with a caveat. The French have a very nice touch with children’s books. There is a book for kids older than mine are now that I absolutely loved, Little Nicholas, which is in English but somehow felt French. (It will surely get added to this list in time.) As a kid, I loved the slight formality of Babar and Celeste and the family. As an adult I am amazed by how stylish they are. How regal and elegant. How vivid the colors of their clothes. It’s like the children’s book version of Vogue. The caveat is twofold: I loved the book as a kid and yet I had a very difficult time learning French, it was really rough. And the book at my mother’s house, which I read to my daughter, is framed as a French lesson. It’s not the primal Babar, it’s Babar as language lesson. Also, my daughter liked the book but she did not love it. Finally – way out there but I must mention it – I lived for a number of years across the street from a man who owned Babar. Not a bad guy, but he was renovating endlessly and this annoyed me. By ‘owned,’ I mean he owned Babar in the way the Walt Disney Company owns Mickey Mouse. He owned the rights. He has it on his license plate: Babar. It was, I found out, a gift from his father. Which is certainly a twist on the idea of giving your kid a children’s book.
Ages 3-7 | Publisher: Random House | September, 1937
Sort of like Eloise. But with Nuns. Also Notre Dame, and the wonderful architecture of Paris. The Bemelmans illustrations are great. Added bonus: being a grownup who has visited the Bemelman’s bar at the Carlyle, colors the experience of the book which now seems, in a way, like some sort of primer for going to fancy bars and drinking cocktails.
Ages 3-8 | Publisher: Random House | September, 1958
It contains “The Great Pie Robbery” and “The Great Supermarket Robbery.” My daughter loved them, continues to love them. When it first really clicked – when she first really fell for the books- was so aware of the way she was intrigued by the mystery, by the sense of a crime that needed to be solved. The mood is mostly madcap – especially the great supermarket mystery, with all those animals – but the suspense of villainy is ever present and her awareness of it I found fascinating. There are some crayon marks from its first go around in my own youth. And there is something about those illustrations, about Scarry’s style, that dates more than the others. Somehow it has a certain illustrated quality that had echoes in that era’s concert posters and commercial art. While holding that book I can almost recall what the world felt like to me when I was five. An additional bonus on this front: it is the book my mother most often reads to my daughter. It’s almost like it’s there special book. So there is that interesting echo, as well.
Ages 3-7 | Publisher: Random House | September, 1972
by Gene Zion; illustrated by Margaret Bloy Graham
This may be my favorite children’s book. My favorite when I was a child and my favorite now. The strange pea green color of the rear book cover; the profile of the lady next door, face raised, eyes close; the various characters who play important supporting roles; and most of all the ending—it all has a resonance which I struggle to understand. This is all the more remarkable because I did not then and do not now own a dog. Never have. Not even a pet of any kind. Harry is the central character, and he is sympathetic. But in a way it is not about a dog, or for me it wasn’t. It is about a kid (played by a dog), who enjoys solitude and also likes to make trouble. About a musical dog (kid) who is tormented by music. There are, in some unnameable way, echoes of Snoopy (beyond the fact that Harry and Snoopy are both dogs).
Maybe it has to do with the idea of neighbors—I grew up in an apartment building and had difficulties with the downstairs neighbors. But then that happened years after I would have been being read this book. What is the appeal?
Maybe the obliviousness of the lady next door, the way she gets lost in the music, eyes aloft, and has no idea she is torturing everyone. She is someone you can kind of hate, but she is likable, too. Maybe it is all the adventures in which Harry gets swept up—my favorite is the band, but the peanut man in the beginning is also great.
Maybe it is the cameo shape of the drawings, the fade at the edges, as though it were all a dream.
Maybe it is the very idea of being tormented by sound, this invisible thing, which itself mimics the many torments a kid might feel that are also beyond naming and unseen.
I am sure it has to do with the fog horn at the end—that low, lovely, soothing sound. And I am sure it has to do with the feeling of the ship sailing. And the fact that when the lady gets on the ship, walks up the gangplank, one of the portal windows features not a person but a monkey.
The book I read many times to my daughter is the book that was read many times to me. I love that book. And I love the feeling of revisiting it when reading it to my daughter and by extension revisiting my old self who heard that story in the exact same room where I was reading it to her.
Ages 6 and up | Publisher: HarperCollins | April, 1978
Nicki Richesin is the author and editor of four anthologies; Crush, What I Would Tell Her, Because I Love Her, and The May Queen. She is the San Francisco editor for Du Jour and a frequent contributor to Sunset, The Horn Book, The Huffington Post, and Daily Candy. Find her online at https://nickirichesin.com/.