The Age of Innocents

There’s nothing like those years spent reading to your kids

The Age of Innocents

Having children isn’t all giggles, Kumbaya, and stuffed animals. There are some, um, inconveniences to parenthood. Most notably, to quote my economist father, “Children are in the money-out column.”

From childcare to college to orthodontics to electronics, the outrageous expenses keep piling up. Another downside to children is that you have to, well, raise them. Depending on the kid, this can involve countless never-to-be-regained hours of hectoring, nagging, threatening, and complaining.

As the explosive rate of population growth attests (7.3 billion and counting!), there are upsides to parenthood, too. For people who love books, it offers a return to an age when reading was purely for pleasure. No slogging through a boring textbook or book-club selection; no frantic feeling that your to-read pile is taller than you are; no puzzling over the intertextual hyperreality discourse of a post-post-modern text.

Reading is once again a pure act of love: a child nestled in the lap of an adult, listening to a gentle story, mesmerized by the glossy illustrations, the imagination sparking as the nascent mind connects spoken word and imagery.

Recently, I was at a children’s-author reading and was struck by the contrast between its festive atmosphere and that of an adult reading. The audience was raucous and engaged, yelling out unsolicited comments and laughing riotously at the slightest provocation. The questions were often silly, with no thought of promulgating the audience members’ erudition or shamelessly sucking up to the author. Only at a children’s event will the writer read the entire book and still have people lining up to buy it.

Certain books can transport me back to childhood with just a glimpse of a cover, an invocation of a title, an overheard phrase, or a landmark.

An image of the Eiffel Tower unfailingly conjures the opening lines of Madeline: “In an old house in Paris, All covered with vines, Lived twelve little girls in two straight lines.”

I can never say, “Do you like my hat?” without giggling.

A mother duck with offspring in tow always brings to mind proud, plucky, car-scolding Mrs. Mallard and her eight ducklings, named in alphabetical order from Jack to Quack.

Whenever I sit down to a steaming bowl of chicken soup with rice, I reflexively recite, “Sipping once, Sipping twice, Sipping chicken soup with rice!” (Maurice Sendak also gets my eternal gratitude for his illustrations — especially the detailed, fantastical images of In the Night Kitchen — which sowed the seeds of a lifelong love of the visual arts.)

The Story of Babar offered me an early inkling of the use of literary device. I grew up in Botswana and saw real elephants in game parks. The enormous, lumbering beasts with fearsome tusks and flapping ears out in the bush were nothing like the nattily attired Babar, who walked on two legs and wore spats and a gold crown, his stubby tusks looking more like a bad case of snaggleteeth than ivory.

I intuitively grasped Babar was not a real elephant, but a creature of the author’s invention, invested with human characteristics for which we should all strive: wisdom and kindness.

Other favorite characters whose manifestation of human traits made the story stronger were Ferdinand the anthophilous bull; Corduroy the button-seeking teddy bear; Frances the jam- and bread-loving badger; the hippo duo of George and Martha; the interspecies best friends Frog and Toad; and that rowdy, hell-raiser cat in the hat.

Ah, The Cat in the Hat! Ah, Dr. Seuss, the indisputable master of the playfulness and insouciance of the English language. I was always delighted when my children came toddling toward me clutching Green Eggs and Ham, Fox in Socks, or One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish in their chubby hands, because they are such rollercoaster rides of fun for both the tongue and the ear. Other childhood favorites of mine, like The Sneetches and Other Stories and Horton Hears a Who, present tales that are not only hilariously ridiculous, but contain valuable lessons that a fledgling intellect can grasp all by itself.

I look forward to my children having children (but not for another 10 years or so, please!). In our basement is a shelf of their favorite picture books, waiting to entrance a new generation of minds and make of them incorrigible bookworms.

comments powered by Disqus