The worst kids’ book we own is a 20-page abomination called Up Cat. The story — and that’s a generous term — follows an unnamed cat through various uses of the word “up.” Creep up. Leap up. Rip up. All snarled up (it doesn’t take long before you feel the author straining against the constraints of the concept). The text is accompanied by illustrations of the same hopelessly placid grey cat as he creeps, leaps, rips, becomes all snarled, et cetera.
I am unreasonably annoyed by this book. It’s aimless, without the hint of a story arc or pleasing rhythm. As an object, it’s hideous, each page a different shade of institutional-bathroom-tile green. And the book’s nakedly educational ambition — let’s teach a child all the ways to use this adverb/preposition particle! — depresses me. I hate reading it; it is absolutely my 16-month-old son’s favourite book.
Unlike other ways to pass time with a toddler — scattering the Tupperware, destroying the house plants, dragging every awful noisy toy in the house into a semicircle to create a kind of DJ rig from hell — reading feels somehow noble. Books are for pleasure, sure, but they are also tools to edify a child. At a recent appointment, our pediatrician gave us a manual published by the Toronto Public Library with a set of ominous directives for new parents. “Share books with your child, even your baby, every day and throughout the day,” it said. “Start the day your child is born.”
I eagerly took on the task. My partner had literally grown our son inside her body. She was now providing him with both sustenance and a kind of love and security that felt impossible to match. While not quite on par with these gifts, giving my son a lifelong love of reading felt meaningful — profound, even. I was introducing him to human culture! I was giving him his first glimpses of art and forming his impressionable infant mind! And it would all begin with a few cardboard picture books.
Children’s picture books are actually a relatively new invention. There have always been stories for children, from Aesop on, and there have always been illustrations, but the picture book form — in which the images aren’t just decorative accompaniments to the words, but an integral part of the story — is only about 130 years old. According to Maurice Sendak, author of Where the Wild Things Are, the father of the form is Randolph Caldecott, an English illustrator whose anthropomorphic animals and whimsical use of pictures in counterpoint to the text are still the basis of most kids’ books. While fairy tales and fables have strictly didactic purposes — to teach morals and lessons to the next generation — the picture book’s primary aim is to delight and excite, to open a child’s imagination to the possibilities of the world.
The books that began to pile up at our house in the days after my son was born — carried on the same tides that brought us an endless supply of onesies with cute/ironic slogans — were familiar classics. We inherited copies of Goodnight Moon and The Snowy Day. We got Harry the Dirty Dog, The Very Hungry Caterpillar and a half-dozen other books by the New York Times graphic designer turned children’s book mogul Eric Carle.
“Children don’t care about your taste. My kid rejected the beautiful book about a peddler in a town with cobblestoned streets. Instead, he reaches for Paw Patrol.”
We got a few contemporary books, but the vast majority of the stories we read were so unrelated to our lives they might as well take place in the courts of Renaissance Ferrara. They’re set on idyllic free-run farms or in English hamlets. They’re in a world where the trains are still powered by coal and every family, even a working-class family of anthropomorphic pigs, is able to afford a detached home in a good neighbourhood. A disproportionate number of the books feature rabbits, despite the fact that rabbits are one of nature’s least charismatic mammals. The rest are about various species of bumptious African animals that — given the fact that my son’s only word thus far is an expectant “Aaah?” — will likely be extinct by the time he can read about their adventures himself.
The books are conservative. They’re nostalgic, presenting a version of childhood as a time of purity and innocence that would have been recognizable to a Victorian reader of Caldecott. And this, I realized somewhat uneasily, was what I wanted. As an adult reader, I look for books that make me think about the world around me in new ways. For my kid, I wanted only a hazy reassurance. I shied away from contemporary stories with spiky irony. I gravitated towards the books I knew from my own childhood. With horror, I could feel myself becoming a reactionary — the kind of person who, a few years from now, will be sarcastically dismissing entire genres of my son’s favourite music as “just a bunch of noise.”
The thing about children, of course, is that they don’t care about your taste. My kid rejected the whimsical, beautifully illustrated book about a peddler selling caps in a town with cobblestoned streets. In the library, he reaches for Paw Patrol-branded publications and any ugly, garish book with fuzzy touch-and-feel patches. He drags Up Cat over to me again and again, plopping down on my lap imploringly, jabbing his finger at the cat on the page and making the expectant “Aaah?” that is his universal sound for all demands and requests. “Cat,” I explain, feeling the warmth of his tiny body on mine, enjoying the rare moment of stillness, trying not to get irrationally irritated by the cat once again getting all snarled up.
Last week, I glanced over to see him perched on the tiny lounger in our living room. He had clambered up — something I didn’t know he could do — and had managed to drag a book up with him. It was the first time I had seen him flip through a book on his own — a tiny glimpse of a not-too-distant future in which he will chose his own art, in which my preferences will be wholly irrelevant, in which he will have developed his own particular sense of taste. He sat flipping through a copy of Each Peach Pear Plum, a serious look on his face, as he searched for something in the margins of the dense illustrations. “Aaah,” he said quietly to himself, satisfied, as he picked out each and every cat on the page.