It's sort of embarrassing to admit it now, but one of the first books I remember reading — if that's what I did — was “Where Did I Come From?” by Peter Mayle, a 1970s-era guide to sex illustrated with cartoons. I vaguely recall that it compared having an orgasm to sneezing after a long buildup, which seemed then (and still seems today) like a particularly apt metaphor. I can't say it was the inspiration for my lifelong love of reading (though it might have led me to search my parents' bookshelves, where I found a copy of a sordid Harold Robbins throbber; I still remember that one character compared a man's penis to a watermelon, which may have scarred me for life). But enough about sex; I was talking about children's books. Really, they're not as far apart as you might think.
Searching around for children's titles on Amazon.com recently, I came across the page for “Where Did I Come From?” It showed 42 customer reviews, most of them positive, but with particularly negative ones that seemed especially sad. Several sex-abuse victims were upset that the book related everyday experiences (like sneezing, tickling, and jumping rope) to sex. A few customers complained that the book was “too graphic.” And a 13-year-old wrote, “Telling [kids] they came from a stork would sound more convincing than the way they tell it here.”
Reading comments like these, I couldn't help but feel that we put too much weight on books for kids (as we do on sex). During the holidays, for example, we try to buy the “perfect” titles for the children in our lives — the volumes that will help them learn to read, or increase their vocabulary, or teach them something vital, or help them fit in at school, without doing those children any damage or leading them in some perceived wrong direction. What happened to books read purely for fun? Perhaps I learned some things from “Where Did I Come From?,” but what I remember most about it is that it made me laugh — not out of embarrassment, but because it was funny.
A pal and I threw a book-themed baby shower for some friends recently, and the titles the couple unwrapped on that unseasonably warm December day provided the most delightful of nostalgia trips, a pure excuse to wallow in our own literary pasts. The booty included almost 70 volumes, from a pop-up of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland to a collection of poems from Winnie-the-Pooh. Many were classics (Babar the King, Mother Goose, Make Way for Ducklings) and several were of more recent vintage (Pete's a Pizza, Snuggle Puppy), but just about every one made the entire assembly of adults say “Ohhhh” in unison.
There were fewer overlaps than you might expect — only five titles (including three of Good Night, Gorilla, for some reason). And there were some blatant gaps: No one bought the immensely popular Goodnight Moon, for example; we all were convinced someone else would buy it. Dr. Seuss was well represented, yet trendy picture books were in short supply (no Olivia, no Stellaluna). No one showed up with anything from the Harry Potter series — perhaps because it's too old for a baby, or maybe because (as I like to think) there were too many other, better books to choose from.
Just reading the inventory of gifts made me smile: How can you not laugh at a book called Is Your Mama a Llama? How can you not tap your foot when you hear of one titled Chicka Chicka Boom Boom? Can't you picture the cover of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, or Charlotte's Web, or Where the Wild Things Are? With every new package opened, I thought of more I wished I'd bought: Eloise, Madeline, Go, Dog. Go!, The Phantom Tollbooth — the list goes on. Those volumes inspired my lifelong love of reading. They didn't teach me to order room service, show off my scars, ride in convertibles, or follow dodecahedrons (if you don't know what I'm talking about, read the books) — they just made me keep reading.
We might think that kids grow up too fast these days, but I'm not sure I believe it's happening all that much sooner than it did when I was a kid. After all, I knew what a sperm was when I was 4 — I'd seen pictures, for God's sake: They had top hats and tails. I do believe, however, that children's books have in many cases taken on adult agendas.
On a recent episode of the KQED radio show Forum about children's books, author Daniel Handler (of Lemony Snicket fame) described parents who ask him for suggestions of books that can take their kids to the “next level.” These grown-ups, he said, would often be carrying some perfectly ordinary adult title under their arms. “'If you're not working up to Proust,'” Handler admitted he likes to say to them, “'why do you expect your child to work up to [another author]?'” In other words, don't turn kids' books into a mere opportunity for a lesson. If tykes want to read for the sounds or the pictures, for the rhyme or the rhythm, for the sheer absurdity of the story or the sheer comfort of the message, so be it. It's enough that they want to read at all.
I have worked up to Proust. But not before taking a few more rides around the block with Go, Dog. Go!