If you’ve been following this ol’ website, you may already know that I chose to burden another human life with half my genome, and that, for me anyway, it’s been a pretty swell experience.
(I’m downplaying it. Being a dad is the best gig I have going, as trite and too-sincere-for-Fraudsters as it sounds.)
But here’s the thing. As kids get older, they become more autonomous. And as they become agents in the world, they start have preferences for things you find heinous. For the most part, this is harmless; it doesn’t really matter if my son thinks olives are delicious, despite them being flavour tyrants that obliterate all other taste from a meal. And as for music, well, he can still only choose from my record collection, so I’ll live if he wants to listen to “Day-O” a million times in a row.
But books? Well, that’s a problem. My son has a million books, but he relies on his parents (which includes me) to read them to him. And it turns out that a) kids’ books are often terrible, and b) what my son looks for in a book (e.g. a picture of a helicopter) is very different from what I look for in a book (e.g. anything better than completely inane).
I always thought children’s books had a “point”, either a moral or a lesson for their young audience. I was right, but that lesson is often terrifying, baffling, or bizarre.
In case you’re also not adding 60 tons of carbon dioxide to the world every year by spawning a child, I thought I’d take you through some of my son’s greatest hits in his library to illustrate.
Toad Takes Off
The story: our amphibian hero decides that existence is cruel (“ducks can swim but toads can’t fly”) and takes matters into his own hands
The lesson: you can overcome nature by embracing the unstoppable march of technological advancement
Son score: A+ (for airplanes and helicopters)
Father score: D (points awarded only because of Toad’s obviously stoner friends, Pup and Goat)
The story: it’s the names of the vegetables!
The lesson: learn the names of the vegetables!
Son score: A (I have no idea why; there’s nothing to this book but a bunch of veg)
Father score: A+ (my son now knows the names of almost twenty vegetables and thinks they’re cool)
The story: in this children’s “classic”, with such memorable lines as “Goodnight comb / And goodnight brush / Goodnight nobody / Goodnight mush” (?), a creepy old lady rabbit watches a bunny survey its giant, nonsensical bedroom of oddities and then fall asleep
The lesson: even when you sleep, the world remains awake and terrifying (“Goodnight stars/ Goodnight air / Goodnight noises everywhere” is actually how it ends)
Son score: A (the word “moon” is fun to say)
Father score: C (points awarded for that room of surreal nightmares)
The Runaway Bunny
The story: a bunny tells its mother all the ways it will try to run away, and the mother tells the bunny all the ways in which she will outsmart the bunny’s attempts
The lesson: no matter how hard you try, your parents will control, dominate, and thwart you
Son score: B (the word “bunny” is fun to say)
Father score: F (clearly by the same author as Goodnight Moon)
The story: bugs come in many shapes and sizes and do tons of neat shit
The lesson: bugs are awesome
Son score: A (he likes when we mimic biting, stinging, flying, etc.)
Father score: A+ (my son now thinks bugs are cool)
Thomas & Friends (series)
The story: utterly incomprehensible, no matter which book it is, but they seem to be about a bunch of trains with faces being bossed around by “the fat controller”
The lesson: British children’s media is bizarre
Son score: B (Thomas is cool, trains are cool)
Father score: F (why does he have so many of these abysmal books?)
Are You My Mother?
The story: another classic, this one’s about a baby bird who asks a bunch of animals and inanimate objects that are obviously not his mother whether they are, in fact, his mother
The lesson: being an idiot is OK, because the world is full of benevolent people who will help you realize your dreams
Son score: A
Father score: B (yeah, yeah, I should be cynical, but I’m a sucker for a happy ending)
Go, Dog. Go!
The story: dogs boogie their way through town until they reach a dog party on top of a giant tree, where all hell breaks loose
The lesson: dogs are cool, running is cool, driving is cool, biking is cool, stopping for red lights is cool
Son score: A (dogs driving cars and partying hard)
Father score: A (dogs driving cars and partying hard, plus grammatically accurate title)
On the Night You Were Born
The story: the entire world, from the animals to the stars, bowed down and worshipped you (yes, you, baby reader) upon your emergence from the womb
The lesson: you are the most important creature in the universe, and reality only exists for your benefit
Son score: D (it’s fallen out of favour, but there’s a polar bear in it, which is cool)
Father score: F (raging narcissism)
The Snail and the Whale
The story: a diminutive mollusc with wanderlust teams up with a humpback whale and travels the world, learning about herself in the process
The lesson: seeing the world makes you humble; effort, resourcefulness, knowledge, and compassion are virtues to strive towards; there is a way to believe in yourself without being an arrogant, entitled piece of garbage
Son score: B+ (probably because I like it so much)
Father score: A+ (incredible prose, rhyming, and rhythm; really great, heartfelt story; honestly, this might be the best book I’ve read all year, for children or otherwise)
On the whole, I’m happy to say that my kid and I can mutually enjoy about half the books we read together, and the other half I can enjoy because he’s enjoying them so much. Moreover, the fact that he loves reading so much is rewarding in and of itself. While I miss the days when he was an immobile nugget and I could read to him from whatever book I had on the go, it’s a delight to watch him develop preferences and interests of his own. And really, this is good practice for when he gets older and inevitably listens to music that I think is abhorrent, right?