Self-help in short words
Borrow a few of these children’s Early Readers, and then sit down after a glass of wine or two and open one up. You’ll finish the evening feeling a lot better.
Do you have a library card? You do? Then you’ll love this. So, go to the children’s section and find the Early Readers shelf. These are slim, educational books with simple sentences for children learning to read. Avoid Joy Cowley, or anything that looks well written and illustrated. What you want are the crummy ones, with photos.
Borrow a few, and then sit down after a glass of wine (you need one glass inside you; maybe even two) and open one up. You’re already saving yourself $40 on a self-help book, because you’re going to finish the evening feeling a lot better about your achievements, your personal style, and your approach to the rest of your life.
These books are, without exception, well meaning. On the whole they look like they were produced by a cash-strapped charity, in the United States, in the mid-80s.
The stories themselves would never win prizes. In fact, they’re not exactly stories, because nothing actually happens. I guess when you’re writing for Early Readers, you should have a “no surprises” policy. You don’t want to trigger panic in a child with a plot twist, for example, or a character who has an epiphany.
The books usually photograph people doing mundane, repetitive things like shopping for dinner or washing a car. Hands down, the photos are my favourite thing. They’re awful. There’s a documentary quality about them, as if they haven’t been set up in advance. These people aren’t professional actors; they probably were just shopping for dinner.
The adults are always unsmiling, and you can read the suburban psychodrama on their faces. The women are depressed; the men, resentful; and the children are oblivious. Isn’t that the 20th century heteronormative family in a nutshell?
Take the one I’m reading at the moment. In My Walk Home, a little American kid is being walked home by his father, who looks like an unemployed stand-up comedian. He sure looks doleful, like he’s behind on his mortgage payments. It is 1985 in this book: I can tell by the pleats in the Dad’s leather jacket.
I know it’s America because he’s wearing belted chinos. Because they are Walking Home in My Walk Home, there’s no photo of a left-hand-drive yellow school bus, but in every other book of this kind, there will be. Trust me, they’ll work in a bus angle even if the plot is something like Going to Sleep or I Shuck Corn and doesn’t immediately call for traffic.
The kid and his dad walk by a lot of things which are probably shuttered now. They pass a library; a post office, and a barber shop where the barber’s jeans are belted high on his body, just beneath his double chin. It’s a walk home through a vanished America. By the time the kid gets to his front door ( After I have walked past all these places, I am home), the dad is unlocking the fly-screen and looks ready to knot himself a noose. But strangely, as you close this book, you experience a flicker of what feels like hope. Life is hard, but Jeebus! Not as hard as it is for this guy!
Early Reading books produced in England feature less ennui, because the English remember Dunkirk and are all about getting things done. In Clean and Tidy, a little girl is basically scrubbed squeaky-pink before and after muddy play, while being lectured by her mother.
The mother often appears photographed inside a little bubble issuing a directive, beginning with the key words Mum says. She often waggles a finger and is pictured in one scene polishing the kid’s shoes, while wearing a string of pearls. She hasn’t experienced intimacy since the last Royal Wedding, which coincides with the last time she drank a glass of white wine spritzer and felt frisky.
I search the photos for clues to what’s going on in this family. The house is spotless. There is no evidence of a husband. The kid wears pink, and so does the mum; they may even share Alice bands. There’s no chance that, in life, I’d be friends with this mother. For one thing, her kid’s parting is razor-sharp, and there’s a reliable certainty in her household that eludes mine ( Mum cuts my nails on a Sunday. Snip!).
I could write a book like this in a coma. My life is as small as theirs. Not a bunch happens, but beneath the surface roils a kind of magma, threatening to blow.
In We Walk to School we see a friendly dog. Hello, Smudge! Mummy sees another mummy, who is cross about housework. She says: Let’s smash the patriarchy. Burn it all down! My mummy says: Preach, sister. Then she says: That reminds me, I forgot to put out the bins.
“As you close this book, you experience a flicker of hope. Life is hard, but Jeebus! Not as hard as it is for this guy!”