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.

Sunday Star-Times - Sunday Magazine - - LEAH MCFALL -

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!”

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