THE RE­LUC­TANT FANATIC

For a new fa­ther, read­ing with his son is a source of plea­sure and pride. But the books his son chooses leave much to be de­sired

Sharp - - CONTENTS - BY NI­CHOLAS HUNE-BROWN

Ni­cholas Hune­brown en­dures inane kid lit to build a deeper bond with his son.

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.

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-and­feel 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.

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