Tuesday, January 22, 2008

The Best Children's Book

Have you noticed that many things intended for children are awful?

I've noticed it, probably because I have 16-month-old twin boys who have been showered with things intended for children, but who, despite having been showered with those things, insist on playing with a cut-up-cardboard box and bouncing on the couch. I probably would have noticed it anyway, even without Mr F and Mr Bunches, because I like kid stuff -- good kid stuff-- and use it in my everyday life by (for example) watching Disney's "Hercules" to clear my mind after having watched "Jeepers Creepers" by myself one night.

I'm a careful consumer of kids things because, like I said, many of them are awful; they just assume that kids are brain-dead and that parents will show them anything that encourages hugs. And among the awfulest can be childrens' books. I read to the boys every night. Okay, almost every night. Some nights, football is on. And some nights, Daddy is just plain tired. You try hauling two boys around in a laundry basket for 30 minutes. I'm not as young as I used to be. But most nights I read to the boys, because I want to spend time with them and because I want them to like reading. I think it's a shame that kids don't like reading anymore. I'm not going to go off on some old-fogey rant about how kids wouldn't know a good book if it bit them in the butt. I'm just saying: kids don't like to read.

And part of that, to go back to my original point, might be because books, especially books for kids, are so frequently bad that we forget how good a good book can be. So I read my guys good books every night. Those books range from Disney stories to Winnie the Pooh to Shel Silverstein poems to Dr. Seuss; I focus on the good ones, the ones that are fun and imaginative and stick in your mind.

Then I came across The Best Children's Book, which I got for only $1 at our library as a used book and only then found out that it was very recently on the best seller list; the used books I get from the library are usually not major smash hits, but this one was.

The Book is Mo Willems' The Pigeon Finds a Hot Dog.

I didn't preview this book before buying it; I'll buy anything that looks remotely good and is only $1, and I liked the cover illustration's hand-drawn crayon-y feel: (Plus, I liked the liberal use of exclamation points!) So when I sat down to read it to the boys, I had no idea what to expect. But from page 1, I was enthralled.

The story is simple and is spelled out, mostly, on the cover: the pigeon finds a hot dog. But before he can eat it, the duckling butts in and wants to know what the hot dog tastes like, and the pigeon gets testy because he thinks the duckling is angling to get the hot dog.

That description doesn't do it justice, quite, because the way the story unfolds, Willems does an excellent job of showing the character of the Pigeon and the Duckling and giving them each distinct personalities. There's no narrator; the Pigeon and Duckling talk directly to each other and to the reader (I'm a sucker for books that break the fourth wall).

What makes it the best for me, I think, is that the Pigeon and the Duckling are not saccharine-sweet characters that are all about hugging and loving, like they're the Charmin Bears absent bodily functions or something. These are fun, interesting characters in a kid's book. The Pigeon, at one point, goes on a tear about the Duckling and mimics him because he's so upset that the Duckling is bugging him, while the Duckling just keeps working on the Pigeon.

And the book is fun to read out loud, which is important. I do the voices, wherever I can, and the Pigeon and Duckling are fun to do the voices of (for your info, I do the Pigeon as a sort of street-hustler, while the Duckling has a higher, fake-innocent voice.) The boys love it when I get to the part where the duckling asks "Would you say that it tastes like chicken?" At least, I think they love it. They stop wiggling and trying to hit each other with bottles at that point, and if that's not love, what is?

1 comment:

Rogue Mutt said...

I should see if that's one of the 200 books we bought my brother for my niece.