Thursday, September 28, 2006

Picking Picture Books

Some of you are having babies or will be having babies or know people who are having babies or will have babies. What to get them? What not to get them? Here’s a brief guide.

Don’t give an Eric Carle book, especially The Very Hungry Caterpillar. Most new parents will get three or four copies of that. (Apologies if you’ve been the person to give one of those 3-4 copies.) It is a cute book, true enough, but resist the temptation.

Don’t give Dr. Seuss. Snore. (Blame Jim Carey and Mike Meyers. Blame Oh the Places You’ll Go.) There are exceptions: if there’s not a movie about it, it might be ok. There’s a lot of Seuss out there, some of it better than others, so really shop around if you must give one.

Don’t give Where the Wild Things Are. Yes, it’s a good book (and wonderfully twisted and useful for all sorts of psychoanalytic readings and quite a scandal when it came out in '63). But everyone (unless you’ve been living in a cave) already knows it.

Don’t give anything with a name you recognize a. because she’s a popstar b. because he’s a comedian or c. because she’s a television personality who thinks that showing her legs= news. Just don’t, okay?

Don’t give The Giving Tree: Don’t even get me f*ing started on this book. (Yes, I do indeed hate it. But 1960s Shel Silverstein in Playboy in a nudist camp: love it.)

Proceed With Caution:
You can give Curious George books, but just recognize that there are strange master/servant issues and all sorts of spouting hoses, rocket grasping, and fishing poles placed just so. Yep: phallus phallus everywhere. Which isn’t necessarily a problem. Just don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Anything illustrated by Mary Blair. She was Disney before Disney became the soggy, claptrappish mess it is today. She did all of the cutest advertising in the 1950s and all sorts of lovely little children’s books like I Can Fly. (Many of these are out of print, so this is not the most practical suggestion.)

The Jolly Postman: Read Goldilock’s apology letter to the Three Bears, a letter from Red Riding Hood’s attorney to Mr. Wolf, a letter from Cinderella’s agent—all of which you can open up and read yourself, like real letters. Gentle training for those who have not developed a sense of irony (and just as fun for those who have).

What Planet are You From, Clarice Bean? by Lauren Child: swoopy, sparkly, witty, and a little Brit Snarky. Clarice is totally going to grow up to be like Georgia Nicholson.

Miss Rumphius by Barbara Cooney: Some people will shake their heads here. This is a book about an old lady--how can it be for kids? Because it’s gorgeous and smart and not condescending. It’s both active and restful. And I get a little feeling behind the eyes when I read the last lines.

The Day the Babies Crawled Away by Peggy Rathmann: a book done all in silhouettes. It’s a little bit dangerous and creepy, too, which is nice, but it has a safe ending.

Pish, Posh, Said Hieronymus Bosch by Nancy Willard and The Dillons: two-headed bats, pickle-winged fish, three-legged thistles (run away with the dish).

And the rhymes:
I don’t mind the ferret, I do like the bee
All witches’ familiars are friendly to me.
I’d share my last crust with a pigeon-toed rat
And some of my closest relations are cats.

My aunt was a squash,” said Hieronymus Bosch

Make Way for Ducklings by Robert McCloskey: A bit of an obvious choice, but most people will steer away from it because they think that kids, who are BRIGHT BOUNCY BUBBLES OF LOVE, need lots of COLOR. Not at all. These brown illustrations are just right just so and the story is good fun. It’s even lovelier because today it’s hard to imagine an America that would make way for anything, let alone ducklings.

Final Appeal: Even if you don’t have any new babies in your future, you should read these books anyway. They’re good.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

The Way of All Beef

Only three smells leak from houses here: dryer sheet, mildew, and hamburger. Down the street is a house that constantly cooks itself hamburgers, seemingly every time I walk past. I have entertained the notion that they have a hamburger smell machine, but I know better. Such machines are expensive. It must be real beef.

Do they understand what it does for me, every time? I, who look askance at beef, I who have not touched the stuff in years? It makes me 11, 12, 13. It makes me Fourth of July, wearing a flag shirt and red shorts and mixing up a creamy cake with a blueberry-strawberry Old Glory on top. It makes me sophisticated, no longer taking my burger with cheese and ketchup like a child, but with cheese and ketchup and mayo and a hint of sweet relish like a grown-up. It makes me younger than that, too, at half-remembered picnics with military moms and dads. They would be sent away in a year or two but would grill up big, juicy burgers as if they owned their lives in the meantime.

This is not the smell of two all beef patties special sauce lettuce cheese—no way. It is thicker than that, full of drippings and charcoal smoke and gritty grills. It doesn’t care that I don’t like it now. It knew me when.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Coming up with a caption

for this, the most ominous photo of all.

It is my mother in the 1940s, possibly after the babysitter decided (without permission) to chop off all of her hair.

Q: Why are we on the wrong side of the window? Why is monkey-monster looking at her like that? What is monkey-monster doing these days?

Thursday, September 07, 2006


Ugliest name:
It makes you think of the nastier sort earthworm, prying into damp decay.
A maggot, really, all potato-y white. Not quite the end of things, but almost.
I know there are people with the names Butt, Hooker, Dick. I have seen these people and known a few. (The neighbors down the street announced it: “The Butts” said their sign, in yellow script).
This, though, is the worst: a name that doesn’t bring first nasty laughs, but sticks with you, burrowing. It speaks of dirty foods, thick beefs, chickens, something below oneself.
And then of course: Rub a dub dub, thanks for the grub, yaaaaaay God! That was a revolting childhood dinner prayer, with gestures. For non-Catholics.

I'd like to take a moment now for all the poor Grubbs of the world.