The first half hits us below the belt. However much affection we may have for that endearment from the lips of our babes, large or small, it’s a diminutive. The diminutive— this one is of Scottish origin—not only involves diminution, a making smaller, but I would argue further, a kind of disarmament. As a child who calls you Mommy, I possess you. When I call you “mommy,” I downgrade you from, metaphorically, “cat” to “kitty.” You may have authority over me, but I temper it with that loving suffix.
“Mommy” is technically a form of address. It has migrated by osmosis, like a wispy Dementer, into nounhood, if not even further into the realm of AP style. “Mommy Wars” as a headline vaults mothers and motherhood into a tangle of kitties batting each other with their cute paws. I have no problem being called “mommy” by my daughters. I have a big problem being called “mommy” by the media or other third parties.
Whether or not you’re equally irked by that, do join me in protesting the second half of the phrase in question—wars. Many political and cultural conflicts may be tagged as a “war,” but “Mommy wars,” implies mothers are fighting each other to death, perhaps—in that hallowed tradition of all oppressions—even that they ought to do so.
The history of women’s discourse over the role of motherhood in our lives hasn’t been hand-to-hand combat between mothers who work for pay and mothers who don’t. It looks that way through a certain lens—say, the Atlantic Magazine’s lens. Apply some defogger, and you’ll see more than Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg vs. State Department ex-official Anne-Marie Slaughter, the two juxtaposed recently in a nice piece of writing by Rita J. King. Plenty of institutions, cultural movements, and men, as well as women, are flinging javelins, constraining troop movements, and laying siege to households, families, and children. I’m not at war with any mothers, working or otherwise. There is far too much to be done for that.
In fact the whole construct smells awfully like reality TV, deftly deconstructed by one Jennifer L. Pozner. I’m also with Sandra Tsing Loh, whose 2006 Atlantic review essay named names and made delightful fun of the women media professionals (and their luxury brand accoutrements) who have dominated the published debate about “having it all.”
Along with the “Mommy Wars” we’ve now got some other terms to contend with—”Mommy Brain,” with several authors brandishing that catchphrase like Virginia Slims. But let’s arrest that encroachment. Let’s bring “Mommy” back where it belongs—into the mouths of babes. And refer to me as a mother, or better yet, as a woman or a parent, if you’re not my offspring.
The players: one six–year-old (dialogue initalics) and one eleven–year-old. The vehicle: four Calico Critters (TM) squirrel characters.
Once when I was a little squirrel, I decided that I wanted to climb the big nut tree. It had lots of nuts falling down. I thought it would be fun if I climbed it myself. I wasn’t really good at climbing yet but I wanted to try it. One day I told my parents and older sister that I was just going to collect them from the bottom. We usually did that. That day was Saturday when we didn’t usually do it.
You are supposed to be in bed. Violet, get in bed this instant. Violet! Violet.
She’s in bed. This is her bed. Her bed is under my skirt.
I climbed and climbed and climbed and thought about how proud mom and dad would be that I shook the tree so hard and so many nuts would fall down and we would have a feast.
Somehow when I got to the top I bounced into the next tree. That tree was territory of the Furmans. We are the Furbanks; they are the Furmans. They had a son who was my age and I hated him. If they caught me trespassing on their nut tree territory, I would really get it from them and from mom and dad. So I could see them coming out of their nest. So I did the only thing I could do. I bounced to the next tree.
I bounced from tree to tree to tree until I didn’t know where I was any more. I climbed down. I was at Old Mrs. Squirrel’s House. OMS was a kindly old squirrel but I didn’t think she’d be so happy to see me bouncing on the top of her tree, so quickly I looked at the landmarks: The big nut tree, the hollow oak where Owl lived, and Annabelle Fursicle’s house. I knew Annabelle wouldn’t laugh at me. So I went there, and they took me home.
My parents weren’t mad at me but they were glad I was ok . The end.
She’s sneaking out of bed to get the latest issue of Nut Cooking and she doesn’t want all of them to know because she spent a lot of nuts on it. Hi, what are you doing? That’s not ok —you cannot do that!
Time to drop off the over-dues. Kids cranky, me crankier. The car’s been cluttered with these things for days. Almost late to meet babysitter at home. Arrive at branch library, tell kids to stay in car,it’s only a dropoff. Oldest kid demands copy of a classic she’s read repeatedly. Mumble vague assent.
Enter library. Do not find item requested. Grab 3 new books on top shelf display with uncharacteristic flash judgment, plus a Fancy Nancy (not my fave) for the younger one. Kismet, jacket appeal, title: whichever of these got my hand to reach out, there was certainly no input from my voracious yet picky tween reader. I’ll report back.
The librarian who writes Hi Miss Julie gets a big bloggy hug from Kid Lit Vulture for her recent post on why good libraries are good. They reach out.
They meet people where they are, whether in space, time, or humanity. As she points out, all librarians can learn from good children’s librarians:
“Children’s librarians are–whether by instinct, design, or learned behavior–are skilled actors. Perhaps its all the dramatic reading we do, but we know how to use our bodies and our voices effectively to provoke a response. We can soothe or excite depending on what the situation requires, which, in the realm of public service, is crucial.”
Some of my strongest personal connections have been with the children’s librarians who have been my own kids’ children’s librarians. In rare cases, the librarian knows of my affection. For the most part, I haven’t come clean about the ways I’ve learned from our librarians, been buoyed up out of the ditches of parenting day-to-day, or simply become a better reader or parent due to their unwitting ministrations. Since we’ve moved several times during my children’s childhood (and some of the librarians have been fired, hired, or quit) the workaday connections have been broken.
Not so for the internal connections. Elena, from our very first lap-sit, a library student at the time, had that superhero librarian quality that Hi Miss Julie describes in her post. Later, Connie was our librarian in the wilds of bad behavior, punctuated by soul-saving shared reading. She has her rightful place in my heart, too. Carol, another lap-sit queen, gave a piece of her mind to an irate older patron who opined that my youngest child was being too noisy in the library. Word up to Carol for that!
There are others in my bookish pantheon—a school librarian who knew that Reading Counts was more harm than good, a man with an occasional clown nose and pirate drawl, and the elderly bookshop owners who fed me oyster crackers in their warren of an office. Thanks to all of them and thanks to Miss Julie for her goad to her profession.
Postscript: Miss Julie, you really have no business calling a beetle a cockroach in your series on librarianship and outreach. Perhaps I’d lambaste you for that elsewhere. On the other hand, one must assert the right of cockroaches to dream of being a beetle (a glittery one at that), and beetles cockroaches.
Kid Lit Vulture was able to squeeze in an impromptu interview with Giles Laroche when he visited a local elementary school. Amidst the dismissal-time din at the end of a day of building buildings with kids, Laroche opened a window on his early Northern New Hampshire encounters with books. His most recent work is If You Lived Here: Houses of The World (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011).
I’ve seen a photo of your studio. It looks almost like a tree house. How did you come by that space?
The studio is connected to a 1780 house that I purchased in 1980. It was filled with debris left by the previous tenant. I emptied it gradually, put down a floor, and put in a glass panel, so it looks out over trees. The beams sort of mimic the branches of a tree. It wasn’t until I cleared it out and put in the floor that I realized, “That’s where I’m going to create my artwork.” It’s in New Hampshire. However, I do the vast majority of my work in Salem (Mass.) My studio there is on the top floor of an old Victorian house. It’s a very simple space, a large space. It has great light and quiet and sits above the trees.
Do you listen to anything while you work?
I do! I listen to a wide selection of music, I particularly like music from the 1920s and 1930s and medieval Spanish music.
Hoagy Carmichael, perhaps?
Yes! He was a great songwriter.
What books do you remember reading as a child?
Well, I grew up in a somewhat different culture—French Canadian culture. We didn’t have the same books. For example, I didn’t become aware of Harold and the Purple Crayon until I was twelve or so. My mother read Maria Chapdelaine to me as a child, perhaps because it was her favorite book. It takes place well north of Quebec City near to where we have relatives.
I read newspapers and magazines ,which we had in abundance in a waiting room in my mom’s business. I discovered children’s picture books when I became an uncle at age 9 and read to nephews books like the Provensens’ Big Book of Color, the Richard Scarry books, and Barbara Cooney’s The Little Juggler.
Was Québécois your first language, then?
I’m wondering about your exposure to certain other illustrators and authors, like Leo Lionni.
I didn’t read him as a child. I did read his books—Swimmy and Frederic, for example—to my niece and nephew when they were growing up. I’ve always liked Richard Scarry’s work. You know, when I was young, at home we had a dictionary on a pedestal. Well, we got a new one and I was given the old one. It was huge and richly illustrated. I used to draw in it. I feel like I read the whole thing,
Can you tell me about any artists who have inspired you, or whom you like?
So many! I really love Sienese artists from thirteenth century. I love that school of painting because they were illustrators.
The candidate is a travesty. To begin with, her eyelashes are the same length as her eyebrows.
She panders to her constituency by handing out free food embossed with her image. Aside from this flagrant violation of campaign finance laws, she’s got other problems, among them a dalliance with a Marie Antoinette wig that ends up televised. The Ides of March transposed with Sarah Palin’s uncola uncandidacy? Nope. It’s Richard Scarry‘s Hilda Hippo’s Favorite Stories.
Let me digress right away (I wouldn’t be Kid Lit Vulture if I didn’t). Have you ever read your kid one of the first two Arthur stories on the same day as any of the later books in the series? Did anything catch your eye?
The face of the protagonist, Arthur, aka Arthur Read, is all aardvark. Therein lies the charm, in my view. Marc Brown‘s got that ugly thing going with the earliest incarnation of Arthur and his family (Arthur’s Nose, 1976), best embodied in the pockmarks that spit and churn up the illustrations. Some editor, or maybe Marc Brown’s “people” convinced him to give Arthur a makeover between book two and book three. Facelift, botox, ear reshaping, nose reduction—probably tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of cosmetic surgery. Where did it get Arthur? Did Brown really have to cleanse him of his essential aardvarkness to orchestrate the skyrocketing celebrity he later enjoyed? Would it really be going too far to suggest that the airbrushing of Arthur parallels the compression of childhood that media literacy maven Diane Levin, among others, pinpoints?
Postscript to above digression: after writing this, I found Marc Brown on the record, in response to a question from some Connecticut first-graders, saying “Arthur looks like a real aardvark in the first book. But the more I drew Arthur, the shorter his nose became. I guess I just wanted to make him friendlier looking. My friend Steven Krensky, who’s also a writer, said that Arthur is starting to look human and it’s scaring him.”
I find Brown’s “accidental” anthropomorphism story disingenuous. Yes, it’s all relative; our libraries are littered with animals in sweaters. Yes, it’s harmless. But I don’t have to like it. I’m loyal to the Arthur of the Nose and the Eyes.
Hilda hasn’t gone through the same kind of transformation between her younger incarnation in the original Richard Scarry books and the Hilda who is the frontman for the Richard Scarry Corporation in Richard Scarry’s Hilda Hippo’s Favorite Stories. But doesn’t that double possessive tip us off that something is not right with this picture?
The brawny wonder of Busytown (along with her sister in Scarryness, Miss Honey) actually smiles with her eyes closed in the title under discussion. This is a coyness we do not see in any early Richard Scarry books (I’ll get my fact checkers right on that). But wait a minute, Richard Scarry’s Hilda Hippo’s Favorite Stories, it turns out, is flagged “as seen on Nick Jr. and Showtime.” So, our Hilda of the Eyelashes is a mere stepchild of Richard Scarry. On the copyright page, we learn the product is “adapted from the animated television series The Busy World of Richard Scarry.”
What a small gaggle of ten and twelve–year-olds said, when I told them I was interested in comparing old Scarry and new Scarry, was that there isn’t as much drawing in the margins in the 21st-century books. In most vintage Scarry, we have the likes of Goldbug hiding in odd places, pencil cars, pickle cars, and various invertebrates driving other inventive vehicles, yakking with each other, and doing their union jobs with integrity and verve. Those kids were spot on. The television-sourced Scarry has been cleansed of marginalia—the very essence of Scarry in his heyday.
Did I whet your appetite for more Scarry stuff? Here’s a fascinating comparison of differences between old and new Scarry editions.