Josie Learns To Avoid The Man in the Yellow Hat

By Marjorie Ingall

Published January 16, 2004, issue of January 16, 2004.
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To quote a seminal thinker of my youth, Ferris Bueller, “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you might miss it.” Right now it’s all a blur. My little blob of baby protoplasm is suddenly having elaborate tea parties with her stuffed animals, dancing a toddler version of the watusi, using her opposable thumbs to put together Legos and train tracks, asking me “What do koalas dream about?” and showing off by reciting blessings and saying “I love you” in Hebrew. Only yesterday, my big concern was accidentally poking a finger through the soft spot in her fragrant little skull, thereby insuring that she’d have to go to a really expensive special school. Now I just want her to slow down long enough for a cuddle.

So thank God she still loves to be read to. While she’s snuggled up against me, sucking her finger and staring at the pages, I breathe her spicy smell (a mix of her babysitter’s perfume, organic baby shampoo and delicious natural juices) and squeeze her warm little poulkes. I feel like an addict getting a fix.

But it’s not just the baby-meat-squishing that I love so much. It’s the reading itself. Now that Josie’s moving out of the frequently dimwitted world of baby books, I get to read her the books I loved as a child. Rediscovering them as an adult is usually thrilling, occasionally depressing.

In the thrilling category, we find “Madeline.” Josie clutches my arm when Miss Clavel runs fast and faster. She chuckles, “That’s funny!” when she sees the crack on the ceiling that had the habit of sometimes looking like a rabbit. She insists that the little girls cry at the end because they miss Madeline, not because they want the toys and candy and the dollhouse from Papa. (Riiiiight.) Rereading the book so many years after I’d first loved it, I’m delighted to report that it’s as charming as ever, with its cartoon-y, faux-naive illustrations, the mix of full-color drawings and minimalist two- and three-color pages, the goofy rhythms of the verse, the suspenseful storytelling. I never cared much about the depictions of Paris, and neither does Josie. But the haircuts are fabulous.

Josie also loves Maurice Sendak’s “Nutshell Library,” four tiny books in a cardboard case. (A great gift, by the way.) It’s the perfect size to tuck into the diaper bag for emergency entertainment needs. And Sendak’s portrayal of a world that’s scary and unpredictable, but also anarchic and fun, is refreshing. In “Pierre,” a lion eats a little boy who constantly sniffs, “I don’t care.” In “One Was Johnny,” a kid has to kick a bunch of animal and human invaders out of his house. “Alligators All Around,” an alphabet book, features the ever-popular reptile tantrum. And when the little boy waters his roses with soup in “Chicken Soup with Rice,” Josie laughs and yells at the page, “You need water, you silly billy!” As a kid, I loved “Really Rosie,” a TV special and album (with songs by Carole King) based on these books. Reading them to Josie is even better.

Sometimes, when I’m in the kitchen, I’ll hear Josie chortling and snorting in the living room: “Apple car! Peanut car! Pickle car! Yogurt car!” Then I know she’s flipping through “Cars and Trucks from A to Z,” an apple-car-shaped board book based on the amusingly geeky, detailed illustrations from the Richard Scarry books I loved as a kid.

I haven’t tried “The Story of Babar” with Josie, because as a child, I was so traumatized by the picture of the King of the Elephants turning green and dying after eating a poisonous mushroom that I hid the book under a blanket in my closet. (Frankly, this sight traumatized me even more than the murder of Babar’s mother. Go know.) But another slightly scary book is a big hit in our house: “Harold and the Purple Crayon.” Harold invents an entire universe by drawing it, while Josie sits completely silent and still, clutching my arm. After Harold has desperately created an entire city while trying to find his own window, then figured out where he’s supposed to be and drawn a bed and fallen asleep, Josie always turns to me and says, “Where his Mommy and Daddy?” (My answer: “They’re in his real house! This story happens in Harold’s imagination!” Does she understand? Search me.) She asks to hear it again and again.

On the other hand, “Curious George” has not aged well. Originally published in 1941, it starts with George being poached, kidnapped from his jungle home. He’s taken away, alone. Then he nearly drowns. Later, he accidentally calls the fire department and is dragged away and shut in prison for declaring a false emergency. But don’t worry, it ends happily, with the poor creature shut up in a zoo, still alone. Lovely. Oh, and everybody smokes. Including the monkey. Fortunately, Josie doesn’t ask for “Curious George” too often, probably because I read it with the same enthusiasm and animation as Ben Stein playing the droning, soporific history teacher in “Ferris Bueller.”

I am also pleased to report that Josie hates that little twit Eloise, who needs a beating.

Books published after my childhood that I stumbled on and loved in my 20s are also big hits with my daughter. As a recent college grad who majored in folklore and wrote a thesis on quilting as a metaphor for women’s writing, I discovered Faith Ringgold’s “Tar Beach.” It’s a gorgeous story, based on one of Ringgold’s fine-art quilts, about a little black girl growing up in New York in the 1930s, spending the summer on the roof, pretending she can fly. There’s sadness — money troubles and racism — but joy and beauty too. Josie loves the richly colored paintings and the borders made of photos of snippets of fabric. She also loves “Voyage to the Bunny Planet,” another boxed set of mini-books, this one by Rosemary Wells. An ex-boyfriend bought it for me when I was having a bad day. (Having Josie enjoy it helps me exorcise the memory of said boyfriend, which is a nice bonus.) The plot: young bunnies having bad days are escorted by the Bunny Queen (named Janet) to a happier place, where they’re shown the day that should have been. Josie’s favorite part is when Felix throws up right in the middle of art class. The other bunnies look horrified. (This reminds me to tell her the story of how, as a child, her daddy upchucked while singing “My Favorite Things” in chorus, drenching the row in front of him.)

The only problem with introducing a child to books you love is that even adored books can become loathsome after endless repetition. There’s always the risk that your happy memories will be replaced with dread and a deep desire to hide the books. But you know what? It’s a risk I’m willing to take.

Write to Marjorie at mamele@forward.com






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