The Parable of Apartness/My Funny Valentine

Ben Más recently turned 6, and when I was asked what he likes best by the parents planning to come to his birthday party with a gift, I offered that their company was the gift. But if that’s too far-out, then a book would be lovely, thank you very much.

And what wonderful books came. A beautiful tome of gorgeously illustrated Indian lore that might take us ‘til 7 to get through, a superhero coloring book that’s got it all, a really sweet Michael Chabon story, and more — he did well.

Ben and I read together frequently, and I do my part to get into the readings with as much fun and performance as I can. It’s helped him get into words from an early age, and it is an ancient practice, to entertain one’s child with stories. It frames their relationship to the world in terms as deep as the stories we apply to our adult lives.

I took the time this past Saturday to preview the stack of new books and consider how I’ll read them to him. One in particular had gotten a bit lost in the mix, despite the lovely illustration style. It seemed, at a glance, to be for smaller children. The words were simple, the sentences short, and the characters engaged the viewer’s attention with the basic mechanism of reader-facing eye contact. You see this mechanic at work in books for babies.

The book is Jon Klassen’s I Want My Hat Back. He’s an accomplished illustrator, and this is the first book he’s written and illustrated. It can be found in the children’s section of bookstores and is marketed to parents as appropriate to children ages 4 through 8.

I will not read this book to my son.

It was given with the very best intentions, and at some point down the line I’ll use it to help illustrate the programming at work in Western culture – when Ben and I get to discussing that (FUN!). But he’ll have to read it for himself.

I did a bit of research around the book, and found something particularly interesting. It turns out that Candlewick Press, Jon’s publisher, had created a trailer to promote the book. Definitely a novel concept for a children’s book, but hey, it’s the future.

The trailer embedded above, and watched on YouTube 48,483 times as of this typing, did not describe the book in my hands. What I’d read was a story of materialism, deceit, revenge, murder, and apartness. All played out in the animal kingdom — a sphere that includes none of these properties by design.

Told and sold to adults, this could be a great parable with much value. But this is packaged as fare for the minds of children. Has childhood really changed so much since Ezra Jack Keats?

No, of course not. But our expectations have been dragged into the mud with pervasive, ruthless efficiency. One good exercise is to count the representations of guns embedded in the landscape around you the next time you venture out. There weren’t so many before; a sick society excretes. (Hat tip: Dania.)

We can make a new story – for ourselves, for our society – the moment we choose to. The world around us will gladly conspire to assist. That’s what the fabric of reality does. So let’s start with something simple, and see where it goes from there.

Below, my response to the trailer.

Bears need hats as much as you need flowers, dear world; know that my love will take other forms. Be my Valentine.

14 February 2012, 13:10