Reading a book 200 times is a surefire way to find out whether you love it or want to throw its rhyming llama couplets into the diaper pail. Children's books especially do a tricky dance for an audience of squinty-eyed parents and wide-eyed tots: the best ones, like a syringe of infant-suspension Tylenol, have a little something for the parent at the end. These are the ones we are celebrating in This Book Belongs To — the books that send us back to the days of our own footed pajamas, and make us feel only half-exhausted when our tiny overlords ask to read them one more time.
From the moment I popped into existence, my parents read me books. It was the only way they could get me to stop shrieking for longer than half a second.
The reason people love children's books so much, I think, is that they're much more honest and enjoyable than adult books — they aim to please, they're beautiful to look at. Added to which, children's books will never be 900 pages, like Garth Risk Hallberg's City on Fire; they'll never turn out to be fabricated, like James Frey's A Million Tiny Little Pieces; and they'll never contain a sex scene written by Jonathan Franzen, like — I'm sorry to say — 100 percent of novels by Jonathan Franzen. What is not to love about the wonderful books we enjoyed during our time as young, shrieking tots?
Most of my early ideas about the world came from children’s books, which was fine when the takeaway was “be kind” or “believe in yourself” or “help others in need.” It was less fine when the takeaway was “Narnia totally exists and it’s magical” and my impressionable youth brain was like “YES, THAT CHECKS OUT.” As a result, I spent a lot of time hanging out in wardrobes looking for lampposts.
Basically, children’s books are as timeless as they are misleading, which is why, as a child, I truly believed…
That I would one day be placed in charge of who gets to drive the bus.
I believe Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus was supposed to encourage kids to resist peer pressure, which is noble. However, it stressed me out; I’m extremely suggestible, particularly in the face of aggressive pigeons who promise friendship in exchange for favors.
Now, even as a very small child, I knew pigeons couldn’t drive buses. I knew that bit was fake. The threat of unruly passengers wishing to take the bus for a joy ride, however? That felt all too real. I was terrified that one day the bus driver would simply up and leave, and I would be forced to defend the bus from carjackers. (Much like quicksand, this turned out to be less of a problem than I thought it would be.)
That it's OK to let strangers in your house.
This one came from The Cat in the Hat. Like most people, nowadays I dive behind the couch whenever another human being has the gall to approach my front door and request an audience. As a child, however, I always perked up when I heard a knock and raced to answer the door. It was usually the UPS guy or a Jehovah’s Witness, but I figured it was only a matter of time before our home was beset by an high-energy cat who would trash the place and tell me to lie to my mother.
That an umbrella allows you to fly.
Thanks for nothing, Mary Poppins. As my understanding of gravity was rather limited when I was six, I one day had the bright idea to jump from a second-story window with nothing but an umbrella and sheer grit.
My plans were ultimately foiled by my mom, who told me her sister had tried the same thing when she was my age, receiving nothing but a broken leg for her troubles.
That if I simply ate a bunch of stuff, I would blossom.
I don’t think I internalized this as the moral of The Very Hungry Caterpillar so much as I used it to justify my addiction to Moon Pies.
That there is such a thing as wizards.
I gave up on Santa and the Tooth Fairy pretty quickly, but as a diehard Harry Potter fan, I held onto the idea of wizard high school far beyond the age where it was appropriate.
That eggs can be green.
I can’t be the only person who thought egg yolk could be green, due to a certain TOME of LIES by Dr. Seuss called Green Eggs and Ham. (I get that the ham in the story was also green, but I was focused on the eggs. Besides, I knew ham couldn’t be green. What was I, a moron?)
That everyone is a murderer just waiting to happen.
I’ve watched a lot of Criminal Minds episodes, which has led me to believe we are all, on most days, just one misstep away from getting kidnapped by a white male in his late twenties who is sexually impotent and hates his mother. However, this didn’t start with Criminal Minds; it actually began in my youth with the Berenstain Bears.
Perhaps in an effort to stop me from flinging the door wide open every time someone knocked, my mom read me The Berenstain Bears Learn About Strangers. In the end, the lesson is you should always be cautious but that most people are probably fine, a lesson that was lost on me because I was too busy picturing strangers in trench coats luring me into vans with promises of Moon Pies I was too weak-willed to refuse.
That Australia is *actually* upside-down.
Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day had me CONVINCED that Australia was some sort of wonderful, upside-down promised land. Throughout the story, Alexander's constant refrain is that he’s moving to Australia, where only good things happen. He tells his so-called “best friend” Paul (who is fickle with his affections, and honestly? Alexander can do better) that he hopes his ice cream falls off the cone and lands in Australia, which I took to mean Australia was inverted. Imagine my surprise when I later learned Australia is not some glittering netherworld but rather a normal place, only with scarier wildlife and better health care.
That I could tap into an imaginary world if only I believed hard enough.
This takeaway was reinforced by everything from Bridge to Terabithia to Where the Wild Things Are. I felt like I was pretty open to the idea of being transported into a hallucinogenic macrocosm of my own creation, one where I got to hang out with cool monsters and become their queen, so I simply couldn’t understand why it wasn’t happening to me every minute of every day.
That friendship is transactional.
What the hell, The Rainbow Fish? I was dazzled by your shiny pages, but your message (“People will only like you if you give them stuff”) is garbage.
I changed schools halfway through the year when I was in kindergarten, so I decided to put this theory to the test by handing out a bunch of Moon Pies during recess in an effort to accrue friends. You know what I got out of the deal? Zero lasting friendships and zero leftover Moon Pies is what. I had to learn to make friends the old-fashioned way — by sharing my crayons, by asking people if I could sit next to them at lunch, and by getting detention with a bunch of misfits. (Looking at you, The Breakfast Club. Don’t even get me started on what John Hughes movies lied to me about. That’s a whole other bag of Cheetos.)