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.
You probably recognize the minimalist, vintage European-looking character, bold black outlines and a very Dutch plot of fire-engine red against dark blue. Miffy, the star of dozens of books by Dick Bruna, looks like a Hello Kitty for a bygone age. I discovered her when my daughter was 18 months old and we were living with my husband in Germany — layers of difficulty wrapped around the core of our family.
The past six months of my daughter's life had seen the turbulent transition from babyhood to toddlerhood. She was into everything, and though it was exciting, I was in a place where I often cringed at her development. Her completely age-appropriate behavior (omg, the squealing stage) wasn’t appealing to me, and I struggled a lot thinking I wasn’t cut out for mothering a young child, wrestling with the fact that I don't actually like being around a toddler. Of course I love my kid, but I'm constantly set upon by a desire for her to be older — I know! A whole different set of struggles there, too! — rather than appreciating where she’s at.
In the midst of this, we took a family mini-holiday to Utrecht, Netherlands, home of the Miffy Museum — the city being the birthplace and long-time home of the author who passed away only a month before our trip in 2017, something I found out by searching online for toddler activities.
Miffy offered a flashback to my own childhood immersed in the world of Sanrio (asked about the similarities of Miffy and Hello Kitty, Bruna once told The Telegraph, Hello Kitty “is a copy, I think. I don’t like that at all.”). My daughter was as equally charmed when we walked through the doors of the museum. Cute characters were brought to life in a series of rooms full of mini-sized activities and play based on the book story lines, and it didn’t really matter that we hadn’t even read one of the books yet.
We left the gift shop with Miffy At The Seaside and my daughter’s first toddler-sized backpack. That night in our Airbnb room, I read the 12-page, four lines of simple rhyme per page book to my daughter, and her delight at the experience seemed to match my own. We had struck gold.
Since then, Miffy has become part of our daily bedtime routine. Combined with the seven-minute television program Miffy’s Adventures Big and Small, based on the books, and the few bits of merchandise we’ve collected so far, there aren’t any signs of mine and my daughter’s partiality to the character slowing any time soon. In fact, her recent third birthday party was gloriously Miffy-themed. There is a Miffy book for every occasion.
Fast forward a few months from our trip, and we were kindly gifted ten Miffy books in a stylish mini-tote bag to establish our collection. I can actually remember my daughter and I looking at each other with our mouths wide open and giggling in delight as we perused through the little books together. Other than sharing my daughter’s joy of the coast (as we now live by the English seaside), it hasn't happened very often that we agree and like the same thing so notably in this season of life. She’s now 3, and what I see of her blossoming personality is often different from my own. Having a point of reference with the Miffy books for bonding has been incredibly helpful in balancing out my desire to hold a space for her to be who she is while also fulfilling what I want motherhood to look like for myself.
The books have given us sweet moments of laughter and curiosity enjoying words and rhyme together (as she can now recite so many of the lines in her favorite ones). I never tire of the simple, innocent storylines, even when we read Miffy In The Snow literally ten nights in a row. We bought her Miffy And Melanie for her birthday, so it’s the newest to our collection and has taken pride of place at bedtime at the moment. In the story, Miffy meets her pen pal from another country who has come to visit her. She’s gets to see that her friend has a different color fur than hers, and she delights in that diversity.
It’s a sweet sentiment that our family is literally established on, as my husband and I are 21st century pen pals from separate countries who got to know one another (and our differences) through email before we met, long-distance dated, and eventually married. The principle of meeting people from anywhere in the world is something we’re certainly happy to encourage. We used Miffy And The New Baby earlier this year as a way to tell our daughter that I’m pregnant, and we’ve referred to it several times as we discuss the ways our family life will change with her brother or sister in the picture.
Many decades before I hopped the pond, Bruna himself moved around the continent. During World War II, he and his family hid in a lake house in a rural part of the Netherlands — it was there, holed up, unable to attend school as a boy that he started to draw. He later went to Paris to try and become a publisher, in the footsteps of his father, but found out he wasn't cut out for it. Returning to the Netherlands to draw, he began a career in illustrating and writing spanning over 70 years. Miffy, the English translation of Nijntje, is his most famous character, a young bunny with a simplistic design that has captivated children from around the world in over 30 titles.
Miffy has been a lifeline to me through madness, a simply drawn guide for moving me and my child through things big and small — a trip to the sea! An emigration — at the other side of which is a hopefully amazing adult to offer to the world.
When things get a little hairy, I pull out one of those books, and we can both find a wee happy place.