Reading to my daughter in the just-the-two-of-us home, I'm beginning to appreciate a different sort of literary canonby Hephzibah Anderson / November 8, 2020 / Leave a comment
Once upon a time, every child was born into a loving home with a mum and a dad. That’s a fairy tale, of course, though you wouldn’t know it to dip into the average 20th-century classic kids’ book. Raymond Briggs’s The Snowman, Eric Hill’s Spot series, Judith Kerr’s The Tiger Who Came to Tea, Shirley Hughes’s Dogger, Else Holmelund Minarik’s Little Bear books—the grown-ups in these stories invariably come in twos, a mummy and a daddy, be they tucked up in bed together, eating tea across the table from one another or jointly navigating a teachable moment.
I’ll admit it: before becoming a solo parent, I’d been impatient with anxieties about literature being relatable to kids in every sort of home, believing it to be a strictly adult concern. Yes, it’s clearly good for children to encounter as many differently shaped families on the page as possible, but our small ones are so much more outward-looking than we navel-gazing grown-ups are, and read to find the world, not themselves. For a picture book “reader,” fire engines and flamingos, drainpipes and dandelions are all more richly rewarding topics than their own reflections. Besides, at that age, they can easily spend half a day being someone else entirely—a witch, an astronomer, a hedgehog.
It was Goldilocks and the Three Bears that changed my mind. Reading it in our just-the-two-of-us home, the story’s singsong chorus of Papa-Mama-Baby-bear began to grate. Not only that: I could suddenly hear its refrain echoing through so many of our other bedtime favourites. Had I become woke, or were months and months of broken nights finally taking their toll, inducing another kind of wokeness?
Soon, I was tweaking the mighty Judith Kerr as I read. I tried “mummy’s friend” in lieu of daddy, but it sounded, well, creepy—at least to me. That said, my daughter was too caught up with the drama between the principal players, Sophie and the tiger, to notice—a reminder that the best parents in children’s books, regardless of gender, sexual orientation or relationship status, are absent ones who leave their little ones to their fun.
Roaming beyond the books…