Monday, September 14

Don't Forget to Come Back

by Robie H. Harris
pictures by Harry Bliss
Candlewick 2004

Okay, this book sort of freaked me out.

First, this is one of those books that gets shelved with the "other issues" books that parents use as object lessons they'd rather not teach themselves. You know, rather than talk to kids about how to deal with bullies or first-day-of-school or other traumas of modern childhood, parents sit their kids down with a book and say "Here, read this." Only here we're talking about the separation anxiety that comes from parents going for a night out and leaving the child alone with a sitter.

But it's more specific than that. It's about the anxiety of a single child who has no sibling to rely upon for comfort and otherwise might be a bit more demanding of parental affection or attention. It's also a child whose parents can afford to go to the theater (as witnessed by the Playbill on the kitchen table) and have framed paintings on the wall. It appears, to me, the anxiety of privilege.

I think what freaks me out is that the child is alternately too young or too old to manifest all the behavior shifts included. It's a sort of Kubler-Ross collection of stages of anxiety as their little "Pumpkin" tries to prevent her parents from leaving for the evening. There's anger, guilt-tripping, bargaining, denial, depression, and finally acceptance as the sitter turns out to be permissively silly. It isn't that kids don't run through different emotions when their parents are taking a night out, it's that more often they are less rational than Pumpkin, and there is no realistic depiction of the type of true meltdown that kids go through before entering into the more "mature" phases of bargaining.

While I can see the point and purpose of showing picture book readers that it's perfectly alright to feel anxious about their parents leaving them, the fact that the book's illustrations feel more representative of the white, upper-class experience rather than a more middle-class parents-struggling-for-a-single-night-out-once-every-couple-months-before-they-go-crazy that would typically arouse such behavior.

(pauses to take a breath after that last sentence.)

Also, though Pumpkin survives the ordeal and is pleased the next morning to find that her parents didn't forget to come home, her feelings aren't addressed directly. Her parents seem very blase about her threats and promises to the point where I imagine it comes from familiarity. They have dealt with Pumpkin's little tantrums and emotional blackmail before and are immune, but then how does that help the reader to see such detached parents in the face of such anxieties? Is the reader supposed to say "Gee, she's acting silly!" and then turn that around and say "You know, I've been a bit ridiculous myself of late, perhaps I ought change?"

Perhaps there is something else at work here, something else that irks and makes me uncomfortable. it may have something to do with the idea of the picture book as so heavy a "message book" that it takes the fun away from reading. Which is not to say that books cannot or should not include valuable lessons or messages for the reader to take away, but that there is a line where message overtakes the story. There is a difference between eating something healthy and eating something that's supposed to be good for you; one you do and reap the benefits, the other you do begrudgingly because it's the right thing to do whether or not you like it. A book with message over story feels a little like that to me, and less like reading for pleasure.
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