TWC poetry and fiction instructor Jared Harel delves into the beauty he discovered reading children’s books
I don’t remember being read to as a child. My parents were good ones—doting and thoughtful—so perhaps I was, but nothing comes to mind. In fact, I recall only three books in my childhood home, each a disregarded fixture, like doormats or drapes. In the living room, there was a mass-market paperback of The Firm. Its cover depicted some poor suit dangling over marble green, his brown attaché case just out of reach. Upstairs, a cream-colored copy of Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus sat on my mom’s nightstand, half-buried beneath coupons and ancient receipts. Lastly, we owned a massive, musty brick of Shakespeare’s Collected Plays I later learned had been there the day we moved in, and which we humored on a shelf above our treasured Nintendo. God knows how I became an English major, let alone a writer. All this is to admit that my true introduction to children’s books came when I finally had kids of my own.
What I found upon arrival was varied to say the least. I’d expected the fantastical: hippos in bow ties, transportation with faces, moral platitudes packaged in bright, garish fonts and delivered by ducklings with an aptitude for end-rhyme couplets. And sure, there was plenty of that. But there were other things too, like the hypnotic lullaby of Goodnight Moon, or the spare, incisive grace of Last Stop On Market Street, as clear and nuanced as a classic blues song. In the latter, as CJ and his nana begin their long bus ride home, I encountered the following lines: “The outside air smelled like freedom, but it also smelled like rain.” This was writing of strangeness and beauty. A children’s book can do that? I vividly recall thinking, till my pajama-clad kids poked my stomach, eager to get a move on, to keep reading.
I kept reading, and what I discovered continued to surprise and delight. I found Amelia Bedelia with its crackerjack humor and literalization of stale idioms beside the luscious, florid dreamscapes of Time For Bed, Miyuki. I came across a copy of A.A. Milne’s original Winnie-the-Pooh, and finally understood why people adore it—it’s just so weird, in the best possible sense. A tub of honey in a cool, hollowed tree. As someone who devotes tremendous energy and anxiety into finding new and more precise language to articulate being alive, I suddenly found kinship in children’s books. After all, for the majority of their target audience, language is new, and the written word’s magic still undiminished.
Nowhere have I felt this more keenly, perhaps, than in an elephant and pig whose bond sets the benchmark for the kind of friendships I strive for in this world: generous and unflinching. If you have small children, you’re likely familiar with Mo Willems’ Elephant & Piggie series. Is each story not a master class in minimalism, in small gestures and simple joys? Take, for example, Can I Play Too?, in which Piggie and Elephant Gerald are playing catch when a friendly snake asks to join in. “But you do not have arms,” Piggie gently concedes. What follows is a series of humorous, ill-fated attempts to play catch until, in a flash of inspiration, Snake happily becomes “the ball.” What a bizarre and brilliant solution! When writing my best poems—when I’m really in it—language and logic tilt just this way, to the natural laws of whatever rhythmic word-machine I am working to make whole. The impossible becomes inevitable. I tinker till it clicks.
Over the past eight years, my wife and I have read to our children in beds and on carpets. Across from highchairs, potties, car seats, and swings. When our daughter spent a week at North Shore Hospital with alarmingly low oxygen-levels, I raced home for her medications, extra underwear—and books. Even my parents have come around. Last week, during a visit, I found my father fumbling through Bear Snores On, his young grandson nestled in his lap. Children’s books are woven into our daily routine like strong coffee, or pleading with the kids to put on their socks. Or as Shakespeare put it (now that we’re acquainted): “And this, our life, exempt from public haunt, finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks, sermons in stones, and good in everything.”
In perhaps my favorite Elephant & Piggie book, Waiting Is Not Easy!, Piggie has a surprise for Elephant Gerald. As Piggie explains, however, “The surprise is not here yet.” Gerald grows increasingly impatient, and as the pages around them continue to dim, he panics: “We have waited too long! It is getting dark!” Just then, Piggie points to a perfect night sky in all its glittery, humbling incandescence. I get how Gerald feels as he lifts his gaze, stars where once there was nothing at all. My launch into the galaxy of children’s books may have been delayed, but as Gerald puts it, “This was worth the wait.”
Jared Harél is the author of the poetry collection, Go Because I Love You (Diode Editions, 2018) and the narrative long-poem, The Body Double (Brooklyn Arts Press, 2012). He’s been awarded the ‘Stanley Kunitz Memorial Prize’ from American Poetry Review, the ‘William Matthews Poetry Prize’ from Asheville Poetry Review, and two Individual Artist Grants from Queen Council on the Arts. His writing has recently appeared in such journals as Arts & Letters, Harvard Review, Ploughshares, The Southern Review, The Sun and The Threepenny Review. He lives with his wife and two children in Queens, NY.
This essay first appeared in New Ohio Review.