The subtext of board-books

Dot writes: is it just me, or do babies’ board-books sometimes betray a turbulent emotional subtext of parental ambivalence, possessiveness, inter-generational rivalry and manipulation? I’m thinking specificially of Guess How Much I Love You, the classic (according to the back cover) picture book by Sam McBratney, illustrated by Anita Jeram. It involves a little nut-brown hare preparing for bed and telling a big nut-brown hare (his male single parent, apparently – though the nature of the menage(ry) is not clarified) how much he loves him. A sample:

“I love you as high as I can reach,” said Little Nutbrown Hare.
“I love you as high as I can reach,” said Big Nutbrown Hare. That is quite high, thought Little Nutbrown Hare. I wish I had arms like that.

In the picture Little Nutbrown Hare reaches roughly to Big Nutbrown Hare’s knee. The structure is very simple: Little Nutbrown Hare keeps on thinking of bigger distances to express his love, and Big Nutbrown Hare keeps trumping them, until finally Little Nutbrown Hare goes for the biggest distance he can think of.

“I love you right up to the moon,” he said, and closed his eyes.
“Oh, that’s far,” said Big Nutbrown Hare. “That is very, very far.”
Big Nutbrown Hare settled Little Nutbrown Hare into his bed of leaves. He leaned over and kissed him good night.
Then he lay down close by and whispered with a smile, “I love you right up to the moon – and back.”

Now, this is a very sweet little book. The repetitive structure is well-designed to engage a small child, and the obvious message – that mum or dad loves the child limitlessly – is comforting. But at the same time, isn’t there an only slightly less obvious message that, whatever the child does, mum or dad is just bigger and stronger and will always win? S/he always has the last word; s/he can play the child’s game and beat him at it; the child can only imagine being able to live up to him/her. Isn’t that just a tiny bit chilling? Doesn’t it hint at how the child could feel inadequate, futile and small?

For the other side of the family drama there’s Baby Loves, by Michael Lawrence and Adrian Reynolds. It also works by repeating a simple formula – in fact simpler, as verbally each sentence almost repeats the previous one. The subversive stuff is in the pictures.

Baby loves Mummy and Daddy more than anything in the world. [picture of baby happily pulling its father’s nose; Mummy is in the background near the high chair] Except…
[page turn]
Teddy! [picture of teddy missing one arm, which baby has evidently just pulled off and is holding] Baby loves Teddy more than anything in the world except…
[page turn]
Puss! [baby is on potty, reaching forward to grab puss’s tail] Baby loves Puss more than anything in the world except…

And so it goes on, until baby is safely tucked up in bed, with Mummy and Daddy watching.

And Mummy and Daddy love Baby more than anything in the world except…
[page turn]
No. Mummy and Daddy love Baby more than anything in the world…
Anything at all!

I have to confess that when I read this to Hugh I always choke up a little at the end. But the pictures definitely give the impression that Mummy and Daddy have a lot to put up with as their baby ricochets from enthusiasm to enthusiasm, leaving a trail of destruction in its wake. Daddy has a hole in one of his slippers and Mummy is dressed in a drab, comfortable way that is probably intended to not to date but that looks like the oldest things in her wardrobe to me. It’s a good thing that they love baby more than anything in the world, or baby might be having a much less enjoyable time…

The moral of this post is a) you can do literary criticism on absolutely anything; and b) I’m sticking to The Very Hungry Caterpillar, which teaches that if you overeat you become radiantly beautiful.

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9 thoughts on “The subtext of board-books

  1. Dot

    Being English myself, I don’t see Englishness as a problem per se. In fact I tend to associate Englishness with being dry and understated, whereas “Guess How Much I Love You” is all about letting your feelings hang out. But I agree “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” is much better.

  2. But have you the monster size copy of ‘The Very Hungry Caterpillar’? A delight for true afficionados.

    The McBratney text reminded me of King Lear!

  3. Helen Conrad O'Briain

    Just think of the wonderful wings I shall have – and everyone else who has come within arm’s length of the biscuit tin in 4026.

  4. I always see the spectre of death in Guess How Much I Love You. The power of love cannot overcome the fact that Big Nut Brown Hare will die leaving Little Nut Brown Hare on his own.

  5. Dot

    Thanks for that thought, Jeremy. You may have succeeded in being even gloomier about this nice little story than I was.

    @Anne, I’ve just done some googling (that indispensible research tool!) and it seems Sam McBratney was born in Belfast and educated at Trinity College.

  6. Pingback: Images of Englishness II « Ken and Dot’s Allsorts

  7. I suppose you don’t get BBC 4 (tv channel) over there – they’ve been running a very nice 3 part series on Children’s picture books, didn’t cover the Very Hungry Caterpillar tho…

    But has been causing me to add to my mental shopping list of books

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