I take stock. Once in a while, or as often as I can stand it, I cast a look around at all of these books – nearly six hundred now – that I have chosen to try to promote, and I wonder if whatever inherent qualities I have noticed and reported upon were not strictly a matter of my – and my children’s – personal experiences, then whether there is ever any sense in trying to make that case to perfect strangers. Heck, I go to sleep every night hoping for some bolt of confidence that this entire unlikely endeavor – this yammering about books, and what they’ve meant to me personally – makes any sense at all.
But in those rare, uplifting moments when I stumble upon something so different it seems likely that no one has ever seen it, or find myself weirdly (and medicably?) moved at the end of a very short story about a discarded stuffed bear, or a mythical giant, or a seafaring mouse – in those optimistic seconds it does not feel like there is any other alternative suddenly, because to sit around hurling adjectives at the successes or the failures of a particular book seems finally much worse than not talking about it at all. Because we run out of adjectives after a while, and adverbs (medicably?), so then all that remains is just cleverness: some zero-sum struggle pitting arbitrary values versus abstract criteria that finally owes more to a writer’s virtuosity at muscling through a sentence, a recap, a position than it does to any lasting feeling for the book.
I don’t know how it has evolved to this point – for children’s fare, and adults’ – but more and more often these days a significant majority of reviewers tread right up the edge of parody. And jump:
“Maybe it’s the story that’s finally reductive, or the genre too yielding to adaptation, but the dialogue here reads like a series of unsolicited reckonings, as lurching and portentous as a lesson that wants to get learned.”
What the heck does that even mean? I don’t know. And I wrote it - a couple of years ago about a book I can barely remember and probably didn’t come close to even finishing, although now I see it concerned one woman’s journey to sexual liberation in seventeenth century Isfahan, so what was I even doing there in the first place. Oh, and here’s a little ditty about small farm foreclosures:
“There’s plenty of life in the sentences, but the story just sits there, waiting to be prodded along by rash acts, a maniac on the lose, fairy kidnappings, anything.”
Yeah, funny. Ha ha. Someone was paying me almost nothing to do this, and so I had very little to lose. Also, being so inconsiderable, I was nowhere influenced to advocate one way or another, to be practical, to seek privileges, or feel the sting of another writer’s retribution, and was therefore free to do cartwheels. But it mattered – maybe just enough to put a couple of people off, or falsely raise an expectation or two – and so I remain skeptical about the consequences of one voice – my voice - ever growing too loud, and ask anyone who has ever been kind enough, or curious, or even sufficiently skeptical to visit this site, to please contribute a little something of your own unique experience with a particular title, be it memory, misgivings, or dissent.
Our opinions about books do not evolve in a vacuum of course, and nowhere are we more collaborative in our choices, and more mysterious in our tastes, than the books that we share with our children. I could pick many books here I came around to - some where I’m convinced I simply was not up to the challenge of them, and some which did not then seem relevant to me, or to my children - still one favorite remains beyond my ability to rationalize, and (judging from it’s continued availability) has been otherwise defying analysis since 2005.
Don’t Say That, Willy Nilly! is about a boy whose mother sends him to the store for a head of cabbage. Misunderstandings ensue. It’s not smart, not enlightening, the illustrations are nothing special, but the repetition is kind of hypnotic I guess - “Watch out, I might bite!” I still find myself thinking (hopefully where no one can hear it) on crowded subway platforms, or whenever someone sits in front of me at movies - plus also the sight of Willy Nilly digging into that cabbage all smothered in ketchup proves - I don’t know – irresistible? We found this book – then amply stocked at Barnes & Noble – when my son was around four, then every time we returned he asked if we could read it again, I tried to demur, but finally went ahead and bought the damn thing just to move on.
That is my story, and I cannot pretend it points to the measure of this book, in fact I have always wished there were someone else out there who could set me straight, or even corroborate the experience, so I did not always need to worry that I was somewhere ensnared in a Willy Nilly Mind Meld. Among other things, this site was conceived as a place where people might meet to begin, to join, or finally finish a conversation about these books that are otherwise only discussable with our children, or with a couple of other parents we barely know, while we’re racing to exit the schoolyard. The best way, I thought, to invite that conversation was with the purely personal, which did not hopefully suggest anything like literary expertise or objectivity, though I have warily begun attaching reviews to these titles – about two hundred so far out of nearly three times that many – and hope they don’t suck, and hope that you, and you, and you can add onto my shout-outs and pixel-thin musings the thousands of fuller descriptions that each of these books well deserves.