I discovered The Day the Babies Crawled Away a few years ago, right around the time I was savoring Rotten Ralph for all of the boisterous reinforcement he was offering my then three-year-old son. This was in a library, I remember, and immediately I knew from the cover that we were probably onto something that would beguile the average little anarchist, or anyway help to contextualize his transgressions less traumatically than I was managing on my own.
As in: “No!”
Also: “No no no no!”
We read a lot of books then, and I would not vouch for most of them now without a second, closer look that wasn’t exclusively about getting me through the day. When I went looking for it then a couple of years later – “You know, that one where the babies are all running amuck and needing to get herded, and the kid looks like he’s wearing a fire helmet or something, and you’re always wondering where the heck are their parents?” – I was met promptly with looks of recognition, even delight, and also the reassurance that this particular branch did indeed carry a copy, it was by Peggy Rathmann (of Goodnight Gorilla fame), and somewhere entombed in Reserves. Of course. Why do libraries do this, I wonder? For preservation, is it? Like woolly mammoths or fainting bearded goats? Is there any mad scientist out there like Richard Attenborough harvesting their genetic material for a giant theme park of the future? Kindle Island?
Oh anyway. I did manage to get my grubby hands on the thing eventually, and take it home, and pass it around, and toss it in the air a couple of times, and maybe salivate imprudently, or maybe that was a wet spot left from many years ago. Felicitously though, the book was every bit the wild rumpus I remembered, with babies crawling “in a bog, chasing frogs,” and dangling from rocky precipices, and napping, and crying, and gorging themselves on blackberries.
And being rescued. Because it’s the little kid in the fireman’s helmet who’s kind of the point of this story, or anyway that’s how it appears to me now. There are many, many books that set out to capture the confusions and frustrations – the incredulity even – of older siblings. This is a pretty easy target, it says here, like the sure-thing demographics afraid of the first day of school, afraid of the dark, of monsters and government takeovers; these books are going to get written no matter what, so perhaps the best we can hope is they are not so ham-handed and obvious that we - or our children – become suspicious of the entire medium. Because that would really suck, wouldn’t it? When there are monsters and plenty of darkness and evil Europeans waiting to beguile us in HD.
Among all of the books on the subject of accommodating party-crashing newborns, probably Julius, The Baby of the World is the one most frequently given as a gift to the parents of a second child, and I think this distinction is earned: Lilly, the older sister here, is in every other way so irrepressible and consistently skeptical (“You will live to regret that bump under your dress”) that her outright hostility toward Julius when he is born feels about as honest as it is unapologetic - and sometimes even a little desperate. She always looks like she is just on the verge of tossing him into the dryer or something, and the pages where this preternaturally self-confident girl (okay, mouse) begins lunging for scraps of approval feel almost uncomfortably true.
Then Susan Orlean wrote a witty treatment called Lazy Little Loafers about the thing that would really freak me out if I were a five-year-old, expected to do homework, and dress myself, and keep myself entertained, while that baby – she does nothing! And fusses about it too. Like a cranky retiree!
Of course the subjects in The Day the Babies Crawled Away are emphatically more diverting; you hardly realize you are reading a book about growing up until the end. That a child so young he is wearing a part of a fireman’s costume should be forced to already assume such a position of responsibility between the adults (who are, what, too busy mixing margaritas at the picnic?) and the babies who look like they are having a pretty great time after all, well, this seems a drama worth reporting. The story is told in silhouette against a panoramic sunset, and the boy is finally celebrated as a hero – widely, rightly - although the sweetest consolation arrives from his mother, and I think it’s pretty universal. There are a lot of us that want adventures. We want to be able to tell them. And then we want someone to pour us a drink.