Like a lot of the random books that somehow wriggled their way into my family’s collection before any of us knew enough to leave them by the curb, Weird Parents, by Audrey Wood, has nevertheless maintained a foothold in our collective consciousness that is probably all out of proportion to its literary or artistic merits. I don’t think I’d give it a very long look if I found it today. Or anyway not if I wasn’t already a little familiar with its author and illustrator from someplace else (The Napping House, Elbert’s Bad Word), and decided to invest the extra thirty or forty seconds in figuring out exactly what she was up to here. Like it or not, this is probably how most of us form, and grow, and guard our cultural preferences – especially for something like picture books, which tend to flit across our radars before we’ve spent very much time considering their provenance, and often fade away just as unannounced.
Which is sometimes just as well: I’m not sure Weird Parents, for one, requires any deeper scrutiny. Here is fundamentally the story of two unabashed exhibitionists – who laugh too loud at the movies, and chicken walk in public, and dress like the entertainment in somebody’s medieval court – and the straitlaced, often incredulous son who nevertheless manages to benefit.
Reading this back again recently, I did not remember the bit about the chicken walk, or the starry, golden automobile with scepters sticking out of the roof, or the sharing of belly buttons with crowds of total strangers, no, what always springs to mind is a mother blowing kisses and pressing her hand to her heart through the rear view window of a school bus – “Bye-bye honeycakes!” – and lunchbox surprises, the father shaking hands and working the crowd outside school – mortifying maybe, but part of a pretty nice package in the end, which I guess my kids also remember. Anyway, I hope. Whether this all works out beyond the covers of this book – the boy growing into a man who is not forever handicapped by the memory of his family’s unquenchable affections – well, I really don’t know, but it’s a relief sometimes to remember this image of parents not churning and mechanically chopping overhead, but fluttering and unpredictable, the butterfly, not the helicopter for once, at least while there is someone still around to tell the difference.