It’s amazing – isn’t it? – how opposite our children can turn out. One child is a championship caliber sleeper, and the other is doomed to a lifetime of very expensive pharmaceuticals and dreams about falling out of things. No, really, she’s the worst! And one of your genetic legacies still can’t tie their shoes, and he’s eight, and the other was fashioning origami pterodactyls before she could walk, and one was an early talker – possibly the earliest talker you’ve ever known - and the other refused to talk until she was two, because she’s stubborn, really the stubbornest little bulldog in probably the entire Second Grade now, and the tallest bulldog too – look at her! Where the heck did she get those skyscraper chromosomes?
From you? But you’re - ? You’re the shortest one in your family? And the least musically gifted? Really, tone-deaf?
Remarkable, aren’t we? How we can go marveling over ourselves with such facility. If there is a fate more ignominious than rating as somewhere medium in our attention-grabbing cultures and subcultures – in clubs and klatches and dining rooms and schoolyards; if there is anything worse than not being able to spectacularly lasso a conversation into the fascinating realm of your, or your child’s, extraordinary talents or hilarious weaknesses, well, then maybe it’s being forced to sit through an endless loop of So You Think You Can Dance, or whatever else they are doing in Guantanamo these days.
I’m sure there are some very heavy books that have been written to try to trace this phenomenon back to its roots, and I’m sure it’s all Andy Warhol’s fault for stipulating the whole fifteen minutes thing, and then maybe this also has a little bit to do the sort of resumé building that begins a little early these days, and magazines about impossibly gifted and attractive people, yeah, okay, I guess. But really that doesn’t help me right now, as I am too often tempted to intercept the story of somebody else’s amazingly gifted offspring with one of my own, then by the time my kids have any inclination to reflect upon the fact that every one of their peers ranks in the ninety-eighth percentile of something, it’ll probably be too late.
Though it doesn’t these days rate as a conversation starter unfortunately, I think there is some potentially greater, and more sustainable pride to be gained by those who are willing to recognize the medium in themselves. Because, realistically, that is where most of us rank – the ninety-eighth percentile of average-ness - and probably would not recognize whatever little leftover percentage it is that truly makes us different in all the hyperbole. There is no shortage of children’s books about rising to glorious pinnacles, and becoming famous, still I think just as invaluable are the sort of stories where a nerdy little spaz fails to hit the game-winning home-run – maybe he contributes a walk - and these stories are predictably harder to find.
The little victories that merit, I think, some greater attention are often the ones that only someone paying the closest attention would even notice, and they usually happen a great deal lower in the percentiles. In Leo the Late Bloomer, a little tiger’s significant metamorphosis amounts to his merely becoming competent – at writing his letters and eating his food without spattering himself - but this comes with a catchy admonishment also, which I try to play back to myself when I am wondering over my own – and my children’s - fits and starts, that “a watched bloomer doesn’t bloom.”
In Garmann’s Summer, a six year old Norwegian boy is right to worry particularly over Hannah and Johanna, two neighbor girls who can bicycles, walk tightrope, hold their heads under water, and read, indeed in a book that speaks about death and school and stage fright and shoelaces and dentists, those twin sisters strike me as the scariest things around.
There’s nothing wrong with Garmann, though he does not know that by the final page - and it will probably take a lifetime for him to figure it out. Because that’s what we do, very fast or very slow, depending on our native abilities (and maybe some practice) at noticing all of the unnamable shades between failure and success. In The OK Book, a stick figure character happily volunteers to being an okay climber, skipper, marshmallow roaster, lightning bug catcher, still:
“One day, I’ll grow up to be really excellent at something.”
I don’t know if this book is as great as, say, Garmann, whose ambitions run into the epic. The OK narrative doesn’t exactly surprise with great vaults or spread-eagles, and Krouse’s illustrations are suitably minimalist – the character has the head of an O and the body of a capsized K – but there isn’t a dishonest page in it, and the truth these days is a pretty high hurdle to clear. Maybe it’s me, but never has being okay seemed so spectacularly good.