In recently assembling a category of books for younger readers, I was struck by how many of them were about going to sleep, in fact I even wondered if the bias was mine, or it reflected a wider, potentially darker truth about the usefulness of books for this age group, that all we really want to do is lull the little suckers into oblivion.
I generally relied on the same dependable stories when my children were of napping age, though neither ever complained about the repetition. On the contrary, I think they even counted on it, the same way you assume the world will look the same when you wake up one hour later, or ten - no small assumption when you are two years old and every day features something seminally thrilling, or terrifying, or weird. Who wants to be unconscious in the middle of all that eventfulness? It doesn’t stop happening - does it? - the minute we close our eyes. And come to think of it, what is sleep anyway? Nobel prize-winning neurologists cannot tell us exactly what happens when we doze, or why we dream, plus it seems a little like hibernating – doesn’t it? – and hibernating seems a little like death, and who the heck knows what happens when we die? Well, some of us maybe, though I am personally sympathetic to children, and grown-ups, and even talking furry mammals who are scared about the prospect of getting left alone between the darkness and their unruly imaginations.
It seems to me that children’s picture books attempt to address this helplessness in a number of very different ways, firstly by promising that all of us – even ogres and goblins – are similarly neutralized, never more memorably than in Mem Fox’s Where the Giant Sleeps, with vivid, dreamy illustrations by Vladimir Radunsky; by reminding us the world goes on, “in another place, or in a different way,” as Charlotte Zolotow puts it in When the Wind Stops; by acknowledging that there may indeed be whole lives attached to those voices and swooshing and honking noises that wake you up, or prevent you from getting on with the duties of sleep, but that they are benign, and even helpful – like the street sweepers and window dressers and security guards in Jessie Hartland’s Night Shift, all of them busy building your better tomorrow. Like Mr. Night, himself a sort of giant star-filled security guard of Dan Yaccarino’s invention, who closes the flowers and calms the seas and helped my older son through years of restless sleeping, in fact I would not be surprised if Mr. Night did not contribute some shadowy, residual appearance this week.
So how many ways is that? I’m sure there are probably more, hundreds if you’re counting, which you might be, which is why most of us probably need a good long night full of narrative black holes and non sequiturs; maybe it’s not such a waste of time, after all. We lose ourselves to sleep, but how many of us have not felt some little sense of accomplishment in the middle of the night at having told ourselves such a splendid, hilarious yarn. Such a raconteur am I! Such a comedian! Like the other night I ran out of ingredients for paella, and decided to cook my socks.
You had to be there, but you couldn’t, which is why most people’s dreams are a chore and a horror to listen to. Cooking socks is kind of funny for a second, still what followed and endlessly preceded may as well have been Antonio Banderas singing in Evita! for all of the meaning you could probably derive.
It takes skill, in other words, presuming inspiration, to be able to find that space between the earthbound demands of a story and the creeping illogic of dreams. More than any medium, children’s picture books are perfectly equipped – and potentially received – at this crossroads, and while I cannot say whether it is psychologically beneficial to witness this type of a preview, it’s certainly very cool when somebody pulls it off.
Like Uri Shulevitz does in So Sleepy Story, with his yawning houses and waltzing spoons. Like Jimmy Yiao in When the Moon Forgot, about the rock that falls out of the sky, and the boy who attempts to return it. Like Penguin Dreams, about a penguin who dreams of - what else? – flying until he’s completely free of the planet, and hovering amid octopi in space. You may find yourself occasionally thinking What? during each of these stories, but never, importantly, Enh.
Then consider Dr. Seuss, arguably the most lucid day-dreamer in history (maybe his nights were full of spreadsheets) with his yawning, drowsing Biffer-Baum birds and Herk-Heimer sisters, and Foona-Lagoona Baboona, the pages turning gradually darker, rhymes heavier, breathing slower, like the wings of a bird achieving altitude, and who cares if it doesn’t make sense? What matters is what matters is what matters, and I’ll see you in the morning.