Chances are your children have probably wanted you to read them some pretty dreadful books. You could call this a matter of taste – yours, theirs – though sometimes our enjoyment gets so tangled up with the enjoyment of our children it’s hard to tell whose is whose. Maybe that’s not so bad. Parenting needs to be a collaborative endeavor, but then so does whatever it is your children are supposed to be doing – childing? – or chances are someone’s going to get a little crazy. Chances are Daddy’s going to end up calling himself Daddy.
When my son was three years old, my wife and I debated the merits of sending him to nursery school. We didn’t, and when he was four we debated again. He did not want to go (that was one of my arguments). He is, by nature, skeptical, even fearful, and needed some earlier guidance through speech deficits, sensory surfeits, and overall hyper attention (that was another). Then there was also the little matter of tens of thousands of dollars which I could think of better ways to surrender. I was at home. Plus I just wanted the company.
We ended up settling on a little two-hour program at a public school that required some getting to, but it was perfect. My son made friends, art, and just enough trouble I had some idea of what I was probably looking at for the next thirteen years of his schooling - all this, and our days remained opened for business. We biked, boated, bladed and threw breadcrumbs to seagulls, turtles, tourists, almost anything that moved. He learned to dribble between his legs, and I polished my jump shot. We saw a dead crocodile with scissors and knives sticking out of it on the roof of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The mornings were often barely visible in the evenings through all of the epic happenings in their middles. We had a blast, but there were also those times he went flopping and chirping like a wounded porpoise beside me on the bed as I tried to get some work done:
“What does element mean?”
“Defibrillator’s a pretty good word.”
I had laundry to do. E-mails to write. Grown-up serious thinking to be thunk. By the end of most days I was bushed.
It helped to be able to find some default proposition in the middle of our competing agendas. Books, of course, worked great, but to further combine them with a time-killing stroll to Barnes & Noble could justify a considerable slice of the day: I asked and he always agreed. Together we located many good or excellent books, and a couple of outright stinkers - you know the ones. Try to picture your daughter, your son appearing around the end of an aisle with an armful of page-candy. Try to remember the whole collaborative thing.
There were – still are - hundreds of these excursions, yet some books linger in my recollection, as surprising and mysterious as an archaeological find. By all outward appearances, Ugly Fish did not seem so very exceptional. It was weird-looking, yes, with kind of a funny premise – Ugly Fish, bored and set in his ways, needs to learn to share his aquarium with a succession of annoying and obsequious imports – but nothing about that set-up prepares you for the ensuing Darwinism, or maybe it does, and we’re just out of practice. Suffice it to say that things don’t end up very well for anyone, not even for Ugly Fish, and not even after we have become a little bit invested in his quirks and endearing grumpiness. You see the end coming, but it’s still a little shocking when it arrives.
“Well, that happened,” I remember explaining to my son when it was over.
“Can we read it again?”
And we did. In fact it was always among the first of his requests whenever we returned. We probably read it six or seven times. Ugly Fish had done his job.
Months went by. My son enrolled in kindergarten where the 23:2 ratio would have worked probably better if it favored the teachers. Of course he asked a million questions and required generally more attention than was available. I tried to make myself useful. I helped with projects, went on field trips, to the circus and the pet store where our kids picked fish as classroom pets, and I was duly anointed Fish Guy, apparently owing to all of my expertise gleaned from picture books and Blue Planet. I filled the tank, I thought of Ugly Fish, and wishfully bought a driftwood tunnel to distract them from hating each other’s guts. I sprinkled pellets and flakes and solutions and fairy dust and anything else I could get my hands on, like some wild-eyed chef whose taste buds have fallen asleep. The kids made up names for the fish – Jumpy, Flippy, Otto, something, but I really don’t remember.
Because they died. And I replaced them. And then they died some more. The teacher would open the classroom to a different amazing pathology every Monday: faded, staring corpses wedged inside the tunnel, or sucked up into the filters like Augustus Gloop. The water turned to skim milk. Updates went out to the parents:
“After the unfortunate events of last week…”
“Our new fish are adjusting to the warm and welcoming environment of K-216!”
“In the wake of Thursday’s meltdown which your child might have mentioned…”
“The fish are taking a much needed vacation in Ms. Mariano’s classroom!”
By the time I was caught evacuating Pooper in a Dixie Cup I think most of the kids were pretty hardened to this cross-section of reality.
“Is he dead?”
Annihilation’s a pretty good word.
We talk down to kids of course, and in all of our obfuscation, probably succeed in multiplying dramas rather than explaining them. Fish happen. And if it is true that through death we gain an appreciation for the wonder – and fragility – of life, then maybe we can also find some greater value in a happy ending when it is earned, and not always expected.
A lot of people may not agree with the inclusion of Ugly Fish on our list, and that’s okay; for every powerful reason to cherish a particular children’s book there are at least as many to dislike it. Publisher’s Weekly wrote: “This cautionary tale shows that violence begets violence, but never suggests an alternative to the big-fish-eats-little-fish cycle.” Well, maybe. If you think your child is likely to pattern his behavior after a talking, warty fish then you definitely shouldn’t order this book.
Still stories can be enlightening without being instructive. They can also be a hoot, like Rotten Ralph, whose author – did you know it? – also wrote a young adult autobiography called Hole in My Life about the reckless decisions that led to his conviction on federal narcotics trafficking charges. There’s some honest-to-goodness pain behind Ralph’s shenanigans. Dare we call it a soul?
We dare. As for Ugly Fish, it vanished in pretty short order, every bit as suddenly, as plausibly, as regrettably as its hero. I miss him: the grousing, the drama, the dread. I think of my son, his enduring fascination with things that worry and perplex him, until, I guess, he works them out. I think of his continuing, mostly successful adjustment to the rigors of elementary school. I think of my meddling, my sprinkling, my nerve. And I think of the last of those newsletter updates, of the note tucked in near the end: