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Happens All the Time

Where I live, at least, the only remaining major American bookseller is hosting what they call an adoption center for The Elf on the Shelf® in the middle of what is, nostalgically perhaps, still labeled the Picture Book section. It’s been a while since I visited, so I cannot say whether this is merely a seasonal arrangement unveiled with the overdue sighs that accompany the passing of Halloween and the challenges of Thanksgiving – really, how many more stories are there to tell about Pilgrims and hilarious turkeys? – or if The Elf on the Shelf® is finally a more permanent replacement owing to its versatility as a Birthday, as well as a Christmas, Tradition since, um, 2005. You can accessorize The Elf on the Shelf® with Elf Pets® if you like, fulfilling A Reindeer Tradition, or a Puffy North Pole Parka from the Claus Couture Collection® or the Awesome Ombré Skirt Set or Sleigh Rider Denim Jacket, each for around ten bucks a pop after your original adoption fee of twenty-nine ninety-five. The basic idea, as I understand it, is The Elf on the Shelf® reports back to Santa on the whole naughty-or-nice dialectic from watching and perching in different locations in your home like a less bloodthirsty Chucky. There are girl and boy Elves to set loose from their packaging, light skinned and dark skinned, though no word yet from this particular location whether an agent of Kwanzaa or maybe a tattletale dreidel is in the works. 

I’ll stop now. Like I said, it’s been a while. The A-G authors seem to have been at least temporarily displaced, which I bet the store managers think hardly anyone will notice, which I mightn’t if the great Kevin Henkes hadn’t consequently appeared first, and most damningly, in the picture book queue. I grew up with Henkes, or anyway my children did, so I am inclined to think he is therefore at least a little responsible for my most recent iteration. If you have spent any time in the children’s section of your local library, or you are sufficiently creeped out by shelves flush with elves and Pinkalicious offspring (she does look like a jackalantern, right?) to head straight for the paperback alcove of your nearest megamart, then you probably know Henkes for his soulful, intrepid mice – Lilly, especially, of the urgent Purple Plastic Purse, Chrysanthemum, searching and poetic, Owen heroically committed to never outgrowing his blankie, Chester and Wilson to their complicated routines. Sheila Rae, brave and then not so much, Wendell the play date from hell.

Stuck in their ways, all of them, and finally a little grudging about resolutions: The Elf on the Shelf® surely would have reported them as dysfunctional. And so I was frankly a little disappointed a few years ago when this author appeared to maneuver away from such orneriness in favor of the sort of soothing animal fables for younger audiences most often described by reviewers as “luminous” and “full of wonderment.” Maybe it’s just a stage, I thought. Or maybe it was time to move on.

Henkes’s most recent offering, titled Waiting, starts out looking a little like Pam Conrad’s and Richard Egielski’s The Tub People from 1999, in fact you spend most of this story in nervous anticipation of whatever could match the terror of getting washed down a drain, and start to guess at possible victims arrayed across a windowsill – a toy owl waiting for the moon, a pig with an umbrella waiting for the rain, a bear with a kite waiting for wind, a sled dog waiting for snow, and a rabbit “with stars” content to not know exactly what he is looking for. Oh, please don’t let it be the rabbit.

Someone leaves “gifts” – an acorn, a marble, a shell. Then once in a while the toys receive company – no tumultuous Wendells, it turns out, or Elves to rebuke for their grinning, but an exotic elephant who seems not well suited to waiting, and a cat with a couple of surprises – still you can count the major plot turns here in exclamation marks: just one, and even that signals a continuation. The expected remains nevertheless always unexpected – clouds like puffy mirrors floating by, fireworks, butterflies, curtains of icicles, leaves giving shape to the wind – and that is, amazingly, enough. What starts out looking a little melancholy and neglected ends up seeming like a pretty special gig. Because most of us are watched enough already. It’s the watching we’ve forgotten how to do.

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