Party Planning Angst

September 24, 2013 § 2 Comments

Xander's Panda PartyJP turned six today. As you may recall, we are All About Birthdays this month, having just celebrated my daughter’s third birthday two weeks ago. At some point over the summer, my kids realized that their birthdays were (sort of) approaching, and many of their conversations turned to what kind of parties they wanted to have (“Snakes and a pinata!” from JP; “Balloons and flowers!” from Emily) and whom they wanted to invite.

This latter debate became increasingly complicated for my youngest, because in addition to her now having a few similarly aged friends, she still claims most of her brother’s friends as her own (having been toted around to his play dates for three years). Back when JP turned three, we had exactly three children over for a nice, contained party. When Emily turned three, we found ourselves with 25 kids running around our backyard. Throw in a giant inflatable bounce house, a craft station, and soccer goals, and it would appear that my husband and I have finally embraced this moving-to-the-‘burbs thing. But I digress.

This weekend, it will be JP’s turn for a party, and he (like most elementary-aged kids) is obsessed with fairness. In party talk, this translates into obsessing over what “rule” to apply to the list of invitees in an effort to avoid leaving anyone out. He has been on the receiving end of seemingly arbitrary lists in the past (a “why did she get invited and I didn’t?” type thing); and while it is certainly our job as parents to teach our children to weather such inevitable disappointments of disparity, I cannot help but feel proud by his determination, now that it’s his turn, to draw a clear line in the sand. “We should invite all siblings!” “We should invite no siblings!” “We should invite only the kids in my class!” “We should invite everyone in the school, even the new kids that I don’t know!” In the end, we have settled on inviting his Elementary classmates. Line drawn.

I don’t think it’s only because these kinds of discussions have occupied so much of my mental energy these past few weeks that I find Linda Sue Park’s newly published Xander’s Panda Party (Ages 4-8) so utterly charming. Still, it does feel a bit uncanny how similar Xander’s internal dilemmas are to the ones spinning around in my own children’s heads. Xander is the sole panda in the zoo, so he can’t have the “panda party” he has always envisioned. He tries for a “bear-only” party, only to realize his friend koala bear is technically considered a marsupial. Xander broadens his list to include all mammals, but then the rhino won’t come without his oxpecker bird; and later, the reptiles feel left out when the invites go out to the mammals and birds. In the end, the panda opts for “Total Zoo Participation,” a solution that benefits every creature—and definitely one of my favorite phrases ever to come out of a picture book.

On the left, Xander drowns his sorrows over a pawful of bamboo. On the right, he problem solves and delivers revised invitations!

On the left, Xander drowns his sorrows over a pawful of bamboo. On the right, he problem solves and delivers revised invitations!

But there is so much more to this lively read-aloud than the trials and tribulations of party planning. There are Matt Phelan’s sketches brimming with sweetness and subtle humor (How does one deliver an invitation to a lion? By lowering it into his cage on the end of a fishing pole, of course!). There is the Author’s Note at the end, which not only goes into detail about pandas—where they come from and how they have been saved from extinction—but touches on animal classification and evolution (and even explains the symbiotic relationship between the rhino and the oxpecker). There is Park’s immensely rich language, presented in rhyming prose, which introduces young audience to a slew of fat, juicy “-tion” words—words like “consternation,” “recreation,” “perspiration,” and “jubilation.” Above all, Xander’s Panda Party bears the wonderful message of inclusion, that when we put others’ needs before our own, even on our most special of days, the celebration becomes something greater than the sum of its parts.

I have always thought that pandas should take the spotlight in more children’s stories (excepting Jon J. Muth’s magnificent and mystical Zen Shorts trilogy, of course). But now I see that we’ve just been waiting for a story that has it all: joy, wit, education, and heart—as well as that adorable bear with the black and white coloring.

Other Favorite Picture Books About Party Planning and Party Angst:
Tea Party Rules, by Ame Dyckman & K.G. Campbell (Ages 3-6, due out in October ’13!)
I am Invited to a Party! (An Elephant & Piggie Book), by Mo Willems (Ages 4-8)
A Birthday for Frances, by Russell & Lillian Hoban (Ages 4-8)
Lyle and the Birthday Party, by Bernard Waber (Ages 4-8)
Henry’s First Moon Birthday, by Lenore Look & Yumi Heo (Ages 4-8)

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