October 28, 2013 § 2 Comments
Children form attachments to the oddest things. Take, for example, the dried out husk of a seed for which my six year old spent a recent afternoon constructing a shoebox house, complete with a toilet-paper-tube flag post and a felt blanket and pillow that he actually sewed himself. Did you get that? For a seed. There was also the time that he and his sister took their plastic straws from a restaurant to bed with them. These are not children who are hurting for baby dolls or stuffed animals; they simply choose to imprint on the less obvious choices.
So, is it any surprise that they would love Sophie’s Squash (Ages 3-7), a new picture book by Pat Zietlow Miller (fellow children’s book blogger), where a little girl develops a steadfast affection for a squash that her parents pick out at the farmers’ market and intend to cook for dinner? Sophie uses black marker to draw a face on the butternut squash; she names it Bernice (love); she wraps it in a baby blanket and rocks it to sleep; she takes it to story time at the library (double love); and she even organizes play dates for it with other squash (triple love). In other words—as her very patient parents soon realize—this squash is no dinner.
Actually, the conversations between Sophie and her parents are some of my favorite parts of the story. Too many contemporary picture books, in an effort to portray a female character who’s assertive and independently minded, end up giving us a heroine who’s stubborn, bossy, loud, and downright annoying. This does nothing for those of us who would like to see girls take more of a starring role in young people’s literature.
Enter Sophie, who is creative, inquisitive, caring, and polite—at the same time that she’s fiercely determined to keep Bernice for her pet. Sophie’s mom cautions (and we’ve all been there, plastering a big smile on our faces and hoping for the best): “Bernice is a squash, not a friend. If we don’t eat her soon, she’ll get mushy and gross. Let’s bake her with marshmallows. Won’t that taste yummy?” But Sophie covers the squash’s ears and cries out with horror, “Don’t listen, Bernice!” When Sophie’s dad offers to buy her a “nice new toy to play with instead,” she replies, “No thanks…I have everything I need.” Finally, as Bernice starts to get blotchy and soft and is teased by the other children at the library, Sophie’s mom suggests, “Maybe Bernice should stay home next time”—to which Sophie sagely responds, “Why? She wasn’t the one being rude.” Now here’s a girl whom I’d like my little girl to think is pretty darn cool.
In my favorite parenting book, How to Talk so Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk, Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish encourage parents to direct their kids to “sources outside the home” (read: unbiased third parties) when their own explanations or teachings are falling on deaf ears. This technique has always worked like a charm for my kids. (At JP’s first swim lesson—a final resort after years of failed attempts by every extended family member to get him to put his face in the water—the instructor asks him, “Have you ever gone under water?” “No,” JP replies. “Do you think you would like to try?” “OK,” he says, whereby the little booger proceeds to plunge his head into the water.)
Along these lines, I find it perfectly plausible that the only adult who ultimately gets through to Sophie is the farmer at the market, from whom she seeks advice for her increasingly mushy squash. “What keeps a squash healthy?” she asks. The farmer’s response—“Fresh air, Good, clean dirt. A little love”—immediately resonates. And so, by her own choice, in her own way, and in a great botany lesson to boot, Sophie tucks Bernice into the muddy ground for the winter (kissing her goodnight) and wakes up in spring to discover a small, green sprout in the very same spot. Not one but two tiny squashes soon take form: Bonnie and Baxter, “just the right size for Sophie to hold in her arms and bounce on her knee. Just the right size to love.” The cycle of care-taking begins again, as it’s bound to in our unstoppable little forces of nature.
Other Favorite Stories About Unusual Pets:
Children Make Terrible Pets by Peter Brown (Ages 3-6)
Bridget Fidget and the Most Perfect Pet by Joe Berger (Ages 3-6)
This Moose Belongs to Me by Oliver Jeffers (Ages 3-7)
I Wanna Iguana by Karen Orloff & David Catrow (Ages 4-8)
When Dinosaurs Came With Everything by Elise Broach & David Small (Ages 4-8)
Guess What I Found in Dragon Wood? by Timothy Knapman & Gwen Millward (Ages 4-8)
Cecil the Pet Glacier by Matthea Harvey & Giselle Potter (Ages 4-8)
Lulu and the Brontosaurus by Judith Viorst & Lane Smith (Ages 5-10)—incidentally, this last book definitely falls into the category of loud and bossy female heroines, but the writing is so spectacular and the story ultimately so redemptive that I must make an exception!