Laughing Our Way Back to School
September 8, 2016 § 4 Comments
(Before we get started—HELLLLOOOOO AGAIN!—I thought I’d link to three guest posts that I wrote as part of a Summer Reading Series for the local blog, DIY Del Ray, in case you don’t follow me on social media (which you should). There’s one on picture books about the garden; one on recent new installments in our favorite early-chapter series; and one on my favorite middle-grade chapter books so far this year. These are all fantastic books and perfect for any time of year.)
And now, let’s get down to today’s business.
As I write this, my kids have been back in school for a few short hours. The house is blissfully, rapturously, guiltily quiet. The good news is that I can finally do laundry in the basement without my children scootering—and I mean, quite literally scootering—around me. The bad news is that I can’t get cuddles or kisses or giggles whenever I want.
As my kids get older, it becomes harder and harder to see summer end. I will miss my buddies. I will miss our lazy mornings (only the mail carrier knows how long we stayed in our pajamas). Most of all, I will miss our adventures—the way every new shade of green, every sun-kissed rock, every goldfinch and swallowtail and cicada becomes something to marvel at and remark on.
And I will, of course, miss the many hours we curled up to read together (as well as the times when we were too busy catching a ferry or celebrating a swim meet or chasing fireflies to read at all). Lest you think my silence this summer meant that we didn’t discover piles of new books, I can promise you redemption this fall. We have a lot to catch up on.
Beginning with what we read at the very end of our summer break.
We returned home from three weeks of glorious beachy romping to supply lists and new school orientations and conversations about how lazy little beach bums were once again going to have to start making beds and packing lunches. It suddenly seemed like dusting off our brain cells was going to be no small endeavor.
If you can’t change it, you might as well laugh at it—or so my grandmother preaches. And so, in that vein, in order to lighten up our transition from summer to autumn, to hold on to a bit of the recklessness as we heed the routine, I broke out The Adventures of Nanny Piggins, an episodic chapter book by Australian comedy writer R.A. Spratt, with sporadic illustrations by the equally kooky Dan Santat (Ages 8-12; younger if reading aloud).
It’s hard not to love a book that begins with the following disclaimer:
Unless you are a pig, do not copy Nanny Piggins’s diet IN ANY WAY…You really should not try a lot of the things Nanny Piggins does either. For example, throwing heavy things off roofs.
This is where I should probably add my own disclaimer: If you are one of those parents (no judging) who enjoys nothing less than the moral didacticism of Little House on the Prairie, who can’t fathom spending their time reading NOTHING OF SUBSTANCE (well, apart from excellent writing and wonderfully dry wit), and who under no circumstances wants to introduce impressionable minds to subversive ideas of eating chocolate for every meal or dancing on tables or forging sick notes for school…then, by all means, please skip this post and you and I will reconnect next week.
But if your kids laughed their heads off at Pippi Longstocking, and if you want something to read this fall that is almost as good as extending summer break, then please allow me to introduce you to Nanny Piggins: nanny to the three well-mannered Green children, former flying circus headliner, and—in case you’ve been skimming—an actual pig (“the type bacon came from”). Think Mary Poppins, if Mary Poppins had shown up in the dead of night, liked to dress flamboyantly, and had absolutely no intention of holding her charges (or herself) responsible for chores, schoolwork, or finances. And if Mary Poppins had been a pig. A walking, talking, and—if we’re being honest—extremely clever pig.
Nanny Piggins may not do most of the ordinary things that nannies or parents do (because where’s the fun in that?), but she does undeniably love Derrick, Samantha, and Michael from the start. She dotes on them and listens to them and respects them infinitely more than their demonized father—the widowed attorney Mr. Green—who is far too busy helping his clients evade tax laws to bother with his children (or find them a human nanny, despite his horror at sharing a dinner table with a pig).
Which, as far as the children are concerned, is just peachy. They’ve never had more fun in their lives: sampling Nanny Piggins’ three-course chocolate meals (she also makes a mean pie); drawing with crayons on their clothes (after blowing the clothing allowance on chocolate, Nanny Piggins helps the children fashion tartan school uniforms out of their existing clothes); or trying to row to China on an anything-but-ordinary beach day (they get picked up by a fishing boat in time for dinner).
Of course, even with Nanny Piggins at the helm, life is not always a day at the beach. Several chapters hinge on suspense, as our porcine wonder—with the help of her young accomplices—attempts to escape near catastrophe. Whether the peril arrives in the form of Nanny Piggins’ former ringmaster (come to re-enslave her in the circus), or Mr. Green’s evil sister (come to charm Nanny Piggins out of a job), or Boris, the esteemed Russian dancing bear and an old friend of Nanny Piggins (come to hide out in the Green residence), there is no challenge too great for the theatrical subterfuge of our heroine.
Ironically, as fun as they are to read about, these hyperbolic adventures are not what ultimately endear us readers to Nanny Piggins—or even what necessarily get the most laughs. Rather, it’s the sheer naivete—the unfettered delight of discovery coupled with the blatant cluelessness—of a pig trying to take her place in the world of humans. Whether it’s trying to make heads or tails of abstract portraiture at the art gallery (“some were done with yellows and greens and other colors you would never see on a real person’s face no matter how sick they were”) or the national educational mandate, Nanny Piggins is increasingly perplexed by human ways.
Nanny Piggins could not hide the full extent of her ignorance any further. She had another question to ask.
“So, what exactly is ‘school’? Exactly.”
“What’s school?!” exclaimed Derrick. “Did you never have to go?”
He could not believe that anybody as clearly knowledgeable about so many important things, such as how to make fake blood and what was the best type of stick for making a slingshot, could have had no formal education.
Nanny Piggins earns the adoration of her child subjects because she confronts the world—wide-eyed and befuddled—much the way our own children do. Even us parents would do well to remember that, seen through our children’s eyes, the world is as mystifying as it is magical, as humorous as it is humane.
And there are so many boundaries to test along the way.
Oh, did I mention the best news? There are two sequels: Nanny Piggins and the Wicked Plan and Nanny Piggins and the Runaway Lion, both of which are lying in wait for my little fools. I told my kids that, after their grueling First Day Back in the Grind, we’d come straight home to laugh ourselves silly. In fact, it’s nearly pick-up time. I’d better run.
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