March 2, 2017 § Leave a comment
My oldest lost his first tooth on a playground zip line. He dismounted victoriously, grinned zealously, accepted congrats from strangers, and posed for photographs. Had he taken a bow, it would have felt fitting.
When my daughter lost hers, two days ago, it played out very differently. In the preceding weeks, she had boasted about her “wiggly tooth.” We thought she was down with the program, having watched her brother embark on this rite of passage. As a parent, I see now that I may have committed an all-too-common slight against the youngest: I failed to give her, well, any information.
After a post-school snack of sugar snap peas, mass hysteria erupted. My daughter’s bottom tooth, my son quickly explained, was hanging by a thread, pointing not up, but straight out the front of her mouth. “This is exciting!” I exclaimed. “It’s about to fall out!” Emily, on the other hand, seemed convinced an alien life form had just invaded her mouth. “I don’t like this!” she wailed, tears streaming down her face. Surely, I thought, it will help if I just remove the protruding tooth, which I did. At which point she began running to and from the bathroom, screaming like a banshee. “MY MOUTH IS WRONG! MY MOUTH IS WRONG! SOMETHING IS WRONG IN MY MOUTH!”
It turns out not everyone is quick to embrace the sudden gap that appears in our mouth when we lose a tooth.
Perhaps this reaction would have been different had I remembered, weeks ago, to get out one of the most treasured books from my own childhood (and, yes, one I read to my son numerous times prior to his losing a tooth). I am referring to the quietly delightful and tenderly reassuring, Little Rabbit’s Loose Tooth (Ages 4-8), written by Lucy Bate and illustrated by Diane de Groat. Originally published in 1975, the book went out of print for a spell until it was reissued in 2010, at which point I experienced a delicious wave of nostalgia upon walking into a bookstore.
It’s probably impossible for me to untangle my own childhood memories of being read this story—tied up, as they are, with parental affection—from any objective contemporary evaluation. And yet, I can offer this proof of the story’s timelessness: my Emily absolutely loved it. Before long, she was marching across the street to our neighbor’s house to show off her gummy gap. And, of course, the rest of the evening was spent discussing the business of what to expect from the tooth fairy.
When Little Rabbit’s Loose Tooth opens, a bunny girl is sitting around the dinner table with her parents, posturing that her wiggly tooth makes it impossible for her to eat the carrots and beans on her plate, that she should probably just move on to the strawberries she knows are in the fridge. So begins a series of conversations which will feel as intimately familiar to children of 2017 as they did in the 70s.
“You can have strawberries for dessert,” said Mother Rabbit. ‘And you can chew the carrots and beans with your other teeth.”
“Are you sure?” said Little Rabbit.
“I’m sure,” said Mother Rabbit.
“Are you sure, Daddy?” asked Little Rabbit.
“I’m sure,” said Father Rabbit. “I’ve done it myself.”
Turning the page reveals a days-of-the-week spread—in de Groat’s softly shaded artistic style—which has stayed with me in much the same way as Eric Carle’s lineup of food for the hungry caterpillar. (It’s also possible I just like food…and bubble letters.) Foods that Little Rabbit eats with her loose tooth (oranges on Tuesday, watermelon on Wednesday) are contrasted with those she eats with her “other teeth” (cucumbers on Tuesday, lettuce on Wednesday). Finally, on Friday—and the alarmed look on Little Rabbit’s face says it all—she “chewed spinach with her other teeth and chocolate ice cream with her loose tooth, and the loose tooth came right out in the chocolate ice cream.”
Again, the conversation is preciously matter-of-fact:
“I have a tooth in my chocolate ice cream,” said Little Rabbit.
“That’s wonderful,” said Mother Rabbit.
“It’s about time,” said Father Rabbit.
“What should I do with it?” said Little Rabbit.
“You should take it out of your chocolate ice cream,” answered Mother Rabbit.
Little Rabbit goes on to delight in the “window in my mouth,” sticking her tongue into it and filling it with chocolate ice cream to make a “chocolate tooth” (“‘How tasty!’ said Father Rabbit.’”). She gives her tooth a bath and carries it around the house.
But now what? Little Rabbit isn’t convinced she believes in the tooth fairy, nor is she sure she wants the tooth fairy to take away her prized tooth. Perhaps she should make it into a necklace, or use it in a craft project, or take it to the candy shop and pretend it’s a penny? But no, these ideas quickly lose their appeal; and once again, Little Rabbit turns to her mother:
“Mommy,” she said, “what if I believe in the tooth fairy?”
Mother Rabbit put down her flute. “Then you’d better put your tooth under your pillow before you lose it. You can put it in an envelope if you want.”
Putting her tooth under her pillow doesn’t stop her from continuing to ruminate on the existence of the tooth fairy, speculating as to what she does with the teeth she collects (maybe she gives them to new babies?) or—most troubling—what might happen if Little Rabbit wakes up the next morning and her tooth is still there.
This is where some adult readers have taken issue with Bate’s story, suggesting that it might introduce doubt into the minds of young children about this magical being we parents work so hard to conjure up. Even the ending of the story, where Little Rabbit discovers a dime under her pillow the next morning, is somewhat ambiguous, given that Little Rabbit appealed to her parents with a backup plan the night before: “After I’m asleep, could you sneak and look under my pillow and look in the envelope? And if there isn’t a present, could you leave one?…You don’t have to tell me…You could just sneak.”
Let me go on record as saying that both of my children still believe in the tooth fairy after reading this story; if anything, Little Rabbit’s questioning feels to them like a natural reaction. (The better question might be: when did our children stop expecting dimes for their teeth and start expecting one or two or five dollar bills?!) At the end of the day, we can’t definitively know whether the dime was left by the tooth fairy or by a parent, but we can predict with certainty Little Rabbit’s relief and excitement upon its discovery.
Ultimately, the lasting appeal of Little Rabbit’s Loose Tooth comes, not from semantics about the tooth fairy, but from the love which emits from every page—from the readily apparent joy (and subdued amusement) which Mother and Father Rabbit take in their daughter, as well as from the comfort and reassurance she takes in them.
While it may be nature’s course, having a part of your body protrude, dangle, and then fall off, feels anything but natural. Thank you, Little Rabbit, for helping me help my Little Emily to find joy in her New Normal.
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