Bringing Down the House

April 16, 2020 § 2 Comments

My kids love hearing stories about when they were babies. They especially love stories that involve crying. Inexplicable crying. Endless crying. Crying that brought down the house.

When our eldest was a newborn, he screamed bloody murder whenever we bathed him. It didn’t matter what we tried. We sang to him. We playfully splashed him. We made funny faces at him. Aren’t babies supposed to love bath time? we asked ourselves. Does he hate water? Does he hate us? Night after night, he’d scream, his face turning purple, his fists tightly clenched, his tiny legs kicking furiously.

A few weeks later, a friend gave us a baby gift. Tied to the top was a yellow rubber ducky. A duck, a duck! Surely a toy would be the golden ticket. That night, after we’d filled the oblong plastic tub from the kitchen tap, we tossed in the duck—and watched with horror as it turned from yellow to fire-engine red. Apparently, the duck had a sensor designed to gauge the proper temperature for itty bitty newborns unaccustomed to bathing outside utero. We thought we were running a nice, soothing, warm bath for our baby boy every night. Instead, we were scalding him. We turned on the cold for a few minutes, slowly lowered JP into the tub, and he smiled like he had never smiled before.

Well, dang.

Earlier this week, a delightful picture book was birthed into the world by Kara LaReau and Matthew Cordell. Baby Clown (Ages 3-6) is about a newborn circus clown who wails and wails and wails, despite the attempts of his adults to hush, soothe, distract, or entertain him. It got me thinking: maybe the reason children relish hearing stories about babies crying is because they seem to defy the natural order of things. How is it possible that these tiny, helpless, innocent beings can wield so much power over their wise, capable, fully-grown adults?

It’s a happy day at Mr. Dingling’s circus when his leading clowns, Boffo and Frieda, welcome their first baby. Along with the little one’s arrival comes weighty expectations: “‘A STAR is born!’ said the big boss, Mr. Dingling. ‘We’ll call him Baby Clown.’”

As the story is quick to remind us, babies don’t always conform to the hopes and dreams their adults place upon them. Baby Clown may have been born to two of the happiest clowns in the circus world, but he. isn’t. having. any. of. it. “He was not a very happy baby. He cried all the time.”

For the next several pages—no doubt to the amusement of every young reader—Boffo and Frieda try everything they can to get Baby Clown to stop crying. They do the usual things: feeding, burping, rocking, and changing diapers. And they do the things clowns do best: juggle, drive around in their tiny car, make silly faces. But every time they’re met with the same response: “WAAAAH!!! WAAAH!!!”

You know what’s even funnier to kids than stories about crying babies? Grown-ups being forced to enact renditions of said crying on every page. (Also, what’s up with all babies looking like old men when they cry? Matthew Cordell nails these illustrations.)

Eventually, the other circus performers step in to try their hands at taming the beast, but to no avail. Boffo and Frieda even consider that maybe Baby Clown doesn’t want to be a clown—except that he cries even harder when they remove his red nose. They take to begging and pleading, until they finally collapse on the floor in exhaustion. (Look familiar?)

Eventually, Mr. Dingling falls back on the one tenet of circus life he knows to be true: “The show must go on!” And so, before a sold-out audience, the various performers step out under the big tent, from the trapeze artists to the “death-defying high-wire act.” In the meantime, a wailing Baby Clown gets his nose powdered backstage by the most defeated looking clowns in picture book history.

Finally, the moment comes: Baby Clown is set down in the center ring. He pauses for a moment—everyone holds their breath while his parents dance around him as if this is all perfectly normal—before launching into a “full-blown meltdown.”

“He wasn’t a clown anymore, or even a baby. He was just a big, wide, loud mouth.” If you’ve ever been a parent of a screaming newborn, you know that truer words have never been written.

But if you’ve ever been a parent of a screaming newborn, you also know that just when you’ve come to expect a certain behavior, that behavior changes. Babies, it might be said, are put in our arms to keep us guessing. To remind us that we don’t have all the answers. To remind us that we have as much to learn about life and love and little humans as the little humans themselves do.

And that’s why I’m not going to tell you what happens in the most satisfying of surprise endings. I’m just going to tell you that Baby Clown reminds all of us, young and old, that what babies really want at the end of the day is to command their audience. And they’ll succeed every dang time.


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Review copy from Candlewick Press. All opinions are my own. affiliate links, although I prefer we all shop local when we can!

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