Best. Birthday. Book.
September 30, 2021 § 2 Comments
September is many things—the return to school, the start of fall, the gearing up for holidays and sweaters and all things pumpkin—but in our house, it’s also Birthday Month. Both my kids share September birthdays, just two weeks apart. If September didn’t already feel like a sharp re-entry to scheduled life after the dog days of summer, adding in two back-to-back birthday celebrations has always felt like being launched into a marathon we forgot to train for.
Every year, the bleary-eyed exhaustion takes me by surprise. Shouldn’t it be easier now? My kids no longer desire the big backyard birthday parties we threw in the past (remember this post?), with magicians and bouncy houses and mad scientists who blew up stuff and left it all behind. By all accounts, the celebrations my kids want as tweens and teens require little prep on my part and are right up my alley. Ear piercing followed by lunch out with a few fabulous young ladies? Yes, please!
Still, no matter the celebration, there is an emotional charge to the day that radiates throughout the entire month. And, if I’m being honest, it sucks up a good bit of the oxygen in our house. Our children prize their birthdays above all other days of the year. And they aren’t alone. As Mary Lyn Ray puts it in the poetic picture book I’m about to share with you, “Almost anything could happen./ But what’s for sure is that/ your birthday is all yours to unwrap.”
There’s the delicious anticipation that builds over weeks, by some accounts as sweet as the day itself. There are wish lists, made and revised and revised again. There are discussions of favorite breakfasts and requested desserts and memories of things that happened in birthdays past that you wonder if you can re-create. Somewhere along the way, traditions are born.
Every year, my husband breaks out the colored pencils and renders homemade birthday cards, their fronts depicting the birthday kid engaged in a new venture or activity from the previous year (most recently, shooting a bow and arrow and rowing crew). It’s not uncommon for these cards to be drawn close to midnight the evening before, with me furiously wrapping packages beside him. Still, the delight on our kids’ faces when they see everything set out at breakfast the next morning always makes the effort worth it. (But seriously, when did I become the gift wrapper for all the out-of-towners?)
I have never encountered a picture book that more perfectly captures the essence of a child’s birthday than How to Have a Birthday (Ages 3-8), lyrically penned by Mary Lyn Ray and sumptuously illustrated by Cindy Derby. Mary Lyn Ray is a spellbinder with words, conjuring up phrases both playful and poignant; and Cindy Derby’s rich, dreamy art, infused with a touch of sparkle, feels at once intimate and open-ended. The text is delivered in the second person, inviting all readers to consider their own birthday experiences, while the pictures bring to life three specific birthday kids, with different skin tones and different celebration styles.
And here’s the best part. As parents, reading this ode to birthdays aloud, we can’t help but catch a bit of the magic ourselves. We can’t help but tap into the memories of birthday mornings from own childhood, waking up with “that shivery feeling/ that belongs only to a birthday.” At the same time that How to Have a Birthday joyously resonates with its young audience, it also reminds parents why we do what we do. Why all the hours of planning and indulging and tradition upholding is worth it. For a child, there is nothing like a birthday.
On the morning of your birthday,
you can tell already that the day is not like others.
Maybe you wake early, wondering what will happen.
You know something will.
And that’s your first present: you get to wonder.
Candlewick’s copyright restrictions mean I can’t show as many interior shots as I normally do, so you’ll have to trust that every one of the 28 pages is as delightful as the first, washing over us in bold and warm color combinations, many of which bleed off the page. They are the very epitome of the wonder that the poetic text invites us to consider, the wonder unique to a day just for you.
As one girl sits down to breakfast, her baby brother fits a crown on her head. Do you have a birthday hat in your house? We don’t, but my husband’s family has a “You are special today” plate for birthday breakfasts. (I’ve been lucky enough to get a turn with it.) “If every year you do something the same on your birthday, then you have A Tradition,” the book tells us.
Over the course of the book, there is talk of presents, though alongside a reminder that “sometimes the best one is knowing the whole day is yours.” There are three kinds of colorful birthday cake, with a reminder that “all year you’re growing toward another candle.”
There are celebrations as intimate as a dad pushing a child across the living room in an empty box and a girl singing to herself. And larger celebrations that include friends with bubbles and sparklers.
Why do we celebrate birthdays at all? “Because your birthday is to celebrate that you are here. It’s to tell you that you matter.” I love this, as much as I love that idea that, “wherever you go,/ your birthday goes with you.”
For us parents, watching our children celebrate another year around the sun can be a bittersweet signal of time passing. We look at these grinning faces, lit up by candle flame, and we feel wonder for the people they are becoming, gratitude that they’re here with us, and sadness for the day they won’t be. Perhaps the gravitas of this moment is the true reason for our exhaustion in its wake.
And yet, our children are filled only with lightness. A lightness that comes from the joy of mattering. From the joy of being held by the love language that is birthdays.
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