On Llama Llama Red Pajamas by Anna Dewdney and other books
Being a parent has washed away the capitalist mindset I accidentally adopted towards reading when I decided to become a “serious writer”. You can’t apply extractive capitalism to literature and expect to keep really engaging with it. So I didn’t, for years.
But I can see the little happy upwellings in H. when he passes a book and decides to pick it up and bring it to me. At almost-two, H. reads for all the clichés.
He reads just because he wants to. Because there are treasures to uncover as his small hands turn big pages. Because it’s literal magic. He knows that when he opens a book he is co-creator of a small world, one that doesn’t just exist on the page but in some more accessible, nearly tangible ether.
Every time we read together, we weave the story invisible and real. We weave the words into image and emotion, catching light and bright between me, my hands, my voice, the book, his eyes, his tongue.
Llama Llama Red Pajama helps him hold his own routine separate from himself. To safely explore fear and its expression. To observe, codify, and reconcile the reality of nightly bedtime with his stormy internal world. “Pillow”, he points to the picture, and looks at me for affirmation. “Potty.” “Copit” (his reversed way of saying “blanket”). Mama. Kiss. Light.
And the music in it. He sings his rhyming books as he builds trains and strolls his doll around the loop of the kitchen and living room. “Yama, yama, [mumble] mama”. The alphabet song is “momo, momo, momo, mi, A, D, H, A, momo, mi”. He practices words he knows by inserting them into songs: “E-i-e-i-lawnmower, E-i-e-i-dirt, E-i-e-i-daddy”.
Language is music is reading is speaking is singing. Is living. Reading All the World, H. and I follow a thread of light and dark woven through the routine beauty of a family’s days; the book’s poetry like a graceful helix rotates between unified opposites. A noisy day of beaches and markets and gardens and rain, old and new and light and dark, (“Slip, trip, stumble, fall / Tip the bucket, spill it all”) glides into one beautiful, hopeful chant: “Everything you hear, smell, see // All the world is everything / Everything is you and me // Hope and peace and love and trust // All the world / is all of us.” The abstractions of this kind of poetry go over H.’s head, but the music, I’m sure, enters his blood as it does mine.
Yesterday we asked what pajamas he wanted to wear. “Tiger”, he said (well, it was “Kider”, another reversal). He’d never responded to the question before; I wasn’t sure he knew “pajama” even. But it turns out Llama gave “pajama” to him, in its music.
And his desire for the tiger pajamas specifically? Comes from Follow That Tiger, which his dad reads every bedtime. When I read it to him, I re-write the badly-metered lines as I go, but H. doesn’t care about that so much. He just wants the safe tension of the tiger stalking the forest, the suspense always resolved with the same friendly “ROAR.”
The best books, our favorites, like all good poetry leave small corners of strangeness and darkness lifted to trip us up, tags to pull and unravel the world. Like the moments of queer surprise or melancholy layered into Goodnight Moon. The quiet discrepancy between “a little toy house” and “goodnight, little house” changes what’s pictured just a little bit. The toy house becomes the house the bunny is in, that the reader is in, all the same. Similarly, the “picture of the cow jumping over the moon” becomes an actual cow in “Goodnight, cow jumping over the moon” (as the pictures echo). And of course we stop, I stop, when Brown gets to “goodnight, nobody.” A fearful, lifted moment of eulogy, of grace.
To H. that strange beauty, the kind that stops time, is routine, is how he sees every inch of his world. And may reading ever keep it so. Because my heart, smoothed and sanitized by a world that assiduously requires me to account for every moment—it needs to get reacquainted with it.