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Choose your own non-adventure

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Apparently, according to wikipedia, I grew up in the heyday of choose your own adventure books. I was kind of excited when I looked them up that their origin story has to do with telling your kids bedtime stories and running out of imaginative material. I have never given my daughter a choice in what happens in her bedtime story, because I never get a chance: she often tells me what is going to happen, without any prompting. Let me rephrase this, it is almost impossible to get her to stop telling me what I am supposed to tell her. She also gets irritated and will change the story. Sometimes she is in the mood to see a dragon, sometimes she is not (this can change from minute to minute). She is often pretty insistent about hanging out with lemurs, bunny rabbits, and monkeys. Recently I had her fly with purple monkeys. “Mom,” she informed me, “monkeys do not fly.” I told her it was okay since it was a story. In the enchanted forest she lives in (in her bedtime story) flying monkeys are questionable but library dwelling dragons, talking lemurs, party going gorillas, tiny giraffes (she often asks me to make the animals little so she can hold them), and mermaids are fine. She takes her monkeys very seriously.

A lot of kids books are kind of interactive. They will ask the reader/listener “Do you know x?” or “Can you guess what y is?” “Do you know where z is?” Often they have correct answers because it is a question about something in the book. There are also books that ask open questions (What does your daddy do?). Then there are books that are kind of the opposite of choose your own adventure books, because they ask a question, you have a choice, but the result is going to be the same no matter what you choose. In Mo Willems’ Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus if you tell the pigeon he can drive the bus, the story makes no sense. Perhaps that is part of the point (and the title does give some direction), that the listener should learn how to respect directions and say “no” since they were told to do so. Seeing as my listener is a two year old she frequently tells the pigeon he can drive the bus. But he doesn’t because that is not how the story is set up. Do you think if I asked Mo Willems really nicely he would write a choose your own adventure kids’ book I could read to my daughter? Monster at the End of this Book (the first one, not the adulterated Elmo version), by Jon Stone and illustrated by Michael Smollin, actually does a pretty good job at pulling off a children’s version of “choose your own adventure:” if you listen to Grover and stop turning the pages, you just stop turning the pages (putting down the book) and if you don’t listen to him, you keep reading and find out what happens. Kind of limited though, because you in fact have just chosen to not continue on the adventure.

Mo Willems’ “I Am Invited to a Party!”

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By the time this posts I’ll be in Seattle for a close friend’s wedding. I am very excited for her and her fiancé; they are a wonderful couple! Congratulations to them! It also happens to another close friend’s birthday and she will be there as well! Happy birthday to her! This picture seemed particularly appropriate for this weekend.

I am a character in a book.

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As I have mentioned, I read for a living. Sometimes my reading affects my thinking about my daughter’s books (for instance, one thing I work on is the representation of animals in modern literature, this partially explains the many animal posts). I am teaching a course this semester in which we discussed part of J.M. Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello and one of my students commented that it is “so meta!” I agree and the same could be said about many of my daughter’s books. Differing from children’s literature with a “frame” (like Judi and Ron Barrett’s Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs or Jon J. Muth’s Zen Shorts, I’ll get to them at some point) but, similarly, more layered than some children’s fiction, in metafiction characters talk about themselves as characters. I’ve commented on the joys and torture of Mo Willem’s We Are in a Book, in which Piggie and Elephant realize they are in a book (and the reader is looking at them!). David Plotz’s article in slate (“Elephant and Piggie Peer Into the Void”) interprets the book as a reflection on death, but I’ve never read it that way. I find We Are in a Book playfully “meta” and fun. My daughter really loves it, she especially enjoys when Piggie and Gerald look at the reader (us) and ask if we are a monster (she yells, “monster!”). In literary criticism “metafiction” is often linked with the term “postmodern.” Even the wiki entry for The Monster at the end of this Book, another example of a character — Grover — knowing he is a character, mentions the book as postmodern. The Monster at the end of this Book also contemplates the problem (struggle?) of self-recognition and, less seriously, relates to one of my daughter’s favorite songs to dance to “Monster in the Mirror.” Then there’s Chloe and the Lion (written by Mac Barnett and illustrated by Adam Rex) in which the layers of characters who know that they are in a book (and how they all interact) is too complicated to explain fully (and briefly). Let’s just say that one of the artists of the book gets eaten by a lion in the book and the writer of the book is forced to draw his character Chloe, something that Chloe comments on (in the book). These levels of abstraction do not make my daughter less concerned when the artist is eaten (although she should be used to people being eaten by now). While Grover’s book is from the 1970s, this “meta” practice in children’s books seems to be more common now than when I was kid. Was I missing something (were my parents shielding me from the potential terrors of metafiction?) or is my daughter living in a more meta, what could be called “postmodern” (although I do not really like the term) world? Have you noticed this trend or am I overly influenced by what I do?