children’s lit 101
“Siempre imaginé que el Paraíso sería algún tipo de biblioteca.” (I always imagined paradise would be some sort of library) – Jorge Luis Borges
“Some books should be tasted, some devoured, but only a few should be chewed and digested thoroughly.” – Sir Francis Bacon
When it comes to baby literature, variety is key. After all, there are only so many times one can read “Moo, Baa, La La La!” without beginning to lose one’s sanity. So while Munchkin does not care for the time being what book he is being read so long as he can lick the pages, we crave diversity. And, being book lovers ourselves, we have endeavored to make Munchkin’s nursery a paradise in the Borgian sense of the word.
S’s parents helped a great deal in this respect. Her mom had saved several boxes of books from S’s childhood that we shipped to Moldova. There were some repeats, and a handful of books had clearly been loved to pieces, but for the most part these books provided a solid foundation for Munchkin’s library. We also put a lot of books on our baby registry, placing a special focus on board books to give Munchkin the opportunity for hands-on enjoyment before he masters his ABCs.
As we are trying to teach him two languages simultaneously, we also acquired a number of Russian books, which Munchkin’s nanny reads to him during the day and which D takes up during evenings and weekends. D’s parents bought Munchkin a handful of Russian classics, including a book of poems by Korney Chukovsky and “Kolobok,” the eponymous tale of a ball of fried dough that eludes various would-be predators before being outwitted and devoured by a sly fox.
S supplemented these with several dozen books she picked out in a Chisinau bookstore with the help of a Moldovan friend. For the most part, she wound up buying more of the Russian classics D vaguely recalls from his own childhood, though not actually being able to speak the language led her to make a few interesting purchases simply because they had colorful illustrations. The most notable of these is a Soviet-era alphabet book that is filled with honorable professions for the proletariat (e.g. A is for agronomist, R is for railroad worker, S is for street sweeper).
Although S is happy that Munchkin is exposed to Russian books, the few snippets that D has translated give her pause as to the kind of morals Munchkin will glean from these tales. Whereas the English language books address moods and feelings — take, for example, the story about the giraffe who could not dance and felt sad until he learned that it’s ok to be unique and dance to one’s own beat — Soviet-era fairy tales depict a much harsher reality that offers a very different kind of life lesson.
Chukovsky, who in addition to original poems also translated a substantial portion of Mother Goose tales into Russian, is a prime example. His stories are also filled with animals, but these creatures are a war-like lot. In one poem, a crocodile swallows two young children, and in Tarakanishe, loosely translated as “The Monster Cockroach,” the animals spend most of the tale cowering while the title character demands that they deliver their babies to be eaten.
The most famous of Chukovsky’s children’s tales, and one whose lines D’s parents can still recite, was described in an American theater adaptation as a “Russian tale of piracy, cannibalism, and redemption.” It features Dr. Aybolit (Dr. Ow-it-hurts in Russian), who in addition to curing animals the world over also saves two children who ignore their parents’ exhortations and steal away in the night to visit Africa. The opening stanza nicely sums up the poem’s takeaway: Africa is full of dangerous animals and bandits; if you value your life, stay away from the dark continent! Given our work and lifestyle, this is not a lesson we would like Munchkin to learn.
If you have a favorite children’s book, please please leave a comment. We’re always looking for good books to expand our little library.