Visiting the Recent Past

One of the great pleasures of reading children’s books as part of my work (and one of the inspirations behind this blog) is the chance to reread books with a kind of double vision.  Whenever I come back to a book I read as a child, I can look at it with my adult eyes, imposing all my adult sensibilities, knowledge, and perspectives … but I can also still see  the ghostly impressions and opinions of my voracious child-reader self.  Rereading is one of the surest ways I know to re-engage with that childhood self.  But there’s another funny phenomenon I sometimes stumble on.  Occasionally I’ll read a book that I didn’t read as a child that still manages to make me feel nostalgic for some piece of my childhood.  It feels a bit like reaching back the other way, handing a book from my end back to that child reader to get her reaction.

One of my favorite examples of a book that can evoke “faux nostalgia” for me  is  Meet M and M (written by Pat Ross, pictures by Marylin Hafner).  This is not a book I remember reading as a child, though it certainly could have been – the series was first published in 1980.  I discovered it when searching for something that would be accessible for my less confident readers.  (It’s at the same reading level as Frog and Toad but qualifies as a “real” book in the minds of third graders because it has “real” chapters and it’s usually not a book they’ve seen before.)  The story is about Mandy and Mimi, two best friends who are so similar that they pretend to be twins.  One day they have a a terrible fight, perfectly realistic in the way it starts over nothing and explodes into insults and warfare.  The girls finally resolve their argument and the book ends on a note that is both uplifting and realistic.

So what is it about this story that fills me with such  longing for the books of my childhood?  Primarily it’s the setting, in all senses of the word, and the way it’s charmingly evoked by Hafner’s illustrations.  The story takes place in the apartment building where the girls live one floor away from each other.  Their environment is untidy but not messy – “lived in,” as my mother would say – and their relationships with each other and their families are positive but realistic.  They engage in real play, the kind of unstructured play I wish all kids had more time for: making crafts, role playing, dressing up, and lots of time spent with guinea pigs and other pets.  Hafner (who illustrated more than 100 picture books, including one of my childhood favorites, Germs Make Me Sick!) creates pictures of this environment that are somehow both detailed and simple, with human characters that are realistic but with a cartoonish element to them.  The illustrations pull me right back to that friendly/realistic city environment that was part of the Sesame Street episodes of the early eighties.

The other element of this story that feels nostalgic to me is the role of adults … or rather, the relative unimportance of their role.  We do see the girls’ parents, and they never feel entirely unsupervised, but this relationship belongs entirely to them.  Their parents aren’t arranging playdates or suggesting activities.  When the girls fight, there are no kindly suggestions from the adults or social coaching about how to repair the relationship.  Ultimately, the solution to the fight (a bucket sent down from the window of one apartment to the other with an offered gift) comes entirely from the girls.  At a time when adult anxiety about children’s relationships can reach fever pitch (and sometimes with good reason), there’s something comforting and empowering to children about the idea that relationships can break and be put back together again.

Of course, my students don’t pick up on the gamma rays of nostalgia that this book sends out to me.  There are no particular references or elements of style that make this book feel “old” to them.  As far as they’re concerned, it’s just another book group book (and a “real chapter book,” at that), with lots of opportunities to talk about conflict and resolution, character comparisons, and personal connections.  My teacher-self loves that about this book.  My child-self loves the chance to revisit a not-so-distant time period that somehow feels old-fashioned in the best sense of the word.

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