I am fascinated with the ways children evolve from their completely dependent forms – making nothing but sounds or cries, but eventually forming words, then sentences, then complete conversations like little adults. From needing to be spoon-fed mushy puree to sitting down to a meal with mommy and daddy like the little human they are.
Lately I’ve gotten to witness more of the evolution as our son, now four, suddenly has begun to recognize words.
We were at Barnes and Noble recently with a friend and her little one, waiting for a cup of tea at the cafe (I love that African Autumn tea) before heading back to the children’s section for some Thomas the Train Engine time and general book browsing. Nearby stood the little countertop with napkins, creamers, stirrers, etc, and the flapping door of the garbage can underneath, with two words embossed across it.
“Does that say thank you?” his little voice asked.
“Does what, buddy?”
“That,” he said, pointing to the flapping door on the garbage can, clearly saying “Thank You” on it to those who throw away their trash and not litter.
“It does, buddy! How did you know that?!”
“I dunno. I just did.”
And thus has been a bit of a trend lately. We’ve been fortunate enough that he’s been interested in and fluent in his alphabet since early on, but this…THIS….to see his eyes move from one end to the other, his mind taking in these letters and putting them together, and recognizing the words they form. It has truly been a remarkable experience, as a parent, and just as a human being.
I thought back to a time in recent months at my mom’s house, where he was hanging out for a bit while Meg and I ran some errands and my mom asked about lunch. Not wanting to give away the options up front and lock ourselves into something he’d hear, we spelled our options, including when she said “I can make g-r-i-l-l-e-d c-h-e-e-s-e?”
“That would be great,” I said.
Then his little voice popped up, “Yeah, I LOVE grilled cheese.”
Or when I asked my wife what she was in the mood to watch as a family one particular evening, The Dick Van Dyke Show, or some Adam West B-a-t-m-a-n.
“Batman?” we heard pipe up.
Suddenly it dawned on me as we stood there at the cafe in front of the thank you sign, hearing him read this aloud, that he’s been doing it, little by little, right along – only I haven’t paid close enough attention to realize these are no flukes.
Seeing this string of word revelations over time is a revelation to me that we are in a brand new stage, one that will open the door to a whole new era of life, and of knowledge for him. I couldn’t be happier. Or prouder.
Aside from dinnertime and bath time, it’s the other consistent that’s needed for a complete wrap-up of our day. We started very early reading to the little guy (in utero) and have carried it over practically every night since. In fact, we’re now at a point where, even though he’s not walking just yet, he’s crawling over to his bookshelf in his room and pulling off a book or two when we bring him in for bed. He knows what time it is and what comes with it.
And one of the most frequent authors gracing our bookshelf and storytimes is Mo Willems.
I came across his work by pure accident early on in this adventure of parenthood, when I picked up “We Are in a Book” with Elephant and Piggie. Little did I know what an amazing world of doodles that was going to send us rocketing into for both baby and parents alike.
Sometimes I worry I’m always using the Mo Willems books as a go-to at night, but it’s because I just love reading them so much. And now that the little monkey is one year old, I can say that over that year, no other books have made him giggle and react aloud the way a Mo Willems book does.
That one Elephant and Piggie book has quickly grown this past year into a good portion of our bookshelf, along with several Pigeon books (my personal favorite), along with their stuffed doppelgangers.
I can’t quite put my finger on what makes his work just so darn appealing to all of us. There’s the obvious humor, as the books are all hilarious and relatable in their situations and emotions, whether you be one or one hundred. Is it any wonder he won Emmy Awards for his work on Sesame Street? Then there’s the art – simple in its doodle-like manner that you’re automatically put at ease and drawn in. With his word-bubble dialogue for some of his books, it becomes more like acting out a play than anything else.
We’re such fans of Mo Willems’ work that several months ago, I jumped at the chance when my job as a TV journalist gave me the opportunity to do storytimes at our local Barnes and Noble. It was usually a once a year event at Christmas reading The Polar Express alongside my good friend and Meteorologist, Bill. When they gave me the chance to do another stortyime, this time a night of Mo Willems, I thought I was going to practically beat down the doors of the store. I couldn’t wait! And when the time came, what a night we had!
I got to break out all of the character voices I’ve accumulated while reading to our little guy over the past year, and the kids who showed up at Barnes and Noble seemed to enjoy it, although I don’t think anyone enjoyed it as much as I did. I had to explain to the kids that we all have our own voices for characters when we read, so mine may not be what they’re used to for Pigeon, or Piggie, etc, but they got it and seemed to laugh along anyway. (For the record, MY Pigeon voice is based on the voice Meg and I give to our cat, Winston. Just the right blend of demanding child and mr. sassypants.) We were having so much fun, I think we ended up reading four books in total instead of the one or two advertised. I even read a new one called “This is Not a Good Idea!” which is set up like an old silent film. I couldn’t resist and we ended up buying it that night.
Our own little guy even got involved. When I introduced him to the crowd as my son and the one I usually read to at night, he stood up and held out his arms as if to shout ‘my people! my people!’ (yup, that’s him to the left with my wife stifling her laughter at his ridiculousness) What a little ham. 🙂
But I digress. If you haven’t yet picked up a Mo Willems book, give it a try. Your little kids will thank you and you’re likely to love storytime even more. And if you ever make it to the northeast, maybe you can add to your parenthood bucket list a trip to see his work at the Eric Carle Museum in Amherst, MA. We haven’t been able to make it yet, but I’ll tell you, we’ve had numerous conversations to figure out just when we can make it happen. It’s like a mecca of Mo. 🙂 We’ll get there…even if I have to find a Pigeon to drive us there in a bus.