Illustration: Brian Ajhar

Book Learning

Keeping up with a toddler’s great expectations.

By Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell

At first, I was puzzled when my then 4-year-old son, Rory, demanded footsie pajamas in July. Temperatures were soaring into the triple digits, but he flatly refused to don his brand-new, short-sleeved, crustacean-themed sleepwear. I finally coaxed him into his bed by promising to take him shopping the next day, although I couldn’t imagine where I was going to find footsie pajamas in the middle of summer. Then I snuggled up next to him to read Where the Wild Things Are for the 300th time.

That’s when it clicked. Max, the mischief-making hero of Maurice Sendak’s tale, wears a wolf suit that bears a striking resemblance to footsie pajamas.

It’s not the first time that fictional characters have left their mark on my son’s developing psyche — or on his wardrobe. Corduroy by Don Freeman inspired a brief, unfortunate vogue for green overalls. P.D. Eastman’s Go, Dog. Go! had Rory wearing a succession of jaunty little hats, day and night, just so he could go around repeating the book’s catchphrase, “Do you like my hat?” After we brought Michael Bond’s Paddington Marches On home from the library, Rory decided that he, like Paddington, needed some Wellington boots — about as practical and readily available in our Southern California suburb as footsie pajamas in July.

But Paddington’s beloved marmalade sandwiches were certainly more palatable than the vanilla rice pudding with sausages sliced on top that Rory requested after we plowed through Rosemary Wells’s otherwise easy-to-digest McDuff books. And you can imagine the snack attack that followed Eric Carle’s The Very Hungry Caterpillar. (“No, Mommy, I want two pears.”) It’s hard to explain to a preschooler why he can’t have owl ice cream for dessert, as proposed in Julia Donaldson’s The Gruffalo, or green eggs and ham for breakfast. Now, I try to screen books for nutritional value as well as for sartorial savvy. Sorry, Roald Dahl, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory will have to wait a few years.

It took a toddler’s talent for taking literature literally to make this onetime English major appreciate the power of books to answer not only life’s big questions but also the more quotidian concerns of what to eat and what to wear. Those might be the biggest and most stressful variables in Rory’s otherwise predictable routine. Unlike my Stanford professors, my son does not require sophisticated semiotics or Lacanian textual analysis from me. He isn’t interested in my thoughts on whether Alexander Pope or Dr. Seuss was the true master of the heroic couplet. He is oblivious to the foreshadowing tropes and heavy-handed sexual symbolism in Little Red Riding Hood. Rory doesn’t care whether the narrator of The Cat in the Hat is unreliable. (Spoiler alert: He totally is.) All he wants is a few silly voices, a happy ending and just one more story before bedtime. The lessons Rory takes from books are not always the ones I expect, but they’re the ones he needs.

Including some lessons I’d rather he didn’t learn. Rory’s all-time favorite book is The Little Engine That Could, Watty Piper’s proto-feminist paean to trains, toys and the power of positive thinking. While scouring the mall for those footsie pajamas, we came to a flight of stairs. Rory demanded to be picked up and carried.

“You’re such a big boy now,” I told him. “I don’t think I can carry you all the way up there.”

His reply? “I think you can. I think you can. I think you can.” •

KIMBERLY CHRISMAN-CAMPBELL, ’94, is a journalist and a fashion historian in Los Angeles.