I recently mentioned rereading Mary Poppins, finding my favorite chapter was the one in which the two babies talk with birds. All infants, we’re told, understand the language of animals until their baby teeth fall out.
Maybe we don’t quite believe this, but we encourage children to believe they’re animals at least for the short times that they spend with books. When we read them The Hungry, Hungry Caterpillar, children might not only wiggle their fingers through the holes in the pages, but imagine themselves nibbling or crawling across a leaf. When we read Peter Rabbit, many children imagine hopping among cabbages and making sure their tails don’t get caught in a fence. When we read The Wind and the Willows, it’s easy transitioning to moles and toads.
Babies and toddlers crawl, and even slightly older children spend more time than grownups close to the ground. They remind us about the beauty of the earth they live so close to. That clover they’re tempted to put in their mouths. Those ants that annoy us in the kitchen are more interesting at the edge of a sandbox. How do they move all those legs in synch?
There seem to be endless books about animals, and most are really books about children. Maybe there’s not as many differences between baby humans and baby ducks or baby bears as we grownups usually think. Maybe it’s not so preposterous to think that babies and birds can hold conversations. At the very least, maybe children are here to remind us about how we’re connected. Maybe we can’t understand the language of birds, or bunnies, but we can listen.
When we snuggle up to read, children enjoy not only the pleasures of story, but of the safety we promise with them in our arms. And reading books about animals and the good green world we promise them a larger safety, too. As they remind us to pay attention.