Posted on: February 20, 2014
"If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales." - Albert Einstein
A few months ago, out of the blue, a torn and tattered paper package arrived in the post, labeled for me. When I unwrapped the frayed edges of the paper I smelled a familiar scent, but I could not quite place it. Then I saw the cover of the book, and a thousand memories flooded into me at once. "The Story of Babar," it read, and I knew the whole tale before I opened the first page.
When I was young, a wee little thing, Babar was my friend. He was my accomplice, my advisor, and my advocate.. and he always knew what I was going through. When the foster care system threw me and my sisters in and out of courtrooms and families and cities and states... he understood. In case you haven't read the story (and I highly recommend that you do), Babar's elephant mother is killed, and he escapes to the foreign world of the city. He learns to thrive there, with the help of a loving benfactor, and eventually returns to become the king of the jungle from which he was from, with his beautiful wife. I used to request the story of Babar every single night, for many months, after my mother passed. Then one day we were swept away in another move, to another home, and the book was left behind. And with it, sitting on a dusty shelf, all of the promise and wanderlust of Babar's world remained, for two decades, just like that. It was forgotten.
Until a few months ago, when it was returned to me. And in an instant I realized how much children's books really do matter.
My long-lost cousin had tried to mail the book to me three times, originally as a baby shower gift for Biet, now almost three years old. After navigating around misspelled addresses and unforeseen moves, it finally arrived to our Brooklyn home. I opened the package and my heart flooded over: love, memories, forgotten hope, fantastical dreams.. it all came forth. It was like coming home after two decades of being away. The smell, the words, the delicate illustrations- I knew them all, but then again, they seemed foreign. I had to work to remember the story as I turned the pages, but when i did, it was magic. It made sense.
I took Biet to the public library the other day to experience the exhibit, The ABC of it: Why Children's Book Matter. I knew why they mattered. I knew of the importance, the hope, and the promise that they lent to children. I knew of the way in which a simple book could prepare you for the whole world. I knew of the magic, the glory, and the shameless imagination that a fairytale could inspire in you. I knew, and I wanted her to know. And as she made her way through the life-size storybook exhibitions and listened to the excerpts in the wall-mounted recordings, I knew that she would understand their significance one day. She would find the words and the pages that she needed to help make sense of her world, just as I had.
I now keep my copy of Babar- the same copy that I begged my caregivers to read me as a child, the same copy that instilled hope in me so long ago, up high on a bookshelf, a relic of magic and loss, thoughtfully preserved. I will read it to Biet one day, when she is ready. For now, we peruse the books at the library and make up magical tales on our own. We pause at the end of the marble library hallway to introduce ourselves to the woman sitting there who sketches in her sketchbook the leaves that she has collected from parks all throughout the city . We take a moment to grin in silence with our best friend, and stand together upon the windowsill, looking out at the whole world bustling below.
Reading fairytales to my babies will help them to make sense of that big, bustling, frenetic world outside.. in time. And I'm honored to be the one to be reading now, as my children listen in wonder.
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