Picture Book Pitfalls


Does this scene seem familiar? You’re curled up in bed or snuggled in a rocking chair or sitting on your stoop on a beautiful fall afternoon and you’re reading Bread and Jam for Frances to your child. You are feeling incredibly good about yourself because you know that reading builds a lifelong love of literature and ensures that your child will be adequately attached to you so that they won’t get strung out on heroin or drop out of high school or get ill-advised tats on their ankles.

Your child is leaning against you and it’s wonderful to smell that good, clean kid smell and also wonderful to know you are the best parent that ever existed, so exceptional you may, in fact, win Mother of the Year. Because you could have opted for a shorter book, maybe Sendak or Willems, which would have left you a few minutes to send emails, but you opted for this one because, well, they just grow up so fast.

You are admiring Hoban’s writing style—so simple, yet so satisfying, the literary equivalent of comfort food—and you are feeling delightfully charmed by Frances, who is not only the only badger you’ve ever encountered in children’s literature, but also the best. And then it happens.

Frances sings.

Of course she does. That badger will sing about anything. She will sing about eggs and tea sets and jump rope. Yes, it’s a part of her precocious appeal and yes, the songs are great—funny and smart and pithy. A part of you wishes Taylor Swift would release an album of Frances covers. But the fact remains that they put an undue onus on you, beleaguered mother, who did not get formal songwriting training at Julliard.

There you are, reading happily, until you crash right into those block quotes which instantly kill your buzz and trigger the following inner monologue:

Oh, come on. A song? Really. Now? Did the Hobans bother to give me a clue as to a melody that might work here? Did he insert a helpful footnote, clarifying that if you’ll just sing to the tune of “Oh Susanna,” you’ll be on cruise control? Something like:

“Why are there so many

Songs inside picture books?”*

*sing to the tune of “Rainbow Connection”

No, of course they did not.

I could speak the lyrics, as if it were a poem. That’s perfectly legit. We move the plot forward, we get character development, and without the stress of composing an original soundtrack. Still, I can’t help feeling like I’m giving everyone short shrift here. How hard is it, anyway, to sing a jaunty little tune? It’s not rocket science.

I’ll just pick a very basic melody; say, “The ABCs” or “Row Your Boat.” We’ll give that a shot.

And look at that, it’s a disaster because I’m not a direct descendant of Pete Seeger, and thus, it’s not that easy for me to match Frances’ lyrics about soft-boiled eggs to the tune of “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” It would be easier, really, just to improvise a new melody. You know, like the jazz giants did. Like Coltrane.

It seems like it would be easier, and yet it is not. Because as soon as I’ve sung one line of Francis’ incisive lyrics, I forget the melody I just came up with. You could call it “avant-guard,” if by that you meant “unbearable.”

So, I’ve exhausted all options, which means the only choice now is to imagine WWNNPD—what would non-neurotic people do? They would say: Who cares? It’s not like my daughter will notice. She probably thinks I sound like an angel and am beautiful too, because she is young and innocent in the ways of the world. And I get an A for effort, which still puts me in the running for the Mother of the Year, which, despite the fact that it is a fictional prize I know does not exist, I still have my heart set on. Not quite what non-neurotic people would do, but as close as I can get.

Repeat this monologue at every new mention of a song in a picture book. You get the idea. It’s draining.

It’s not the most pressing problem to plague families today, I’ll admit. Yet you’d think there’d be a hack for this. Or, better yet, an app. Yes, what we really need is an app in which you can search for picture books featuring un-scored lyrics, and then play an original composition for each tune, courtesy of some actual Julliard grad who, no doubt, could use the work.


Nicole Caccavo Kear is the author of the memoir Now I See You (St. Martin’s), now available in paperback. Her children’s series, The Fix-It Friends, comes out in 2017 by Macmillan Kids – and will not feature any original songs.


About Author

Nicole Caccavo Kear’s memoir, Now I See You, debuted June ‘14 by St. Martin’s Press, and she contributes regularly to Parents and American Baby, as well as Salon and Babble in between her dispatches at the Reader. You can keep up with her misadventures in Mommydom on her blog, A Mom Amok (amomamok.com). A native of Brooklyn, she lives in the Slope with her three firecracker kids, one very patient husband, and an apparently immortal hermit crab.

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