by Meredith Jacobs
By the big red barn
In the great green field,
There was a pink pig
Who was learning to squeal.
Those are the opening lines from the children’s book, Big Red Barn by Margaret Wise Brown. I pulled the book off of my shelves and double-checked the words, just in case, but I had actually remembered them perfectly, almost 17 years later. A feat which really shouldn’t surprise me considering I read it out loud to my daughter, Sofie, night after night.
There was something about this book that I loved. Loved it more than Brown’s more famous Goodnight Moon (which I actually didn’t like, but don’t ask me why not because I don’t know). I guess I just loved the rhythm of Big Red Barn, the drawings of the sweet animals all just sort of being there, on the farm, one warm summer day.
There was a bantam rooster
And a little bantam hen
With a big clutch of eggs.
Count them. There are ten.
Even now, when I read it to myself, I hear my voice reading it out loud and feel as if I’m moving forward and back on the glider in the baby’s room.
I read to my children each night since the day they came home from the hospital. Even when they were days old, I read to them and sang to them.
I thought about these books this past weekend. I was recommending books to Sofie – books that I had enjoyed and thought were important for her to read. The Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers; The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri; The American by Henry James, Wide Sargaso Sea by Jean Rhys, the poetry of W.S. Merwin and the short stories of Susan Minot. Grown-up books for my grown-up daughter.
But I couldn’t help think about the baby books that I probably remember better than she or her brother do. Good Night Dinosaurs, 4 Pups and a Worm, If You Hive a Mouse a Cookie, Where Do Balloons Go? Puff-Puff, Chugga-Chugga, Twelve Dancing Princesses and Going to the Zoo.
Everything by Eric Carle and Sandra Boynton.
Sofie would practically fall off of my lap from laughing every time we read Are You My Mother? and reached the word “snort!” We even worked out a dramatic re-enactment of the book. She played the baby bird, fluttering around looking for her mother. I played all the other parts. We put on this performance every time the grandparents visited. (She is the first grandchild.)
Hug was probably the best – it was about a little monkey, roaming the forest, asking all the animals for a hug. Only one word, “hug” appeared on each page. One by one, the animals turned him down until the last page, where his mommy was found and he was quickly wrapped in her arms.
I so clearly remember hugging Jules very tightly as we reached this page. Hug was a book I mainly read with him.
We graduated to Captain Underpants, Junie B. Jones, Stinky Cheese Man and Percy Jackson.
I remember the nights Jonathan would come upstairs to tell me it was 10. “But Voldemort is coming!” I implored. The I glanced around the bed. I had been so engrossed in reading out loud whichever Harry Potter book we were on, that I hadn’t noticed Sofie and Jules had fallen asleep next to me.
I look at these books on my shelves, and I feel the phantom pain of my children in my arms. How easily I can still feel them snuggled into me, one arm around them with the book between us, me, sneaking a kiss on their keppies every once in a while as I turned a page.
Of all the books, I can’t remember any with Jewish content. There were a few versions of Noah’s Ark – mainly because of Jules’ love of all things animal. It’s not that I didn’t want Jewish books, there just weren’t any. Things have changed in the few years since my teenagers were toddlers.
They’ve changed because of Harold Grinspoon.
The Grinspoon Foundation created PJ Library and forever changed the publishing industry. PJ Library sends free Jewish children’s books to any home with children under the age of 8. All you have to do is ask. And, be fortunate enough to live in a community that supports it.
We now do.
PJ Library books are free to families, but for a community to be able to offer the service, someone needs to match funds. I guess it’s the community’s way of demonstrating a commitment to the project. The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington has made this commitment.
The books are an amazing way for children, and more importantly their parents to learn about Judaism. And, because being selected as a PJ Library book means upwards of 100,000 copies sent to homes around the country, there is now a market for Jewish children’s books. Which means more are being written.
We now have books like Baxter, the Pig Who Wanted to be Kosher and Camp Wonderful Wild by Laurel Snyder and The Cats on Ben Yehuda Street by Ann Redisch and Matzo Ball Moon by Leslea Newman.
Sign up now. Go to shalomdc.org or register in person at the Kids’ Zone at Israel@65 on June 9th. Sign up now and start making memories.
And there they were all night long
In the big red barn.
Only the mice were left to play,
Rustling and squeaking in the hay,
While the moon sailed high
In the dark night sky.