Raising a child means you do a lot of explaining. After all, as far as slates go, kids are pretty blank when they come out. Often this means you are made to realize just how little you know, or how arbitrary our world is. My daughter’s not even into the “why?” phase yet, and already my explanatory soliloquies lack the authority you’d expect from a college graduate. And I’m not talking about topics like dark matter, biochemistry, or thermodynamics. I’m talking about things like why we drive on the right side of the road, why cold drinks leave rings on tables, or why grass is green.
As if my explanations aren’t bad enough, I feel like my efforts are being sabotaged by children’s authors and the English language itself.
Children’s books are not exactly grounded in realism, which is mostly a good thing. They should be fanciful and encourage children’s imagination. But I feel like they also serve as a child’s first formal education on how you are expected to behave and how the world works, so even though most books deliver these messages through talking animals, I feel like maybe they could be a little less cartoony. Josie loves birds, and she constantly signs “bird” whenever she sees a crow, pigeon, eagle, purple finch, hummingbird, yellow warbler, etc. She recognizes a wide diversity of birds as ‘birds.’ So why do children’s books always draw animals in the same archetypal way?
The naturalist in me sometimes wishes their illustrators would make a little more effort to be biologically accurate. What color are ducks? Yellow? Sure when they’re little, they’re sort of a dirty blondish brownish, but I have never seen an adult duck the color of a banana, which apparently is how all children’s book illustrators see them. Apparently they take their chromatic cues from rubber bathtub toys, and not their local pond. Pigs are always drawn pink, cows are usually the familiar black and white Holsteins or maybe a brown Jersey. The lack of diversity depicted in children’s books isn’t necessary, and at worst, it’s insulting. I also add narration to the story on how ecologically inaccurate it is when I see zebras and lions playing together happily. And for that matter, sometimes I add some extra explanation on what happens to piglet and all those other happy farmyard animals.
Then there is the English language. Unlike children’s books, it seems to go out of its way to make the world overly complex and confusing. The more explaining I do, the more inconsistencies I find in it. And I’m not talking about the obvious irregular verbs, weird phrases, or silent consonants that don’t yet concern a toddler. I’m referring to flat out nouns that don’t make sense.
- Grape nuts – neither grapes nor nuts.
- Grapefruit – not a grape, and with a redundant suffix.
- Pineapple – not an apple, and does not grow on a pine tree.
- Eggplant – maybe when they are real little they look like eggs?
- Butterfly – neither butter nor fly.
- Cargo – goods we transport by ships.
- Shipments – goods we transport by cars.
- Parkway – where we drive.
- Driveway – where we park.
- Shorthand – has nothing to do with an anatomical irregularity.
- Quicksand – Sand that acts very slowly.
- Boxing ring – is square.
- Guinea pigs – neither pigs nor from Guinea.
- Slim chance – same as a ‘fat chance.
- English – the language we speak. Also, in billiards, hitting the cue ball in such a way as to put spin on the ball. Obviously.