By Jared Harél
I don’t remember being read to as a child. My parents were good ones—doting and
thoughtful—so perhaps I was, but nothing comes to mind. In fact, I recall only three
books in my childhood home, each a disregarded fixture, like doormats or drapes.
In the living room, there was a mass-market paperback of The Firm. Its cover de-
picted some poor suit dangling over marble green, his brown attaché case just
out of reach. Upstairs, a cream-colored copy of Men Are From Mars, Women
Are From Venus sat on my mom’s nightstand, half-buried beneath coupons
and ancient receipts. Lastly, we owned a massive, musty brick of Shakespeare’s
Collected Plays I later learned had been there the day we moved in, and which
we humored on a shelf above our treasured Nintendo. God knows how I be-
came an English major, let alone a writer. All this is to admit that my true intro-
duction to children’s books came when I finally had kids of my own.
What I found upon arrival was varied to say the least. I’d expected the fantastical:
hippos in bow ties, transportation with faces, moral platitudes packaged in bright,
garish fonts and delivered by ducklings with an aptitude for end-rhyme couplets. And
sure, there was plenty of that. But there were other things too, like the hypnotic lullaby
of Goodnight Moon, or the spare, incisive grace of Last Stop On Market Street, as
clear and nuanced as a classic blues song. In the latter, as CJ and his nana begin their
long bus ride home, I encountered the following lines: “The outside air smelled like
freedom, but it also smelled like rain.” This was writing of strangeness and beauty.
A children’s book can do that? I vividly recall thinking, till my pajama-clad kids
poked my stomach, eager to get a move on, to keep reading.
I kept reading, and what I discovered continued to surprise and delight. I found
Amelia Bedelia with its crackerjack humor and literalization of stale idioms beside
the luscious, florid dreamscapes of Time For Bed, Miyuki. I came across a copy
of A.A. Milne’s original Winnie-the-Pooh, and finally understood why people
adore it—it’s just so weird, in the best possible sense. A tub of honey in a cool,
hollowed tree. As someone who devotes tremendous energy and anxiety into
finding new and more precise language to articulate being alive, I suddenly
found kinship in children’s books. After all, for the majority of their target
audience, language is new, and the written word’s magic still undiminished.
Nowhere have I felt this more keenly, perhaps, than in an elephant and pig
whose bond sets the benchmark for the kind of friendships I strive for in this
world: generous and unflinching. If you have small children, you’re likely familiar
with Mo Willems’ Elephant & Piggie series. Is each story not a master class in
minimalism, in small gestures and simple joys? Take, for example, Can I Play
Too?, in which Piggie and Elephant Gerald are playing catch when a friendly
snake asks to join in. “But you do not have arms,” Piggie gently concedes. What
follows is a series of humorous, ill-fated attempts to play catch until, in a flash
of inspiration, Snake happily becomes “the ball.” What a bizarre and brilliant
solution! When writing my best poems—when I’m really in it—language and
logic tilt just this way, to the natural laws of whatever rhythmic word-machine
I am working to make whole. The impossible becomes inevitable. I tinker till
Over the past eight years, my wife and I have read to our children in beds and on
carpets. Across from highchairs, potties, car seats, and swings. When our daughter
spent a week at North Shore Hospital with alarmingly low oxygen-levels, I raced
home for her medications, extra underwear—and books. Even my parents have
come around. Last week, during a visit, I found my father fumbling through
Bear Snores On, his young grandson nestled in his lap. Children’s books are
woven into our daily routine like strong coffee, or pleading with the kids to put
on their socks. Or as Shakespeare put it (now that we’re acquainted): “And this,
our life, exempt from public haunt, finds tongues in trees, books in the running
brooks, sermons in stones, and good in everything.”
In perhaps my favorite Elephant & Piggie book, Waiting Is Not Easy!, Piggie
has a surprise for Elephant Gerald. As Piggie explains, however, “The surprise is
not here yet.” Gerald grows increasingly impatient, and as the pages around them
continue to dim, he panics: “We have waited too long! It is getting dark!” Just
then, Piggie points to a perfect night sky in all its glittery, humbling incandescence.
I get how Gerald feels as he lifts his gaze, stars where once there was nothing at
all. My launch into the galaxy of children’s books may have been delayed, but as
Gerald puts it, “This was worth the wait.”
Jared Harél is the author of Go Because I Love You (Diode Editions, 2018).
He has been awarded the Stanley Kunitz Memorial Prize from American Poetry
Review, the William Matthews Poetry Prize from Asheville Poetry Review, and
has recently published in 32 Poems, Ploughshares, The Southern Review, and
The SUN. Harél teaches writing, plays drums for the NYC-based rock band,
Flyin’ J & the Ghostrobber, and lives with his wife and two kids in Queens, NY.
Originally published in NOR 29.