Friday, October 07, 2011


Sometimes, when you find yourself suddenly pitched up in bed wheezing and sneezing, your will to tackle the latest novel, the most comprehensive new recounting of the War in the Pacific, or some ground-breaking natural history of the American bison - well, your will just fizzles. Suddenly you, who prided yourself on being a front-line soldier, find yourself in desperate need of the mental equivalent of a week's furlough in Paris.

Sometimes, in other words, only a stack of children's books will cure what ails you.

It isn't necessary to have kids, of course. As I've pointed out here at Stevereads on many occasions, most children's books are at least as much a product of sentimentality as pedagogy - adults so consciously write them for other adults that sometimes the books themselves would be utterly incomprehensible to actual children. No, the best children's books can be read and re-read and enjoyed even if all you've got snuggled next to you on your sickbed is an alarmingly dim-witted basset hound.

I took up Janell Cannon's 1993 classic from Scholastic, Stellaluna, for instance. It's the story of a tiny baby fruit bat named Stellaluna who falls out of her mother's grasp in mid-flight one night when they're both attacked by a marauding owl. Stellaluna falls through the dense jungle canopy and eventually ends up head-first in a bird nest, much to the amazement of its three occupants, Flitter, Pip, and Flap.

Stellaluna misses her bat-mother, and she's dismayed to discover that her new bird-mother only brings disgusting bugs to the nest for everybody to eat. Eventually Stellaluna becomes so hungry that she forces herself to join in, and she likewise tries to forget many of her bat-ways, especially after mother-bird comes home one day to find all four young ones hanging upside-down from the nest. "I will not let you back into this nest unless you promise to obey all the rules of this house," she scolds, and Stellaluna complies.

There's only so much she can do, however. True, Flitter, Pip, and Flap convince her to fly during the day - but they can't do much about her inability to land on perches. Afraid of letting everybody see how clumsy she is, Stellaluna decides to fly all day long, so nobody will have to see her disastrous attempts at landing. But after a long day of flying, she's quite left her new siblings behind - she lands, clumsily, on a branch and closes her eyes in exhaustion.

She's startled by another bat, who wonders why she's hanging the wrong way on a branch! Other bats gather around to hear her story of flying during the day and eating disgusting bugs - and one of those bats is her bat-mother, who survived her encounter with the owl and has missed her little Stellaluna all along. Overjoyed at this reunion, Stellaluna flies back to the nest to tell Flitter, Pip, and Flap that she's OK. She tries to show them the wonders of flying at night, but it terrifies them. "How can we be so different and feel so much alike?" asks Flitter, and Pip wonders, "And how can we feel so different and be so much alike?"

Stellaluna is as much a parable about that kind of difference-defying friendship as it is a touching story of a little lost fruit-bat, and it became an enormous hit for Scholastic, even among readers who have never face-nuzzled with an adult fruit-bat (they're quite wonderful people, and if you ever have a chance to smooch with one, you shouldn't pass it up). The publisher came out with a Stellaluna plush-toy complete with a little dot of velcro on the wing-tips, so it could be made to cling for dear life to the nearest branch. But even without the toy, this is one of my all-time favorite kids books involving bats (against some stiff competition!), and the story of a floppy, ungainly creature who seems utterly out of her element in the world around her ... well, let's just say that story resonates ...

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