Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Are You My Mother?

Are You My Mother? (P.D. Eastman):  I've always liked this book and recently have been reading it more, so I thought I would share some of the observations I have accumulated over the years.

First off, yes this is a Dr. Seuss book.  We had lots of Dr. Seuss books growing up and the Bear and the Bean [1] have the beginnings of a sizable collection of their own.

This one was not written by Seuss, but instead by Eastman who also wrote "Go Dog Go!"  Another classic and another one we read quite often.

Anyway on to the grading and comments [2]:

The cover: Simple enough cover.  Personally, I always liked the dog on the cover.  Much more than the bird.  Since the dog is only on four-ish [3] pages, I always felt I was kind of cheated by the implicit promise made by his appearing on the front.

The story itself starts on page three and let me just jump right in to the controversy and say that from the beginning it is abundantly clear that the egg the mother bird is sitting on is clearly not hers.  I realize that the baby bird that hatches later looks a lot like her, but nevertheless it cannot be hers.  Compare the size of the egg to the mother bird. [Picture] The egg is larger than the mother's entire torso.  There is simply no way that egg came out of that bird.  Trying to contemplate it brings up images from Stephen King's Dreamcatcher. [4]  And forget about trying to imagine what she looked like just prior to laying it.

From here the plot moves on with the baby falling out of his nest and going in search of his mom.  There's a few pages spent getting him moving and then we begin the meat of the story in which he runs into a variety of things and questions if they are his mother.

The first encounter is with a kitten. The kitten doesn't say anything.  Which is fine as it is very cute and just a kitten.  Except then you realize that this bird is literally minutes old and can already talk.  The kitten is clearly days, if not weeks, old.  Why doesn't it talk?  I've decided it is stunned into silence by the sudden appearance of lunch and immobilized by the variety of choices it has on how to consume it. Alternately, perhaps its giant staring eyes are meant to imply that it simply isn't that bright. [5] Whatever the answer the presence of the kitten gives the Bean plenty of opportunity to show off his meowing prowess.

Up next is a hen.  I've no real problems with the bird, except perhaps disappointed at its one word response.  The Bean has no real idea what a chicken should sound like and if you make some chicken noises for him he laughs in a way that implies he thinks you are completely off your nut.

Now the dog makes his big appearance. [6]  I've decided the dog's voice sounds like a civil war era southern gentleman named Beauregard. [7]

There's a recap of the birds adventure so far and then he come to a cow.  The cow clearly sounds like a snobbish, over weight, socialite dressed in a skirt suit and pearls in a tea room in Manhattan. [8]  I've no problem with the cow, though it is at this point you realize that this bird lives in a very brown world.  Besides a touch of yellow here and there and some even rarer splashes of red, everything in this world is the exact same shade of brown.  Bird, kitten, hen, dog, cow, tree, nest, rocks, shadows, etc, etc, are all the same color.  It is a depressing universe.

Now the baby bird begins to have a crisis of identity and we start to see just exactly who he is. [9]  Mentally pulling himself up by the bootstraps [10] he moves on in earnest and comes to the wreckage of an old car. We should note that the car is the first thing to not be mostly brown, but is instead yellow.  As a child this car always made me kind of sad.  I felt bad that it was left here abandoned and useless.  As if to point this out to the reader, in later recaps when the bird lists the things that are not his mother, the car is never mentioned.

The baby bird then meets a boat and an airplane, which have red highlights [11]. Neither are his mother, but they do finally let us begin to see just what voice this bird has.  It is clear that the role of the bird should be read with as much drama and pathos as possible.  He speaks like a Shakespearean actor trying, with the limited dialogue he has, to break the hearts of everyone who hears his plight and stir in our breasts raw emotion. [12]

The drama continues as the baby bird has his last encounter.  It is a steam shovel [13], which the bird names a 'Snort' after the noise the machine makes.  When he was younger the Bear loved to read this book except for this part.  He would actually try to get me to skip these pages because he was clearly frightened by the 'Snort' [14].

The baby bird is then saved as the shovel deposits him back into his own nest.  Only this brings up another problem with the text.  This bird has traveled quite some distance at this point.  He has passed four different animals and a wrecked car.  He's peered down into a deep valley at a boat on a river and then moved on to stare up at a plane in the sky.  Finally moving on to encounter the shovel.  He started out walking and after the cow he was running and yet, somehow, the operator of the Snort knows where he came from and where he needs to be returned to.

Is the shovel's operator the most eagle eyed person on the planet?  Able to spot small birds falling out of nests half a mile or more away?  It just doesn't seem possible.

More likely, I believe we are to assume that the baby bird has not been travelling in a straight line. Instead he has been spiraling outward from the tree passing by various things that ultimately are not what he thinks they are in a kind of "I am the Cheese" journey.  Such that by the time he meets the Snort he is still only mere feet from his starting point.  Who knows maybe the Snort is not a steam shovel at all [15] or maybe the bird never left the nest at all and the entire journey was a flight of fancy.

The book ends with the baby bird back in his nest just in time for his mother, who has been oblivious to the entire journey [16], to return with the baby's first meal.  She asks him if he knows who she is and armed with his newly earned knowledge, the baby proudly lists off everything that she isn't.  And having discerned all that, and despite never having anyone tell him or even use the word, he declares she is a bird and his mother. [17]

Despite the flaws in the book mentioned above, I, and the boys, still do enjoy it tremendously and I hope you will too.

Are You My Mother?: A

[1] - In case you've forgotten, go here, though the post is two years old now, it at least will let you know who is who.
[2] - In some cases I've found pictures of some of the pages online.  Here are links to two sites with several for those not fortunate enough to own this piece of classic literature.  Here and here.
[3] - The tip of his tail is on one page.  Not sure if that really counts.
[4] - Technically I've never seen the movie as I heard it was awful, but I've seen several previews so I'm pretty sure what happens in the book happens in the movie.  (For what it's worth, I thought the book was pretty good.)
[5] - Or maybe I'm reading too much into it.
[6] - Big being a relative term.  He only has two lines, but hey it's better than the chicken.
[7] - It's obvious from the text.
[8] - Also very obvious from the text.
[9] - More on that later.
[10] - Not pictured, but if they were they would be brown.
[11] - Clearly living things are brown.  Old worthless machines are yellow and useful functioning ones are red.
[12]This is particularly evident on page 42.  His cries to the plane of "Here I am, Mother!" should evoke images of the likes of Lawrence Olivier or Orson Welles spotlighted left of center stage, surrounded by darkness, on his knees, one arm reached up into the sky, the other clenched at his chest as he cries out in emotional pain.
[13] - Similar to an excavator, but not the same.  Also note how the machine is a combination of red, brown and yellow.  Given our previous color scheme, is it alive or machine?  Is it useful or used up?  It is all these and none of them.  It is a monster and as the book reveals, it is also a savior.
[14] - Which I never did.  Man up, son.
[15] - Perhaps it is a metaphor for how technology can help us realize our goals.
[16] - There is a comment to be made here about the bird/nut not falling far from the tree, but I'll let you make it on your own.
[17] - It occurs to me that perhaps I have misread the text and this last page is actually the lynch pin.  Perhaps the books is meant to be commentary on the self and identity.  A sort of Freudian/Nietzsche-ian dialogue on the id.

1 comment:

  1. Go, Dog. Go! was my favorite when I was a kid. :)