Friday, February 11, 2011

A Child's-Eye View

There’s Going to Be a Baby by John Burningham, illustrated by Helen Oxenbury, unfolds as an ongoing conversation between mother and child. It’s an exploration of how things will change when their new baby arrives. Each activity—a meal in a restaurant, a visit to the zoo, an errand at the bank—presents a way for the mother to gently reintroduce the topic of the forthcoming addition to their family (“Maybe when the baby grows up, it will be a chef and work in a restaurant,” his mother suggests). Yet Burningham and Oxenbury remain entirely within the child’s perspective.

The boy’s fantasies of his new baby brother or sister as a chef or a zookeeper or—best of all—a banker bring comic relief. The scenes between mother and child remain within a realistic context. The child’s fantasies unfold as pixelated comics-style panels, such as the images of the banker-baby in a button-down shirt and tie counting piles of coins. The fantasies gauge the boy’s emotional ups and downs: when his mother says the baby might grow up to be a zookeeper, he says, “Then the baby might get eaten by a tiger” (not to worry—the boy’s fantasy shows only the infant’s exhaustion from cleaning zebras and feeding seals in a series of windowpane illustrations). At one point, just when the young hero seems to be warming up to the idea of a new sister or brother, he stands up in the tub and pronounces, “Mrs. Anderson’s baby threw up all over their new carpet.” Surely Mommy won’t bring a baby home now! The impact of his pronouncement feels more forceful because it’s spoken by the child not in response to his mother’s imagined future for the baby-to-come, but instead arises from his own thoughts during one of his daily rituals--taking a bath.

This is a journey of a child’s resistance to and gradual acceptance of the notion of a new baby in his home. The ending feels pitch-perfect. The boy confides in his Grandad, and his words reveal how much consideration he has given to this forthcoming change. He reviews highlights of the conversations he’s had with his mother: “Maybe it will be Susan or Peter. Maybe it will be good at cooking.” Author and artist keep the focus completely on the boy hero: “Grandad, the baby will be our baby. We’re going to love the baby, aren’t we?” Young readers who have trepidation about impending changes to their own families can see that other children have also been through this experience, and they are not alone in these confusing feelings.

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