The Day the Babies Crawled Away (by Peggy Rathman, 2003)

picturebookpicksI can’t help finding The Day the Babies Crawled Away unexpected every time I read it. It’s got a couple of qualities unique enough that I’m delighted anew each time I pick it up.

Most obvious are the illustrations, which are all in dramatic black silhouette. The whole thing could have been cut out of paper, which isn’t a style you see very often. But even thought it’s all just silhouettes, there’s still so much detail it’s hard to believe. Each of the characters is distinct and charming, and you can easily read the book six times in a row following different characters each time. In fact, there are a number of features that carry over from page to page. You can follow the butterflies from page to page, or the creatures that join the babies’ journey at each stage. You can look for the baby that always manages to find a way to hang upside-down. You can find a million things to look at on the panorama page. There are so many little visual details that you’ll want to pour over each illustration, and start right over again as soon as you’re done.

Second, it’s one of the only children’s books I can think of written in the second person: YOU are the hero of this book! Literally, the hero. The babies crawled away, and none of the grown-ups noticed, so YOU had to chase them down and bring them back. The illustration of the protagonist is a child wearing a fire-fighter’s hat—it’s probably a boy, but it could be a short-haired girl too. I haven’t had a child explicitly identify himself with the protagonist; but the second-person voice does seem to make children lean in a little closer.

“Remember the way
You tried to save the day?
You hollered, ‘HEY!
You babies, STAY!’
But none of them did.
And some of them hid.
What a day
When the babies crawled away!”

Which brings me to the other interesting point about this book: it’s got a prominent rhyme scheme, but no clear rhythm scheme. Or rather, the meter changes from page to page, even within one page. We’re so used to rhyme and rhythm going together, and children are too—I don’t quite know how to describe the effect the changing rhythm has, except to say that it’s interesting to hear, it makes you prick up your ears. It makes it fun to read aloud too—there’s a lot in the rhythm to encourage vocal inflection.

Add to all of that the fact that it’s a dramatic adventure story, with rascally babies and creative problem-solving and subtle humor, and you’ve got a sure-fire winner. Rathman has a few other well-known books—Goodnight Gorilla and Officer Buckle and Gloria and 10 Minutes Til Bedtime. I think they’re all cute, but none have the depth and surprise and repeat-readbility of The Day the Babies Crawled Away.

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