My reading habits have recently taken a surprising turn. Despite the Jesuit training that introduced me to such recondite authors as Karl Rahner, Edward Schillebeeckx and Hans Urs von Balthasar (don’t theologians have great names?), I now find myself reading books no longer than 10 or 20 pages. Most have brightly colored pictures; many feature drawings of small animals, often dressed up in suits and ties. A good number are of a smallish size and are printed on stiff, unbreakable cardboard. These new reading habits are traceable to the literary tastes of my 18-month-old nephew, who has recently discovered the joys of reading or, rather, having things read to him.
Until last year, the last time I picked up a children’s book was as a Jesuit novice, while working at a Jesuit middle school in New York City. One of my assignments was to help some of the sixth-graders hone their reading skills. Since it was left to me to select the books, I figured I might as well pick out some old favorites. So, after some hunting around the library, my charges and I began to plow through Island of the Blue Dolphins, which the sixth-grader Angel Robles liked very much, even though the protagonist was a...girl. Angel was also partial, as was I, to Encyclopedia Brown Finds the Clues, which he said wasn’t so hard once he got past the first word of the title.
The last children’s book I read for myself was in the sixth grade, when I thought that for sheer reading pleasure nothing would ever top Danny Dunn and the Homework Machine. And, quite frankly, nothing has. Take it from me, Danny Dunn and the Homework Machine beats Rahner’s Theological Investigations III hands-down. That Karl Rahner never included in his Investigations any stories about a machine that could magically do homework is, I believe, a major shortcoming in his work.
But my nephew’s current reading tastes are far simpler than even Danny Dunn. For one thing, the idea of a plot seems to matter little. In fact, when reading, he often demands that the reader skip entire pages of critically important plot development, in order that he may meet his favorite characters again and again. For my nephew, it would seem, the perfect book would be one that combines the following cast of fascinating literary characters: bunnies, baby whales, Barney, hippos, Thomas the Tank Engine, bunnies, cars with Cheerio wheels, Elmo, bunnies, brightly colored primary numbers and more bunnies.
Indeed, an astonishing number of these books are about bunnies. Bunnies with hats, bunnies with families, bunnies getting lost, bunnies eating carrots, bunnies in fields. Not surprisingly, his favorite book of late is the cunningly named volume The Bunny Book. Again! says my nephew, upon completion of the story. So we read it again. And again. Interestingly, he has developed the habit of turning the pages even before I’ve finished reading. At some point, I will probably tell him that flipping the page after you’ve read only the first three words is simply not done (unless you’re reading, say, Kant or Lonergan, when you probably won’t understand it anyway).
But I’ve also discovered that these books are not without their merits for adults. In one book, in which parent animals bid goodnight to their children, a cow asks her calf a question. What made you laugh today? I remember thinking that this is not a bad question for adults to ask themselves at the end of the day. Indeed, it’s not too far from the question implied in St. Ignatius Loyola’s examination of conscience, in which he counsels one to give thanks to God our Lord for the benefits I have received. In other words, what made you laugh today?
So maybe I should read more children’s books. They’ve got pretty pictures, don’t wear out, and can be read over and over again. They have such interesting characters, too, which can make even the dullest of plots seem lively and enjoyable. So for any of you struggling with how to make that next article on Ex Corde Ecclesiae or ICEL come alive, I’ve got two words for you: More bunnies.