As a childless single woman in her early 20s, I spend more time overanalyzing children’s books than I ever expected I would. This is because I regularly babysit an adorable, inquisitive 3½-year-old named Isaiah who (thankfully) loves to read.
His parents are trying to help him learn Spanish while he’s young and has the neuroplasticity for it. Coincidentally, I speak Spanish, so they were delighted when I showed up with five bilingual children’s books. We’ve read through them all several times, but whenever I let Isaiah choose, he picks Norman Bridwell’s Clifford’s Family/La Familia de Clifford (translated by Ann Freeman). Every time we read it, we’re technically reading it twice—once in English, once in Spanish.
Isaiah is at the “why” stage of childhood, in which he scrutinizes anything and everything, including the plot and characters of this book. I have never answered so many questions about a book before in my life, and I have an English degree. These countless re-readings of Clifford’s Family have raised some difficult philosophical questions. It’s led me to believe that any children’s book can be existential if you read it enough times. Here’s what I mean.
In the book, Clifford and his owner Emily Elizabeth go to visit Clifford’s family in the nearby big city where he lived before, you know, he grew to be the size of a small house. First they visit Clifford’s mom, who barely remembers him.
“Why doesn’t she remember him?” Isaiah asks.
“Well, she hasn’t seen him since he was a puppy,” I tell him.
“Because he…was adopted by another family when he was a puppy, and so he didn’t grow up with his mommy.”
I don’t feel qualified to tactfully answer the difficult questions this discussion of adoption may lead to with a three-year-old, even if it is just about dogs, so I pretend not to hear. We press on, and the fractured family continues.
Clifford visits his little sister, Claudia, who has a satisfying adult career as a guide dog for a blind woman—cool, right? And yet, there’s the inevitable question:
“Why?” Why is she a guide dog? Why is the woman blind?” At first, this led to a productive discussion about disability and how some people are born blind whereas other people become blind for various reasons later in life. The answer didn’t stick, though, and he asks it again every time we read it, and I’m repeatedly confronted by one of life’s piercing questions. Why are some people blind when others are sighted? Why does fate deal out hands of privilege so unfairly? Sure, Claudia’s owner lives a happy, fulfilling life with a great dog, but why was she struck by this difficulty to begin with?
Anyway, next they go see Clifford’s big brother, Nero, who is a rescue dog for the city’s fire department. While they’re visiting the firehouse, the alarm sounds. Everyone rushes to the burning apartment building, including Clifford and Emily Elizabeth.
“Why?” asks Isaiah.
“They wanted to help, I guess.”
“Because, well, otherwise the people might not have gotten out of the building in time.” Indeed, it appears that Nero and Clifford both play an important role in the fire rescue, which begs the question: what if Clifford had not been visiting that day? Would those people have made it out unharmed? Nero is a good rescue dog, but he’s small and can’t make a three-story escape slide with his body like Clifford can for those who were trapped on the top floor. Do rescue workers like Nero end up straddled with guilt over their physical limitations in times of crisis?
Ahem. Isaiah does not appear to be as perturbed as I am at these folks’ narrow escape, so I continue by reminding him that “¡Qué valiente era Nerón!” is how you say “Nero was very brave” in Spanish. We move on.
They go to a farm outside the city where Clifford’s big sister Bonnie lives. They watch her help herd livestock. Everything’s going fine until one of the cows in the field turns out to be a bull, and, as the book tells us, bulls “no les gusta el color rojo.” A chase ensues.
“Why don’t bulls like the color red?” Isaiah asks. While a generally accepted fact, I know it is not entirely accurate. Do I tell Isaiah the book is wrong? How did this belief come to be so widely accepted? Once I tried delving into a discussion of matadors in Spain. Then I realized that trying to describe the senseless violence of bullfighting to a three-year-old American child was a no-go. The next time we read the book, I distracted him by explaining the construction “me gusta” and “no me gusta” and asking him what things he did and didn’t like.
“Who cares what the bull thinks, Isaiah,” I said. “Te gusta el color rojo?”
Lastly, Clifford and Emily Elizabeth visit Clifford’s dad at a small house overflowing with people. Kids are climbing on the roof—it’s a total circus. The text points out that even though Clifford’s dad “didn’t have a collar, or a dog dish, or a dog house,” he still “seemed very happy.”
“Why doesn’t he have a collar or a dog dish?” Isaiah must know.
“Well, maybe his family doesn’t have money to buy him those things,” I explain, though I’m not sure how well this concept will sink in for an only child with two doctors for parents and several rooms full of toys.
Having met Clifford’s father, one has to wonder about the circumstances of Clifford’s parentage. Is Clifford’s dad an unneutered stray who ran around impregnating unspayed female dogs in his youth? Is that why none of Clifford’s siblings look alike? How many of them share a mom? How many more siblings must he have? Are these kids the dad’s hanging out with all part of the same family, or are they neighborhood kids who’ve rallied together in support for their beloved stray? That doesn’t explain why the kids are climbing on roofs unsupervised, though, and when Isaiah asks about that, I quickly turn the page.
It ends with Clifford thinking about how he wished his whole family could be together, though he understands why they can’t.
“But why can’t they all be together?” Isaiah asks.
“‘Because they all had people who needed them,'” I read, and close the book, trying to remember that dog families are not like people families, and that it’s not really sad that Clifford’s mom and dad are on opposite ends of the book and don’t talk anymore. I flip it over and start the story in Spanish. Usually there are fewer questions this go-around.
While I breeze over some parts of the story thinking, “Gosh, I hope this doesn’t stick…” his growing knowledge of the Spanish vocabulary makes me think some of it does. Oh well. I guess we all must learn to wrestle with life’s inscrutable questions eventually.
Note to self: maybe mixing things up with different bilingual books would help prevent us from overanalyzing children’s books to the point of existential crisis. I could start here: