Originally published on Why The Writing Works - November 13, 2012
In February I attended the AWP conference in Chicago. It was the first time I’d been away from my five month old daughter for more than a night, so naturally, I had her in mind while I was browsing the book fair. I wanted to find her a literary children’s book that would become a classic in our household.
It didn’t take me long to find something interesting. I came across a booth that was selling a bright orange book with a hand sketched tiger on the front. I opened the book and flipped through the pages and was quickly impressed with the artistic illustrations and the poetry, so I bought it. At the time, I was in a bit of a hurry, so I didn't take much time to investigate the author.
Since then, that book has indeed become one of my daughter's favorites. We read it multiple times a day and my wife and I nearly have the entire thing memorized. Still, I’m not tired of reading it yet, because as a piece of art, it’s still working on me. I’m still learning how to read it at just the right pace with all the inflections the author originally intended. And I’m still trying to digest the meaning of it, and decide whether or not I fully agree with what it teaches (there are multiple interpretations in my mind).
There are a number of other books I read to my daughter on a daily basis, but none of them cause me the same delight or angst. None of them have the same power or convictions that are contained in the orange tiger book. The poetry is miserable in many of these stories - often embarrassing. The books teach things like how to brush your teeth or how to go to sleep. They don’t invite you to wrestle with insecurities or injustice. But the orange tiger does.
The other night, after I finished reading this book to my daughter, I finally took the time to read the back cover, which contains a brief bio about the author. Immediately, I smiled and realized what set this book apart. It was the work of Gwendolyn Brooks, Pulitzer Prize Winner, Poet Laureate of Illinois, Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress. A woman who knew a thing or two about life and race and self-confidence. The kind of woman you’d want to listen to over and over again because of her wisdom and experience.
If you get a chance, pick up a copy of “The Tiger Who Wore White Gloves,” by Gwendolyn Brooks. See what you think. Take some time to get the cadence of it, and then wrestle with the message. Kids love it. It’s pretty to look at and keeps children happy. But it also has some profound truth to it. It makes you think. And that's why it works. That's why I read it to my daughter whenever she wants. Because that’s the kind of literature I want her digesting at a young age.
This book changed my perspective on children’s literature. It might change yours also. A story should never be token. No matter what the genre or target audience.