The Story of “NO”

The idea for this post was suggested to me by my friend Alice in early October. She had noticed that in many books she was reading to her daughter, the word NO, or the denial of permission, was used as a plot device. Alice mentioned Robert Munsch’s use of “No,” NNNNno,” and “Nononononono” as a device in many of his stories.

I didn’t know what to do with this idea when she proposed it to me. I suggested that she write a guest post, but I suppose that, given that she was working full-time, AND in her third trimester with her second child, AND the mother of a busy a one-year old, she just didn’t have the time.

Anyway, I’ve been mulling over this idea ever since, and these are the musings I have come up with.

This is what one Robert Munsch story (Thomas’ Snowsuit) would look like without the word “No.”

One day, Thomas’ mother got him a nice, new, brown snowsuit. And when Thomas saw that snowsuit, he said, “That is the ugliest thing I have seen in my life.” But he put it on anyway. THE END.

See? No story at all. This is the story of my life, by the way. “Oh no! – Not the lavender store-brand running shoes with velcro fastenings from Kmart! But I have no others… so I will wear them.” THE END.

What is no, and why do toddlers make such copious use of it? No is an assertion of selfhood, right? When you’re a baby, you do whatever is done to you. You eat the food that comes at you, you wear the itchy sweater that your Auntie Matilda made for you. But when you get a bit older, you realize that there is this powerful word that makes grown-ups stop. No.

It doesn’t mean that you don’t have to wear the sweater, but it means that (if you’re lucky) the grown-ups will give you reasons to wear it. “Put this sweater on. It’s cold outside” or “Put this sweater on and smile for the camera so we can send Aunt Matilda a picture. You can take it off as soon as you’ve taken this picture. I promise.”

“NO” doesn’t mean that you don’t have to eat your broccoli, but it does mean that grown-ups may find creative ways to encourage you to eat it. They might tell you that you can be a giraffe. They might start telling you how delicious it tastes with cheese sauce. Or, if you live in my house, you might be told that it’s OK not to eat the broccoli, but if you don’t, you MIGHT get scurvy. And that would really be too bad. Because then your teeth would fall out…

What I am saying, I guess, is that the word “No” becomes the basis for an explanation, and also for a story. “No” inspires persuasion, tall tales, narratives.

Obedient children make boring characters, too. Here, for example, is the story of Peter Rabbit‘s sisters.

Flopsy, Mopsy, and Cottontail lived with their mother under the root of a very large fir tree. One day, their mother said “I’m going out. You may play in the meadow or down the lane, but don’t go into Mr McGregor’s garden. Your father had an accident there. He was made into a pie by Mrs McGregor.”* Their mother took her basket and went to do her shopping. Flopsy, Mopsy, and Cottontail went down the lane and gathered blackberries. When their mother returned, they had bread, and milk, and blackberries for supper. THE END.

*Now there’s a story…

Peter Rabbit doesn’t say “No” to his mother, but his disobedience is a willful negation of his mother’s wishes. His disobedience is the story. Flopsy, Mopsy, and Cottontail’s story might be the moral, but it isn’t interesting. Readers might want to be the good sisters, eating their delicious meal at the end of the day, but they don’t want to read about them.

Many parents (including myself) would doubtless like to shut down the “No” emerging from their children’s mouths. We’d love to have angelic faces beaming, with “Yes” emerging from cherubic lips. But that wouldn’t be very interesting, would it? And there would be precious few stories to share.

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Alphabet Soup (!)

Here’s Owen at work in his new kitchen. His favourite dishes? Alphabet soup (made of magnetic letters from the fridge) and grilled cheese soup.

Notice him pressing down on the grilled cheese.

He’s obsessed with letters lately. He can identify about 1/3 of the letters of the alphabet consistently, which I find pretty impressive given his age, and his interest in letters has made me quiz him on words and how they are spelled. I hope I’m not going too crazy. Part of me is amazed at how interested he is in letters, but the other part of me wonders why he’s not reading yet. Seriously, child? C-A-T? You must know that one by now. He sometimes knows how to spell Owen, but other times knows how to spell O-W-E-O or O-E-W. Close enough, no? The other day, we were at Winners, and Owen just listed off “W-I-N-N-E-R-and-S!” – he didn’t put the letters together, but he knew to read them. Then yesterday, we went to Zellers, and he pointed to the sign atop the store and said “That say Zellers?” – obviously, he wasn’t reading it, but he gets that letters spell things, and this is exciting for him. He “reads” the titles of books by trolling his finger over the words and saying the title “The Cat in the Hat,” say – but if you ask him to point out individual words (like “cat”), he’ll point to “the.”

Lately, he’s obsessed with the exclamation mark. He asked me what it was one day – I guess because he didn’t recognize it as a letter. When I told him it made you read LOUDER, this delighted him, so he now searches the pages of books for exclamation marks, and tells me to read LOUDLY (which I do). I had never noticed how exclamation marks there were in, say, Scaredy Squirrel at the Beach… ! It’s gotten to the point where a page is not a page if it doesn’t contain an exclamation mark, as in: “Oh, no! Where the exclamation mahk?” I try to tell him that some of us seek peace and quiet, but the child can’t yet be convinced by the power of commas and periods. In time, in time.

Baby Book Club: Little Blue Truck

Owen pretty much has his basic colours down now. When we walk down to the waterfront, as we do most nights, he looks for the yellow cars (rare), orange cars (rarer), and blue cars (plentiful!). Our walks have taken a new dimension, in a way, because colour is now incorporated.

Alice Schertle’s colourful book Little Blue Truck (illustrated by Jill McElmurry) was recommended recently by the saleswoman at Babar Books in Pointe Claire. I liked it immediately. It’s perfect for Owen’s age (almost 2) because the rhymes are simple and catchy, and the book is full of creatures my little boy loves (namely, farm animals and trucks): “Horn went ‘Beep!’ / Engine purred. / Friendliest sounds / you ever heard. / Little Blue Truck / Came down the road. / ‘Beep!” said Blue / To a big green toad.” The rhymes actually work without any of them having to be forced (unlike a certain Baby Einstein book which shall remain nameless, or some of the peekaboo, fuzzy, lift the flap books. What passes as children’s poetry astounds me sometimes).

The book is about a friendly truck who is kind to all the local animals. One day, a big, rude, dump truck arrives in the neighbourhood. It hasn’t “got time / To spend the day / With every duck / Along the way.” The dump truck gets stuck in the mud, though, and needs the help of all the animals he’s been shunning.

Little Blue Truck has a moral, and that’s OK, but I wish Schertle had resisted the urge to spell it out for us (and the toddlers, who I’m sure could have figured out on their own that: “Now I guess / A lot depends / From a helping hand / From a few good friends.”) The other thing that I feel weird about is that I am pretty sure an old truck like Blue would be a gas guzzler, so he’d be poisoning the air of all his little farm buddies.

In any case, the book is charming, the illustrations lovely, and the truck’s carbon footprint is surely not the point.

Baby Book Club: Mouse Tales

Mouse Tales, by Arnold Lobel (who also wrote the Frog and Toad series), is one of the books from my childhood that I sought out (a bit desperately) mid-way through my twenties and bought for myself.

It’s a collection of short stories, delightfully illustrated and good for beginning readers. The stories’ frame is a father telling his young mouse children a series of short tales before they go to sleep. There’s a story about a mouse who takes a long bath and floods his entire town. There’s another one about a mouse who throws pennies into a wishing well only to be met with an “ouch” from the well, who is sensitive. There’s one about a tall mouse and a short mouse that reminds me of my walks with Owen lately, where he is fixated on every ant and pebble and flofleur (he’s short mouse) and I am looking longingly at our destination – the park, or home (I’m tall mouse). I am more adult-like and abstracted than the tall mouse in the story, but I do (like tall mouse) lift Owen up from time to time, so he can smell the apple blossoms or see the sunset.

My favourite story, and the reason I sought the book a decade ago, is called “The Journey.” It’s about a mouse who sets off to visit his mother. It’s a really long way, so in the process the mouse’s car breaks down, then his boots, his sneakers, and finally his feet (there’s more than this, but you get the idea). Conveniently, at the side of the road, there is always a mouse selling a mode of transportation. The last mouse is selling feet. My favourite part of the story is when the mouse arrives at his mother’s house (with a line across his ankles denoting the new feet), and his mother remarks “what nice new feet you have!”

I love that the story swerves across the line between absurd, macabre, and practical. Of course, the traffic of body parts is terrifying (on that note, a nice grown-up counterpart is Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go), but haven’t we all had days when we wished there was someone by the side of the road selling new feet?

A Little Light Reading

On the way to Toronto, I looked back to see this:

His feet are bare because he cannot abide boots and socks on long car rides and removes them at the first opportunity, whining and crying if he can’t undo the velcro himself. (He also likes to bare his feet at shopping malls, so the stroller constantly snags on errant boots or shoes). Books were a life saver this time around, because they kept him interested for much longer than static toys (or even an electronic phone). Another perk is that I know all the words, so I can almost read the book from the passenger seat.

Notice how one foot is helping to hold the book.

The book he’s reading, 123 by Alison Jay, is awesome. It’s a counting book (1 to 10 and back again) but oh what a counting book. The pictures are magnificent and so detailed that you discover something new every time you read. It’s a dream book, where a little girl dreams her way through nursery rhymes, and images morph (but still follow one another) from one page to the next.

We had a brief period in Owen’s life when he was too rambunctious to read. I am glad that books are back to being some of his favourite things.


I am continuously fascinated by the things Owen can understand, and one of these is his ability to recognize representational images versus actual things and (included in this) his ability to understand categories of things (like dogs or chairs). Dogs by no means all look alike, and yet Owen pretty consistently recognizes dogs in all their incarnations.

Then again, we don’t have bears walking the streets in Sainte-Anne-de-Bellevue, so he really has to be able to tell dogs apart from cats and squirrels.

I notice it most in picture books, where Owen remembers how all the different artists have represented something, cows, for instance. I thought it might also be that Owen just knows that certain images are cows because I told him they were cows, but I tried with a book we hadn’t looked at in months and he got the cows right every time. Not sure he could pick out a Jersey, though. All the cows in his books have spots – Holsteins and Guernseys, anyone?

I’m also amazed by how well he remembers details in books. In one of our favourite books, Peepo!, by Janet and Allan Ahlberg, there’s a scene where the baby is missing a shoe. About two weeks ago, I asked Owen to find his other shoe in the messy kitchen scene opposite (and he did, with some help). Yesterday, though, when we were reading the book, Owen pointed, unprompted, to the shoe on the baby’s food, turned the page, and pointed to the shoe opposite, which means he remembered that he was supposed to be looking for the shoe, two weeks later.

I’d like to know more about childhood development, so if anyone knows of some good books on the subject (particularly on the way children learn), I’d love to hear your suggestions.

Owen "learning" at the Children's Museum, London ON


I don’t particularly like Robert Munsch’s Love You Forever. I find the pictures kind of dated (the mother gets really frumpy looking really fast) and the prose a bit stale. I am a bigger fan of stuff like The Paper Bag Princess.

However, I cannot get through reading that book without tearing up. I get to the part where the man’s mother is sick and my words catch in my throat and I can no longer speak the refrain:

I’ll love you forever
I’ll like you for always
As long as I’m living
My baby you’ll be

The emotion always catches me by surprise and reminds me that there are some things that exist on a different plane, things you don’t have to think about (things you can ruin by thinking about). Love is one of those surprises, wonderful and terrifying at the same time. I think we cling to those we love because we know that, no matter how long we live, our time is limited.

Some Birds Are Like That

Have you ever ignored a child? A child who was grinning and waving at you? I’m not sure. I think I might have, in black days past when I was fuming at something or other and I didn’t want to be cheerful to anyone, for anyone. But I’d like to hope that I didn’t ignore a child’s beckoning glance. That I cracked a miniature smile, looked back into small, trusting eyes.

Owen is a pretty gregarious kid – he grins and waves at everyone, soliciting grins and waves back (most of the time). But it was strange and kind of sad to see one woman who, on the S-Bahn back from Bad Homburg, ignored Owen’s multiple attempts at communication. He didn’t seem fazed by it at all. It looked like he thought she mustn’t have seen him yet, so he kept trying – every five or ten minutes or so – to make her crack a smile. And she wouldn’t! For almost an hour she stared in our general direction but without a glimmer of recognition for the little boy trying so hard to make friends. She looked to be in her late twenties, was well put together, quite pretty. And I guess I keep thinking about her because I remember a time (not too long ago) when I was a little like her. When I didn’t really get kids. When I was broody and self-absorbed.

My former roommate Janet used to tell me that when I was feeling miserable, the best cure was to smile. And I hated hearing that when I was moping and glowering – but of course she was right. And I think that is part of why Owen has cured so many of my bad moods – because I can’t help but smile when he’s around (especially at his latest trick, which involves pointing at Duncan or me and then applauding vigorously: “Hooray for Daddies!” or “Hooray for Mummies!” we shout).

One of our favourite books lately is called Lost and Found, by Oliver Jeffers. It’s about a boy who finds a penguin on his doorstep and tries to bring him “home” to the South Pole. In a way, though, it’s also a classic tale of misunderstanding, misreading, and miscommunication. When the boy is trying to figure out where the penguin comes from, he asks some birds – but they don’t answer him. “Some birds are like that,” comments the narrator. Indeed. His rubber ducky is similarly silent. All the while, the penguin follows the boy around trying (silently) to make friends, while the boy is so intent on returning his new friend to the South Pole, that he fails to notice that the penguin just wants some attention. Isn’t that clever? The boy is a little like those birds! Fortunately, the boy realizes his mistake and the book has a happy ending.

And then they hug.

I guess all this to say that I think we all risk ignoring each others’ wants and needs, when sometimes that need is just a smile, an acknowledgment, a nod. And I hope I will never again be one of those birds – you know – the ones who are like that.

Listmaker, Listmaker, Make Me a List

My mother is a list-maker. When I was growing up, there was always a list on the kitchen counter: lists of things for her to do and lists of things for the rest of us to do. My mother took great satisfaction in crossing things off her list, so much satisfaction, in fact, that most new lists included several things she had already done so she could cross them off immediately. My intense, uptight adolescent self used to get annoyed at her for this. It seemed dishonest – though my mother always maintained that it gave her a feeling of accomplishment – and with 4 children and a full-time job there was a lot to accomplish.

Now (since the apple sometimes falls close to the tree) I am a listmaker. I make lists because if I don’t write stuff down, I forget, and also because lists prevent me from procrastinating as much. If it’s still on the list waiting to be done, it bothers me until I can check it off. My intense, uptight adult self prefers to draw little boxes and to place check marks in them when a task has been completed. It looks tidier. Weird, no?

This listmaking obsession of mine and of my mother’s is also reflected in one of my favourite story books from childhood: Frog and Toad (and their volumes of adventures). In one particular story, Frog makes a list of things he wants to do that day and proceeds to cross them off as he does them. He (like my mother) likes to write things on his list that he’s already done, in this case “Wake up.” Unfortunately, just after he has crossed off “Meet Toad” and “Take a walk with Toad,” an errant gust of wind blows the list out of Frog’s grasp. Paralyzed without his list, Frog and Toad wait around listlessly (hee!) because they cannot remember what they were supposed to do next. Finally, Frog remembers that the last thing on his list was “Go to sleep.” They write it in the sand, cross it out, and fall into peaceful slumbers.

All this to say that my energetic (listful?) mother  remembered my childhood love of this story and created one of her marvellous toys for Owen’s birthday present. And, of course, Frog has a list in his pocket, partially crossed out.

I imagine that my mother had a list somewhere in her house last week that read somewhere on it “Make Frog and Toad Puppets for Owen” and then crossed it off.

My mother makes all kinds of wonderful and magical toys. You can find them here.

My most recent list was a list of things to do before I leave for Germany, with Owen, to visit my sister. And now, with tidy boxes ticked off and a less tidy suitcase packed, I am off for about a week.

NOTE: About an hour after writing this, I added “update blog” to my list and ticked it off. My adolescent self would not be pleased.

Scaredy Lady of Shalott

Note: There are probably twenty people on earth who will get this, but I came up with this connection in class one day and haven’t been able to stop thinking about it. It’s based on a WONDERFUL children’s book by Montreal author Mélanie Watt (which you should buy for yourself, if not for your child):

and Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s famous poem “The Lady of Shalott”:

Anyway, this is what happens to your brain when you teach Victorian Literature but are spending a great deal of time reading children’s books: Enjoy!

Scaredy Lady of Shalott

Scaredy Lady of Shalott never leaves her tower.

She’d rather stay in her safe and familiar tower than risk venturing out into the unknown. The unknown can be a scary place for a lady.

A few things Scaredy Lady of Shalott is afraid of:

  • Reapers reaping early
  • Surly village churls
  • Red cloaks of market girls
  • A curly shepherd lad
  • Two young lovers lately wed
  • Knights in shining armour

So she’s perfectly happy to stay right where she is.

Advantages of never leaving the tower:

  • great view (through a mirror)
  • plenty of weaving
  • safe place
  • no reapers, churls, market girls, shepherd lads, young lovers, or knights

Disadvantages of never leaving the tower:

  • same old view (through a mirror)
  • same old weaving
  • same old place

In Scaredy Lady of Shalott’s tower, every day is the same. Everything is predictable. All is under control.

Monday: weaving – Tuesday: weaving – Wednesday: weaving – Thursday: weaving –Friday: weaving – Saturday: weaving – Sunday: weaving.

Scaredy Lady of Shalott’s daily routine:

  • 6:45 am            wake up
  • 7:00 am            do some weaving
  • 7:15 am             look at view (through mirror)
  • 12:00 noon      do some weaving
  • 12:30 pm          look at view (through mirror)
  • 5:00 pm            do some weaving
  • 5:31 pm             look at view (through mirror)
  • 8:00 pm            go to sleep

BUT let’s say, just for example, that something unexpected DID happen…

You can rest assured that Scaredy Lady of Shalott is prepared.

A few items in Scaredy Lady of Shalott’s emergency kit:

  • Parachute
  • Hand mirror
  • Embroidery floss
  • Net
  • Pen

What to do if the curse is activated, according to Scaredy Lady of Shalott:

  • Step 1: Panic
  • Step 2: Run
  • Step 3: Liberate tapestry
  • Step 4: Put on kit
  • Step 5: Consult Exit plan
  • Step 6: Exit tower (if there is absolutely, definitely, truly no other option)

Exit Plan “TOP SECRET”

  • Exit 1: Note to self: Watch out for churls and market girls
  • Exit 2: Note to self: Do not land in river. If unavoidable, find a boat and write your name on it.
  • Exit 3: Note to self: Look out for reapers and  knights
  • Exit 4: Keep in mind that young lovers are everywhere.

Remember, if all else fails, playing dead is always a good option.

With her emergency kit in hand, Scaredy Lady of Shalott watches (through a mirror). Day by day she watches (through a mirror), until one day …

Thursday 9:37 am

Sir Lancelot flashes into the crystal mirror!

Scaredy lady of Shalott turns to look and cries “A curse is on me,” knocking her emergency kit out of the tower.

This was NOT part of the Plan.

Scaredy lady of Shalott jumps to catch her kit.

She quickly regrets this idea.

The parachute is in the kit.

But something incredible happens …

The magic web floats wide and she hangs on for the ride. Scaredy lady of Shalott is no ordinary lady. She’s a flying lady!

Scaredy lady of Shalott forgets all about the knight, not to mention the reapers, churls, market girls, shepherd lads, and young lovers.

She feels overjoyed! Adventurous! Carefree! Alive! Until she lands in a boat.

And plays DEAD.

After Lancelot says “She had a lovely face,” Scaredy Lady of Shalott realizes that nothing horrible is happening in the unknown today. So she returns to her tower.

All this excitement has inspired Scaredy Lady of Shalott to make drastic changes to her life…

Scaredy Lady of Shalott’s new-and-improved daily routine:

  • 6:45 am             wake up
  • 7:00 am             do some weaving
  • 7:15 am              look at view (through mirror)
  • 9:37 am             float into the unknown on magic web
  • 9:45 am             play dead
  • 11:45 am            return home
  • 12:00 noon       do some weaving
  • 12:30 pm           look at view (through mirror)
  • 5:00 pm             do some weaving
  • 5:31 pm              look at view (through mirror)
  • 8:00 pm             go to sleep

P.S. As for the emergency kit, Scaredy Lady of Shalott is in no hurry to pick it up just yet (it’s between two young lovers. Ew.)