“Since it is so likely that [children] will meet cruel enemies, let them at least have heard of brave knights and heroic courage.” — C. S. Lewis
Several months ago, I read my third-born “Llama, Llama Red Pajama,” a book about a toddler-aged llama who struggles to go to sleep without his mother right by his side. The words have a sing-songy rhyme accompanied by clever illustrations. My daughter was hooked.
For the next three weeks, she requested I read that one, or any one of the several others in the series, every single night. How bittersweet then, is the news that the beloved author of the series, Anna Dewdney, has died of brain cancer. Her beautiful children’s books and final last request remind us to embrace what matters in life.
Llama, Llama—She Gets All Mamas
There are 10 titles in the Llama Llama series, and more than 10 million copies sold, all detailing the dramatic life of a toddler- to preschool-age llama doing everyday activities—shopping, bedtime, playdates, and school—alongside his doting mama. The stories illustrate particularly well how little things are never little things to little people. Everything is big and accompanied by the meltdowns so often associated with young children. Throughout tantrums and tears, Mama is (mostly) patient and (mostly) understanding, getting what she needs done while giving hugs and offering reassurance. She is the mother we all want to be.
In the first book, “Llama, Llama Red Pajama,” little llama can’t bear to fall asleep without additional comfort and consolation from his mother. Who among us hasn’t kissed a forehead for the tenth time on any given night? In “Llama Llama Holiday Drama,” little llama accompanies Mama as she rushes to get holiday shopping done. Only he’s tired of running errands and simply wants his “reward.”
Loaf of Bread and Cream of Wheat,
Llama llama wants his treat.
It’s no fun at Shop-O-Rama,
Llama llama mad at Mama!
What follows is an epic tantrum, complete with throwing food. Solidarity, mothers and fathers. Still, Mama Llama, ever patient and wise, calms her little tornado and says, “I think shopping’s boring too—but at least I’m here with you.” That one sentence defines every mother’s most important priority.
The gem of the Llama, Llama stories is that they cover the most mundane activities of motherhood. Indeed, much of motherhood is monotonous, repetitious, and mundane. Yet through the time-outs, tears, bullying, illness, and struggles, Mama remains a steady rock, a gentle comfort, a reassuring voice; drawing her child to her instead of away, choosing to love instead of giving in to frustration, anger, or fear.
Dewdney Leaves Another Legacy
Dewdney died September 3 at her home after a 15-month battle with brain cancer. She was only 50 years old. The talented writer and illustrator was a huge advocate of children’s literacy.
In an op-ed in 2013 for The Wall Street Journal, she wrote, “When we read with a child, we are doing so much more than teaching him to read or instilling in her a love of language. We are doing something that I believe is just as powerful, and it is something that we are losing as a culture: by reading with a child, we are teaching that child to be human. When we open a book, and share our voice and imagination with a child, that child learns to see the world through someone else’s eyes.”
Dewdney believed so much in the power and importance of literature that, instead of a funeral service, she asked that those who loved her books read to a child.
All told, our nighttime routine with four children—from dinner to showers to bedtime reading and prayers—takes about two hours. Sometimes my husband and I feel tired and cranky and just want some time without children. But we both have always considered nighttime reading essential and fun. Each child still gets read to, even the nine-year-old, who can easily read for himself. Often at night, our kids are more calm and eager to learn and appreciate the life lessons and spiritual truths that come from reading literature and the Bible, and prayers.
The Power of Literature
The power of story grows in a child over time. After reading “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” for example, of course teens and adults are affected differently than a child hearing “Llama Llama Misses Mama.” But that doesn’t negate either experience. In fact, one builds upon the other. Reading to a child “Llama Llama Home With Mama” builds empathy, trust, and understanding, all traits needed when nine year-olds read “Tom Sawyer” and then when 13-year-olds read “Oliver Twist” and again when 16-year-olds read “On the Road.”
My friend and colleague Bethany Mandel shared recently that, if you think about it, many children’s literary classics have some dark material: Peter Rabbit’s father got baked into a pie. Captain Hook got his hand bitten off by a crocodile. Mandel was nervous to let her young children read about death or violence before they had matured, but friends in a homeschool group explained “it’s better to learn about life’s dangers while sitting on my lap than out in the real world.”
Indeed, where else to learn about the best and worst traits of humanity than through the words of someone a child trusts and a story that captures the imagination? When children hear a story, they often imagine themselves as the main character, empathize with her struggles, and rejoice in her successes. Such as it should be in life as well. The person reading the story aloud benefits, too, creating a trusted bond between reader and listener. That time is precious, and that listener gets to enter that precious space because he is valuable.
So, the next time a child wants you to read to her, ignore the voice in your head imploring you to cross off your to-do list instead.
Little Llama don’t you know, Mama Llama loves you so?
Mama Llama’s always near, even if she’s not right here.
Llama llama red pajama gets two kisses from his mama,
Snuggles pillow soft and deep…Baby Llama goes to sleep.