So here’s something I’m working on…
They always say you should write the book that you want to read yourself.
When my daughter was born I wanted to learn more about babies. I wanted to know how they perceive the world and how they learn. I wanted to know how her body was going to grow and develop. I wanted to know when her teeth would come in, and in what order, and what caused hiccups and if she would yawn if she saw me yawning right away or if that was something she had to learn. I wanted to know how she would figure out who the baby in the mirror was. I wanted to know about eye colour and hair colour and right- or left-handedness. I wanted to know what babies like and what they don’t like. I wanted to know what babies laugh at and why.
I wanted to know what was going on in that great big sweet-smelling head of hers.
So I searched through bookstores and libraries but couldn’t really find what I wanted. The parenting books I saw were all rather limited in scope. They were prescriptive rather than descriptive, and stuck to two major topics:
1. health warnings – things you are doing or not doing that could cause your child great harm
2. ways to get your baby to do what you want them to do – ie. stop crying, sleep through the night, read Proust by age two
These books are written in a way that even the most sleep-deprived parent can understand – the chapters are short, the scientific research is simplified and massaged, and there are lots of colourful sidebars, bullet point lists and soothing words… interspersed with admonitions to roll your baby over regularly so her skull doesn’t flatten out at the back. And so forth.
I’m not saying that these books don’t fulfill a need. They do, obviously, because they are bought in great quantities. And every parent needs to know the basics about their child’s health. I’m just saying that, after the basics, I also wanted to know why all babies have blue eyes at birth. How far can they see? How many faces can a baby recognize and remember? And what are they thinking?!
I wanted something with a little more scientific oomph… but not too much, since I was also a sleep-deprived parent, and an academic research paper would have been about as useful to me as ancient Sanskrit.
So I turned next to the pop-science parenting books, which have their own disturbing appeal. Hell-in-a-handbasket reads with two-part titles, along the lines of “Catchy phrase : Terrifying Statement.” For example, “Baby Steps: How Modern Footwear is Crippling our Children”. (Okay, that is totally made up, TOTALLY MADE UP. Do not start spreading rumours about evil baby shoes.)
I hasten to say that books with titles like these are not always unfounded claptrap. Sometimes they do address serious concerns and champion great research. My beef with them is that they are at best blindered, single-issue arguments and at worst fear-mongering, attention-seeking rants. Again, hell-in-a-handbasket literature, which exhausted and semi-hysterical parents grab onto like a lifeboat in a typhoon.
So, back to writing the book I wanted to read. I never did find exactly what I was looking for back when my daughter was tiny, but I read very widely and gleaned interesting tidbits from many sources. (Many thanks here to the marvelous and vast collection of the Toronto Public Library system.) Because I am a geek, I took notes as I read. I also kept a journal of my daughter’s development and every weird little thing I noticed along the way. (Did you know that newborns can move their eyes independently of each other?)
Now my baby is eleven years old (!!?!), and over the years I have regained some small portion of my higher cognitive functioning, enough so I can read and sometimes even understand the more academic articles and books about early development. And it’s fascinating! (I mentioned I was a geek, right?)
I am currently organizing my notes and thoughts into a book: a year-by-year guide to what’s going on in your child’s head, pretty much. It’s written for parents and caregivers, but I’m thinking of putting together another version specifically for children’s writers. When I began writing television shows for preschoolers I had no direct access to wee tots myself, and I was always eager for any insight I could find into what made them tick. So that’s another book-I-wish-I-had-at-the-time that I’m covering with this project.
I haven’t found answers to all my questions, but I’ve come across some fascinating theories and ideas. The journey has been tremendously interesting and satisfying so far. I feel like I’m in grad school, as I’ve always got one more book to read… or ten. I am making progress though – I’ve got a pretty solid draft for the first three years. I plan to work up to age five and then do a second volume for the early school years, six to preteen.
Stay tuned for further updates.