(Paul O. Zelinsky)

When my 9-year-old handed me the book she had selected from a sale at her school and I realized it was a lift-the-flap adaption of a kids’ song, I wanted to say, “This is so babyish!”

I hesitated, not wanting to say the word I’d admonished her not to use with her little sister.

Luckily, I turned the book over and looked at the price.

“This is really expensive!” I said, instead. At that cost, she could get two or three chapter books, and certainly ones more suited to her reading level as a third grader.

“We’re supposed to find right-fit books,” I said. She knew what I meant. This one was too easy.

But it was the one she wanted, she told me.

The book was “Knick-Knack PaddyWhack!,” illustrated by Paul O. Zelinksy. He would be coming to her school that week to speak with her class. Enlargements of his illustrations were hung on the walls in anticipation. And, as I’d told her many times, she’d spent the early years of her life nibbling at and ripping the pages of his lift-the-flap version of “Wheels on the Bus.”

That book had been a gift from an older couple I met while teaching at a senior center. The people on that bus kept me company during the long and lonely days of being a first-time mom, when one feels attached to a nursing child and the reliable friends you find in picture books.

The parents on Zelinsky’s bus are heading to a library, proof to me that I would one day leave the house. And what a town Zelinsky created, one filled with musicians and artists, making the most of public transportation even if there were a few crying babies on the bumpy ride.

After a few years, the book’s flaps were ripped off and its spine was crumbling. My daughter had yanked and eaten and pulled our well-engineered and beloved companion. I eventually threw out what was left of it. And if a friend had a baby, I sent them a new copy as a gift.

But we were all older and wiser now and let’s face it, lift-the-flap books really are for babies. “Knick-Knack Paddy Whack” is a song that reinforces the skill of counting to ten. We’re doing fractions!

I didn’t voice these particular objections.  My daughter held onto the book, looking so earnest.

I thought about what my own parents would have done in the same situation. They’d allowed me to be creative, even at the expense of my doll’s hair, the condition of the lawn, my room, or most of the basement. That liberty to be imaginative, without judgment, was the biggest gift my parents gave me, and it was free.

This book, of course, was not. But after a short back and forth on that matter, my daughter walked out with the lift-the-flap book of her dreams.

She spent most of the afternoon looking at it. She read it to her little sister. She examined the books’ mechanics as best she could, taking great care not to rip the flaps.

That night she showed me a page that interested her.

“This old man. He played seven. He played knick-knack up, up, up, to heaven,” the words read. With each “up” she tugged on a flap that takes an old man in a white gown up to the clouds on a rocket-powered number seven.

“It’s kind of sad,” she said, talking about his trip to heaven. Does he die, she wondered.

The rest of this particular old man’s journey is in a wheelchair, pushed wearily by an old dog walking on his hind legs. It was a surprising way to show his “rolling home” and we had to wonder if “home” was back in this terrestrial world or somewhere else in spirit.

I had not expected such deep questions from this lift-the-flap book. I had thought it was babyish and not the right fit. I had worried that it was a step backwards in my daughter’s progression as a reader, a diversion from our march through not just “Harry Potter,” but some day, “War and Peace.”

It became clear that my 9-year-old was intrigued by aspects of this book that no baby would investigate. She was finding in it as much challenge as her thoughts would allow.

I met Zelinsky when he came to the school and asked him about the old man on the trip to heaven. He showed me how the paper engineer made it work so the images got smaller and smaller as the man rides into the distance.

He told us about his class in college, the one he had with Maurice Sendak, and how until then he had not considered an illustration on par with art.

But it was Zelinsky’s art in “Wheels on the Bus” that made me feel so hopeful when I read that book with my infant daughter. And it was the art in “Knick Knack PaddyWhack!” that drew my now 9-year-old into an experience well beyond the literal song.

How could I have forgotten to seek out the very things that have always given me the most joy and purpose in my own life as a creative person?

I’m not knocking the pursuit of “right fit” books. But I have learned from my 9-year-old how to expand the definition.

Sarah Maraniss Vander Schaaff blogs at The Educated Mom

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