The Woolly Wisdom in the ‘Llama Llama’ Books

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When I walked into the pediatric clinic yesterday morning, I went to the shelves where the volunteer readers keep their books, and pulled out a battered — in the sense of well-read and well-loved — copy of “Llama Llama Mad at Mama.” Like Anna Dewdney’s other stories, this one is funny and recognizable, as the young llama is dragged off, much against his will, for an expedition to the (yes!) Shop-O-Rama. Sure enough, things turn boring: “Look at knees and stand in line, Llama Llama starts to whine.”

Writing rhyming stories for children is one of those deceptive skills. It looks like it should be easy to arrange those few simple words on that page, but it’s almost impossible to do without violating the rhythms of normal speech, accenting awkward syllables and turning your sentences inside out. Ms. Dewdney, the children’s book author and illustrator who died Saturday at the much-too-young age of 50, had a genius for this kind of rhyming.

Ms. Dewdney wasn’t the first children’s author to take advantage of the way that llama rhymes with mama, but she may have been the first to factor in another all-important rhyme — drama — which signaled her gentle but always amused take on young children’s behavior.

At the Shop-O-Rama, there are clothes to be tried on by the young woolly protagonist, Llama Llama: “Try it on and take it off. Pull and wiggle, itch and cough.” (Go ahead, you try to compose a better couplet in simple language to convey the experience of shopping with a recalcitrant small mammal.)

Sure enough, Llama Llama eventually loses it, right there in the Shop-O-Rama, and throws a tantrum. And what does his wise and woolly mama say? “Please stop fussing, little llama. No more of this llama drama.” And that’s when I, at least, know that I’m in the hands of someone who understands both sides of the public tantrum with the same good-natured perspective. There’s no deep and profound lesson to be learned here about obedience or being good — it’s about cutting the drama and getting the shopping done and going easy on each other so you can get to the fun part of the day.

As a pediatrician, a parent and the national medical director of Reach Out and Read, a national literacy organization that promotes parents reading aloud with young children, I have enormous respect and appreciation for engaging children’s books with pictures and stories that connect directly with the lives of their readers. And I know how fiendishly difficult it is to do what Ms. Dewdney did.

My friend and colleague Dipesh Navsaria, associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health, is a pediatrician with a master’s degree in children’s librarianship, and the medical director of Reach Out and Read Wisconsin. He said about Ms. Dewdney: “She really hits the marks beautifully in terms of understanding the challenges of childhood that we as adults have forgotten, that bedtime is a separation, or leaving a child at preschool or being lost in a store.” He added: “And she does it beautifully in rhyme.”

Rhyming plays an important role in helping young children figure out how language works, and as they get closer to reading, in helping them break words down into component sounds. Small children generally crave rhymes, as they crave repetition — and we all know that it’s easier to memorize a rhyming story and repeat it over and over again.

“Even though the rhyme was so central to what she was doing with these books, she still managed to maintain a beautiful narrative arc and flow,” Dr. Navsaria said. “There was a beginning, a middle and an end, but the rhyme was there like a familiar friend staying there till the resolution of the crisis.”

My own children were born too early for “Llama Llama Red Pajama” and its sequels about Llama Llama not to mention Nelly Gnu and Gilroy Goat, so I came to know Anna Dewdney and her books as I enjoyed them with patients; in a pediatric practice, there are always new readers for great picture books. At the clinic at Bellevue Hospital, we have had the board books “Llama Llama Wakey-Wake” and “Llama Llama Nighty-Night” on our shelves, because they take you through the recognizable childhood routines of starting and ending the day.

Claudia Aristy, the director of Children of Bellevue’s Reach Out and Read program (we go through more than 12,000 books every year, talking about reading with parents and sending the books home with our patients) loves the Llama Llama books, and told me that she always reminds the waiting room readers to take advantage of the incredibly evocative and recognizable illustrations, which so perfectly convey the strong emotions of a young child’s day.

“We always tell the volunteers to use the expressions to talk about feelings and emotions and ask the children, how do you think baby llama is feeling now, how do you think mama is feeling now,” she said. “That’s such an important skill, to be able to recognize feelings and emotions, body language too, it’s not just the face.”

When Llama Llama is bored in the Shop-O-Rama, you can see his boredom and his irritation in his lowered ears, his clenched hooves, as well as in his eyes and mouth. And his creator believed that was a critical part of reading with children — helping them see their way into the feelings and experiences of characters. In a 2013 essay in The Wall Street Journal, Ms. Dewdney wrote:

“When we read a book with children, then children – no matter how stressed, no matter how challenged – are drawn out of themselves to bond with other human beings, and to see and feel the experiences of others. I believe that it is this moment that makes us human. In this sense, reading makes us human.”

It’s been widely reported that instead of a funeral, Ms. Dewdney requested that people read to children. Beyond honoring her request and celebrating it as a beautiful and suitable tribute, we should take the opportunity to appreciate what Ms. Dewdney herself pointed out about the glory of those reading moments, and the artistry that went into creating those books for us to read. It’s clear that she believed that reading to children could shape their minds and hearts, all through rhyming words and emotionally intelligible pictures. And she leaves a body of work that helps parents generate those remarkable moments, with stories that are recognizable and entertaining, silly and wise, with a world of busy animals that indeed helps make us all human.