I recently asked my sister about my birth; she was 4, my brother was 2. She mentioned that Mom bought them gifts and declared they were from me, the newborn. “What were the gifts?” I asked her. “The milk bottles, Abby!” she shouted into the phone as if this should be self-evident. I gasped. “The milk bottles?” No toy had more versatility or longevity in our universe. She described her conviction that I, like a “good houseguest,” had entered her life bearing those six plastic Fisher-Price bottles with multicolored tops, nestled in a yellow carrying case. “But when did you question this?” I asked her. “I never did,” she said unequivocally. How nice to begin the longest relationship many of us are fortunate enough to have on the right foot!
Four new books narrated by older siblings adjusting to the arrival of new babies all have the potential to be as affirming to young readers as the milk bottles were to my sister and brother.
The big sister narrator of Hiroshi Ito’s FREE KID TO GOOD HOME isn’t in on the joke of how funny she is. First published in 1995 in Japan, this treasure of an early reader is finally available in English, translated by Cathy Hirano. Its first page contains a single line, which sets the story’s deliciously flippant tone: “Not long ago, my little brother turned up.” It won’t take long for this attention-starved girl, revolted by the new baby’s “potato face,” to gain your full allegiance; just thinking about her expression while plugging her nose during a diaper change makes me giddy. In the hope of securing a better living situation, she packs her things and moves into a cardboard box on the sidewalk.
Ito uses words and pictures with equal skill to craft this hilariously willful little visionary. Illustrating only the essentials, with black and red line drawings, he leaves room on the page for children to reflect. I guess I’m not the only kid who’s jealous of my sibling, would be a great start. Or even better, If I can laugh at this kid, maybe one day I can laugh at myself.
BUMPFIZZLE THE BEST ON PLANET EARTH, a chapter book by the Irish author Patricia Forde, confirms that you don’t have to leave home in order to escape. A new baby can entrap you in the role of middle child, but imagination can liberate you. Meet Bumpfizzle the Best, the famous alien warrior from Planet Plonk, who was sent to Earth on a secret mission and assumed the form of a 10-year-old boy named Daniel. (If you are reading this book aloud, I recommend beginning in your best alien voice and then letting it fade as the narrator’s reliability comes into question.)
Through diary entries and official reports to his home planet, Bumpfizzle cleverly upholds his ruse. He chronicles his total confusion about the customs and rituals of his earthling “host family.” Inadvertently, we gain an intimate view of their life together: the individual relationships, the conflicts (often involving their cat) and eventually the cohesion. Forde’s inventive wordsmithing and her instinct for the ridiculous will have kids in stitches.
The accomplished Latvian illustrator Elina Braslina enlivens Forde’s rambunctious storytelling with bold black pencil drawings of scenarios that include a “kill-or-be-killed situation” with a cow, the accidental biting of a teacher’s arm and an alien invasion in the form of kittens. Forde knows exactly what young earthlings love.
A triumph of imagination of a different sort occurs in THE BABY-CHANGING STATION, written by the musician and author Rhett Miller (best known as the lead singer of the band Old 97’s) and illustrated by the Caldecott medalist Dan Santat. This rhyming picture book begins with a typical premise. Ten-year-old James complains about his parents’ awe at his baby brother’s poop and drool, and fantasizes about handing him to a postal worker.
The magic begins over dinner at the family’s favorite pizza restaurant. James’s parents ask him to change the baby’s diaper for the first time. There’s nothing that Santat can’t do, but as soon as the supernatural is involved, his work becomes electrifying. With a “Stranger Things” ambience and war-room imagery (barbed wire and jungle foliage), Santat expertly sets the stage for the rest of the book to take place in a public restroom. A screen above the changing table flashes with an advertisement: “Deposit your infant” and “in less than an instant turn crybaby into cool stuff.” An elongated moment of truth unfolds over several exhilarating spreads. Miller and Santat deliver a super-fun, original and solidly constructed story with an adorable and climactic conclusion.
If your child is bemoaning one new baby, MY LIFE BEGINS! — about a big brother to newborn triplets — could help put things in perspective. Perhaps even more helpful to your cause, this slim middle grade novel, written by the late Patricia MacLachlan and illustrated by Daniel Miyares, stars a child who rises to the occasion with the kind of maturity that is aspirational. Yes, 9-year-old Jacob wanted a puppy. But once he witnesses how exhausted his parents are (he finds his dad alone in the pantry, quietly leaning on the counter), he gradually warms to helping care for what he calls “A Litter of Trips.”
Throughout her long career, MacLachlan, who won the Newbery Medal for “Sarah, Plain and Tall,” zoomed in on family life. So it’s apt that one of her last works is this joyful observation of human development, by a soon-to-be adolescent.
When Jacob decides to study the triplets for his school project, he approaches them with scientific curiosity. He notices the patterns that are early inklings of personality. He is aware of the groundwork that precedes a milestone; weeks before one of the babies says “bood” (for “bird”), Jacob notices her glancing out the window after seeing a picture of a bird in a book. MacLachlan captures the intuitiveness of an older sibling with such precision. She makes me think this is how my big sister sometimes knows what I’m going to say before I say it.
Abby Hanlon is the author-illustrator of the Dory Fantasmagory series and the illustrator of the picture book “Chester Van Chime Who Forgot How to Rhyme,” by Avery Monsen.
FREE KID TO GOOD HOME, by Hiroshi Ito | Translated by Cathy Hirano | 112 pp. | Gecko | $18.99 | Ages 5 to 9
BUMPFIZZLE THE BEST ON PLANET EARTH, by Patricia Forde | Illustrated by Elina Braslina | 122 pp. | Little Island | $12.99 | Ages 7 to 10
THE BABY-CHANGING STATION, by Rhett Miller | Illustrated by Dan Santat | 48 pp. | Little, Brown | $17.99 | Ages 4 to 8
MY LIFE BEGINS! by Patricia MacLachlan | Illustrated by Daniel Miyares | 128 pp. | Katherine Tegen/HarperCollins | $16.99 | Ages 8 to 12