By Victoria Chang, illustrated by Marla Frazee, Beach Lane, $15.99, ages 6 months-5 years
It’s a strange thing to say about a book aimed at children as young as six months, but Victoria Chang and Marla Frazee’s “Is Mommy?” is brutally Shakespearean. It’s obviously not “Titus Andronicus”-level gruesome, and it (luckily!) doesn’t have the body count of “Richard III,” but it does bear a resemblance to Sonnet 130.
You know the one: “My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun.” In the famously anti-romantic tribute, the poem’s speaker compares the hair on his lover’s head to “black wires” and notes that her “breath” “reeks,” among other sweet nothings. It’s not until the last two lines, after the poem’s turn, that the speaker declares his love “rare,” more pure than one that relies on “false compare.”
Is honesty the best policy for love? The children in “Is Mommy?” — who express filial rather than romantic love — seem to think so. Throughout the book, a disembodied interviewer asks them about their mothers’ attributes and the children answer with startling frankness. The first question: “Is mommy tall . . . or short?” Side-by-side illustrations show the same mother at normal height and then, on the next page, miniaturized. “Short!” is the insouciant reply from a daughter in a red dress with white polka dots. “Is mommy pretty . . . or ugly?” is the question put to a child with orange spiky hair. The kid runs away in horror from his bed-headed mom. “Ugly!” he replies, much to the delight of the girl in the polka-dotted dress, whom he joins on the next page.
Then, after several more maternally unflattering pages, comes the turn: “Do you love your short, ugly, mean, boring, old, messy mommy?” The children answer with enthusiasm, “Yes!”
Their final reply may come as a relief to some, though the premise of this book might offend others. But the truth is that unconditional love cuts both ways. If parents can hold steadfast to their love for their less-than-perfect children, can’t children be trusted to do the same? More sneakily still, this book may have another agenda hidden behind its raucous fun: If kids can accept their parents’ warts and all, parents should be able to forgive themselves, too.