Children’s books provide for valuable stepping stones that promote enthusiasm and comprehension in a child. While picture books typically consist of large illustrations accompanied by a few lines of simply written text on each page, there may be a universal theme running through the story that sends a powerful message of love, family, hope, belonging or any one of a vast number of valuable lessons. One such idea that has been around since the beginning of time is the objective to accept ourselves for who we are and while doing so to appreciate the differences of others that make us all so unique and special.
In Else Holmelund Minarik’s children’s book; “Am I Beautiful?”, illustrated by Yossi Abolafia, the author tells the story of a young hippo who ventures out to play while his mother takes a quick break to wallow in the mud on a hot day. As he proceeds on his journey he encounters other young animals playing with their lion, heron or human parents. The hippo overhears the parents exclaim how “beautiful” their children are and he asks each of them if they would consider him to be “beautiful” also. Because it is difficult for these parents to recognize his difference that makes him special as a hippo, they encourage him to “ask someone at home” for that answer. Finally, when he does end up back home his mother confirms what all the other parents tell their own children; “Sugarplum, all hippos are beautiful. And you are the most beautiful of all, because you are mine”. And the kiss she gives him is the “most beautiful”.
That charming and delightful story was published in 1992, the same year in which my oldest son was born, which is the reason I still have the book. I accumulated a vast library of books for my children over the years because I believe so strongly in how important reading is for the soul, yet I haven’t been able to get rid of my favorites, therefore; they’ve remained a part of my own large library. Subsequently, like a box of chocolates full of flavor surprises, these books continue to surprise and appeal to me because of the wonderful themes and messages hidden inside.
However, despite the charm in the hippo’s story, there is a subtle aspect in which one could argue that points to the way the lion, the heron and the human in the story could not seem to validate the hippo’s own beauty because they were preoccupied in what was familiar to them. Although I do not believe that was meant to be the focus of the story, in this present day I could see some critics making that reference, not understanding that the parents never told him outright that he wasn’t beautiful. Rather, they simply directed him to find the most logical and realistic way to confirm what they assumed was true.
In comparison, in Keiko Kaska’s “A Mother for Choco”,this point becomes more obvious when a little bird named Choco sets off to find a mother. When he comes across Mrs. Giraffe and asks her if she is his mother she tells him; “Im sorry, but I don’t have wings like you.” Similarly, after asking a penguin who tells him she doesn’t have round cheeks like him, and a walrus who tells him she doesn’t have striped feet like him, he finally meets up with Mrs. Bear, “who he knew couldn’t be his mother” because she didn’t look like him. After all, hadn’t he learned that lesson through all of the rejections he received so far? But, when he begins to cry “I need a mommy” Mrs. Bear overhears him and comes running. After he tells her what kind of things he would think a mommy would do, like hold him, kiss him and sing and dance together, she holds him tightly, kisses him and they sing and dance together. Ultimately, she offers to be his new mommy. Choco is surprised by this “You? You don’t look like me?” Finally, at the end of the story Mrs. Bear takes Choco home to meet her other “adopted” children: Ally the alligator and Piggy the piglet. “And Choco was very happy that his new mommy looked just the way she did.”
Interestingly, the Choco story was originally published in 1982, ten years before the hippo story. By recognizing our differences but acknowledging that those differences do not really matter and in fact, that those differences are what make us all unique and special, we have the ability to bring love and happiness to individuals like Hippo and Choco, who seek acceptance and love the same way everyone else does. While the world would be a better place if all parents saw the beauty in their own children, and made the effort to make sure their children knew and felt that love, it would be even better if there could be more Mrs. Bears in the world who saw beauty in everyone regardless of what is on the outside. After all, it is what is inside us that matters. All it takes is a way to look deeper.