Picture the busy neighborhood carnival. Children and adults swarming around food stands. Games and contests everywhere, and parents fiddling with their video cameras. Then read: Remember the day The babies crawled away? We moms and dads were eating pies, The babies saw some butterflies, And what do you know? Surprise! Surprise! The babies crawled away! And picture that a small boy in a fireman's helmet is the only one who notices that five babies are leaving the safety of the park on their "brave, little knees" toward the wild.
Precious has become a word with two opposing meanings, so let's be clear: Peggy Rathmann makes pictures books that are rare and priceless in their perfection. Every detail is as meticulously made as the impossible things people might find in museums: ancient texts inscribed on grains of rice, sweaters knit on porcupine quills, gems cut into mathematically unfathomable facets.
And yet, Rathmann's work is never the other kind of precious: never cloying, never inaccessible. You can "get" a brightly drawn Rathmann book at a glance, and begin the laughfest that will take you through all its 24 or 36 pages. At second look (and there are always reasons to look again, and again), you realize how seriously she takes the business of telling stories - creating whole worlds, fully dimensional characters and fraught dilemmas that resonate with meaning.
The Day the Babies Crawled Away is a flat-out masterpiece. From its rhyme (which is not the over-imitated gallop of Seuss), to its entirely-in-silhouettes artwork, to its delicately framed narrative, this book is one of a kind. Perhaps there's never been a picture book to equal the way this one speaks to all its readers. Babies who see it identify with the intrepid babies. Children who see it identify with the heroic little boy who protects the babies as they explore bog, cave, cliff and treetop. (He seems always to be counting to five and anticipating what he'll have to do next to assure the babies' well-being.) Parents who see it are both stunned by the babies' peril (and thinking, "Remember the day we weren't paying attention!") and relieved beyond all measure that the babies return home fine. The return of the babies - and the awarding of a pie-topped trophy to the little-boy hero - is a moment as pristine and charming as a triumphant moment from a great silent film - Chaplin finally getting a kiss, or Keaton strolling away from the house that collapsed on him.
And at the moment when you think the book has culminated, Rathmann adds a final grace note that carries it into the realm of brilliance. The little boy has been carried home by his mother, who has listened to his story and understood all that our hero has done. She has plied him with tea and snuggled him onto her lap, in an echo of the way he let the babies rest in a little pile on him earlier in the afternoon. The book that you thought was just about adventure has become a book, too, about how we make our peace with trauma. It never struck us as just a coincidence that this book came about after 9-11. It was - and remains - a perfect book about how we should care for the caregivers who work during great crises. As light as a butterfly and as solid as a trophy. Surprise! Surprise! What a book!