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The customary proverbs and tales used to instruct children about the nature of work seem to have been formalized in harsh times. There are the admonitions about "haste making waste" and "never putting all your eggs in one basket." There is the fate of the grasshopper vs. the survival of the diligent ant. And, perhaps most familiar, the parable of the industrious Little Red Hen, who after sowing, growing, reaping and baking that wheat all by herself keeps every crumb of the bread. There's certainly important information here about the ways of the world, but an unleavened diet of such stories would seem to produce children with the souls of mortgage bankers.
So what kind of story might produce the soul of a social worker? Or at least the soul of child who plays well with others? One of our favorites is It's My Birthday, a gentle upending of the Little Red Hen tale in which a child and lots of animal friends work together to bake the protagonist's birthday cake.
The perfect birthday present for 2- or 3-year-olds (but a pleasure for ages 8 months to 88), this book works through the gathering of cake ingredients much the way the Hen story works through the wheat-growing cycle. A tow-headed child in overalls (she or he is conveniently ambiguous--both genders love to bake) announces the importance of this day and its mission: cake!
The chicken, the bear, the cat, the pig, the dog and the monkey volunteer in turn to get the ingredients the child needs. In Helen Oxenbury's glorious watercolors, this leads to remarkable scenes of borrowing and buying and selecting. These illustrations answer such questions as what it looks like when a cat uses a refrigerator (that's a tremendous stretch to reach the top shelf) and from whom a pig requests salt (beavers, at a picnic). The cherries for the top of the cake are, of course, obtained by the monkey. Everyone helps mix the cake, with the animals wearing expressions so often seen on toddlers who so eagerly help in the kitchen and who are so impressed by the alchemy that occurs there.
For a brief, utterly dismaying moment, the animal friends wonder if the child might act like the Little Red Hen grasping her loaf (or like the overly entitled Birthday Girl or Boy who demands to be the center of all the day's attention.) Not to worry. Everyone enjoys thick slices of cake and cups of juice and the bonhomie of friends who have cooperated on a triumphant project.