Baby Faces. 2006 Ed., originally published 1998. DK Publishing, Inc.
The literary world is, of late, unfairly divided into two camps: those who have read the classic board book, "Baby Faces," and those who have not. The message boards are on fire with furious and poorly constructed arguments on both sides. But I say that this is an unfair division because to eschew vitriol on babies who haven't read this book is to misdirect the blame. No one doesn't read "Baby Faces" because he or she doesn't want to read it; rather, one doesn't read "Baby Faces" because one's parent or guardian does not keep it in the house. The blame, then, lies with the parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and well-meaning family friends who refuse to expose their baby to the cultural nuance of such a book, the underlying message of inclusion and diversity, and the sheer - I would say almost bottomless - emotional depth the book provides. Shame on you, grown-ups.
Now that that's out of the way, let's talk about the book. "Baby Faces" presents two challenges to the modern baby reader: first, there are words, and while it is not imperative to have a grown-up read the words to you, I do highly recommend you find one who will do this for you; and second, there are no new textures to touch or chew on as there are with other well-esteemed members of the baby board book cannon such as "Animals" or "Let's Get Dressed." But the lack of texture inside "BF" enhances, rather than detracts, from the book's draw: you, the reader, are forced to really LOOK at the baby faces. This emphasis on the sense of sight -- and only sight -- is deceptively simplistic. If you don't believe me, wait until you get to page 3: after two seemingly straightforward faces of babies listed as "Happy" and "Sad," the word under the emotion is read as "Puzzled," but clearly this expression can additionally be interpreted as "confused," "disappointed," or even "constipated." The brilliance of this writing is so far above what most baby books present, and in this way the reader is rewarded for his or her persistence, patience and intelligence.
One of the book's more controversial moments, and my personal favorite, is the two-pager "Peek-a-boo!" scene. In case you've been living under a rock and haven't caught wind of the firestorm surrounding this dramatic scene, I'll sum up for you: a red jumper-clad baby appears from under a basket, thus demonstrating the traditionally admired game of "Peek-a-boo!"
The controversy around this scene is twofold. Not only does this scene take up two pages of a 16-page book, but in the first page of the scene the baby is not entirely hidden under the basket. In what is widely regarded as the authoritative book written on the subject of "Baby Faces," Stuart Gilbert's "James Joyce's Baby Faces: A Study" claims that without the baby's eyes being hidden by the basket, this game of "peek-a-boo" is false, and a trick. While that is a fair and valid reading of the scene, I agree with what David Foster Wallace said in an interview, which is that by seeing the baby's eyes at all time the scene is meant to be a parody of "peek-a-boo," and the reader invited in on the joke.
Finally, no review of "BF" is complete without at least a casual mention of the kissing page. If the "peek-a-boo" pages are one of the book's more controversial scenes, then the kissing page is, without a doubt, the most controversial scene. Some words pulled from other reviews and online message board comments about this scene call it "gratuitous," "exploitative," or even "silly," but again, those are overly simplistic explanations for a rather complicated book. Sure, in an otherwise culturally diverse book we have two white, blond babies giving each other a little kiss, which might undermine the presence of the rest of the colorful cast, but my reading of the scene was that it was a natural progression of the plot.
My strongest issue with the book is the ending. After rewarding the reader again and again with imaginative plot twists ("Angry" juxtaposed with "Worried!") and wink-wink-nudge-nudge satiric humor ("Hungry!"), I was left with a bad taste in my mouth at the vapid "Fast Asleep" last page. Maybe I'm being too sensitive, but I don't like when a book thinks it can trick me into sleeping with a picture of a - yes - sleeping baby. Not only was this an insult, but it was a low-brow one, which makes it all that much more disappointing.
Will "BF" be loved by everyone? Of course not. It already isn't. Is this something everyone should read anyway? Absolutely. Despite the ending the book manages to entertain, surprise, and challenge the reader in the best of ways, and this is why I return to these colorful pages again and agin.