Sunday, May 8, 2016

Telling It Like It Is on Mother's Day

My dear, equally book-crazed friend Sue gifted me a vintage book in honor of Mother's Day.

The Wonderful Story of HOW YOU WERE BORN by
Sidonie Matsner Gruenberg. Illus. by Hildegard Woodward.
Garden City Books. Garden City, NY. 1959.
This particular book is especially well-suited to Mother's Day as it is all about where babies come from--yes, that parentally-dreaded, all-important question to which parents know the answer, but don't know how to say the  words.

Considering that this book was first published in 1952, I at first rather expected it to either offer the standard stork/cabbage patch variety of explanation, or perhaps hide beneath vague euphemisms (neither of which, I might add, a child particularly needs or wants when asking this very important question).

The author, Sidonie Matsner Gruenberg  was born in Austria in 1881 and educated in Germany and New York (1).

From 1906 until 1961 she worked as a world-famous parenting and child expert, serving as director for the Child Study Association of America, conducting parenting lectures, serving on editorial boards for Parent's Magazine and Child Study and working on various White House subcommittees on behalf of children and parents. (1)

In addition to these achievements, she authored over 15 books on child issues and parenting aimed at both children and parents. (2)

What all this boils down to is that the book I hold in my hands was written by someone with considerable clout--so if this is the way Sidonie Matsner Gruenberg answers the question "where do babies come from?", then chances are this is a good way for most of us to answer the question.

 And just how does she answer this question?

With precocious and splendid honesty.

I was first struck by the cover.  Ms. Gruenberg and illustrator Ms. Woodward started right away visually reinforcing that how YOU were born is how EVERYONE was born.  Pretty much.

Now, Ms. Woodward could have drawn a few little adorable babies and left it at that--a few little 1959-ish white babies in bonnets and bibs. I may be generalizing a bit, but not by much I feel, based on the many, many illustrated covers of vintage 1950's children's books I have seen with my very own eyeballs.

But Ms. Woodward's  cover illustration offers a selection of children from obviously different backgrounds (delightfully enough, depicted from the front as well as the back on the book covers).   Both the cover art and the title page art seem to exude a kind of  idealized multi-ethnic spirit of childhood that appeals to the idealist in me.  The illustrations throughout the book are just soft and ambiguous enough to represent people from any number of countries.

And paired with these gentle, lovely illustrations is Ms. Gruenberg's carefully crafted text.

Ms. Gruenberg starts right off acknowledging how parents try to avoid answering the "Where did I come from?" questions and covers the gamut of standard answers:  babies are found under cabbage leaves (this explanation illustrated in rather disturbing detail at the bottom of page 3), are ordered from stores via mail order, are delivered by storks or brought by fairies.

The rest of the book is then dedicated to telling the REAL story--beginning with a gentle foray into the fact that  all living creatures--including humans-- come from eggs.

Ms. Gruenberg describes how the egg grows in the mother's womb (in the case of mammals) and describes the key changes that happen as the baby grows.

"A baby lies in the womb with his head near a passage in his mother's
body that leads to the outside.  This narrow passage is called the
vagina."   (pg.13)

There is then a description of childbirth itself that is in equal parts careful and blunt.  Ms. Gruenberg is careful to avoid absolutes:  "Most babies are born in a hospital because this is a convenient place for mother and baby to get all the attention they need." (pg. 17).   And while she mentions the pain of childbirth, she does so with reassurances for a young child listening to this book  and learning about this topic for the first time.

On page 22, in the second half of the book, the father's contribution to the creation of a baby is explained--again in careful, honest detail using specific vocabulary.  

"In the mother's womb the egg is ready to begin
to grow into a baby.  But only if it is joined by
something else.  This very important something
is called a 'sperm', and it comes from
the father's body."  (pg. 22)

At this point the book seems to sigh with a bit of relief, having  succesfully navigated the murky waters of introducing the terms  "vagina" and "sperm" (or perhaps the sighing I hear is the collective timeless sighing of thousands of parents reading this book to their children.)

At any rate, the rest of the book is straightforward, discussing how the baby grows from an infant into a child, from child to teenager, from teenager to young adult.

The last few pages of the book skirt just a bit timidly  around the topic of puberty, the leap into a final technicolor celebration of family which while abrupt, is pleasing never the less.

I was pleasantly surprised by this book--by it's honesty, by the illustrations that sought to represent many different kinds of people, by the way it offered an easier way for parents to introduce a challenging topic to their children.

A final new edition was published in 1970.  This new edition included an enlarged  format and updated  text and  illustrations  (some of which, according to one Goodreads review, they "wouldn't want a younger child accidentally coming across." (3))


This is one vintage book that I feel has weathered the passing years quite well, even in its original edition.  Of all the lessons and information parents must pass on to their children,  the most difficult are those that strike the closest to our emotional hearts--birth and death, love and loss, pain and passion.

There is something  in this book, with its  gentle, pastel-tinted treatment of reproduction, parenthood and family, that is timeless and appropriate.

Especially for Mother's Day.






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