My birthday is coming up--yay me! It's not a milestone birthday, nothing with a zero in it, but it's got me thinking of birthdays and milestones, and cake.
For kids, every birthday seems like a milestone. But some promise bigger changes than others. Like turning five and going to school. Or, in our church, turning eight and getting baptized or twelve and moving out of primary into young women's--or receiving the priesthood if you're a boy. And who doesn't count down the days to a 16th birthday, and the prospect of a driver's license?
Besides looking towards big things to come, on our birthday we blow out candles and make a wish. There's magic in birthdays.
An event so momentous has to find its way into kids' books. In fact, just about every picture book series includes a birthday story (Arthur, Clifford, Angelina, If you give a ___ a ___, Max & Ruby--you name it). I like the Berenstain Bears' Too Much Birthday in which, during an over-the-top birthday party, Sister Bear comes unglued. It's a great cautionary tale for the pitfalls of any big fun, as parents who have taken kids to Disneyland (or World) can attest.
Another picture book that revolves around a birthday is Graeme Base's The Eleventh Hour: A Curious Mystery. Like all of Base's books, this one has lush, fantastic, over-sized illustrations. The premise is that on Horace the Elephant's eleventh birthday all the animals come for a grand party; by the end, however, the birthday feast has disappeared. What happened to it? The solution is in the clues sprinkled through the earlier puzzle-packed pages. The theme of time is pretty strong throughout, appropriate to birthdays. My brother and I spent a very pleasant Sunday afternoon once working through the puzzles and solving the mystery. We were in college at the time. Not that there's anything wrong with that.
The Harry Potter books kick off with a birthday, too. Actually, dreaded cousin Dudley's. But then Harry's letter to Hogwarts, along with Hagrid and the story of Harry's background, arrive on his own eleventh birthday. Talk about life-changing.
On Will Stanton's eleventh birth, which happens to be the Winter Solstice, he also discovers his magical identity in Susan Cooper's The Dark is Rising, one of my favorites. Ever. I'm not sure why the eleventh birthday is showing up so much. Maybe because, while one is still a kid at eleven, it's the beginning of one's second decade. Of course in Harry Potter, that's the year they start secondary school and leave home, so that's a natural.
The thirteenth birthday gets a few books of its own. In the collective society of The Giver, by Lois Lowry, the kids don't get individual birthdays, but in their 13th year they finish school and begin apprenticeships in their assigned occupations. Of course for Jonas, this end of childhood is heightened as he learns difficult truths that even the rest of his society is protected from, or refuses to acknowledge.
Another great metaphor-laden birthday story, this time of the storms of puberty, is Savvy, by Ingrid Law. When members of Mib's family reach their thirteenth birthday they discover their unique savvy, or great power that they spend their teen-age years learning to control. Her brother does hurricanes, for instance.
Like I said up top, there's magic in birthdays. Maybe that's why all these chapter books lean towards the fantastic. Or maybe it's just because I'm picking them, and I lean towards the fantastic. But 13 Gifts, by Wendy Mass, is more realistic. It has a hint of magic, but it's small. And the birthday comes at the end, as a way to wrap up the lessons Tara learns over the summer spent with her aunt and uncle in her parents' hometown (which turns out to be even more adventurous than traipsing around Africa with her parents).
Clearly, there's a lot of story potential in birthdays, from a special day or a special gift, to celebrating a particular individual, to marking the passage of time and the changing stages of life. Do you have favorite books that revolve around a birthday, or include a great birthday scene? For myself I'm mostly looking forward to eating cake. Yum.
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