I loved watching my daughter read the eye chart at the pediatrician’s office for the first time. She stood in the center of the room, her tiny hand just big enough to cover her eye, and named each picture with characteristically emphatic deliberation: “boat,” “hawt,” “star,” and “ciwcle.”
I thrilled to her voice: there she was, confidently naming a distilled version of the world with her imperfect pronunciations, and everyone in the room listened intently. Soon she’ll talk like an adult—all of her uniquely babyish lisps and urgent enunciations will be gone. Things will no longer be gweat, only great; her love for us will no longer be the enthusiastically declared wuv of her four-year-old self. Those silhouetted graphics evinced a spontaneous performance, formalized by the clinical atmosphere of the doctor’s office, of a voice my daughter (and I) will soon lose sight of.
Hearing J name each of the pictures—apples, bubbles, peas, tulips—that appears on the final page of Satoshi Kitamura’s counting book, When Sheep Cannot Sleep, reminded me of this eye chart experience. The title of this book itself, in its rejection of contractions, echoes the kind of precise pronunciation, correct or not, that I relish hearing in my children’s voices. The narrative chronicles the adventures of Woolly, an insomniac sheep, who travels through a countryside setting and into an oddly vacant house in his efforts to tire himself out. If you didn’t know it was a counting book, you might miss it—I think I did the first time, charmed as I was by Woolly’s completely unselfconscious choices to take up whatever it is that appears before him. “Colored pencils! Good. I’ll do some drawing,” he decides at one point, when confronted a tiny desk full of said pencils in the weirdly empty house. Woolly’s game for anything: coloring, cooking peas, taking a bubble bath–assuming, like a child might, that whatever’s there has been specially prepared just for him. The final page lists all of the objects hidden in plain sight throughout the book and meant to be counted. Each group of objects has a number next to it, and the word that spells out the number. When J and I read this book for a few nights in a row, I would read the numbers and she would “read” the pictures. Her little voice was like an added illustration, just as delightful as Kitamura’s tiny pictures on that final page. I loved hearing the note of triumph in her voice, proud to name the pictures correctly, and I loved being able to concentrate on how her voice formed the words, imagining how she and only she would sound when saying them out loud. Her words always sounded just as I imagined they would, fluting out from beneath her silky hair against my cheek, saying just exactly what it was that she saw.