Here in America, we have a fairly twisted view of breasts. Cleavage and so-called side boobs can be used to sell any number of products—cars, beer, cologne, chemical drain openers (that guy at the end is holding large melons for a reason, you know)—but show breasts being used for breastfeeding, a natural and real purpose, and all hell breaks loose. I think that, day by day, Americans are getting better about this, but every now and then we still read stories about people working themselves into a tizzy over a woman unbuttoning her shirt to publicly feed her child or over the depiction of the act.
It’s not something we often see in children’s books either. Yet children, particularly older toddlers and preschoolers, are curious about the way it all works. Two new children’s books on shelves—one a board book addressed specifically to babies and all about the act of breastfeeding—show babies feeding on a woman’s breast without embarrassment or apology, and I thought we could take a look at them today. The board book, What Does Baby Want?, was first published in Japan in 2016 and landed on American shelves in June of this year. It comes from Tupera Tupera, which according to this site, is the working name for collaborators Tatsuya Kameyama and Atsuko Nakagawa. Mamoru Suzuki’s Happy Birthday! is another Japanese import (originally published two years ago), and this picture book will be on shelves here in the U.S. in November.The Kirkus review describes What Does Baby Want? as “all-around brilliant,” and … well, that about covers it. It is certainly a perfectly designed book, mostly with regard to its shape and size. Let me tell you about it so that you understand why.
The book is round – with a small spine, the smallest possible kind to hold together a book shaped like breasts. The first spread shows us a baby’s face on its recto side; the slightly distressed face fills the round page, while the verso includes text only: “Hello baby! You look like you want something.”
Each successive page is the narrator’s attempt to determine what baby wants. (Given that this is a book about breastfeeding, we come to understand it’s the mother speaking.) Baby ultimately doesn’t want teddy bear, though it makes him or her smile for a minute. Baby doesn’t want the bouncy ball or the tambourine. The baby’s emotions intensify to the point of screaming. It’s an all-out sob-fest. It’s then that the narrator states that she finally knows what the baby wants. You turn the thick, cardboard page here to see this:
Told you it was brilliantly designed. There they are. Unequivocally. Human female breasts, just as evolution created them.
The next spread depicts a happy baby at the mother’s left nipple. “There you go, my baby.”
Suzuki’s Happy Birthday! is a book solely designed to reassure the young child listening to it that she is loved and adored by her parent. I don’t frequently showcase those types of unconditional love-themed picture books, because they’re not always interesting, especially to children (though, sure, they can be comforting). But this book has more than one thing goin’ for it.
The narrator is a parent, celebrating the first birthday of a child. The parent looks back on the child’s short life, even remembering back to pregnancy: “On this day many years ago, I was wondering when you were going to come out of my tummy. I had waited a long time.” We see two spreads of the baby in utero. The birth spread is intriguing – and won’t resonate with everyone, especially the non-religious types. The text here reads that the baby was a “precious gift from heaven,” and we see what looks like a heavenly woman releasing the baby into the world. Are we supposed to assume it’s an angel of some sort? I’m not sure. It is, perhaps, intentionally ambiguous.
The mother then remembers the baby’s first days, and it’s here we see this spread below with a baby breastfeeding, nipple and all. (In all of our culture’s weirdness and discomfort about breasts, we seem to be most scared of the nipple, for some reason.) I like the no-nonsense text here too:
The rest of the book notes the baby’s physical development into a toddler who can walk and run. Also notable is the text on the penultimate spread, which notes the big world waiting for the child. “One day you will fly away,” it says. “Fly wherever and with whomever you would like!” Now, there’s a mother who’s up for just about any companion her child may throw her way. On the final page, she instructs, “Be happy, be healthy!” Wise, simple, compassionate words. (She’s a mother with the milk of human kindness in her. … You know I had to throw in at least one breastfeeding pun today.)
I hope we see more American picture books with straightforward depictions of breastfeeding. Looks like, right now, Japanese authors and illustrators are taking the lead. But at least we have publishers like Phaidon (the board book) and Museyon (Happy Birthday!) to bring some new ones to our shelves.
Julie Danielson (Jules) conducts interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children's literature blog primarily focused on illustration and picture books.
Top: HAPPY BIRTHDAY! Tanjoubi Omedetou © 2015 Mamoru Suzuki. Originally published in Japan in 2015 by POPLAR Publishing Co., Ltd. Published in the United States/Canada in 2017 by Museyon Inc. Illustration used by their permission.
Bottom: WHAT DOES BABY WANT? First published in Japan by BRONZE PUBLISHING Inc., Tokyo, as AKACHAN © 2016 tupera tupera. This edition © 2017 Phaidon Press Limited. Illustration used by their permission.