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The Children's Book You Either Love or Hate

Children's books are not generally considered controversial. Unless, of course, you're Robert Munsch writing a book about the love between parent and child and the inevitable loss attached to that love.

The now classic children's picture book, "Love You Forever," generates a love/hate response eerily similar to the reaction people have to the taste of cilantro. Namely, there are no middle of the road reactions to it. "Meh" does not seem to be a factor. When folks discuss it, you'll find words like "creepy" and "weird," closely followed by "beloved" and "sweet."

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Munsch bluntly shares the book's inspiration on his website.

"... my wife and I had two babies born dead. The song was my song to my dead babies." As the mother of a dead child myself, I had a visceral reaction—an instant kinship—after reading his description. There is no mention of "angel babies" or "lost children." The author states in black and white that the experience of having two dead babies made him coin the famous lyric from the book:

I'll love you forever,

I'll like you for always,

As long as I'm living

my baby you'll be

In the pages of the book, a mom sings these words to the child she cradles in her arms as they both age—even into middle and older adulthood. Herein, I think, lies the answer to what incites such strong reactions to the book in the first place. Turns out, lots of folks just don't take kindly to an older mother skulking around the bedroom of her grown-ass son. Huh.

Humor aside, I experience the book as a wish, a lullabye, a mantra, a yearning. When you bury a child, the idea of watching them grow, of always having them in your arms to cradle, is the ever-present fantasy that never changes. You ache for them and that ache is never relieved.

As someone who has both buried a child and cared for two aging parents (both now dead)—and by "caring," I mean bathed and toileted and clipped the toenails of—I know from grief. For me, this is a book about grief, plain and simple.

Oddly, to me, many folks aren't comfortable broaching the concept of loss with children. Or even with themselves. Is it creepy that a mother watches her child sleep? No. Is it creepy that an old lady is driving across town looking to see if the windows are dark in her son's new home before climbing up a ladder to cradle him in his sleep? Sure, of course, but why take it so literally?

Is it creepy for a grown son to cradle his dying mother? No. Is it creepy to introduce the idea that a mother can age and die in a children's book? Apparently, many people think it is.

I do not.

Loss sucks. Loss is hard. Loss is a bummer that harshes our mellow and none of us want to think about it. If you haven't known great loss, the luxury of not thinking about it is a possibility.

Just as I love cilantro, finding it rich and layered, I love this book for the exact same reasons. But what do I know? I wanted an expert opinion, so read it to my 6-year-old son for the first time. Did he find it creepy? Weird? Stalkerish? No. He loved it. He was delighted by the growing boy and saw nothing odd about his mom scooping him out of bed for a cuddle, even in middle adulthood.

But what did he think about the grown man cradling his mom? Was that sad? Odd? Scary? "No," he told me. "It's just what she needed from him." Amen, my son. Amen.

Children's book author Beth Navarro believes a lot of the strong reactions to this book have their origins in the illustrations. "My first reaction to this book is: oh yes, this is creepy! But then I looked again. I do love the sentiment of this book but the illustrations don't match the tone. There is no whimsy or delicate nature to the illustrations. And that is a misstep in my opinion. But the idea of 'you will always be my baby' is wonderful. And the idea of comforting touch with an aging parent is something so important and also something people are not comfortable with."

At its core, love will always result in loss. I know this. Robert Munsch knows this. The mother and son protaganists of "Love You Forever" know this, too. We all know this, which is why, I think, so many of us find this book "creepy." It's hard to consider the totality of parental love, the enormity of what we feel for those we care for and those who cared for us both changing and ending.

Loss sucks. Loss is hard. Loss is a bummer that harshes our mellow and none of us want to think about it. If you haven't known great loss, the luxury of not thinking about it is a possibility. But that is an illusion, my friends, because, at some point, you, too, will lose someone you love dearly. Maybe, like with Munsch, it will be two dead babies. Or, like me, it will be a 4-year-old daughter and two well-loved parents.

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And just to punctuate my rant here with some clinical background, the lessons we teach our children about loss will impact how they respond to death and dying the rest of their lives. If you shelter them from its reality, they, too, will become more prone to thinking of it as "creepy" and "weird" and something to either ignore or put high up on a shelf, too scary and overwhelming to even consider.

That is some powerful stuff right there. Almost as powerful as a mother's love.

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