My son, Josh, was two and a half when Red and I adopted him. Considered unadoptable for most of his short life due to genetically inherited asthma and eczema, he had been in and out of foster homes as well as being "adopted" by two families who returned him to the New Hampshire state agency when his condition was too difficult to handle. Each family had changed his name – did he know who he really was, was the question.
We were an older couple and determined to succeed with love, compassion and the advice of our pediatrician. "He loves to be read to" was the message from his foster mother. Anxious to be the best adoptive mother possible to our precious and precocious little boy, I began collecting children's books most recommended for his age group. I soon discovered he was beyond his age group and already knew all the letters of the alphabet and even recognized some words. I quickly switched to books for a 4-year-old.
Josh loved "Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel." Maybe it was because the steam shovel was laughed at by the huge diesel-powered equipment but ended up being the hero of the construction site. The smaller size of Mike Mulligan's machine enabled it to fit into the cellar hole too small for the bigger, more modern equipment.
"Mr. Popper's Penguins" told about two penguins shipped to Mr. Popper by the esteemed explorer Admiral Byrd. A fan letter admiring the South Pole penguins garnered Mr. and Mrs. Popper an unexpected surprise delivery of two handsome specimens — a male and female penguin. The Poppers turned their basement into an igloo and moved much of their favorite pieces of furniture, including Mrs. Popper's piano, into the igloo. The penguins were quickly developed into a dancing duet accompanied by Mrs. Popper on the piano. Of course, she had to learn to play wearing gloves. When the female penguin began laying eggs and the babies hatched, the act went on the road. (It's a children's story. OK?)
"Ferdinand" was another favorite as were the early Dr. Seuss books, such as "The Sneetches" and "Green Eggs and Ham." Josh was not interested in the Grinch, which I think was a little frightening.
The most enduring and best book I found was "Just Only John." This particular book spoke volumes to me because my little boy, Josh, had lost his identity at such a vulnerable age, as he was moved from home to home and family to family.
"Just Only John" tells the story of a 4-year old boy named John, who wondered what it would be like to be something other than a little boy. He wondered what it would be like to be an elephant or a giraffe — but this was just pretending. John wanted to really find out what being an elephant involved.
So John went to a seamstress, who was also a witch, and bought one of her one-penny magic spells that would turn people into a variety of things. But no matter how hard John wished to be an elephant, the spell didn't work.
BUT – when he went home and his mother said to him, "How's my little lamb?" Bam! John turned into a fluffy little lamb! And so it went — John went from a lamb, to a bunny, a pig and when someone called him "John" he turned back into a little boy.
One day he went to his father's office. His father asked him, "How's my little man today?" Suddenly John was turned into a real little man with a long white beard. He started to cry. His father said, "A little man doesn't cry — it gets his beard all soggy. Just remind yourself who you really are."
And so he did. He kept repeating. "I'm just only John." And he was. Moral: Be yourself.
I cherish the memories I have of Josh's childhood and his growing-up years. He's almost 50 now and yet his Christmas card to me this year was signed, "Your Little Man."
("Just Only John" was written by Jack Kent and published in 1968. For any reader who might have the perfect little boy for this book, check Amazon.com in used books.)