While We Were Sleeping

How doth the little crocodile

Improve his shining tail,

And pour the waters of the Nile

On every golden scale!

How cheerfully he seems to grin,

How neatly spreads his claws,

And welcomes little fishes in

With gently smiling jaws!

--Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland


"Those who have compared our life to a dream were right…We sleeping wake, and waking sleep."

--Montaigne (1533-1592)


While we were sleeping, America's picture book industry dog-paddled into China's open, welcoming maw. My awakening to this fact arrived a few days ago, as I browsed through dozens of hardcover picture books in search of just the right one for my grandbaby-to-be. I'd been invited to a "Bedtime Baby Shower" in honor of my daughter, Stephanie. The hostesses suggested guests bring books to help get the new mom's library started. What could be better for baby than cuddling up on mommy's (or daddy's) lap with a picture book before dropping off to sleep? Such a sweet idea. And what a relief. Children's books were definitely made in the USA. Whew. Bring on the books!

The first candidate, spotted on a toy store shelf: A big hardback copy of Robert McCloskey's 1941 classic Make Way for Ducklings. When they were little, my kids couldn't get enough of this Caldecott Award-winning book about a family of Mallards looking for a home in Boston. I chuckled to myself. How many times had I read this to them? I flipped to the publication information: "Printed in China." What? Oh no.

I love all books, especially children's books. Don does, too. Over the years, even if our budget was crimped, we always allowed our then-young children to buy books. We figured we could cut back on other things, but we wanted them to have books to keep, to take with them on car rides, to turn to again and again. And now America's picture books were made in China? This couldn't be.

I asked the toy store manager to help me. Surely there must be a selection of Made in USA picture books. She wasn't sure. She'd never actually checked. "But someone did ask me if we had any dolls made in the USA, and we don't have those either." She pointed to a dump-truck, the only toy in the store made in the USA. "It's from recycled milk cartons," she said, straightening up the books I'd rummaged through. "Isn't that great?" Oh, yeah. That's great.

Maybe my local independent bookstore would have some USA-printed picture books. Owner-Mike reads at least a book a day; he's literary-minded and a walking encyclopedia about all aspects of the book publishing business. I entered his store, hopeful. Yes, Mike would have USA-printed books. He would have all the answers. He would make everything ok again. A book reading and signing event had just wrapped up. Dozens of preschool-aged children and their parents milled about. I browsed the children's section, excusing myself, climbing over toddlers who sat on the carpeted floor flipping through sturdy cardboard books. I checked as many books as I could get my hands on. All of them said "Printed in China." Sigh.

"It's the four-color printing process," Mike explained as he rang up book sales for his young customers. "It's expensive. Almost entirely done in China. Has been for about 20 years." I felt like an idiot. How had I missed this change in the publishing industry? I rearranged the picture books in my arms, mulling over what to do. All had been "Printed in China." I almost put them back and left. But I remembered what Don and I had always said. How books were sacred. How we believed in having books to keep, to turn to over and over, to turn to like friends. Yes, public libraries were also revered in our household. But there was, continues to be, something so special about book-ownership. I know with my books at home, I make notes in them and highlight sections that speak to me. I loan them out to friends and family. I browse through them, and never know which one might call out to me on any given day. I want that for my grandbaby-to-be, as he or she grows up. And so yes, I bought the Printed in China picture books. Walking to the car, I felt as though China--from across the sea--had scored a victory over me and my increasingly challenging one-year quest.

When I arrived home, I searched in the garage and found an old carton labeled "Kids' Books to Save." There were more boxes of kids' books, somewhere, but for now I lugged this one into my office, blew the dust off, opened it up, and took each book out. The titles took me back to the days when each of my kids, dressed in their PJ's, would climb up onto my lap. "Read it, Mommy." Madeline. Sylvester and the Magic Pebble. A Giraffe and a Half. Where the Wild Things Are. If You Give a Moose a Muffin. The Complete Adventures of Curious George. Oh, the places You'll Go! Favorite Tales of Beatrix Potter. Go, Dog. Go! I Want to Be Somebody New. The Velveteen Rabbit. Alice in Wonderland. Make Way for Ducklings. All of these books said "Printed in the USA." The words looked friendly, strong, reassuring. America when it belonged to us. Before trillions in deficit spending. Before a half-trillion trade deficit. I read today that 97% of all American clothing is now manufactured in foreign countries. Bookstore-owner Mike said the same of America's picture books.

I did find two USA-made picture books (in a store where all the items are hand-made by artisans). Both are made of washable fabric with cotton batting inside each page. Warm and cuddly. One's called "Mother Goose Nursery Rhymes;" the other's "G is for Green." I also bought a hand-sewn book-bag, so my daughter can pack up books and take them with her and her new baby wherever they go.

Why has four-color printing left for China, taking our children's picture book publishing with it? Isn't the process still alive and well at poster-making facilities and places like Fed-Ex/ Kinko's? I hope to find out more about this as I go along.