One of the quirkier side effects of the first year and half of new parenthood is my wife’s and my newfound appreciation of children’s books. There’s some really fun, really interesting stuff out there for the kids. Sure, the classic tales that we all grew up with—your The Cat in the Hat or your Clifford the Big Red Dog—still work, but I’m enamored with the new ones. I swear, we go to the children’s section of the bookstore and we spend more time oooo-ing and ahhh-ing over the art than the baby does. And we’ve both decided not to talk about the fact that there are some picture books in the house that we don’t let the baby touch yet because they’re so beautiful.
Of all of the books that have been written since we were children, I’m particularly attracted to this dandy little story called Please, Baby, Please. The plot of the story is pretty much summed up in the title. A couple’s precocious toddler gets into mischief; she takes off her clothes, she splashes water out of the tub, she colors the wall, and, after each incident, her parents ask her to stop, please, baby, please. Oh yes, it’s quite the cute little story. Its authors? Tonya Lee and her more famous husband, Spike. That’s right, filmmaker, critic, and all-around misanthrope Spike Lee has written a picture book called Please, Baby, Please.
Fans of Lee’s oeuvre will immediately get the joke. In his first feature, She’s Gotta Have It, a character study of a sexually free woman and her three lovers, the director plays the role of Mars Blackmon, abrasive jokester, bicyclist, and Michael Jordan fan. His catch phrase throughout the film is “please, baby, baby, please,” usually uttered as he’s begging for sex. Lee continued to play the character after She’s Gotta Have It’s modest success, most famously in a series of commercials in the late ’80s and early ’90s for Nike, thus Mars Blackmon stayed in the pop-culture lexicon for years afterward.
Of course, Lee isn’t the first celebrity to dip his toe into the world of children’s publishing. Apparently, kids are where the money is at. Personalities as diverse as Jerry Seinfeld, Ed Koch, Jamie Lee Curtis, and Katie Couric have all written children’s books. Hell, John Lithgow and Madonna have almost created second careers out of them. And Debbie Allen has a book about a little black ballerina that’s the most adorable thing that I’ve seen since I became the father of a little black girl and started using the word “adorable” in sentences. But there are two aspects of Please, Baby, Please besides Lee’s fame that interest me.
First of all, I’m impressed and fascinated by the etymological jujitsu that Lee has practiced with his catch phrase. Again, it started out as request for sex in a movie. Then he flipped it into a way to sell sneakers. Finally, it’s been transmogrified into the basis of a children’s book. Let that sink in for a second. Something that began in the depths of immorality has shifted into the realm of harmless family entertainment. It would be like if Jerry Seinfeld wrote a pop-up book called The Contest Man. For Spike Lee to pull that off . . . it’s subversive, it’s smart, it highlights his adaptability, hell, it’s hip-hop.
Lee entering the field of children’s books also speaks to another subject I find fascinating: the evolution of the Scary Black Guy. Throughout his career, Lee has been accused of reverse-racism, sexism, and generally being a dick. I remember going to see Do the Right Thing in a D.C. theater where police had surrounded the building, because the conventional wisdom was that the movie would set off a race riot. And, from there, he’s writing children’s books.
He’s in good company. I’m not sure when it happened, but, apparently, we’ve all decided Snoop Dogg is lovable. When we met him, he was all “187 on an undercover cop.” Now, he coaches pee-wee football, makes commercials, and has the nerve to be a pretty funny comedian. And the metatextual analysis that it would take to dissect Boyz N the Hood grim-urban-tableau alumni Ice Cube and Nia Long reuniting 10 years later for the charming Are We There Yet? would take more space that I have. Only in America can a man with the meanest snarl I’ve ever seen in my life, and whose visage makes me think “fuck da police” every time I see it, be allowed to make children’s films.
Of course, I hope I’m this good-humored about it 20 years from now when 50 Cent writes a little book called Magic Stick, about a little girl who is transported to a fantasy land of wonder by using a magic stick. Yeah . . . that’ll be nice.
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