Posed as a series of questions and answers, Mom! What Is…? intends to help young readers define and navigate topics like compassion, religion, and sex.
Carol Lee’s picture book opens with one of the hardest questions an adult can be asked by a child: “What is death?” The narrative proceeds to use battery-operated toys to explain the parallels between a failing battery and the vital organs keeping humans alive, noting that eventually these human “batteries” will also fail and cause their owner to “become weak and eventually stop working.” Prompted by the mother’s further explanation that “Some religions believe the soul lives on,” the boy asks the next question: “Mom, what is religion?” New questions are similarly sparked as the story moves through diverse topics, explaining hope, jealousy, and other complex terms in just a few sentences each.
Because the book addresses seven discrete topics, the explanations may seem far too brief and uncomplicated for some. Death is only explained as a result of age, for example—and even then, very little context is provided to give a child a sense of life expectancies. To answer “How do you make a baby?,” the narrative explains sex through the use of another metaphor (inserting a straw into a balloon and passing liquid through) and provides some scientific backing, but doesn’t touch on gestation/pregnancy or birth.
The topics run the gambit from emotions to world religions, rather than having some unifying core, making the narrative feel scattered and harried. Had the author selectively narrowed the field, she could have covered each topic more completely and given the book a more cohesive feel.
Some readers might also take note that all the individuals depicted in the illustrations are white, so some children and families will not feel represented.
Despite its flaws Mom! What is…? offers digestible and sometimes-clever explanations to difficult subjects. It could help young readers and the adults in their lives start conversations about challenging topics that might be top-of-mind.
Also available in hardcover and ebook.