Perfection is Relative

It's Going to Be Perfect
by Nancy Carlson
VIking Press, 1998

What do you get when you mix an author, bad weather, a school volunteer meeting, and a conversational segue into parenting? A picture book with tons of parent appeal. Four commiserating mothers and some good vibes were the inspiration for It's Going to Be Perfect, by Nancy Carlson (Viking Press, 1998).

Meeting three fellow mothers of adolescents at Napoleon's Bakery one very snowy winter morning made a huge impact on the Bloomington children's book author and illustrator. The plans for It's Going to Be Perfect began the minute Carlson returned home, cleared her desk, and let her instincts take over.

It was not a chance gathering. As Carlson puts it, she and the other "gals" were ostensibly meeting to review the success of a reading marathon they had organized. It could have been a mundane meeting, easily forgotten. Instead, they began to talk about parenting in general, and the conversation moved to adolescence. Carlson remembers the group "complaining about our kids, talking about the things that drive us crazy." The more they talked, though, the more Carlson wondered, "Why are we trying to change them? They all have their own personalities and their own ways." And that's the way it should be. While heavy snow kept her from other commitments and fed her imagination, Carlson "literally took everything off the table" and wrote the text in one afternoon, including the recurring line, ". . . boy am I glad you're here."

Though Carlson only knew these three women--to whom she eventually dedicated the book--on a casual basis, she thinks their openness that day and the prevailing sense that they as fellow floundering parents "really didn't have anything to hide" made her own feelings clearer. "I don't buy into doing it all," she says. Parenting is so complex these days, and so consuming, that everything can start to feel frightening. Having recently received news of a young cousin's accidental death made the fear of loss of control over her own children's lives even more acute. Still, Carlson prefers to "lighten up" and concentrate on the possibilities of every day. The conversation, realistic from beginning to end, set the tone for the book. There was optimism, support and insight--the best of parenting camaraderie.

It's Going to Be Perfect describes a mother's expectations from pregnancy to her daughter's first day of kindergarten and beyond. It is a departure of sorts for Carlson, who usually writes from a child's point of view. This time there was no doubt in her mind that the narrative would be from the mother's perspective; in fact, she acknowledges that her editor suggested changing the wording from "I" (in the original) to "we" in order to tie the child's feelings into the story. There was also some discussion as to whether the illustration of a crying child going off to school for the first time would be a negative influence on vulnerable young readers. Carlson insisted that it is honest and fitting to portray the separation anxiety, though she reinforced more positive feelings with a very happy school scene on the following page.

Each piece of the storyline is a personal memory for Carlson, whose daughter and two sons are now fourteen, twelve, and nine. She rolls her eyes as she admits to taking her first toddler to a fancy art center's restaurant, only to receive the "evil eye" from the director, her former employer, while her daughter created age-appropriate havoc. Picnics have been popular with her ever since. And she really did imagine herself as a stylish Mary Tyler Moore kind of mother in black stretch pants, relaxing while her kids were at school. In reality, she looked a lot like the lonely, worried mom in the book. All in all, Carlson figures her main message is about "letting go."

The four women continue to meet socially every few months or so; Carlson says she has even gleaned another book idea from the last conversation. Meanwhile, It's Going to Be Perfect continues to receive a very positive early response from reviewers and buyers. It's been Viking's top summer (pre-order) seller, and it's the Book-of-the-Month Club cover selection. Her other titles maintain a loyal following of readers who appreciate Carlson's cheerful, up-beat messages and focus on self-esteem. (Entire therapy groups have been known to attend signings for I Like Me.) She hopes It's Going to Be Perfect will please her most avid fans, as well as introduce her to a wider audience who agree that "perfect" is a relative term in parenting.

Nora Wise Halladay is a freelance writer in Minneapolis.

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