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Where Children Sleep: A Book Review

By Hilary Levey Friedman

020-20110712-KN-children2020-20110712-KN-children1At the end of the year I am always amazed by how much stuff my kids have. We celebrate Hanukkah and Christmas, and then have two birthdays in January. To say the house is overrun with toys by then is an understatement.

Part of the reason the downstairs is chockfull of playthings is that I limit (or try to) bedroom space to sleep and reading, not playing. Based on bedrooms of twelve American children shown in James Mollison’s haunting Where Children Sleep, I may be in the minority.

Mollison’s coffee table book is one of the more thoughtful books I read in 2014—though in this case the images are sometimes more compelling than the written words. The book, published in 2010, is comprised of 56 diptychs. Mollison took portraits of the children, and then a picture of where they sleep, beginning in 2004 as he travelled the world. He also includes a paragraph on each child that includes their ages, where they live, their circumstances (school, siblings, etc.), their hobbies/how they spend leisure time, and what they want to be when they grow up.

The children in the book range from 4-17 and I have to warn you that the book starts sad (Lay Lay is an orphan in Thailand and all of her positions fit into a drawer) and ends sad (X is in a Brazilian drug gang and he moves around sharing sleeping space with other gang members). But Mollison’s aim is not to make you sad, it’s to make you think. He writes in the Introduction that a bedroom can be thought of as a personal kingdom; seeing it that way enables us to think about the places we sleep as they relate to inequality, along with the power of kids (or lack thereof) relative to adults.

Part of the way Mollison achieves this is by juxtaposing situations. For example, after the austerity of Lay Lay is Jivan, also four, who lives in Brooklyn. Jivan has his own bedroom and bathroom—a gorgeous boy’s room decorated by his interior designer mother. The room is full, but not cluttered, unlike the third child in the book, Kaya, a four-year-old in Japan who has thirty matching dresses and coats, shoes, and wigs. And then there are kids, like an unnamed four-year-old Romanian boy, who don’t even have their own beds, either sharing a mattress with other family members or staying in a dump in Cambodia. If you ever need a reminder, or need a way to show your children, how resources are distributed in vastly different ways across the world, you need only read Where Children Sleep.

I found it striking how many children sleep in communal environments around the world—from orphanages to training centers (a five-year-old in China training in martial arts) to religious instruction (a ten-year-old living in a monastery in Nepal) to a weight loss school (a thirteen-year-old boy in Pennsylvania) to cultural training centers (a fifteen-year-old in Japan learning to become a geisha). Mollison’s attention to alternative living arrangements is one reason why Where Children Sleep is a book you can examine, read, and discuss with your children. Children can be wrapped up in their own homes or rooms, and their friends who have similar experiences, but exposure to different situations can help your child learn more about their own lives and the larger world.

Of course, as Mollison admits, the book isn’t scientific. The children weren’t purposefully selected, they were simply children he found interesting in some way. He argues that the book isn’t part of a campaign, but the implications for inequality are too powerful to be accidental. Just as the pictures and descriptions can serve as a jumping off point for discussion about inequality with children, so can they serve as a jumping off point for reflection on our own goals. I noticed that many international children said they want to be doctors. I wondered what this says about the helping professions and why doctors are held in such high esteem as compared to teachers or police around the world. In what ways will the abundance my children are fortunate to enjoy impact their life goals?

Unfortunately Where Children Sleep is already out of print. While you can purchase a used copy in the usual ways online, it is pricey. Thankfully, Mollison has made many of the diptychs available on his website (though the Introduction and useful map included in the book aren’t available online). But there is a message here too—sometimes you don’t need a lot of new stuff to fill your bookshelves and bedrooms, you can also reuse or visit a library. Even that is a lot more than others have.

Hilary Levey Friedman, PhD is the Book Review Editor at Brain, Child and the author of Playing to Win: Raising Children in a Competitive Culture.

Photo: Kaya, 4, Tokyo, Japan via New York Times/James Mollison

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