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A Brief and (Probably) Cynical Analysis of Children's Books

July 20, 2010

I’m picky about children’s literature. I read through the selection at the library to make sure I agree with the message before we borrow it. Occasionally, of course, I find a dud, like the one about a little boy getting a big bed in his new house. It seemed like it would be great until I got to the page where he gets out at night and tip-toes around the upstairs bedrooms. As we were reading, my eyes wide, I had to make up some words that suggested  he would have a stern talking-to and a time-out for that behavior. People worry about the effect of television, but what about books?  Mr. B informed me just the other day that if he got out of bed and walked on his “tippy-toes,” I wouldn’t hear him. Aaah! (We read that book months ago.) I had to explain that mommies have magic ears and could hear everything. Everything, kiddo.

I love Goodnight Moon and Olivia, a few of Eric Carle’s books, and especially The Giving Tree (though I suspect this book has more resonance for adults). Even though some are a bit old for Mr. B, I enjoy Ferdinand the Bull and The Adventures of Frog and Toad. I can’t wait to read The Paper Bag Princess with him, a story which, in college, perfectly captured my feminist ideology, in that the princess saves the prince. (Now? I can be saved, swept into a castle with fancy clothes and attendants, and you won’t hear one negative peep out of me. NOT ONE!)

Every once in a while, though, I read–or reread–a book that makes me feel a bit icky, like The Runaway Bunny, the story of a mother and son exploring their imagination. That’s the positive spin. The negative spin–mine–is that the mother is overbearing and needy. In general, I’m a fan of stories that show off a child’s imagination, not ones where parents compete with their children to see who can outwit the other. (Because in those stories, parents win, and it’s not fair.) I can handle, and even smile at, Guess How Much I Love You, where the father hare and the son hare discuss who loves more, by stretching their arms and pointing way off in the distance. That is kind of cute. But if someone were to spin a psychological interpretation of The Runaway Bunny, we’d see a mother who doesn’t want to let her son go, even though he’s curious about the world around him and yearns to explore, or even just breathe a little (for godsakes). His first problem is that he tells her he’ll be running away. (Note to bunnies: sneak away at night, when your mother is sleeping under a tree.) It becomes painfully clear how much the little bunny wants to get away from his mother when he invents new ways to escape her:

“If you run after me…I will become a fish in a trout stream and I will swim away from you.”

But the mother says she’ll become a fisherman. Damn.

If you become a fisherman…I will become a rock on the mountain, high above you.”

Foiled again, kid. Then she’ll become a mountain climber.

This goes on and on until finally, the bunny says, defeatedly, “Shucks…I might just as well stay where I am and be your little bunny.”

The mother bunny is very content with this outcome. Her final gesture is to offer him a carrot, a sure sign that her guilt over not granting him his independence will lead to his own obesity. (If we are to see the carrot as a symbol for potato chips, of course.)

A similarly creepy tale is Robert Munsch’s Love You Forever, which I felt a strange connection to the other night. As a former Barnes and Noble employee, I saw this book all over the place. The picture on the front is alarming yet inviting: a cute, messy little boy pulling the toilet paper off the roll in his bathroom. That crazy toddler! Keep reading, though, and be prepared for creep-ery.

The mother rocks her son to sleep as a baby, then as a teenager, and then finally, as an adult. Maybe I’m reading this book with a too-literal eye, but I can’t imagine what his wife (if he’s managed to hold on to one) thinks of her mother-in-law creeping into their bedroom at night to rock a grown man. In fact, I’m horrified.

Of course, I can understand the impulse. Mr. B is already sporting longer legs and arms. I can’t fold him into a ball without his appendages spilling over. And the other night, I had a deep desire to go into his room and hold him, even though I rarely even peek on him when he’s asleep for fear I’ll wake him up. One day he’ll be an adult, and I don’t think snuggling with your grown-up son is approved by western culture. It makes me sad to know I may not be able to hug and hold him as much as I’d like.

Still, I think this mom best save her affection for Sunday dinner. Get a puppy, lady.

The children’s stories I like the most are the ones that capture something simple yet magical, that emphasize imagination and the transcendent possibilities of a child’s mind. I like stories about families instead of just one parent and child, ones that get kids engaged and excited to follow their ambitions, however much they may change over the years.

I do think children’s stories can resonate powerfully for adults. The message that always serves to surprise and warm me is the reminder of how fleeting this time is, of how lucky I am to love and be loved. My kids are not mine to keep. I only get the pleasure–and exhaustion–of hanging out with them intimately for a while, of being their favorite person until they don’t need me anymore. Who knows–maybe when that time comes, I’ll have more appreciation for overbearing mothers in literature.

What are your favorite and least favorite children’s books?

Image: “horatio and poo-poo” by dogwelder via Flickr using a Creative Commons license.
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