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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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{ 35 comments… read them below or add one }

Sarah July 20, 2010 at 7:30 am

I am with you on ‘Love You Forever’ – high creep factor! I haven’t really found a book that I looove to read my son. They are all ‘ok’ and we enjoy them, but they are fluffy and light on message (however, most of them are still board books and I’m lucky if he will sit through a page without turning it or closing the book). He likes to read and loves books, but he’s not really interested in stories, yet.

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Justine July 20, 2010 at 7:54 am

Thanks for the headsup – my daughter isn’t quite into the story yet as she’s still trying to name each. and. every. illustrated character in the books, and so far I’ve not been paying close enough attention to the messages myself. But you’re right, they pick up more than we give them credit for and I really should keep my eye out for books that would influence her negatively. And while I’ve not read Love You Forever, I will BE SURE to keep it away from my kid. Eew.

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Jana July 20, 2010 at 8:21 am

I feel a little bad. You should check out the book and see what you think. Some people totally love it. (Crazy people, but still.)

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Leslie @ Five to Nine July 30, 2010 at 9:25 am

HA! I’ve really always found it more sad than creepy – that final moment, where the grown son is carrying his wee, white-haired mother, has a little too much aging and mortality for the little kid crowd. And me.

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frogmama July 20, 2010 at 8:57 am

My favorite books are “The Little Engine that Could” (great lesson about little people doing big work) and “Ira Sleeps Over.” My all-time least favorite books are the Curious George books. His mischievous behavior is presented as curiosity, and the ends always justify the means. Terrible, terrible lessons.

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Jana July 20, 2010 at 5:55 pm

I couldn’t agree more about Curious George! I despise him! Did you ever read the first book, how he’s captured from Africa? What are we to make of *that*? I try to avoid the TV show as well. I’ll look into the other books you mention.

Nice to meet you, frogmama!

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Kate July 20, 2010 at 11:23 am

My baby is into books, but mostly to point out babies. And ducks. My big girl is well on her way into chapter books, which is a whole new territory.
My favorite book ever for message is The First Strawberries. My favorite book for play with language is The Bear Snores On. The words just work. Or at least, those are the ones on the top of my cluttered mind. But, I am going to have to think about what I love in books more.
The only part of the Runaway Bunny I like is the mom being a tree, for the baby to come home to. And I am guilty of changing words – I’ll be the wind, to blow you where YOU want to go. Creative license.
Oh, and for new readers, cricket magazine has a baby version which was adored in our house. Short stories, neat pictures, little poems.

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Jana July 20, 2010 at 5:58 pm

Am I the only one who has a hard time with the language of “blowing” in that book as well? (Have high school students ruined my wholesome brain?)

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Becca July 21, 2010 at 6:40 pm

Lol! I go THERE too!

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Kate 2 April 11, 2011 at 11:34 pm

I disagree with your analysis of The Runaway Bunny. Mostly because of the age of the little bunny- he is not ready to be out on his own yet, there is a time and age for everything. At his age, this is more meeting Maslov’s hierarchy of needs. First and foremost by finding him and seeking him, Mother bunny is meetinig his need of Security. Then there is Love or Belonging- she meets that as well. Esteem is evident as they play with imagination and he is allowed to think he can swim like a trout, climb like a mountain climber, hide in a secret garden, and she will be there to support him, find him and hug him. This is also an exercise in problem-solving ( self actualization). I hope to always be patiently waiting (like the tree or mother) for those who stray, to re-join me for a laugh and a gentle show of love.

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ben Lloyd July 20, 2010 at 6:30 pm

I was in a play a few years ago called July 7th, 1994 by Donald Margulies. The play charts one day – a bad day – in the life of a doctor in an urban health clinic. I played her stay at home hubby, who takes care of the toddler and works on his dissertation while the wife toils with the challenges of urban medicine.

Anyway, at the end of the play, she comes home after the toddler is asleep. Instead of talking about her day, she wants me to tell her about what I did with the boy that day. The last thing she asks me to do is recite Goodnight Moon to her. She is supposed to break down then, but I was then one who could never get through the scene without weeping.

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Julia March 15, 2012 at 2:56 pm

I’m tearing up just thinking about that!! …….but then I’m pregnant, and I hear crying doesn’t count during this time.

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Kat July 20, 2010 at 7:31 pm

Before I even started reading this post (from a RT by @theloushe), I was going to bring up Love You Forever. Such a creepy book, how is it so prevalent? Funny, I never noticed The Runaway Bunny being so bad, but I did take issue with and eventually get rid of Guess How Much I Love You– because the dad one-upping the kid just seemed kind of mean spirited, especially that last one. Hadn’t considered the similarities between those two books.

I love the kids books by Patrick McDonnell, author of the comic Mutts. Hug Time and Art are my two favorites, they are nicely illustrated and the stories are sweet and imaginative. My aunt-in-law has a knack for picking out great kids’ books. One of the recent choices is All The World.

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Jana July 20, 2010 at 8:30 pm

Thanks for these suggestions, Kat! I’ll check them out. (And I don’t know how Love You Forever is so prevalent. I wonder if we’re supposed to read it figuratively instead of literally? But kids ARE literal, so WTF?)

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Country-Fried Mama July 21, 2010 at 12:41 am

The Paper Bag Princess is a hard-sell with my 4-year-old. Disney has already taught her to NEED a wedding at the end of the story. Very disappointing. I think I might start reading it to my 2-year-old now before it’s too late.

And I have to put The Giving Tree in the Eww category. The tree is a “she.” The boy takes and takes and takes from her until she is just an old stump, and then when he finally returns to her, she is grateful and happy instead of outraged. Something about that bugs me, but perhaps I’m reading into it all too much.

;-)

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Becca July 21, 2010 at 6:50 pm

I really love this post! Hannah devours books, always has and I’ve bought them ALL and tried to just take from them the good, even if it’s just the fun rhymes. But I wonder how much of the message she used to pick up on.
I’m now reading chapter books with Hannah and i’m having a MUCH harder time finding good messages and story lines here. Worth a post on my end and I’ll link back to you!
Hannah loved Butterfly Girl… Did you read that one?

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Jana July 22, 2010 at 6:03 pm

I haven’t read Butterfly Girl–I’ll have to check it out. We do have something called Ladybug Girl….

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Miss Welcome July 21, 2010 at 8:04 pm

My dad questioned me about wanting the Runaway Bunny for Christmas simply because he read similar reviews about it to how you feel. But when I asked for it, I had one daughter and she was under 2 and it made me think about how toddlers will run away from you, looking back and hoping you’ll chase them and catch them. It suited the age where my daughter was when I read it. Of course now I encourage my kids to fly, fly …

The other book about a grown man cuddling with his mom reminded me of Everybody Loves Raymond (did you ever see it?) where his mom tried to check his underpants to see if they were clean …. while he was wearing them! ha ha ha

I just wanted to thank you for all your thoughtful comments on my blog.

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Karen July 22, 2010 at 12:32 am

I feel the same about the Runaway Bunny mirroring a toddler wanting to be chased and caught. My four and a half year old has been listening to chapter books for quite a while now – started with a few long car trips when we got hooked on the Magic Tree House books. We all love to sit and read or listen to them together, and I can really see how my son’s retention and comprehension has developed over the last year.

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Jana July 22, 2010 at 4:24 am

I like that idea for The Runaway Bunny . I titled my post “Probably Cynical” for a reason! I know that it’s possible that I’m reading some of these books too literally, and perhaps not from the mind of the child. I wonder how much our views change about books we read as a child and what we bring to them now?

Thanks for the visit, Miss Welcome!

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Christine LaRocque July 22, 2010 at 8:47 pm

I resisted commenting because well, I LOVE Love You Forever. Perhaps it’s because I’m emotionally tied to it, it was the first gift I was given when my first son was born. I don’t know. Perhaps it’s because EVERY TIME I read it I cry because I swell with emotion. But I love the sentiment. Honestly I think there are many reasons I love it.

I’ve never read The Runaway Bunny, but of course, now I must!

And as for my taste in children books? The only thing I know for sure is that it is often very different than my son’s. And sometimes that’s depressing.

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Jana July 23, 2010 at 1:27 am

You know, I called that post “cynical” for a reason. There is some sort of magic in children’s books, and who knows what will affect us. (It’s like art, really.) I can step back and critically look at The Giving Tree , and yet when I read it, I can’t help but cry. There is something about the story that is transcendent, even though I can totally understand that there’s also something weird about a tree who gives and gives and gives. Love You Forever is so popular for a reason–it really resonates with people. I guess it just doesn’t resonate with me. Now. Because I suspect that later in life, I will develop new appreciation for certain books. (Maybe even The Runaway Bunny , because I do read that to Mr. B whenever he asks.)

My taste is different than Mr. B’s, too. He wants to read the five-page book about the paramedics. I want to read a fun story. He wants to read Thomas. Yuck. I want to read something with great pictures. What can you do?

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Elizabeth July 23, 2010 at 2:59 am

I’m with you on The Runaway Bunny, although I can imagine it might be comforting to a child to know that the parent will always find him when he’s exhausted his rebellion and wants to be found. But there is a sense of the little bunny’s defeat by his mother in the ending. In Love You Forever, of course it’s icky from an adult’s viewpoint. But a young child, who has no understanding of how inappropriate it would be for a mother to rock her grown son, may just see this as an affirmation of her eternal love for him.

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ironicmom July 23, 2010 at 9:02 am

“The Paper Bag Princess” is a hit in our household. Both of my twins had it memorized by the time they were 4. It’s become part of our family lore in two ways: (1) my son infamously called Ronald “Prince Bum” when he was four (a name which has stuck); (2) when my daughter asks if she looks beautiful, I always say, “Yes, but you’d be beautiful wearing a paper bag.” It’s true, and I’m hoping my feminist brainwashing works.

In terms of books to recommend, I love Doreen Cronin. Two of our faves are “Click, Clack, Moo” and “Dooby Dooby Moo.”

Two others that I enjoyed this past week are “Wild About Books” by Judy Sierra and “Bake You a Pie” by Ellen Olson Brown. The latter comes with a CD and in an hysterical way teaches you about different genres of music.

If you don’t mind gross picks, “Parker Picks” is hilarious (yes, it’s about the trouble a boy gets into for picking his nose).

Also high on our list is “Edward the Emu.”

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Jana July 23, 2010 at 5:54 pm

Ironic Mom, I bought The Paper Bag Princess years ago, and I have no idea where it is, so I think I’ll have to buy it again. I actually have Click, Clack, Mo0 and love it. (It feels very Orwellian, except for children…right?) I’ll have to check out her other book(s).

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Jana July 24, 2010 at 10:08 pm

After thinking about this for a few days, I realize how much of my own ideas about life and childhood are tied up in the stories I pick for my children, or even the stories I personally react to. (Duh, right?) Children’s books have even more power than I initially gave them credit for. They’re like poetry that we’ve all opened ourselves up to, that we haven’t been too intimidated to explore.

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Alex@LateEnough July 25, 2010 at 10:06 am

I also have thought that Runaway Bunny and Guess How Much I Love You are weird views of parents. But I would (have) put The Giving Tree in that category, too!

Then I realized that my kids may be totally visual learners and not even listening to the story line.

And 100% agree with your last comment — that it’s so much about what we bring. But the coolest thing is being AWARE of that. Because it makes us better parents for knowing what’s our stuff and what’s theirs.

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Carrie July 29, 2010 at 11:30 am

LOL! My mom gave me the Love You Forever book. She told me about it and CRIED! In my house the kids and I call the Love You Forever book, The Stalker Book. We also used to read it and my sons would point out all the things they thought might be illegal. Very fun family time. Recently, I found out the hard way why parents cry. Those darn kids. They grow up and leave. Or they get sick. Anyway, we can’t “crime watch” read it anymore because I cry and my boys groan and say “Ahh MOM”.

Hannah, I have one too, Becca :-), loves the lady bug girl books. My boys loved to have me read them chapter books before bed. Before they got so old. Some of their favorites are; James and the Giant Peach, Harriet the Spy, Charlotte’s Web, and Charley and the Chocolate Factory.

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Jana July 30, 2010 at 12:36 am

It’s really interesting how much your perspective changed about the book with time. I suspect the same will happen to me!

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Leslie @ Five to Nine July 30, 2010 at 9:40 am

I’ve always liked The Runaway Bunny on principle (it’s Margaret Wise Brown!), but I hadn’t read it very critically. Last fall, I took Jack to his first theatrical performance – a group of actor/puppeteers who did her stories. The giant bunnies were OHSOcreepy, and the slow reading of the words highlighted the momstalk piece. When I was younger, though, I just remember wondering why the little bunny wanted to run away!
Love You Forever aside, I love all of Robert Munsch’s other books, though my son is a little young for them yet – for now, Sandra Boynton is popular at our house. But I can’t wait to ready him The Araboolies of Liberty Street by Sam Swope and William Joyce’s children’s lit.

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Jana July 31, 2010 at 6:23 pm

I know, because it’s Margaret Wise Brown, I thought I was supposed to like it. But the more I read it, the more I felt icky. I really like Robert Munsch as well, and had expected to like Love You Forever. We like Sandra Boynton, too. The one about hats–is it red hat, green hat?–Mr. B giggled at it when he was still too young to talk, so it quickly become one of my favorites.

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Rebecca March 19, 2011 at 5:31 pm

TOTALLY agree about “Love You Forever.” I wondered if I was the only one who felt that way!!

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Kimberly March 20, 2011 at 1:32 am

I’m a bit surprised not to see any Audrey/Don Wood books on this list… These were some of my favorites as a child (oh, such incredible illustrations!), and now I’m pulling them out for my two young toddlers (ages 2 and 1). The Napping House and Heckedy Peg are probably my two favorites, and while I’m not a huge fan of their “younger” works (Piggy Pie Po is just so-so, in my opinion), my kids really enjoy them.

I think I’m in the minority of the commenters, because I absolutely adore Love You Forever. However, this might be because it was a nearly-every-night staple in my own bedtime routine when I was small. I never took it literally, but I can see how it might be interpreted as stalkerish.

I was a VERY young reader, and as a toddler I absolutely loved Stephen Cosgrove’s The Whimsies stories. Especially one called Cranky. My mom has home video of me somewhere reading the entire book to her, and I was not even 3 at that point. They’re all aimed at teaching a different lesson; Cranky is about what happens if a kid stays up past his/her bedtime and insists he/she is not tired. My copy has fallen apart page-by-page over thousands of readings, but it still holds a place of honor (bound with LOTS of Scotch tape) on my kids’ bookshelf.

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Kate March 30, 2013 at 3:57 pm

Thank goodness I’m not the only person who LOATHES Runaway Bunny for this reason. It was given to us as a gift when my daughter was born and I can’t stand to read it. I agree that the mother completely stifles the child. Every child wants to run away at some point in their life, and I think it shows a developmentally appropriate desire for independence and growth. This book squashes that natural desire completely, demoralizing the bunny, and his mother consoles him with a carrot in a demeaning manner to-boot. Ick.

My husband has a similar reaction to Guess How Much I Love You. Interestingly, neither of us is as bothered by the other book. In the end, we’ve decided to scrap them both. Why read books to your children that you don’t like yourself, even if Margaret Wise Brown is the author? ;)

Kudos on this post!

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Jill November 18, 2013 at 3:27 pm

Ok I know this post is years old and I dont’ know if you even would see this comment… but I stumbled upon your post today and thought I’d share the story of the “Love you FOrever” book. Robert Munsch apparently had two still born babies and this story came from that. So it’s not so much about snuggling an adult child, but not letting go of what that child would have become. So it makes it less creepy and more devastatingly sad. If that helps at all?

http://robertmunsch.com/book/love-you-forever

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