Rant: Rewriting Children’s Literature for Realism

There is a dark part of me, the ego-driven, socially conscious, bossy side of me that sometimes surfaces while I am reading to Blossom from the cannon of classic children’s literature. I feel this deep-seated need to rewrite the story.  I find myself tsking the writer, or the dated, unPC character:

“So what made you think you weren’t going to come home to a disaster if you left a monkey alone all day, Man with the Yellow Hat? Hmm?  That’s what you get for taking a wild creature out of his natural habitat.”

While my corrections might not be as entertaining, they would certainly satisfy the part of me that thinks modeling is important:

“I’m sorry, Son, that was my bad, I really am a terrible dad, Papa Bear admits he doesn’t know how, so maybe you should show me now.”

I secretly resent that most children’s programming tells them that as long as they are polite, and follow the rules that everything will go according to plan.  We keep it so nice for them.

I want Dora to sing a song about how she didn’t do it, she tried everything, she had all the help in the world, but no, she failed.

“We failed, we failed, we tried it but we failed!”

I want my kid to understand that often there is no resolution.  There are often desires that go forever unsated.   The world is highly unstable.  I remember the horrible feeling when I was eleven upon realizing that I was going to be required to do more and more math, that there were no longer any unowned pieces of the planet, that the social mesh we live inside just tightens with time.  It was not a slow realization, it was a car wreck.

To have a child in this lifetime is to really upgrade your level of denial about the state of the planet, our country, or even more fundamentally, about human nature.  We hope, as parents, to ease them slowly into these dismal truths, like the frog in the hot water.  That is why we lie to them in the stories we read them.

And honestly, as a person deeply committed to the literary tradition, I understand that these stories represent a time and place, that they have merit even when some of the particulars are no longer applicable.

My friend Gan Golan illustrated a great parody of Good Night Moon, called Good Night, Bush, http://www.goodnightbush.com/ and while it is a dark satire of the Bush Administration, it also deliciously satisfies the part of me that wants to call out the weirdness of the old stories.  A bunny in a nightgown, a bowl of mush even though it is night time.  ?

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There is another, unsettling thing that happens to me when I read her these books: I take them way too personally.

My mom gave Blossom a copy of Mr. Seahorse, a lovely Eric Carle book about all the Daddies in the ocean who take care of their babies:

“How are you, Mr. Kurtus?”

“Perfectly fine, Mrs. Kurtus just laid her eggs and I have stuck them on my head. Now I am taking care of them until they hatch.”

“You’re doing a good job, ” said Mr. Seahorse.

I read her this book right as my ex-husband was moving out.  In my mind it went more like this:

“How are you, Mr. Kurtus?”

“Perfectly Fine, Mrs. Kurtus just laid her eggs and I am going down to the Bay Area to do god-knows-what while she changes 100 diapers.”

“You’re doing a totally predictable job.” said Mr. Seahorse.

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Somehow knowing there are all kinds of male creatures out there holding it down for their offspring just made me bitter and sad.

In The Owl and the Pussycat:

Pussy said to the Owl, ‘you elegant fowl, how charmingly sweet you sing, oh let us be married, too long we have tarried, but what shall we do for a ring?”  I want to pull her aside and say, “you know, he is going to use this against you later, saying you pressured him into it, you’re going to let him pay that pig an entire shilling for a ring you won’t want to wear when you divorce, just sayin’, Lady. Besides, don’t you think there is some symbolism in your buying the ring from a pig and getting married by a turkey? Think it through!”

I get to the end of that book and I experience a pang of melancholy: “And hand in hand on the edge of the sand, they danced by the light of the moon…”  It’s wonderfully romantic story.  But in real life cats eat owls, a tiny boat like that wouldn’t survive a week on the open ocean and there is no island that would support their inter-species relationship.

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It’s getting a little out of hand, I admit.  I get that it is a metaphor, a glorious one.

I really do manage to keep this impulse under control for the most part.  I could get away with making comments when she was a babe, but now she cocks her head at me and says: “that’s not what it says, Mama.”

So if you have suggestions for Kid’s Lit that deals with real life, please send me some suggestions.  All this internal revision is exhausting.

Some of my favorite realist Kid’s Books:

The Tenth Good Thing about Barney by Judith Viorst :http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/140185.The_Tenth_Good_Thing_About_Barney

Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible no Good, Very Bad Day, Judith Viorst

Red Tree by Shaun Tan

Spinky Sulks by William Steig

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2 thoughts on “Rant: Rewriting Children’s Literature for Realism

  1. Well obviously the book “The Fibbs” which is one of B’s earliest books taught us that a life of extending the truth leads to chaos.

    Did you ever read “The Twits” by Roald Dahl? It was never one of his popular books because it glorified being mean to others and how easy and rewarding it can be to pull the wool over unsuspecting eyes.

    I think your mind is uniquely shaped. The amount of kids books in the last 1000 days that you have read are something none of us can connect to.

  2. I love reading your rant. Great to be able to tell the truth, even though the truth changes with the emotions we bring to it. It’s great to have the full range of feelings and life! I bought myself a great Christmas present: all the out of print children’s poetry books of Arnold Adoff. I recommend them highly. Happy Holidays to you and your adorable daughter!!

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