Reading Children's Books
Some notes from the field
[I have now twice had a pretty good go at children’s lit accompanied by a couple of child lit readers; here are just a few observations from my travels.]
Benny’s Had Enough is the story of a pig who leaves home because he is angry with his mother’s desire to wash his stuffed animal. It’s kind of understandable that, as a pig, he is a partisan of dirtiness. What went wrong with Mom, though, that she’s so committed to force Benny into such non-porcine behavior?
The disgruntled Benny looks for another place to live. The hot dog man (Benny is a pig, I remind you) turns him down, to our great relief, and so does a nice (genus Canis) dog, who calls his wife to inquire about taking Benny in and receives a firm “no.”
Homeless Benny finally digs a hole in a field and gets chased by an angry, scary man who says he will “straighten his curly tail.”
Pretty malevolent stuff for a children’s book in these times, though tame by Brothers Grimm standards.
I see though that it was written and illustrated by Swedes, so perhaps that goes some way toward an explanation…
No Laughing, No Smiling, No Giggling. Hilarious exercise in mocking authority. A crocodile named Mr. Frimdimpny demands other characters (and the reader) behave and follow his grumpy, anti-fun rules. The last bit, when Frimdimpny fails at his own game, reliably produces raucous laughter.
A wonderful book by Frances Swann, part of a series with several other authors, that leads us through a day in the life of a Psittacosaurus, an early Cretacean ceratopsian dinosaur. (Yes, unreconstructed dinosaur geek here).
The Psittacosaurus is presented as an individual character, a protagonist for us to identify with and we follow its daily routine and adventures: rising in the morning, accompanying the herd to the woods for plants, seeing a Deinonychus which is attempting to kill and eat another dinosaur, fleeing predators to the riverside, where they see members of other dinosaur species bathing and drinking and two crocodiles eating still another dinosaur, then heading off for more plants before retreating to the high plains for sleep.
A day in the life of a Terrible Lizard. How could a child not love this?
The public library had a number of the series, and we read all of them. The plots are broadly similar, differing substantially only along the axis carnivore/herbivore, but still good stuff, even given the dated nature of the paleontological knowledge on which they are based (they date from the 1980s).
Here is an image from another book in the series, this one on Corythosaurus, that I managed to find and order used online:
An Unordinary Lion, a story of a lion who decides he does not want to prey on other animals, so he just stops and begins eating grass instead. He impresses all the other animals with his great pacifist love for everything and they therefore willingly elect him king of the jungle. (How is monarchy possibly consistent with his political principles? Wouldn’t an anarchist commune with total equality and autonomy of all members be more appropriate?).
I promise I’m not making that up—that’s the story.
The book avoids getting into the biological inconvenience that cats are obligate carnivores and will inevitably sicken and die fairly quickly if they are fed only vegetable matter, but then you’d rather expect that omission, right? Kind of a discouraging thing to have Unordinary Lion King drop dead of liver failure caused by taurine deficiency on the last page.
This was written by a member of that subgroup of the human species who insist on putting “PhD” at the end of their names. As though that adds a dollop of dignity even to goofy books about philosophically non-violent lions who go vegan as a result of an ethical revelation.
A reliable old standby with both my children: Aesop’s Fables. I will always remember reading “The Raven and the Swan” for the first time with my oldest when she was 5 or 6.
Do you recall the story? The raven wants to have beautiful white feathers like the swan, so he decides if he bathes and eats aquatic plants as the swan does, he’ll become a swan.
Instead, he starves himself to death because his body cannot handle swan food and habitat. The moral: “A change in habits cannot alter nature.”
In expanding on this lesson for my child, I invoked the example of boys and girls. (This was a decade ago, well before our cultural climate on things trans reached its current near boiling point.) They’re both quite nice, she noted, and with a lot of common features and traits, but different too in important ways.
And what, I asked, if, like the raven and his dream of being a swan, a boy wants to turn himself into a girl, or vice versa? Can he will himself into being a girl, or she into being a boy? No, she was certain, just because you act like a girl doesn’t make you a girl if you’re not a girl. It was quite self-evidently clear in her exposition.
So this was standard knowledge for 5 year olds, back in the Triassic Period of circa 2010.
But of course now we are in 2022. At what point do we have to get Aesop’s Fables out of the elementary school libraries to avoid unsuspecting students stumbling on such thought crimes as “a change in habits cannot alter nature”? “Nature,” did you say? Do tell.
I was going to say something about The Berenstain Bears, but I think that’ll be the subject of its own article, as I have too much to say on that topic. The Berenstains, for my money, were the high water mark of children’s literature, and I very much doubt we will see their like again at the readership level they had reached.
Along the lines of the raven and swan fable just discussed, one wonders how long it can be before they’re coming for this one in the Berenstain collection, which contains the following thoroughly terrifying lines:
“Every single bear we see is a he bear or a she…I’m a father, I’m a he, a father is something you [pointing at Brother Bear] could be…I’m a mother, I’m a she, a mother is something you [pointing at Sister Bear] could be…”