Papa Sez by Todd Hunter-Gilbert Issue #14
Papa Sez
by Todd Hunter-Gilbert

What Was That Author Thinking? - Sept 2005

Past Issues

Some things are timeless. Certain classic children's books certainly fit that description. For the youngest children, "Goodnight Moon". A little older, "Where The Wild Things Are". Older still, the various Winnie The Pooh stories.

These books can still be found, amidst the plethora of new books vying for your child's attention and for your money. We got lucky in this area. Though we had kids so late that nobody in our peer group had the obvious cast-offs to send our way (cribs, clothes, etc), we did have a couple friends whose children were heading into their teens and ready to give up their entire early collection of books. So we one thing Quinn's room didn't lack for was reading material.

Now I had long complained about the "disneyfication" of a kid's world. Everything had to be happy and upbeat. It had to have positive messages and very little else. Disney isn't solely responsible for this, but much of their material fits the description.

An example. In the Pooh stories, you may recall the story of when Kanga and Roo come to the hundred acre wood. Rabbit, Pooh, and Piglet see them as invaders and plot to get them to leave. Their plan involves kidnapping Roo and using that as leverage to extract a promise from Kanga that they will leave. Most of the story focuses on events leading up to the kidnapping and are quite shocking, with touches of humor to relieve the tension. Afterwards we get glimpses of trust, fear, and vengeance before a happy ending.

Years later, for an animated series on the Disney channel, a new version of the story is told. In this one, the animals are already fast friends. Kanga wants Roo to come home for a bath, and Tigger (not even in the original story) helps Roo hide to escape the bath.

Yet a third version is seen in flashback in Piglet's Big Movie. This time, Kanga and Roo are again newcomers and the other animals are afraid of them. The kidnapping is played out, though it happens faster and the visuals make it clear that nobody is really threatened in the situation. In the final scenes, since Christopher Robin is omitted, the trust aspect is missing and the vengeance aspect is heightened. But, given my bad attitude, I was surprised at how close to the original it was.

Unfortunately, most children's books these days are closer to the second version of the story. A frighteningly large percentage of them are "franchise" books. That is, based on characters from TV shows and movies,there's less emphasis on quality because the producers know your kids will nag you to buy anything with those characters.

The other common type of book these days is the lesson book. Very little story in these, just a cheap excuse to push some moral message or parenting idea. An example of a good book in this category would be The Kissing Hand. The entire conflict is found on page 1, when we learn that the child raccoon is nervous about its first day at school. The rest of the story is a sweet little vignette of how the mother helps her child. Basically, it's an illustrated child-rearing guide.

An example of a bad book in this category would be one of the freebies we got in the pile of hand-me-downs. It's called "What Was That". This book, billed as "A funny story about night noises", starts with the youngest of three brother bears. He hears a sound in the night and runs to his brother's room. This brother explains the sound, calms the child,and they go to sleep. When they both hear a sound and run to the third,oldest, brother. Repeat. Finally they all run to the parents room, where the final noises are explained. The "funny" part is when the bed collapses and all the bugs and mice and spiders are frightened by the strange sound.

Obviously this book was designed to help kids learn to not be concerned about night sounds. Does it work? Noooooo! First of all, there's the little issue that the people the baby bear goes to for comfort end up getting scared themselves. But worse, it reinforces the idea that a child should always feel free to run down the hall and into their parent's bedroom.

After introducing this book to Quinn, there was a period of months where he would come screaming into our room in the middle of the night. As is often the case, it took us a little while to connect the storyline of the book and Quinn's new behavior. After we did, we banished the book and,eventually, the night assaults ended.

On the other end of the spectrum, let me put in a plug for a book called "Alexander's Terrible Horrible No Good Very Bad Day". I don't know when it was written as our copy disintegrated from overuse. It has precisely one positive, upbeat sentence, which, fortunately, is the punchline. The rest of the story is one horrible unfair thing happening after another,from clothing mishaps to visits to doctors to being replaced as someone's best friend. It's told in the first person and a parent can have a great time playing up the wailing tones. Ultimately, I think, a child is better prepared for the bumps in life when they have read such things, rather than when they stick to books where everybody is good friends and there's never any conflict.

Be well. 

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