Millions of Cats (Gift Edition) (Picture Puffin Books)

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A Fourth Time, I Ask: Are Picture Books Leading Our Children Astray?

On three previous occasions, I have confronted the thorny -- yet seemingly obvious -- question of whether or not picture books are leading our precious, innocent, impressionable, doe-eyed youth down a skull-strewn path to ruin. I had (naively) thought that three installments would be enough to successfully confront the problem -- yet, alas, there are simply too many books on our children’s shelves that, through deceptively cheery artwork and sly subversion, are destroying our tots from within. Here are four of the worst offenders I’ve recently had the displeasure of reading. We’re Going on a Bear Hunt by Michael Rosen and Helen Oxenbury At first glance, this rollicking chant-along seems inoffensively silly, as it follows a family’s “bear hunt,” its sights set on catching “a big one.” But the merest analysis of the story is enough to make one’s blood run cold: a father has recklessly dragged his four young children (and seemingly terrified dog) along with him -- yet has brought nothing to defend them with once their quarry is reached. They trudge through woods, mud, high grass, and shallow water on their idiotic mission, and are woefully unprepared for each. When they finally reach the bear’s cave, they are chased back the way they came, frantic and breathless, violent death certain for any family member who happens to fall behind. The story ends with the relieved, chastened hunters hiding beneath a blanket in their safely-locked house -- as if all is now somehow well. But what scarring and post-traumatic stress have the children suffered at the hands of their sociopathic father? And is it any wonder that their mother has abandoned him? Millions of Cats, by Wanda Gág Wanda Gág’s Millions of Cats has the distinction of being this country’s longest-running in-print children’s book -- and it also has the distinction of being the most hellish murderscape to ever plague the minds of America’s youth. When a lonely elderly man surprises his equally lonely wife with “hundreds of cats, thousands of cats, millions and billions and trillions of cats,” it seems that the couple will live out their days in a state of fuzzy kitty bliss. But this is not to be. The felines, whipped into a frenzy by the question of which of them is “the prettiest,” proceed to slaughter one another until only one remains. Though Gág shrewdly omitted steaming mountains of viscera-strewn cat carcasses from her crude illustrations, the reader can’t help but picture the mind-bending kill, the simple fields and hillsides soaked with calico gore. The reader is invited to rejoice in the remaining kitten -- but how can one rejoice in the wake of such annihilation? Did the lone survivor of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre later see her time in Leatherface’s femur-hung terrorhouse as somehow heartwarming? Sadly, Gág died in 1946, so we can never ask her that question -- but after enduring her relentless horrorshow, one suspects that her answer would be yes. Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day by Judith Viorst Is there any character in modern literature more detestable than the sulking, selfish, egomaniacal Alexander? Why would any parent read this petulant saga to his or her child? As the monstrous title character stomps through his miserable day, he subjects the reader to a litany of problems that are nearly all of his own making. They include -- but are by no means limited to -- sleeping with gum in his mouth and waking with it in his hair; being criticized for not participating in class; being told that he has a cavity -- perhaps because he sleeps with fucking gum in his mouth -- and angering his father by visiting his office and destroying everything in his path. To Alexander, the day’s greatest indignities are that a schoolmate demotes him to his fourth-best friend, and that the family cat chooses to sleep with his brother instead of him -- as if there is any reason for anyone to cozy up to such a vile little turd. Throughout, Alexander keeps threatening to move to Australia, to which I say: fucking go! Half a world away seems a sufficient distance from this disgusting brat’s scandalous self-absorption. Everyone Poops, by Taro Gomi Apparently, some believe that Everyone Poops is a simple masterpiece of early-childhood body-awareness, as it teaches youngsters that there is nothing shameful or odd about defecation -- as “everyone,” Gomi tells us, from mice to whales to humans, does it. But here’s the problem: everyone does not poop. I, for one, am 37 years old, and, to my knowledge, I have never felt the urge to do that filthy bit of business. I suppose it’s possible that I may have “thrown heat” as an infant -- nobody’s perfect, after all -- but for as long as I can remember, my body has converted its waste into pristine, renewable energy. So while I may tolerate the practice by my family members and peers, I see nothing to praise in it. Am I simply a missing link, a representative of a brighter, less-malodorous future? Probably. And in light of such advances, Everyone Poops seems akin to celebrating the burning of coal or the extraction of Canadian tar sands. We can do better than poop -- of that I am certain.
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