Are Picture Books Leading Our Children Astray?

April 29, 2010 | 10 books mentioned 19 4 min read

My son Conor is fourteen months old, and my wife and I, like all new parents, marvel at his growth: he’s gone from a screaming little yam to a genuine person, with his own catalog of gestures, habits, and idiosyncrasies.  Playtime is no longer a one-sided affair: we roll a ball back and forth, chase each other around, whack at a toy guitar.  When exhaustion creeps in, we choose a book from his growing kiddie library; Conor sits rapt for a few seconds as we read, then crawls off to wreck something.

Aside from the trenchant Chicka Chicka Boom Boom, which I’d never before heard of, I tend to choose books that I remember loving: Caps For Sale, Ferdinand, anything with Curious George.  And while Conor is off in the corner, headbutting the cat or tearing up a magazine, I keep reading, as much for myself as for him.  One would think it a pleasure to return to one’s childhood favorites—and for a few nostalgia-stirring pages, it is.  But as an adult, having developed the keen critical powers of a precocious kindergartner, I can’t help but find fault with nearly everything on his shelf.  What I previously considered whimsical trifles now reveal themselves as other things entirely: thinly-veiled endorsements of chaos, malfeasance, naïveté.  Here are five of the most flagrant offenders:

Caps For Sale by Esphyr Slobodkina

coverCaps For Sale tells the story of a Russian peddler whose entire stock of pageboy caps is stolen by a troop of insouciant monkeys.  The man shakes his fists, making impotent demands (“You must give me back my caps!”) as the thieves grin down from their tree, taunting his frantic need. (“Tsz, tsz, tsz!”)  They seem to know that they control him, can gut him as cleanly as Maggiorani in The Bicycle Thief.  Ultimately, however, they lose their nerve and fling down the caps—and while this brings the incident to a close, it’s where the real trouble begins.  The peddler balances his wares upon his head and returns to town, eager to unload caps that were just worn by monkeys. The steady spread of head lice and untold ape-mites throughout his drab little village seems a given: once again, craven business interests trump the health of unwitting consumers.  He may have reclaimed his caps, but the peddler has lost his integrity—with his own neighbors paying a tragic price.

Interestingly, it’s now widely believed that Outbreak, the 1995 Dustin Hoffman Ebola thriller, was at least partially inspired by Caps For Sale.

Horton Hears a Who! by Dr. Seuss

coverIn a 2000 New York Times Magazine essay, A.O. Scott called Horton Hears a Who! “a response to the atom bomb,” and the book, written in 1954, carries a warm dedication to a “Great Friend” from Japan.  These days, however, Seuss’ tale reads as an invitation to stateside revolt: if the residents of Who-ville will only scream loudly enough, their Nool Jungle overlords will have no choice but to recognize them.  The Who-hero, Jo-Jo, lives “in the Fairfax Apartments”—presumably not far from the Fairfax County, VA bases of DynCorp, General Dynamics, and the CIA.  Is his initial “shirking” merely subterfuge as he works to destroy the system from within?

While such brazen calls-to-arms might have energized me in my youth, I now know that in reality, the Wickersham Brothers would have co-opted the Whos’ rousing energy for political and marketing purposes, deflating their cause with poisonous efficiency.  Their spirits crushed, the Whos would find themselves adrift near the bottom of the savage Nool hierarchy—their memories of Horton’s optimism haunting their dreams as they toss upon their pale orange thistle-tuft.

Blueberries For Sal by Robert McCloskey

coverBlueberries For Sal follows a young girl and her mother as they pick blueberries, an activity that will allow them, somewhat disconcertingly, to “have food for winter.” (A sequel, Anemia For Sal, was rejected by Viking Press in 1951.)  After a few pages of berry-picking antics, we learn that a hungry mother bear and her cub are on the opposite side of the hill.  A storybook mix-up ensues, with Sal trailing the female bear and the cub following Sal’s mother.  When the bear—and the woman—realize what’s happened, their reactions are bizarrely muted: “That is not my child”; “You are not little Sal.”  And that’s that.  Soon enough, each species is breezily reunited, with none of the lung-shredding gore that would ordinarily be expected.

When I was in my early twenties, I went for a solo hike in Montana’s Glacier National Park.  As the sun descended, I worked my way into well-marked grizzly country, but I shrugged off the danger: after all, what could go wrong?  About a mile in, I was nearly attacked by a fully-grown black bear, coming terrifyingly close to becoming a wet pile of organs.  Whenever I’ve told the story, and been asked why I acted so stupidly, I’ve always kind of shrugged.  But now I know why: I had absorbed the deadly lessons of Blueberries For Sal. Thanks a lot, McCloskey.

Ferdinand by Munro Leaf

coverI’m all for keeping kids as far away as possible from the world’s raging horror, but there’s a clear line between sensible protection and willful dubiousness—a line crossed in Blueberries For Sal, and again in Ferdinand.  Ferdinand is a fey young bull who’d rather sit beneath a tree, listening to The xx, than scrap with his mates.  It’s a nice portrait of youthful otherness, a bovine Freaks and Geeks.  But after Ferdinand is carted to the Plaza de Toros—and he lazes in the center of the ring, too blithe to charge—he’s chauffered right back to his meadow, free to sniff the daisies and ponder Egon Schiele.  I’ve been to a bullfight and seen what happens to those that survive the toreros: they’re dragged outside to have their throats slit.  Perhaps Leaf could’ve avoided the bullfighting angle altogether, and simply jumped to the bulls’ 15-year high school reunion.  There, his former peers, all of them now alcoholic financial advisers, mutter resentfully by the bar about Ferdinand’s thriving fruit-bouquet franchise.

Curious George Flies a Kite by Margret Rey

coverI don’t have any philosophical argument against Curious George Flies a Kite.  My complaint is more basic: the book is unrepentantly, almost diabolically, boring; it’s the sort of thing Jigsaw might read to his victims as they writhe in a maggoty pit.  This is the first book I read to Conor, choosing it out of lazy brand loyalty, I suppose—because what’s more fun than Curious George?  As it turns out, there are a few things: being jabbed in the armpit with a rusty sewing needle.  Vomiting wing sauce into a concert-lot Port-a-John.  Watching Elizabethtown with a corpse on your lap.  I’d eagerly choose any of these before again entering the episodic, joy-killing world of that insipid little chimp.  I’d try to explain the plot, but that would only make me exhale sadly and rest my head against the wall.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go rescue the cat.

Update: Again, I Ask: Are Picture Books Leading Our Children Astray?

is a staff writer for The Millions and an associate editor at MAD magazine. Find links to more of his work and follow him @Jacob_Lambert.


  1. Finally someone blows the whistle on the sinister side of children’s literature. Dr. Seuss may never recover. Another very funny piece from Jacob Lambert. My only regret is that he didn’t discuss Pippi Longstocking or any of the Moomin books.

  2. Laughed, laughed, laughed!

    A fun essay to read, Jacob! Perhaps, it’s not the literal story lines so much as the reading memories that make these so universally treasured, despite their absurdities. Then again, isn’t that the essence of childhood–believing in the unbelievable? That a bull would want to smell daisies instead of fight; that there are tiny worlds floating right under our noses. Technical details of reality be damned! ;)

    Thanks for the end-of-the-week giggle!

    P.S. I agree with Edan, that last paragraph was clutch! Hilarious.

  3. It’s all true! I mean, Hop on Pop is virtually a call for government overthrow!

    And we don’t even want to get into the nefarious food-inspired plots behind Green Eggs and Ham and The Very Hungry Caterpillar….

  4. As a lover and advocate of picture books, I am appalled at your disrespect and disdain for some of America’s finest classics.

    As a human being with a sense of humor, I find your article to be absolutely hilarious! Yeah, I agree… some of those beloved childhood treasures sure read differently now!

    I agree with a previous poster that there’s plenty more fodder out there; with that in mind, I’m looking forward to part two!

  5. Curious George *groans*. How is it that all the originals are rambling and mostly plotless (or maybe I should say overly full of plot)? It takes a valiant effort to read these to my son, who, it goes without saying, adores them. And, it kind of always irks me that all George gets for his naughtiness is a wink, a nod, and typically a medal or a bunny.

  6. This is why librarians have far more evil powers than ordinary mortals. If picture books are this subversive, imagine the tips we get from middle grade novels!

  7. My deepest apologies for reading all of those books to you in your impressionable years, Jay. Had that bear made mincemeat of you in 2000, I would never have realized it was my fault for having read to you Blueberries for Sal. Glad you survived!

    Love you, Mom

  8. I’m sorry, I have a sense of humor just like anyone else, but you need to relax. I too am appalled at the sheer disrespect you have shown these classic books. If you look hard enough you can find subversive messages in anything. And if you think Curious George has a simplified plot line – just be glad we’ve moved on from Dick and Jane. Courtesy of Dr. Seuss.

  9. Subversive plots can be found in anything even a cereal box. Dr. Seuss did write with political twists for sure and Curious George books are boring- yet kids do adore the wee little monkey. I’m just mad at the man with the yellow hat for stealing George from the jungle! Good thing we teach children the difference between fiction and nonfiction as Blueberries for Sal is most definetely in the first category…can’t blame the book for your own innocence about hiking around bears!!

  10. If we continue to let kids read these books, we will soon be steeped in a society that thinks nothing of unnatural and unhealthy colored Eggs and Ham. Soon, our entire society will be tripping on mold spore food and having itself a Wild Rumpus Romp!

  11. For a while I took my granddaughter to the library while waiting for her brother to have his piano lesson. I looked at so many books that had nothing to do with her lifestyle and everything to do with alternative lifestyles or about potty talk (kids need no help with that) or left wing endings that are not helpful in raising a child to be responsible for herself, to accept results for an action and to have a good work ethic and most importantly to have fun in life. So I wrote my own book called Up In Smoke. It is about a loving, multi-generational family who gets together to harvest oats using the antique steam tractor. They have lots of fun and make great memories. It is a true story based on an event in my husbands family. If you want to pick it apart and say Oh, this is so dangerous or that is not good for you, I will say true but you cannot shield your child from everything that may hurt them but you can teach them to take care of themselves.

  12. I agree with your point about “Blueberries for Sal.” Children should not absorb dangerously unrealistic notions about our relationship with other animal predators. As for “Caps for Sale” I am willing to believe that in the world of picture books monkeys do not have lice. When the book takes a fantastical tone we have to make allowances for a different set of natural laws. I did lose my taste for “Curious George” as I gained some critical thinking skills but “Horton Hears a Who” remains on my favorites list. Horton is a hero, a voice for the voiceless. The world needs more Hortons. And Ferdinand? A fantasy true – but also a vision for a better world where peace-loving bulls are not slaughtered and put into flower-covered meadows. Who’s to say the upcoming generation will not change the rules to save the bulls?

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