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

August 27, 2010 | 4 books mentioned 12 4 min read

Last May, I wrote a piece for this site titled “Are Picture Books Leading Our Children Astray?” It was a look at the messages secreted within books for young readers—messages promoting revolution, naïveté, and the unchecked spread of lice. The article drew a strong response, and I was dismayed by resistance to my vigorous quest for truth. One respondent wrote that I “need to relax;” another said, “Subversive plots can be found in anything even a cereal box.” As to that last, I don’t doubt it for a moment. The next time you’re in the supermarket, inspect a box of Alpha-Bits. What you’ll find in that milk-splashed bowl will shake you to your core.

As to the charge that I was too uptight about Ferdinand and its ilk, however, I must forcefully disagree. To the contrary, I don’t believe that I’ve been uptight enough. And in the months since the article ran, my son has amassed more books—books that, as you’ll soon see, want to mold him into an obsessive-compulsive Communist with a mad penchant for nudery. The quest, as always, continues.

Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown

coverA tale of unbearable emptiness, Goodnight Moon is at once a dusky nightmare and a paean to OCD. A young rabbit, wishing to escape the oppressiveness of its bedroom—a red-and-green Fauvist horror—must, in a brutal twist, neurotically catalogue the very items which torment its waking hours. In a steady incantation, the leveret bids farewell to the burdens of its world: a rancid bowl of mush; a stiff white comb; two cats who wait to pounce. All the while, the creature is menaced by an “old lady” who urges him to “hush,” annoyed by the youngster’s mewling (a bottle of sherry, no doubt, awaits her in the kitchen). Goodnight Moon’s message is unremittingly bleak: psychological escape is hard-won—yet the more necessary it is, the more transitory it becomes. Goodnight, fleeting hope.

If You Give a Mouse a Cookie by Laura Joffe Numeroff

coverWould you like to know what happens when you give a mouse a cookie? In Numeroff’s estimation, the result is relentless exploitation—the mouse will drink your milk, use your crayons, chew your bendy straws. It will sap you, leave you slumped and dirty—whereupon the parasite will demand more milk, keen to restart the cycle.

For the boy in the story, the relationship is presented as soul-eating toil—curious, given how tirelessly the mouse works to repay his kindness. It “sweep[s] every room in the house,” “wash[es] the floors,” draws a Walker Evans portrait of its indigent rural family. The picture lays bare the mouse’s hidden past: in its background we see a rickety shack, its roof held up by a brace of spindly twigs. We recall that when it arrived, the mouse was wearing a knapsack. Its overalls are faded, ill-fitting; its tiny feet are bare. It has found the boy at the end of a trying journey, perhaps parting ways with a coyote just a few short days before.

Yet we are not meant to sympathize. Quite the opposite.  If You Give a Mouse a Cookie is a prescient endorsement of today’s anti-immigrant conservatism: though mice may scrub your floors and tidy your house, their presence portends catastrophe: they’ll want milk, straws, schools for their 14th Amendment “anchor babies.” No, best to keep your cookie, refuse the rodent at your front yard’s fence—which, in a perfect world, would feature camera towers, razor wire, and Skoal-dribbling Minutemen.

Mr. Clever by Roger Hargreaves

coverThe orange, bespectacled Mr. Clever lives in “Cleverland,” a place of entrepreneurial bounty. Here, alarm clocks not only ring, but switch on lights, brew tea, and predict the weather. Toothbrushes “[squeeze] toothpaste onto the brush out of the handle”; toasters “spread [toast] with butter and jelly, AND cut off the crusts.” Ingenuity has liberated Cleverland’s citizens, none more than Mr. Clever himself—yet when he strolls into a neighboring town, he finds himself mentally neutered: in this nameless morass, Mr. Happy demands a joke, but Mr. Clever cannot recall one. Mr. Greedy requests a recipe, but Mr. Clever finds that he “doesn’t know any recipes.” And on and on, until Mr. Clever, dazed by confusion and craving intellectual succor, attempts to return home—yet in a final authorial dagger, staggers off in the wrong direction.

Mr. Clever is disdainful of its protagonist’s creativity, revels in the stupidity that eventually swallows him whole.  Mr. Clever’s neighbors resist innovation—yet they mock him as a dullard. The book envisions a Maoist utopia in which the masses are freed by fetid thoughtlessness. Better to scoff at free markets than to consider what wonders—tea-making alarm clocks, say—they might confer.

But the story does not end there. As was revealed in a November 1987 International Affairs exposé, “Roger Hargreaves” was a pseudonym for Choe Yong-Nam—the notorious former head of North Korea’s culture ministry. Mr. Clever, indeed.

Once Upon a Potty by Alona Frankel

coverOnce Upon a Potty is often hailed as a toilet-training aid, and perhaps rightly so (my son is still in diapers, so I can’t yet testify to the book’s efficacy). But on a gut level, Potty is plainly disturbing. For one, it features images of a toddler’s anus that, in any other context, would land Frankel on some sort of watch list. And its pages teem with coiled turds: dysentery-ridden waste rendered in loving burnt sienna. But there’s a more pressing issue at hand: after little Joshua—the story’s grinning, crapping hero—learns where to drop his bombs, he does not once wear pants. Empowered, he careens about in a flouncy pink tank-top, eager to showcase his bits. Has his mother been so successful in his toilet-training—which, in the introduction, Frankel says “enhances the child’s confidence and pride”—that she has created an exhibitionist? More troubling: will he ever wear pants againOnce Upon a Potty was first published in 1980, meaning that Joshua would now be in his early 30s. As such, it would be little surprise to soon see a harrowing sequel: Once Upon an Indecent Exposure Conviction.

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. To be honest, when Good Night Moon makes me say “Goodnight Nobody” to my daughter near the end of the book feel a little pang of sadness. I also find it subversive that they are encouraging my daughter to eat mush while in bed. We are trying to raise her in a mush free environment, as many parents do these days.

  2. Amen! In our home Click Clack Moo is known as the Bovine Socialist Manifesto. Thank you for surfacing the ways in which our children are being affected by this cultural hegemony.

  3. Just last night I was reading an E.B. White essay; his wife received many review copies of kids’ books. The essay is called “Children’s Books” – this quote, coming from quite near the beginning, made me laugh:

    “I have naturally come to know something about children’s books from living so close to them and gazing hatefully at their jackets.”

    The essay as a whole is a lot like this post, but written in 1938. Worth a read. I’m not seeing it online anywhere, but if you don’t own his ONE MAN’S MEAT collection, you should.

  4. Hello Everyone:

    Having followed recent sound advice on this Interwire page that I should stop reading books by dead authors (click on the link), I am now ready to go and empty my childrens’ bookshelves of such nefarious classics as “The Communist Worldview of Pooh” (which includes a very nasty-sounding section called “The House of Ill Repute on Pooh Corner”); “Charlotte’s Web of Treachery and Deceit”; and “Peter Pan: Child Murderer ” (the one where–I think–an evil spirit talks little children into thinking they can fly and causes them to jump out a window to their deaths on the cobblestones below. (Having read “Superman: Flying Closeted Gay Fascist” as a child, believe me, I am profoundly aware of the dangers of Reading the Wrong Kind of Thing!)

    More sound advice on what books I should stop reading and otherwise purge from my home would be welcome,as I, Hugh Lafferty, am determined to the the Best Writer I Can Be.

    Thank you for your help.

  5. look for Waldorf School books. The art is lovely, the stories gently guiding to Peace
    for all.
    the art in children’s books today is ugly and scary, as is their cartoons and commercials aimed at them.
    You can never read too much to a child.
    Thanks for voicing my thoughts.

  6. Wow. This is a real “uncanny valley” piece for me. I’m not sure whether to pass this off as silly or an actual opinion. Either way, I think the simple act of reading to your child is paramount to what you read to them. Over-analyzing children’s books, the writer of this article and its predecessor must be really bored.

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