It’s been a number of years since my last installment of “Are Picture Books Leading Our Children Astray?” — and the reason is simple: I’d come to feel that a reassuring majority of picture books were not, in fact, leading our youth to ruin. I was finally able to sit in my cozy parlor, mug of chamomile in hand, and allow myself to relax. Perhaps my success in exposing the most egregious examples of malevolent kiddie-lit — Blueberries for Sal, Caps for Sale, Curious George Flies a Kite — had led me to believe that my duty had been fulfilled. Perhaps I simply became complacent. Whatever the reason, I’ve recently discovered — with an audible gasp — that the polluted river of wicked picture books has been flowing as strongly as ever. A new crop of titles has until now escaped my benevolent, if Sauron-like gaze — and in so doing, have tainted our tots with narratives of untold madness and perfidy. Here are four of the very worst offenders:
The Day the Crayons Quit
This grim tale of workplace discontent is put into motion when a boy named Duncan finds that his crayons have collectively “quit” — each of them, from red to blue to orange, outlining his grievance via outrageously self-pitying letter. Beige doesn’t like to draw wheat, Black feels misused, Gray is exhausted, and on and on. While the question of how Duncan’s crayons gained such frightful sentience must be addressed, the most salient matter is this: Have these crayons seen the condition of today’s economy? Had they deigned to pay heed to the steady erosion of secure, well-paying jobs, they might not have so blithely run from their carton. The Day the Crayons Quit teaches children that it’s not only wise, but noble, to walk off the job on a whim — because you don’t like being used to draw whales or seas or fire trucks. This book will no doubt produce a generation of adults who, decades hence, will up and quit because they don’t like the coffee in the breakroom or the pens in the supply closet — and wind up penniless, without prospects, swilling rotgut hooch in a trash-strewn gutter. And all the while moaning, of course, about the unfairness of it all.
I Want My Hat Back
Imagine, for a moment, that you had an item of clothing that was dear to you. For some, it might be a blouse gifted by a doting grandparent. For others, it might be a brother’s hand-me-down parka. For still others, it may be a hat — say, an oddly featureless, triangular red cap. Now imagine that this hat was stolen from you. Certainly, the loss of a beloved item of clothing would be disappointing; saddening, even. But in a rational world, you move on. You remember the hat fondly, get soft around the eyes whenever it comes to mind. What you do not do is seek out and murder the thief in a fit of dead-eyed, Bronsonesque revenge. Or eat the body afterwards, to hide the evidence. Yet that is exactly the scenario laid out in I Want My Hat Back, in which a sociopathic bear kills and feasts upon the rabbit who has stolen his precious hat. Is this a vision of the world we want to pass along to our children? If your son’s Thomas train is pilfered by a neighbor, should his response be worthy of latter-day Liam Neeson? If your daughter’s Sofia doll is suddenly snatched away, should she respond with cannibalism? Sadly, the answer given by the grisly I Want My Hat Back is a resounding, blood-spattered “yes.”
I Will Surprise My Friend!
On its surface, the Piggie and Elephant series seems fairly benign: a bespectacled elephant named Gerald and a flighty pig named (appropriately enough) Piggie banter about through a string of mild capers: hiding from one another, playing in the rain, becoming annoyed when birds nest upon their heads. Standard kid stuff, really. But lurking beneath this silliness is a simmering sexual tension that cannot be ignored. Gerald is male; Piggie is female. At best, their 22-book-long platonic friendship gives children a grievously false view of such relationships. Because eventually, Gerald, stumbling home from the bar, will pour out his heart to Piggie in a desperate, rambling slur — only to be crushed beyond all recognition when she winces and shakes her head. Or worse: Piggie will flutter her lashes, clasp her hooves, and say that she, too, harbors such feelings. Now, you may think I’m overanalyzing the whole Elephant-and-Piggie affair, that I’m being hysterical. But have you ever seen an elephant trying to mate with a pig? Because I have, and it’s not something that one can soon forget. Oh, no. The image tends to stencil itself upon the soul. So, Mo Willems, I beg you: if you must continue to produce these books, please keep Elephant and Piggie far, far apart from one another. For the good of the children, naturally.
In this hallucinatory nightmare, a grotesque blue “monster” descends from “Planet Tickle” to spread his interstellar message of laughter, giggles, and wild-eyed lunacy. The reader is encouraged to tickle his or her child as the story goes along; for verisimilitude, a pair of hairy, likely highly-flammable monster gloves are packaged with the volume. This, friends, is akin to wearing a Charles Manson mask while reading Helter Skelter aloud. Because what the Tickle Monster seems unaware of — possibly because he’s spent the last few years tickling innocent life-forms from Egypt to Alpha Centauri — is that tickling is now widely considered a form of assault. Far from being whimsical fun, tickling has rightly come to be seen as harassment, a provocation, an invasion of armpit sanctity. Of course you, as a conscientious parent, know this already. But if you ever find yourself tempted to sit down with this pastel-hued chronicle of terror, bear in mind: allow yourself to be seduced by the Tickle Monster’s “charms,” and the real monster will be you.
The books that parents read to their very young children don’t change much from generation to generation. When my son was born two years ago I was surprised to find that with few exceptions, the titles we welcomed into our Philadelphia apartment were the same ones that three decades earlier had served as my own introduction to storytelling.
I made an informal study of the Amazon sales rankings of the books I enjoyed having read to me most as a kid. It seemed to confirm that taste in books for young children is remarkably constant. Here are just a handful of popular titles with their publication years and their overall Amazon ranks:
The Very Hungry Caterpillar (1969), #169
Goodnight Moon (1947), #227
Where the Wild Things Are (1963), #314
The Giving Tree (1964), #342
Harold and the Purple Crayon (1955), #559
Pat the Bunny (1940), #743
Richard Scarry’s What Do People Do All Day (1968), #817
For comparison’s sake, consider Thomas Friedman’s The World is Flat, which was a bestseller only a few years ago and enjoys strong residual sales. It’s currently ranked #2,194, which leaves it well behind the leading titles in the Dr. Seuss canon (Green Eggs and Ham, #1,050; The Lorax, #1,063).
The reason children’s books endure seems clear enough: The books that toddlers read are determined entirely by adults, and when adults select books for kids they naturally gravitate towards the books they loved as kids. As a result, the market for children’s books is probably more resistant to cultural churn than just about any other slice of the consumer economy; it’s a closed circuit that reproduces itself one generation after another.
There are benefits to this system. For one, it helps to ensure that passing fads doesn’t wash quality books away. It’s doubtful, for example, that toddlers would opt for Goodnight Moon as often as their parents do, so maybe it’s just as well that they don’t have a say. For two, the persistence of children’s books yields a kind of experience we don’t get so often in a culture that has relatively few traditions: the chance to revisit childhood experiences through an older set of eyes.
Just the other weekend I took my two-year-old son to Barnes and Noble to buy a birthday present for a friend of his. I browsed the aisles while my son emptied a carousel of Berenstain Bears books onto the floor. After a few minutes I spotted Caps for Sale (#5057), a book that had once meant a great deal to me but which I had not thought about in decades. It was nice to see that it had managed to last all this time without my attention. We bought two copies, one for the friend and one for us.
That night I put my son in his pajamas, filled his cup with milk, sat him in my lap and began to read Caps for Sale. It only took a few lines before the entire story came back to me: an old world peddler walks around a village with a stack of caps on his head; one luckless afternoon he leans back against a tree to take a nap and when he wakes up he finds his caps have been confiscated by a troop of monkeys in the tree branches above him; he demands the monkeys give him his caps back by shaking his fists and stomping his feet but the monkeys mock his efforts and for a moment it seems like he’ll never get them back.
In addition to remembering the plot, I was somewhat stunned by how vividly the feelings the book had elicited in me as a kid came tumbling back. It’s noted several times in the book, for example, that the peddler always stacks his caps on his head in the same order—“first his own checked cap, then the gray caps, then the brown caps, then blue caps, then the red caps on the very top.” As I read this to my son I found myself flush with the same covetousness for the red caps, so bright and distinct above the rest, that I’d felt as a child.
I had a similar experience at the end of the story. In order to get his caps back, the peddler remonstrates the monkeys every way he can: he shakes his fists, stomps his feet, jumps up and down. The monkeys repeat his actions back to him but the simple peddler doesn’t see what’s going on. He thinks the monkeys are mocking his suffering when really they’re just aping (monkeying?) him like the lower-order mammals that they are. In despair the peddler takes his own checked cap off his head—the one cap that’s not for sale, and the only cap the monkeys didn’t take—and throws it to the ground and starts to walk away.
As my son finished his milk and started to fall asleep, I found myself awash in the same anguish I’d felt at this point in the story as a child. I couldn’t have explained why at the time, but as a child I knew there was something deeply sad about the peddler throwing his own cap to the ground. Now as an adult, I can put words to that sadness; I can see that by throwing his own cap to the ground the peddler is effectively saying that without his caps, nothing in the world matters anymore.
I was surprised by the complexity of the reaction to Caps for Sale I’d had as a kid. As a four-year-old I had no firsthand experiences that would have taught me there is such a thing as despair in the face of an unforgiving world, but on an intuitive level I understood that what the peddler was experiencing went beyond mere frustration.
When the peddler throws down his cap the monkeys throw their caps down too, and tragedy is averted. The peddler collects his caps from the ground, stacks them back atop his head, and walks back to town calling “Caps for sale, fifty cents a cap.” It is not exactly a happy ending—the fact that the peddler became so desperate over the loss of a few caps reveals just how precarious his life really is—but there is a melancholic satisfaction in knowing that he gets to go on selling for one more day at least.
For me, the feeling I had after I’d closed Caps for Sale and laid my son down in his crib was melancholic and satisfying, too. It was an unexpected gift to have glimpsed myself as a child through the pages of the book, and a wonder to imagine that if trends hold, my son might one day have the same experience himself.
Bonus Link: Are Picture Books Leading Our Children Astray?