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
A 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
Would 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
The 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
Once 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 again? Once 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.
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
Caps 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
In 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
Blueberries 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
I’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
I 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.