Friday, June 22, 2007

Is Our Children Learning?

Children’s Book Follies

Raising a daughter who really enjoys reading, I am developing a rather encyclopedic familiarity with a wide variety of children’s books, and let me tell you, there are some strange things out there. I’m not talking bizarre strange, like Dav Pilky’s Dragon stories which feature a gentle, dimwitted dragon who does things like fill a box with trash off the street when he’s told his cat needs a “litter box.”

I’m talking unintentional hilarity that ensues when authors and illustrators foist upon their tyke readership curiosities that might otherwise be overlooked.

In the realm of small offenses, one might take, for example, the rather curious and — to be kind — idiosyncratic style of punctuation to be found in the delightful stories of Beatrix Potter. Whether it is her inconsistent way with commas and flagrant colon misuse as in “The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin” in which we learn: “He had a brother named Twinkleberry, and a great many cousins: they lived in a wood at the edge of a lake.”

Or consider this mangled sentence from “Benjamin Bunny,” “Little Benjamin sat down beside his cousin, and assured him that Mr. McGregor had gone out in a gig, and Mrs. McGregor also; and certainly for the day, because she was wearing her best bonnet.” Or my personal favorite from “Tom Kitten,” “And I think that some day I shall have to make another, larger, book, to tell you more about Tom Kitten.” Will, you, really?

And aside from this rather ridiculous punctuation, I’ll barely mention the very dated elements of the stories such as the switchings and whippings regularly doled out to characters from their parents. If a child animal goes without a beating in a Beatrix Potter story, it’s truly a rare thing. Yet, for a mere $160, you could buy The World of Peter Rabbit which contains all twenty three stories in small child-size editions, and that came out in 2006.

In the more serious realm of actual representation there is both the show on PBS and the series of books based on the show, that of Clifford, the Big Red Dog. I have no general gripe with Clifford. In fact, I rather like the cartoon myself at times (though an episode where the four main character dogs, Clifford, T-Bone, Cleo, and Mac form a dog band called the Packstreet Dogs contains an interminably long song sung by T-Bone).

What gets me watching this, and Ms. The Critic as well, is the artists’ willy-nilly approach to perspective and size. Sometimes Clifford is as big as a house, sometimes bigger, and sometimes smaller. Consider Clifford in these two illustrations. In the first, he’s gigantic, while in the second, he’s maybe twice the size of an Irish wolfhound. Well, which is it?

More, what really perturbs me is the rather cavalier attitude the creators take toward bones. As you can see in this illustration, the size of the bone in Clifford’s mouth is at least big enough to attract some paleontological attention, but it never strikes anyone odd that this dog has what amounts to a Brontosaurus shin in his chops. This sort of thing happens all the time in Clifford’s stories, and there’s even an episode in which Clifford and his dog friends dig up dinosaur bones — like that’s something special here.

Creepier than that is the final page of this story entitled “The Stormy Day Rescue.” Having tried to bury his brontosaurus bone in various places around Birdwell Island and been hassled for it by anyone and everyone, Clifford is finally convinced to dig a channel to save the library from flooding in the titutlar storm. The story’s last panel gives a horrifying hint of what really goes on in this isolated community and raises many, many questions.

“Later,” we read, “everyone gave Clifford bones for his hard work. ‘I’ll help you bury them,’ Emily Elizabeth said. ‘Somewhere perfect — just like you!’”

I wish I could find this image to show you. A truly enormous Clifford sits, licking his lips, grinning at the reader while a diminutive Emily Elizabeth hugs his giant foreleg. They are standing in front of his doghouse and in front of it is a pile of bones — well over one hundred of them.

Now, I can’t speak for what makes up the base of this pile, but all of the visible bones are clearly and obviously human sized femurs. For comparative purposes we have the nearby figure of Emily Elizabeth. Some of these femurs are equal in length to her own thighs, while others are smaller and yet others larger.

It is a frightful thing to consider, but it’s just quite possible that Birdwell Island is an island filled with mass murderers. How they obtain their victims is impossible to determine from any of the stories in this Big Red Reader, though I suspect tourism plays its role. Age is apparently no option and the islanders all use Clifford as their means of destroying the evidence. On his own inclinations, Clifford clearly prefers ancient and sizable bones. What he’d do with these (to him) toothpick sized femurs is anyone’s guess.

Lastly, most egregiously, we have the brilliant scam that is Todd Parr. Behold, in all its glory, illustrations as well done as I could manage. Behold, the cleverness of the author and illustrator where brightly colored amateurish pictures on the level of a six year old fill his works. Children love these books, in part because it looks like it’s put together by a child, and Parr regularly puts out cookie cutter titles like The Mommy Book and The Daddy Book and The Grandpa Book and The Grandma Book and so on and so forth.

The sheer audacity of it all is what gets me. It’s brilliant in its execution because probably almost no one else would ever have dreamed to try it. Cruddy illustrations over fairly repetitive text. The shit just produces itself. Which is not to say that Parr’s works are without their charms. We own two of his books ourselves and The Littlest Critic loves them. “It’s okay to eat macaroni and cheese in the bathtub,” she’ll intone after reading It’s Okay To Be Different, or she’ll let me know that “It’s okay to have a pet worm.”

It just kills me that I didn’t think of it first.

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