Wednesday, August 26, 2009

The Darkness in Childhood Favorites

It’s been years since I’ve read children’s books. Now, however, with Baby Littell’s library quickly growing thanks to family, friends, and my Amazon habit, I’ve had the chance to read some new works and refamiliarize myself with old favorites. And I am struck, and mildly horrified, by how depressing some of my childhood favorites really are.

We won’t go into the Velveteen Rabbit again, which takes sad kids’ books to a different level. We’ll talk instead about Corduroy, what I thought was a charming book, published in 1968. We read this a million times in the Orlando household when I was a kid, but all I really remembered was something about a bear trying to find a button for his overalls in a department store. This weekend, I found a copy for $1 at the flea market, so I snapped it up. And last night, I sat down to read it to the baby, with Andrew looking on in between glances at the baseball game. I read the first two lines and looked at Andrew in open-mouthed horror: “Corduroy is a bear who once lived in the toy department of a big store. Day after day he waited with all the other animals and dolls for somebody to come along and take him home.”

Horrifying! The illustration shows a tiny bear with a heartbreaking hopeful expression on his face, maintaining his optimism despite the fact that no one ever buys him. Seriously? This is seriously appropriate for a young child? The book has a happy ending—a little girl buys him and loves him, and he gets the home he’s always wanted—but yikes. I felt anxiety, trepidation, sadness as I read. Maybe it’s just my riling pregnancy hormones; maybe a young child will simply engage with the story and let it all play out. Still, it seems a little intense.

This is the case with many of the books I now have in my possession—high-quality children’s literature, all, of course, many of them classics from three decades ago or more. For a moment last night, however, I understood the allure of Disney princess books and Barney products. There’s no sadness in those—there’s just vapid, vacuous, sugary nothingness. If books like that inspire any feeling at all in a child, it would be…a marshmallow feeling. Something smooshy and sweet in all the worst ways.

No, I suppose I don’t want that. I want the baby’s books to have a little depth, a little bite; I want the stories to be compelling and real, with characters who are searching for love and homes and friends and happiness, who face a little sadness and doubt and inspire a little empathy. I must have felt empathy and concern when I read Corduroy, even if I don’t remember feeling that way per se—perhaps my extreme attachment to this and other such books is just the way those feelings manifested themselves. By reading the books again and again, I got constant reassurance that yes, Corduroy still finds his home; yes, Sylvestor’s mother still does change him back from a rock into a donkey. The nice thing about children’s books is that the characters usually find what they’re looking for at the end. And if the road to getting there is a little curvy, so much the better—so much more like what the baby’s life will be.

I just hope my pregnancy hormones have calmed down by the time she’s ready to read these books with me, or storytime will have me dissolving nightly into an alarming puddle of tears.