My mother was a kindergarten teacher for 30 years, so after I had a daughter, she drove over with about seven boxes of kids books she had saved. Needless to say, many of the books were pretty old. Some books are timeless, like “Where the Wild Things Are” or “The Story of Ferdinand,” but others are pretty dated. Still others are downright racist or sexist. And while many of these reflect the prejudices of their age, others hold a mirror to our current culture and show us what topics have become inappropriate for children to read about. Here are a few of my “favorites.”
“Your Turn, Doctor, ” by Deborah Robison and Carla Perez, M.D. (1982). This is the story of Gloria who goes in for a check-up and imagines turning the table on her doctor, giving him a check up.
Gloria: Hi there, Doctor. It’s time for your checkup. Come into my examining room and take off your clothes. You’re next.
Doctor: Me? Oh, no! I hate checkups. I hate taking off my clothes. (Doctor takes his clothes off, save his pair of polka dot boxer shorts).
Gloria: But you don’t have to be shy with me. I’ve been looking at you since you were a fat little baby.
Today the image of a girl alone in a doctor’s examining room with a mostly naked hairy male doctor leaves me with some reservations, which is sad, in a way. I’m sure that in 1982, this little book would have been read innocently enough to children, who would get a kick out of it. Their parents would have never had passing thoughts of Catholic priests or sex offender flyers in post offices. Either way, Sarah and I are planning on hiding it amidst the reading material in our doctor’s office’s waiting room during Josie’s next check-up.
“Just So Stories,” by Rudyard Kipling, (1902).
I remember my parents reading me these stories and loving them. They are origin stories for children on, for example, “How the Rhino Got His Skin,” “How the Whale Got His Throat,” and “How the Leopard Got His Spots.” One night while reading the latter story to my daughter, I was a little surprised to learn how the leopard got his spots. A zebra and giraffe teach the Leopard and an Ethiopian man how to change their color to better camouflage themselves during the night so the can be better hunters. The Ethiopian changed,
“‘To a nice working blackish-brownish colour, with a little purple in it, and touches of slaty-blue. It will be the very thing for hiding in hollows and behind trees.’
‘But what about me?’ [the leopard] said when the Ethiopian had worked his last little finger into his fine new black skin.”
They decide on spots for the Leopard:
“‘I’ll make ’em with the tips of my fingers,’ said the Ethiopian. ‘There’s plenty of black left on my skin still. Stand over!'”
The politically correct Northwest liberal in me is aghast.
“The Bremen-town Musicians,” by Ruth Belov Gross and Jack Kent, (1974.)
This Brother’s Grimm story features a group of farm animals who escape their owners and band together. Each animal is escaping his own grim end. The donkey runs away because he hears his master say, “That donkey is too old to work. So why should I feed him?” On his way he meets a dog who says, “I am getting too old to hunt. I heard my master wanted to kill me. So I ran away.” Next they meet a cat who informs them that she, “[is] getting too old to run after mice. I heard my mistress say she was going to drown me. So I ran away.” Next is a rooster: whose crowing the donkey notices is rather sad, “I am crowing while I can. I heard my mistress say she was going to cut off my head and put me in the soup.”
Obviously this story was originally penned when most people still lived on farms, and doing away with old animals whose useful lives were behind them was a common occurrence in the lives of children. Since most now don’t live on farms, children books today are reluctant to be the bearer of the grim reality of farm animals’ fates, and instead paint a rosy picture of farmers with happy cows and chickens living out their days in happy green meadows. (Along the same genre, undomesticated animals are in the same boat, as old children’s books regularly make mention to hunting). I think this book is actually kind of great. What disturbs me more than a children’s book that eludes to offing farm animals is any child who, when asked where hamburgers come from, replies, “the grocery store.”
“The Terrible Thing that Happened at our House,” Marge Blaine and John C. Wallner, (1975).
This book begins like this, “My mother used to be a real mother. In the mornings, when my brother and I left for school, she’d kiss us and wave goodbye. ‘Have a nice day, darling. Be good, honey,’ she’d say as we went out the door. When we came home for lunch, we’d have toasted cheese sandwiches or tuna on a bun.” The little girl goes on to list a litany of ways her mother makes her life a domestic paradise for her and her brother. The ‘terrible thing’ the title alludes to is when her mother went back to work as a science teacher! What follow is a list of all the ways this spoiled brat’s life becomes less than ideal, like making her own bed, having to eat lunch at school, and finding her own underwear and socks.
And father isn’t immune to this shift either. “My father used to be a real father, too. He’d come home from work and say, ‘Hi, everybody – what’s for dinner?” It’s a traditional gender role nightmare, that I think is tongue-in-cheek, but it’s hard to tell. Either way Betty Friedan would be rolling in her grave.
“Love You Forever,” Robert Munsch and Sheila McGraw (1986).
Okay, so this one is just kind of inappropriate to read to your youngster before bed. The author’s heart is probably in the right place, but it drops some pretty heavy material on your wee one right before nighty-night time. Namely, that one day you’re going TO DIE. This book follows a mother and son through their lives, with each page the mother sneaking into her son’s room, picking him up and rocking him to the following song: “I’ll love you forever/I’ll like you for always,/As long as I’m living/my baby you’ll be.” This gets a little creepy when the son is a grown man and the mom is driving across town with a ladder strapped to her car’s roof, but whatever. Then the mom gets very old and calls to say he should come over “because I’m very old and sick.” He does and she begins singing the song, “But she couldn’t finish because she was too old and sick.” Sweet dreams kiddo!
Then there are the books that just don’t translate anymore. What publisher would agree to book about a magical flying car being named “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang?” I’ve known enough little kids who inadvertently drop F-Bomb just trying to say ‘truck’ to know how that one is going to go over. Or how about a book about a train engineer titled “Mr. Puffer-Bill?” I looked desperately through the illustrations for a cigarette hanging from Mr. Puffer-Bill’s lips, but was disappointed. There’s the little boy in “Just Me” who has a rooster named ‘Cocky,’ and there are just too many books to name whose characters routinely exclaim that they ‘feel so gay!.’
If you’d like any of the books mentioned in this post, my wife and I will be having a garage sale this summer and I’ll keep you appraised of when it will be. They will be in the free box.