The Indefinite Recirculation of Bad Children’s Books: A Polemic

In which I put my “Father” hat on for the first time on this site.

In an article titled “Canonicity,” Wendell Harris questions and problematizes the issue of canons in the field of English and literature. In describing the creation, establishment, and maintenance of these supposedly foundational and all-important texts, he describes part of the problem as the principle of academic recirculation as such:

“Academics tend to teach what they have been taught, what is easily available in print, what others are writing interestingly about, and what they themselves are writing about; what is easily available in print tends to be what is being taught and written about; what is written about tends to be what one is teaching or others are writing about” (114).

You may need to re-read that one a couple of times before moving on…

So anyway, I bring that quote up because I feel a similar situation has occurred in the world of children’s books in what we may very clunkily call the principle of bad Children’s books recirculation (in which “bad Children’s books” can be read as both Children’s books of inferior quality and books featuring bad or misbehaving children) and describe it as such:

Parents tend to read the books they were read to as children, what is easily available in print, what other parents are recommending to them, and what they themselves are recommending to other parents; what is easily available in print tends to be the books that parents are reading and recommending to each other; what is recommended among parents tends to be what other parents had read to them and are already reading and/or recommending to each other.

And thus the endless cycle continues. The generations that are now parents to highly impressionable younglings grew up on books read to them by their parents in the 70s, 80s, and 90s(?), which means they were books that were at least 10-20 years older than that, if not older. And if there’s one common characteristic among many of these particularly bad books whose origins reach back to the 70s and earlier is the penchant for displaying shady behavior. Not to say newer books are free of that, as one of my prime examples of what I’m talking about is from the 90s. And of course, there are plenty of books that are recirculated that are really great.

Before getting down to some concrete examples of what I’m talking about here, let me just say that I am a big believer in the importance of parenting by example. If you do or do not want your kid to do something then I believe the most effective way for that to occur is by the parent(s) him/her/them-self/selves displaying the very same behaviors and attitudes. If you think your kid should or should not be doing something then chances are you should/should not be doing the same either. No matter the age difference or how serious or trivial the behavior may seem. As such, I do not think it’s very necessary or even helpful to have children’s books displaying kids on bad behavior without some kind of resolution or turnaround. Sometimes these books are defended based on the idea that it’s “realistic” or “just kids being kids.” But I disagree, and believe my thoughts are best described by this recurring quote from Baz Luhrmann’s Australia (2008):

“Just because it is, doesn’t mean it should be.”

In fact I believe that’s part of the problem: the idea being that “kids being kids” is often equated with inappropriate behaviors, picky eating, and/or a general penchant for behavior described at best as mischievous or at worst as flat-out dishonest. Like it’s all just part of their natural behavior when in reality the chances are pretty high that many of those attributes are being inspired directly by their primary caregivers. I’ll give you an example from my own parenting experience.

When my son was a bit younger, I would call him over only to have him say “Just a minute.” Or “Just a second.” It would often bug me how long it would take him to come, as though he was being deliberately insolent or difficult with me. These situations would not end very well and one or both of us would inevitably be frustrated and upset by the end. Then it finally hit me. Whenever he called me, I would often say “Just a minute” with absolutely no guarantee or consistency in how long that “minute” truly was. What gives me the right to expect him to come right away when I did not extend the same courtesy to him? That wouldn’t be very fair, would it? It’s like I’d be setting him up to repeatedly fail in my eyes. Needless to say, that realization was incredibly helpful, and I think presents one example of a behavior that we don’t normally associate with being learned or as coming from a “bad influence” or whatever…But I digress…

Back to the books!

First up, the Little Critter series by Mercer Mayer

What is the appeal here? I honestly do not get it. We picked up these books to read to our son with a “oh yeah, we remember these books being read to us, they don’t need to be run through first” and man do I regret it. The kiddo loves these books and I’m grateful that he can’t read yet. We often sit in libraries or bookstores to read books and I have to live-edit these series as I read them. The above book, Just Go to Bed, depicts the character’s bedtime routine as he goes through the all-too-familiar motions of stalling as long as possible. The dad gets more and more frustrated leading to this page where he’s very angrily yelling at his son:

Apologies for the bad quality. Of the scan…not the writing.

Furthermore, throughout this book and many others in the series, the Little Critter and his parents are constantly making angry faces at each other. This might not sound like much of a problem, but again, that’s part of the problem. It’s almost assumed that it’s natural for kids to get angry at their parents as well as parents to get angry at their kids. But that’s the whole culture that needs to change. Plus, those critters’ feet are kinda gross.

Fortunately, I recently discovered that there’s a new iteration of the series, with artwork that’s much more streamlined and storylines that are much more pleasant. For example, this lovely addition: Just Critters Who Care.

happythankyoumoreplease

In the book, the critters are playing baseball when the ball lands in the “spooky” yard next door with a house that’s falling apart. Little Critter gets the courage to go over there and finds out that the house belongs to an old rabbit who lives alone. The little critters decide to help her out and end up getting their parents and the whole neighborhood involved. They spend a whole day at her house fixing up her home and her yard. The book ends with a future course of action: the kids will give some of their toys to less fortunate children. Bravo. Well done. That is what ALL children’s books should be like: talking about helping and serving each other and being active in your community. Yes!

Another series, which I cannot stand even more than the Little Critter books is the series of books by David Shannon featuring the character David. This picture nicely summarizes the content of ALL of the books:

ugh

But here are some more examples just in case:

¡ugh!

Maybe she should have tried explaining things. With other words. You know…like you do every day with other humans so they don’t misunderstand you.

I don’t even know where to start with this one. What good can possibly come of focusing all your attention on a child’s bad behaviors? That’s all these books do. They’re constantly taking me between frustration and sadness. Frustration because these are the books that are selling and being translated into multiple languages, and being prominently displayed in bookstores. Sadness because so many children are raised with so much negativity around them. Not to mention giving ideas of behaviors to kids who may otherwise have never considered them.

The books are problematic from the opening author’s note:

“A few years ago my mother sent me a book I made when I was a little boy. It was called No, David, and it was illustrated with drawings of David doing all sorts of things he wasn’t supposed to. The text consisted entirely of the words ‘no’ and ‘David.’ I thought it would be fun to do a remake celebrating those familiar variations of the universal ‘no’ that we all hear while growing up. Of course, ‘yes’ is a wonderful word…but ‘yes’ doesn’t keep crayon off the living room wall.”

That is so sad I don’t even know where to start. I think the result of such an upbringing — in which parental action or lack thereof often leads to prolonging childhood and adolescence and where parents scold/criticize the child instead of the unwanted behavior — is partially reflected in the book’s dedication:

“To Martha, my mother, who kept me in line then, and to Heidi, my wife, who keeps me in line now.”

To me, these David books show a child’s life as filled with bad behaviors and their resulting admonitions. Such a life seems devoid of what’s most important for a child’s upbringing: their parent(s)’ love, patience, respect, and guidance as they grow, develop, and learn in a world full of all sorts of contradictory rules, conventions, and standards that need explaining on a daily basis. It’s not always easy, but it’s always worth it.

I want to wrap this post up, but don’t want to end on such a negative note. In the past few months I’ve been very pleased to discover two authors whose books I thoroughly enjoyed. The first is Mo Willems and his Elephant and Piggie books.

Elephant and Piggie are best friends who display the natural frustrations and joys of friendships, and while they sometimes do express some unpleasant behaviors, it is shown as part of the struggle towards making the right decision and sticking with the more appropriate/pleasant behavior.

(I’m still not too sure how I feel about Willems’s series of books featuring the pigeon…)

The other is by Al Yankovic. Yes, THAT Al Yankovic. The book is called When I Grow Up

Check them out.

And let’s start circulating a new crop of children’s books for future generations. For starters I say we keep Dr. Seuss, Margaret Wise Brown’s Goodnight Moon and The Runaway Bunny, Laura Numeroff’s “If you give a…” series and throw some Mo Willems and Al Yankovic into the mix. Let’s toss out Mercer Mayer’s earlier stuff, as well as the early Curious George books (like Little Critter, George’s old adventures are pretty questionable; see below) and potentially P. D. Eastman. I say potentially because I’ve only read one Eastman book — The Best Nest — and thought it was terrible, but don’t feel right assuming all of his books are the same. But let’s just flat-out ban that specific one.

When not smoking pipes, Curious George would inspire kids everywhere to take hallucinogenic trips.

Sigh.

I’m writing my own children’s book.

Share your thoughts! Agree? Disagree? Let me know. What books would you include? What books have been included for too long and need to be un-included?

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4 thoughts on “The Indefinite Recirculation of Bad Children’s Books: A Polemic

  1. Agree! The old Curious George books are terrible! Some of the newer ones are better, luckily, but still not really amazing in terms of teaching anything to kids. Another author I’m really not fond of that is very popular is Sandra Boyton. These are mostly little board books that we used to read to Abe when he was younger. Some of them are fine and kinda cute, but then others have subtle things like calling people ugly, normalizing arguing, saying races are only fun if you win, and other things that I probably don’t remember. There have also been many books at the library that I have censored while reading.

    I will disagree a bit about Dr. Seuss. Many of these are great and worth keeping, but SEVERAL of them are very questionable and include spanking. 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins includes not only spanking but also beheading and pushing someone off a tower when the beheading doesn’t work. Yikes. And then of course some of them teach good messages, but are not necessarily appropriate for all ages. For instance, Abraham is convinced that the Lorax is the bad guy because he’s always speaking sternly to the other guy. Ha.

    I will say that while I agree that as a general rule, books featuring bad behavior of kids are not great, I can see how they could be helpful as “therapy” books. If a child is already exhibiting a certain behavior or dealing with a particular challenge, I think a book showing someone else having this problem and how it is dealt with could be helpful, provided it is dealt with in a positive way, not just acting as though it’s normal. A good example of this is one of the Lyle the Crocodile books, Lyle’s Birthday Party. I picked it up without reading it first because we really like the original Lyle story, The House on East 88th Street. But in this one, the whole first half of the book is about Lyle being very jealous of his friend’s birthday party, which is not necessarily a concept I want to introduce to kids. But it is resolved very nicely, with Lyle doing service for others, which makes him feel better. Sooooo…if a child was already dealing with this normal feeling of jealousy, I would use this book. But I don’t necessarily think it’s great to just introduce the idea of feeling this way.

    On a more positive note (sorry my comment is turning into it’s own article!), some of the authors we love are as follows. Oliver Jeffers! Thanks to C&A for the introduction! Check out The Way Back Home, The Incredible Book-Eating Boy, and pretty much anything else he has written. Scranimals is another favorite around here, written by Jack Prelusky, it’s about mixed up animals. Very clever. Abraham LOVES it. Loves. So much. Very, very much. I am not kidding. There’s also a great book called Where Is the Cake? that has no words but is very interesting. Maybe a little questionable with some of the characters’ behavior but overall very nice. And finally, Richard Scarry! This guy has saved my life on numerous occasions with looong books that my child will look at on his own for 30 minutes or more. Just avoid any of the Pig Will/Pig Won’t titles. Those are terrible. Amy Krouse Rosenthal is another good author. We have read Spoon and Chopsticks, which are excellent. Cute illustrations and nice moral. Okay, I’ll stop now. Good topic!

    • Thanks for the comment! And all of the book recommendations! I’ll have to get around to those soon. I’ve never read any of the insane-sounding Dr. Seuss books you mentioned, but from your description I completely agree that we can keep them out of the imaginary list.

      I like your point about some of these books being used as “therapy” in some ways. I haven’t read the books you mentioned but I am very curious to. That does sound like it would be pretty helpful in dealing with a child’s behavior, especially if the book shows you how the child can overcome the behavior. And that’s probably the main reason I can’t stand those David books. It’s nothing but David doing all kinds of insanely inappropriate things with absolutely no kind of resolution or point to it. Just page after page of someone off-page (is that a book term? I’m just adapting “off-screen” to book form) shouting at the poor kid to stop doing whatever he’s doing.

      I also keep meaning to read Richard Scarry’s stuff. From the little I’ve seen, there is A LOT of text to them, no? If I do pick them up, I’ll definitely be sure to avoid the Pig series.

      Thanks for all the feedback!

  2. Hi I randomly came acsros your blog, sorry to leave an anonymous post, but this is a sweet subject. As your kids get older, I’d recommend Roald Dahl’s Danny, Champion of the World (a very sweet book), Ramona and her Father by Beverly Cleary, The Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Patterson (not about a father at first glance, but the portrait of the boy’s dad is incredibly touching), and it might be out of print, but my favorite book from childhood for younger kids is about a single father (I think) Gorilla by Anthony Brown. Happy reading, from a children’s book lover. -Jane

    • Hi! And thanks for the comment!

      I completely forgot about Roald Dahl. I remember reading Danny when I was a kid and really liking it. As well as most of his other children’s books. I never read Bridge to Terabithia, though I liked the movie quite a bit. The movie was sad enough, though I imagine the book is even sadder? And I’d never heard of Ramona and Her Father or Gorilla. I’ll definitely look them up. All of them are for a slightly older age group though, right? 7ish+ or something like that? Either way, I’ll make note of them for when my boy is older.

      Thanks again for the feedback!

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