The Berenstain Bears handle things so much better than I do. My foster daughters (a 6-year-old and a 3-year-old) and I have many of their books: The Berenstain Bears Count Their Blessings, The Berenstain Bears in the Dark, The Berenstain Bears Get in a Fight, and The Berenstain Bears Get the Gimmes. Each one has been a beacon of truth and guidance to me. I long for Stan and Jan Berenstain to take on further reading topics like The Berenstain Bears Avoid Sex, The Berenstain Bears Get Depressed, The Berenstain Bears Writhe in Self-Doubt, and The Berenstain Bears Lose Their Keys.
Lots of kids’ books are good for adults. It’s anyone’s guess which books are good for kids. I often wonder if my perpetual sense of impending doom was caused by those Dick and Jane books we were forced to read as kids. What was Dick always running from? And why did he have to be told twice? Maybe I could have handled that sort of thing had I read it as an adult, but I suspect that reading Dick and Jane in our early childhood crippled many of us emotionally.
It’s hard to find books that are actually good for both me and my kids. We have some really bad children’s books on our shelves because I often take the kids with me to the bookstore, and I have shamelessly judged books by their covers in my haste to get out of the store before one of the kids drools on an atlas or runs amuck in the self-help section.
That’s how we ended up with The Teeny Tiny Woman. It’s about a small woman who finds a bone on a grave, takes it home to make soup, and is haunted by a ghost who wants it back. My kids loved it. It was a regular at nap time for months. I’m more careful in my selections now, but in fairness to me, “Stay away from books about grave robbing” and “Steer clear of cooking with human remains” are not cautions I thought I had to take in the children’s book section.
I try to avoid stories where someone gets eaten, stories with princes, stories with beautiful dresses, stories with violence, stories of love without conversation, stories where children put food in their hair, and stories dealing with fears my children have not yet experienced. (I looked at There’s a Nightmare in My Closet, which is great, but so far my kids think there are clothes in their closet, and I enjoy sleep too much to suggest otherwise.) These restrictions narrow the selections among children’s literature a good deal.
We all know that Grimm’s Fairy Tales are grim. I’m not surprised that tales that have been read for generations are dark. Despite what Bob Dole says, I don’t think the olden days were all that cheery. People had to have several kids to make a few of them take, people attended hangings for entertainment, your horse could step on your head, and doctors bled people. It’s no wonder Humpty Dumpty falling to his death seemed like jolly good entertainment.
I foolishly thought that modern, cheerier times would have brought about cheerier tales and perhaps a trend of protecting our children from scarier themes. So I was very surprised by The Story of Mrs. Lovewright and Purrless Her Cat, which I naively brought home because the cover looked so nice (and my kid was about to wipe her nose on the complete works of Ansel Adams). It’s a beautifully illustrated story of an old woman who gets a kitten for companionship and is viciously attacked by it daily. For adults, this book can provide invaluable insight into relationships, but on behalf of my children, I was appalled.
Perhaps I’m overprotective, but there are lots of images and ideas I wouldn’t yet like in my kids’ heads. I read Frederick Douglass: The Last Day of Slavery in the Children’s Book World bookstore the other day. The Lee and Low Multicultural Literature for Young Readers spring catalog recommends it for ages 4 and up. It’s a beautiful book and, of course, an important and heroic story, but I am not ready to tell my kids that people ever enslaved one another. My kids are still confused by yesterday, today, and tomorrow, let alone a long time ago. I guess I feel they’re new enough to the planet that I should try to give them a good impression of it for as long as possible. I won’t even let them read Bambi, because it doesn’t show us humans in a good light. Besides, they still believe Barney is real. I’m gonna hold off on letting them know the possible depths of human degredation — until at least next spring, if I can.