Jan 17, 2019–Over the holidays I sat down to read stories to my 3-year-old granddaughter. Unable to bear another round of Goodnight, Moon, I grabbed a volume of my Childcraft books from the 1950s. It fell open to Jack and The Beanstalk, so we started reading.
Oh my! I’d forgotten how violent and gritty the Grimms and their ilk were. It was like a Scorsese script. It starts with the revelation that the Giant murdered Jack’s father and seized all his property, then threatened to kill the widow if she ever told her son what happened.
After making a bad bargain and enduring a browbeating from his own mother, the “lazy and extravagant” lad climbed the steroidal beanstalk and trespassed three times, putting the Giant’s wife at risk of being killed, though all the Giant did was beat her and send her to bed without food. Of course, after Jack stole the hen, the gold, and the talking harp (who in this version looks strikingly like Harpo Marx), the brave boy chopped down the stalk, sending the Giant plummeting to his own violent death amid the rutabagas in their backyard garden.
As I reacquainted myself with other offerings from the Brothers Grimm, the sordid side of life reared again and again. The fisherman’s wife grew besotted with greed, until she was relegated back to her seaside ditch. Billy Goat Gruff impaled the Troll and dumped his body into the rushing river. In the original Three Little Pigs, the wolf ate both of the architecturally challenged shoats, while the third pig boiled the wolf and “ate him for supper.” Talk about your happy, conflicted ending.
Our children’s literature has grown as thin as the gruel they fed Cinderella. It became apparent as we watched an updated Dr. Seuss series about the Cat and the Hat. I remember the original book where The Cat was one bad cat to clean after. He invades the home when mom goes out and leaves the two kids alone (which would get her arrested today). He proceeds to break every rule, destroy the house, and create chaos. In other words, have fun.
In the new versions, The Cat apparently is no longer a tom.
The story opens with two wimpy kids struggling with some first world crisis, such as not being able to wrap a present (really), or eating up the last piece of chocolate.
The Cat magically pops up. But he is not the disruptive anarchist that appears in the original story. No, he is the facilitator who is going to take them on a journey to show how chocolate is made. I watched in growing horror as the plot unfolded like a PTA-approved after-school special.
The meddling feline doesn’t just jump on a precarious bicycle balancing a goldfish bowl on his head. No, this Cat in the Hat reminds both kids to get permission from their mothers. Then, before the Thing-a-ma-jig sets off, he makes them put on their helmets and buckle their seat belts, while he adjusts his mirrors and signals to merge into traffic.
After their educational adventure, everyone shares what they learned, making sure to say thank you. Even Thing 1 and Thing 2 seem to have lost their two things.
It’s so bad it makes me like the original Dr Seuss, which I don’t like.
After coaxing my granddaughter away from this pap to do something more interesting–like gluing sticks on paper–it struck me why these new versions of childhood classics offended me.
It’s not only that they offer nothing challenging or engaging. It’s that there is no danger.
My Mother Goose was filled with horrible episodes. Old Mother Hubbard’s cupboard was bare. Jack and Jill broke their crowns. Peter kept his wife in a pumpkin shell. For Peter Pan, Captain Hook was an existential threat. As a teen I still couldn’t watch parts of The Wizard of Oz.
I wonder if we are denying our children an important part of childhood. A vital purpose of these stories is to allow kids to vicariously experience fear.
The true magic of children’s literature is letting the protagonist face danger, and overcome it using a skill or trait or just perseverance.
I don’t think we are doing our kids any favors when we deprive them of that opportunity.