When you have a baby, you imagine reading to them, snuggled up in a rocking chair, sharing beloved stories. And it’s like that, in the early days, when your baby is an adorable casing for unpredictable bodily fluids that stares at you lovingly. But way too soon, your little one will start having opinions and you will no longer be president of your two-person book club. Once that happens, you will find yourself able to recite all the words to “Tyrannoclaus” (he’s the dinosaur Santa) and wondering how the hell that book even got into your house. And after the 600th or 700th reading of your child’s favorite tomes, you will start thinking far too much about these books, realizing that even cherished children’s classics are filled with questionable lessons and criminally bad parenting.
Of all disturbing tropes in children’s books, the most common is neglect. Sure, many of these books were written when people had children for the free labor and tried not to get too attached because you were bound to lose a few along the way, but we are somehow still reading them today, in the era of calling the police on any parent not in perpetual physical contact with their offspring.
In Robert McCloskey’s “Blueberries for Sal,” the mother takes adorable little preschool-aged Sal blueberry-picking. Sal sucks at it, as small children generally do with anything involving delayed gratification, so Sal’s mother leaves Sal on the side of a hill so she can take care of business. Mom is so busy blueberry-picking and fantasizing about canning, she doesn’t even notice that the kid has been replaced by a bear. What makes this story absolutely horrifying is not Sal and Mom’s near-maulings, but the fact that when Mom finds Sal there is no tearful hug as she promises never to leave her toddler alone on Blueberry Hill again. No, the mother goes back to picking blueberries, as Sal surely told her therapist over and over again 30 years later.
“Good Dog, Carl” by Alexandra Day ups the ante by adding troubling pet ownership to bad parenting. The mother leaves the baby with the family Rottweiler, which would be super illegal in Maryland, but would probably be overlooked as long as the dog isn’t a pit bull. Carl—who, again, is a dog—takes the baby out of the crib and proceeds to do a series of things with him/her that range from naughty—playing with Mommy’s makeup—to potentially lethal—dropping the kid in the fish tank and letting it slide down the laundry chute. Fortunately, the baby tumbles into a hamper of fluffy clothes rather than the two shirts on a cement floor at the end of most laundry chutes. Carl and the baby also make a meal of choking hazards and dog toxins—grapes and chocolate—because all the pressure of interspecies babysitting has given poor Carl a death wish.
Some books skew the opposite direction. These are the “the whole world actually does revolve around you” books. Listen, your toddler is already totally convinced he or she is the center of the universe. In fact, one of your hardest parenting jobs is convincing your precious butterfly-rainbow-unicorn that this isn’t true. If you do a really good job your kid may learn this lesson sometime around his 25th birthday. If you’re not, you’ll be calling his boss when he’s 40 to ask why Jayden didn’t get that promotion.
“On the Night You Were Born,” by Nancy Tillman tells your children that everyone and everything stopped just to freak out about their specialness at the moment they were ejected from a uterus and instructs kids to see everyday occurrences as proof that they are the chosen one. I’m sorry, but a flock of geese in the sky should not be considered sufficient proof you’re the messiah. Shel Silverstein’s “The Giving Tree” suggests that it’s appropriate for people who love you to destroy themselves to meet your every whim. (“And the tree was happy.” Seriously? Because being a sad little stump with a crappy old man sitting on it is just bliss?) If the message is really don’t take people for granted, it is way too subtle for children, who think standing in the middle of the room with their eyes closed is a viable hide-and-seek strategy.
Let’s move on to mind games. In Sam McBratney’s “Guess How Much I Love You,” a little hare tries to tell his daddy how much he loves him and the dad turns it into an epic pissing contest, constantly one-upping the kid. He even has to get in the last word after the kid falls asleep, smug bastard. “The Monster at the End of this Book,” by Jon Stone, is the children’s literature version of the Milgram experiment (that’s the one where the scientist convince their subjects to fake-electrocute people). Lovable, furry old Grover is afraid of the monster at the end of the book. He begs the reader not to turn the page because he is so terrified, but you turn the page anyway. Not only that, in order to make the narrative work, you have to convince your sweet little munchkin to turn the page over and over again despite Grover’s increasing distress. What the fuck is wrong with us? Why are we teaching our children to terrorize loved ones? (Yes, we love Grover. If you don’t love Grover, you’re the monster.)
So what’s a parent to do? Try “I am a Bunny” by Ole Risom, in which a little bunny named Nicholas just loves life and appreciates nature, all depicted beautifully by Richard Scarry’s illustrations. If your kid hates it, read it to yourself before you go to bed. It’s the perfect antidote to whatever unspeakable children’s fable your tot is torturing you with these days.