In my last entry I mentioned the key role that books can play in the lives of children. I’d like to follow that up here, officially adding the category of “children’s classics” to the “great literature” to which this website is devoted.There is artistry to many of the children’s stories that we remember fondly.
When you were a child, did you have a book that you had your parents read to you over and over? Or if you are a parent of small children, do you encounter these demands?I remember reading certain books to my own children 30 or 40 times before they tired of them.Often they had the entire book memorized, and if I tried to skip a page or a passage they would stop me and require me to read it.It was as though reading the book had become a ritual and nothing could be left out.
A ritual designed to do what?If one looks closely at the books that draw this or that child, one can figure out how they are helping children handle the challenges they face.Children understand, at some deep level, that they need the support provided by the book.Then, when they have absorbed the book’s wisdom and its comfort, they stop demanding that we read it to them.
I came across a study years ago claiming that children are this way about food as well.An experiment was conducted which released children into a cafeteria to eat all their meals.They could eat anything they wanted.Sometimes they would eat a single food for days on end (say, mashed potatoes).Then they would abruptly stop and switch to something else (corn, perhaps). At the end of some specified period, their choices were examined and it was discovered that, despite their seemingly erratic choices, they had achieved an overall nutritional balance.Instinctively they knew what their bodies needed.
There was a significant exception, however.If sweets were among their options, all bets were off.They would binge on those, and nutritional balance went out the window.
Try applying this model to reading.If children are let loose in a cafeteria of books (say, a library), they will seek out and find the stories they need.If they binge on Where the Wild Things Are, then that’s what they need at that moment.And maybe television and videogames and the internet are the equivalent of sweets, drawing their attention away from life-nourishing dramas.We as parents, then, have a responsibility to set certain parameters (say, strictly regulated television and internet consumption) so that our children’s healthy instincts can take over.
That’s what my parents did.As far as I know, I was the only child in Sewanee, Tennessee to grow up without a television in the 1950’s and 1960’s.Instead, my father read to my brothers and me every night.I did the same with my three sons until they were in their teens, although we finally surrendered to the culture and got a television when they were in middle school.They remain avid readers to this day.
In this blog I’ll periodically dip into interesting reading stories involving children’s books. Here is one to get it started.
Dr. Seuss’s Green Eggs and Ham is a universal favorite, and I got a better sense of the reasons why when one of my students (I’ll call him Stewart) wrote about it in his reading history.The story features a small creature named Sam-I-Am who pesters a large creature with demands that he eat a plate of green eggs and ham. “Would you eat them in a box/ Would you eat them with a fox?” And so on.Finally, worn out, the larger creature takes a bite and—surprise!—discovers, “Say! I like green eggs and ham!/ I do! I like them, Sam-I-Am.”
Anyone who has raised small children (or who remembers his or her own childhood) knows the power issues that can arise over food.With Stewart, the issues were exacerbated because he had severe food allergies.As a result, there were constant battles at the table as his parents tried to get him to eat unfamiliar foods.When Stewart demanded that his parents read him Green Eggs and Ham, he was both reliving and rewriting the drama.He was reliving the incessant pressure but also imagining a wonderful reversal of power roles: suddenly it is the smaller creature who is pestering the larger.
This power fantasy, however, is satisfying for only so long, just as a wild rumpus fantasy in Where the Wild Things Are or the messy house fantasy in Cat in the Hat have time limits.Ultimately the child wants to be reconciled with the parents.Therefore, Green Eggs and Ham ends with the happy resolution that generations of parents have promised their children: you’d like it if you’d only try it.The child accedes to parental authority in the end, only in this instance it looks as though the parent, the larger creature, is acceding.Thus Stewart could surrender while still maintaining his sense of himself as an independent creature allowed to make his own choices.
Of course, Green Eggs and Ham doesn’t only to appeal to children with food allergies, nor is it only about food.It is about power and powerlessness and accommodation, and children, as they are negotiating what it means to be beings with a sense of self, recognize this.Power issues erupt over food because it is sometimes one of the few areas where the child feels that he can exert his or her will.Listening to the book over and over helps children build up confidence in their emerging identity.
We, as adults, have our own issues around power and powerlessness. Green Eggs and Ham, however, is not a complex enough treatment to satisfy us.Certainly not after the tenth time reading it, and we may find ourselves going crazy with the 50th reading.Here’s a story of how I handled the boredom.
My oldest son, Justin, was born when I was in grad school, and the books he wanted to hear repeatedly included Maurice Sendak’s The Night Kitchen, Dr. Seuss’s Go Dog Go and One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish, and Al Perkins’ Hand, Hand, Fingers, Thumb.To keep myself entertained, as I read I began engaging in elaborate literary and psychological interpretations (which I kept to myself, of course).So, for anyone interested, I now have a theory about the polymorphously perverse pleasures offered by In the Night Kitchen, along with a masturbation subtext. (There’s a similar subtext in Hand, Hand, Fingers, Thumb.)Knowing what I know now, I could also have been asking myself why the book meant so much to Justin.As any parent knows, there’s room for your thoughts to wander when you have the book memorized.
One last aside.In the Night Kitchen has been controversial since its inception and, in the 1990’s, was 25th on the list of most challenged books, according to the American Library Association.This is probably because of the nudity of young Mickey.But kids don’t get hung up on that.Justin just knew that there was something marvelously sensual about ending up in a huge vat of dough and swimming in a large bottle of milk—and also of turning a dangerous situation into a triumph where he could imagine saving the day.If you want a good perspective on your desires, go back to the books that you loved as child. As Freud has noted, we never give up the pleasures we experienced when we were young.We just look for more sophisticated versions of them.