Now, while the blogosphere is burning up with responses to Kristof’s “best books for kids”, I think it’s time to post a little essay I wrote, back when Betsy was paying attention to our best loved picture books.
Enjoy!Â Respond!Â Criticize! Tell me what you think! And when I get back in a few days, I’ll have some quotes from folks you know, about the books they loathe the most!
The Worst Books of All Time!
Recently, I conducted an informal survey on my blog, asking readers to name a beloved picture book that they absolutely hate.Â Because thatâ€™s the kind of person I am. I enjoy seeing sacred cows burned.
And while it didnâ€™t surprise me that many of my readers hated the same books, I was surprised to discover that three of the most despised books in the history of classic childrenâ€™s literature share a common theme.
Each of these horrible books is detested for the same reason, for artfully describing what Iâ€™ll call overlove.Â Each is about a parent (or a tree) who cannot separate themselves from their child.Â Each depicts an adult who cannot live beyond or outside their children, who cannot set healthy boundaries.
By now, youâ€™ve correctly guessed at least one of the terrible titles.Â And maybe youâ€™re nodding your head, and thinking, â€œYes, yesâ€”that book is over the top. Itâ€™s almost creepy, really.â€
And in theoryâ€”as you chuckle you might agree with my basic premise: that our discomfort with such books is related to our discomfort with our own over-parenting culture.Â Because sure, the world is complicated, and weâ€™re inundated with scary stories about toxins and bird flus and child abductions and the rising cost of college and so on.Â Â And itâ€™s hard to watch our kids grow, and leave, and we only want the best for them.Â But still, we wish we could lighten up and let the kids run loose a little more.
Olly olly ox and free!
But hereâ€™s whatâ€™s most interesting to meâ€”since I began this project, whenever I talk to people about the three horrible books, I find that though everyone dislikes the idea of over-parenting, and though everyone hates at least one of the books, most people also love one of them.
People who find the Giving Tree a good model for a doormat, and who also think the mother in I Love You for Ever is aÂ felon, love The Runaway Bunny.Â Though friends who think Mama Bunny is dominating and oppressive will argue all day that The Giving Tree is simply about generosity.Â And so forth.
WhichÂ begs the questionâ€”what kind of overlover are you?
Are you a Giving Treeâ€”unable to say no, to draw lines, to put your own needs before the needs of a child, even a grown child?Â Â â€œOh, honey, noâ€”just take the money Iâ€™ve been saving for my vacation to Greece and buy yourself a car. Have a nice time!â€
Are you the mom from I Love You Foreverâ€”who cannot handle her childâ€™s growing independence, but is unable to be honest about her own need for a place in his life?Â â€œNo, that fine, sweetie.Â I donâ€™t mind that you never tell me anything about your personal life. I can always stalk you on Facebook if I need to know whatâ€™s going on.â€
Or are you Mama Bunnyâ€”domineering and restrictive, convinced that your own presence is what keeps your child from harm.Â â€œDear me, no.Â I would never let the babysitter drive Bobby anywhere. Who knows what might happen!â€
I will tell you that for me, this little exercise was tricky.Â As a sacred cow-burner, I wanted to loathe all three of these books.Â I wanted to. But in fact I donâ€™t.
Iâ€™ll admit it.Â I think the mom in I Love you Forever is a psychoâ€”â€œBut sometimes on dark nights the mother got into her car and drove across town.Â If all the lights in her son’s house were out, she opened his bedroom window, crawled across the floor, and looked up over the side of his bed. â€œ
And I think Mama Bunny is an absolute control freakâ€” “If you become a fish in a trout stream,â€ said his mother,. â€œI will become a fisherman and I will fish for you.â€
Fish for him?Â Like, with a hook?
But as much as I want to hate it, in my honest memories, I only remember The Giving Tree as a sweet book about unconditional love.Â A book about a parent who never forgot their kid at the bus stop.Â Â Who always had time to listen.
Now I canâ€™t help mulling the question over each night.Â As a grownup will, I think critically about the books I read with my kids, and see them through the eyes of an adult, a parent, a self-aware creature of therapy.Â I analyze our choices, and question what they say about us.
Each night, as I settle down in pajamas, with teeth brushed and songs sung, and my own darling child reaches for his very favorite bookâ€”
I wonder just how Iâ€™m messing him up.Â Bowlful of mush indeed!
(***Note– Rainbow Fish was a very close runner up, and I think it suffers from a very related emotional issue/ lack of boundaries. But it didn’t get quite as many votes, so I didn’t include it here)