If you’re a mom, or even if you’re only an occasional babysitter, you’ve probably read “Goodnight Moon” to a sleepy youngster at bedtime. You probably find charming Margaret Brown’s classic illustrated story about a bunny who spends an hour saying good night to everything in the house and sky before finally falling asleep. Or how about Maurice Sendak’s “Where the Wild Things Are,” in which little Max in his footed sleeper suit wanders through a nightime dreamland of daunting but gentle monsters? Delightful, no?
Well, no — if you’re an intellectually elite parent like New Yorker staff writer Elizabeth Kolbert, the only person I have ever met in person or in print to describe “Goodnight Moon” as “brutal.” Yes, that’s the word Kolbert uses (she also informs us that Brown was a part-time lesbian who hated children — or maybe didn’t exactly hate them, but merely expected them to behave themselves in the presence of adults, an idea that is clearly anathema to Elizabeth Kolberrt).
Here is how Kolbert’s article on children’s picture books opens:
“A book read to a toddler who, after running around the house all day, has had to be stuffed, quite literally, into his pajamas, may traffic in imaginative freedom and wonder, but it is still an instrument of control. I will read this to you, and then you will go to sleep. End of story.
“The tension, or, if you prefer, bad faith implicit in this arrangement….”
Bad faith? Is there something wrong with putting your child to bed a night so both of you can get some much-needed sleep? In the world of Elizabeth Kolbert, children are noble savages — the littlest noble savages, and there is something deeply wrong with efforts by their parents to socialize them, civilize them, or instill in them habits of orderliness, including the simple concept that day is day and night is night and we do different things during each of those times. Such parental efforts inhibits children’s freedom, which is bad.
Kolbert thus divides children’s literature into two categories. The first is “protectionist” literature, which means anything that evokes a world of beauty, innocence, nobility, and moral order — all of which are a parental illusion that masks what life is really all about, which is, in Kolbert’s view, “control.” I take it that the protectionist category would include everything from “Snow White” through “Time Out for Ducklings” through “The Lord of the Rings.” And in Kolbert’s view, kids don’t really like protectionist literature, but adults think they ought to, so they foist it on them.
Then there’s what Kolbert calls the “permissive” category. That’s the stuff kids really go for, Kolbert assures us, because it’s most like what kids are really like: mocking, irreverent, and cruel, with a taste for the scatalogical and the physically disgusting. The ur-permissive book? The best-selling “Walter the Farting Dog.” So Kolbert writes admiringly of these two entries in the permissive category:
“On the cover of Terry Pratchett’s “Where’s My Cow?” (HarperCollins; $16.95) is an anatomically correct Holstein, seen from behind. Inside, a father reads to his son from a cutesy, pastel-colored picture book called “Where’s My Cow?,” by an author named Terry Pratchett. As this arrangement suggests, Pratchett’s story is a postmodern fable all about the protectionist/permissive conflict. Halfway through, the father has an epiphany. Why is his son learning about ‘moo-cows and baa-lambs?’ he wonders. ‘He is growing up in a city. He will only see them on a plate! They go sizzle!?’ At this point, the fluffy farm animals are replaced by hardened criminals, tubercular beggars, and peddlers pushing adulterated meats. Even so, the book ends with the boy sleeping soundly in his little blue crib.
“Lane Smith, who illustrated the by now canonical “The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales,” caters to kids’ desire to make fun of everything, including, naturally enough, stories for kids. His latest work, “John, Paul, George & Ben” (Hyperion; $16.99), a freewheeling parody of the patriotic children’s books that once made America great, is a portrait of the Founding Fathers as young brats. To create its faux-antiquarian effect, Smith makes use of parchment paper, Colonial typefaces, and portraits by John Singleton Copley and Gilbert Stuart. Ben is Benjamin Franklin, who even as a child ‘considered it his duty to provide frequent, free advice.’ Smith includes some genuine Franklinian aphorisms — ‘Three can keep a secret if two of them are dead’ — then allows the lad’s neighbors to deliver a saying especially for Ben: ‘Please shut your big yap!'”
Well, that’s nice: turn your children into snide, sarcastic little monsters who mock animals and patriotism. And of course it’s true that children can often be (and often are) nasty, cynical, ruthless, lazy, and rude — but isn’t it the job of adults to prod youngsters to see that such traits constitute the least attractive aspect of human nature, and that children ought perhaps to aspire to transcend what is easiest for all of us, being cruel instead of kind, selfish instead of selfless, ill-mannered instead of polite?
Furthermore, why is Kolbert so certain that children prefer “fairly stupid tales” to fairy tales and farting dogs to dogs who swim vast distances to save people’s lives? When I was a child, I was no saint, but I loathed the gross and ugly, and that included bathroom humor. I liked pretty things: flowers and princesses. My favorite book was “Anne of Green Gables.”
And there’s one more thing: How can Kolbert be so certain that books like “Goodnight Moon” are no more than “instruments of control?” Has it ever occurred to her that most young children find nighttime genuinely frightening, with is darkness and silence broken only by unfamiliar noises? They crave reassurances — that everything from the clock to the moon is in its famiiar place, and that their parents are sleeping just a few rooms away. Children, let’s face it, crave adult-supplied order. It’s reassuring, and one of the things of which it reassures them is that they, too, will be able eventually to take their place in the world of adults.
But of course, if you’re an intellectually elite parent like Elizabeth Kolbert, adulthood is a stifling prison. It’s “control.” And that’s why, in your mind, an enduring and beloved children’s classic such as “Goodnight Moon” is, in your words, “brutal.”