My Favorite Children’s Books — In Retrospect by
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Prompted By Children's Books

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To respond to this prompt, I asked myself what was my favorite book to read as a kid and what was my favorite book to read to my daughters.  And quickly came up with the answer to both.  “And to Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street” for the former and “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” for the latter.  No question about either.  But then I also realized that, in different ways, my current perspective of both books has significantly changed.  Let me share my thinking on these books briefly below.

I wrote about “Mulberry Street”  in a RetroFlash just a few months ago, setting forth my current discomfort with it.  Since it’s (obviously) short, here it is again:

When I read as a kid

I loved most Dr. Seuss.

His words opened new worlds

They just set me loose.

 

And his pictures – oh my!

They so captured his rhymes.

As I met these new creatures

Just so many times.

 

And my favorite by far

Was “Mulberry Street.”

And all that Marco had seen

I would often repeat.

 

But times they do change

And we must as well.

That which was fine as a kid

May be offensive as hell.

 

And so in the case

Of the “Chinaman” there,

What was just funny then

We now simply can’t bear.

 

And here again is the book’s cover and the offensive image of the “Chinaman” in it:

 

Moreover, it turns out that Dr. Seuss’s anti-Asian racism was not limited to “Mulberry Street.”   And this was so even though he had very enlightened views as to anti-Semitism and other forms of prejudice. This odd conundrum is addressed in this linked article.  So, it is difficult to ascribe his bigotry simply to the widespread anti-Japanese sentiment in the US in the 1940’s and 1950’s; it transcended that.  And yet, Dr. Seuss and his books were still wonderful beacons in so many other ways. So its very tough to reconcile all of these contradictions.

As to “The Lion…,” here is its original cover:

I loved reading this book (and its sequels) to my daughters.  And, though I knew that C.S. Lewis, its author, was a lay Christian theologian, I always blithely assumed  that “The Lion….” was just a cool fairy tale adventure mainly about three young siblings who discovered that the back of a  bedroom wardrobe opened into a mystically kingdom ruled by a benevolent lion named Aslan.  In the course of the story, Aslan is killed, but then comes magically back to life —  which was not something unheard of for heroes in fairy tales.  Thus, the possibility that Aslan might be a symbolic Jesus figure and his story a re-telling of the Resurrection of Christ never occured to me, and I certainly never suggested anything of the sort to my girls.

But about four years ago, I was listening to the comedian Gary Gulman on satellite radio and, in this routine, he pointed out my incredible theological myopia:

Aslan, the lion…

The most obvious Christ figure
in the history of literature.

I called it in fifth grade,
and I’m a Jew.

When we got to the part
in The Lion, Witch, Wardrobe

where Aslan dies,

and the kids were weeping.

They were so distraught.

And I remember,

I was so cool, I said,

“Hold your tears.

If this goes
where I think it’s going,

he’ll be back on Sunday.”

And sure enough…”

(emphasis mine)

The light finally went on for slow group moi.  So, the next time I saw my daughters (now in their 30’s), I asked them if they ever knew who Aslan was supposed to be.  To which they replied, in effect, “Well, we figured it out a few years after you read it to us and always wondered why our nominally Jewish/agnostic father chose to read us a Christian allegory and then never even explained it to us.”  I had to admit to them — and not for the first time —  that I had simply been clueless.

But that got me wondering if I would have chosen to read this story to my daughters if I did know its underlying meaning at the time.  And the answer is that I just don’t know.  I am not a Christian and don’t have much patience for “miracles” –what I consider to be the inexplicable magic in any religion — and I view the Resurrection as just such magic. On the other hand, “The Lion….” is still a really good story and I certainly have no problem with a benevolent protagonist like Aslan.  And the fact that he comes back to life and everyone is happy — including my children when I read it to them —  makes it a particularly nice story for young children who can often be so afraid of death.  So, as with “Mulberry Street,”  I just dunno….

In considering this question further when writing this story, I concluded that the best test of both “Mulberry Street” and “The Lion…” was whether I would want  my grandchildren to read or have them read to them.  And, in turn, an important component of this test would be to seek my daughters’ views as well, since we’re obviously talking about their kids here.  But, as much as I was tempted to ask them, I resisted the impulse.  They are both still unmarried and childless.  And I knew with near-absolute certainty that any such question would be viewed by them as simply a pretext by their Jewish motherly father to pry into the very delicate question of whether they ever planned to have children.  (I may be clueless as to New Testament subtexts, but I am not a complete idiot.)  As a result, much as I would have liked to, I’ve not asked my daughters about this.

But I nonetheless do have at least one takeaway from this whole exercise in revisiting early childhood stories. Simply put, and as with so many other things, it’s complicated.  Conversely, I know that there are very few people or things to whom I can give my unconditional love.  Most importantly, my two daughters.  And probably salted caramel ice cream.  As to children’s stories, as per my featured image, I think I’ll just play it safe here and go with the delightfully subversive “Fractured Fairy Tales” turned out by those geniuses who also created “Rocky and Bullwinkle.

Profile photo of John Shutkin John Shutkin


Characterizations: funny, well written

Comments

  1. As always John you can’t rest your honest and analytic brain and always give us food for thought!

    I’m on the fence about Dr Seuss, but would hate to dump the baby with the dishwater . And the Narnia books were beloved in our (very Jewish-minded). home.

    And altho it was no secret that CS Lewis was a Christian theologian, maybe for kids a lion is just a lion!

  2. Laurie Levy says:

    Thank you for sharing that fascinating link about Dr. Seuss’s bias against the Japanese and thus, his offensive depiction of Asians. In retrospect, I feel badly that I read these books to my half-Korean grandkids. Like you, I was clueless about The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Since I read Mulberry Street to all of my grandkids and their parents loved The Lion, I guess I did repeat the same politically incorrect error with them.

  3. Khati Hendry says:

    Looking at old stories through modern eyes reveals a host of messages and biases that beg to be corrected, and yet the stories can still be compelling. I liked the Mulberry Street story in part because I lived next to a very busy street named “Millbrook”, and confounded the two in my five year old mind. Everything seemed “exotic” and the caricature of a Chinese person went over my head—my parents had met each other in China and always talked about how much they had loved the place and people. Thanks for the Fractured Fairytale reference—Rocky and Bullwinkle show was terrific.

  4. Very thought provoking essay, John. I hope some day (maybe you can see the whole thing on the Web) you will read The Clown of God by Tomie DePaola. This is clearly a Christian story, but one that I absolutely love and would share with any child. (Based on an old French folk tale.).

    A few years ago (before the Seuss controversy), I gave a workshop on my campus. The title of my session was, “Though he always held true to his cadence and rhymes/The great Dr. Seuss could be racist at times.” It drew over 100 participants, and one of them brought up the case of R. Kelly, which I knew nothing about back then. Anyway, in spite of it all, I am still a Dr. Seuss fan. The best from a social justice perspective may be Yertle the Turtle. For pure rhymes and word play, I still love McElligot’s Pool.

    • John Shutkin says:

      Thanks, Dale. I’ll definitely have to read “The Clown of God” — entirely new to me. And much enjoy your take on Seuss books. Completely agree about Yertle — only now he would be orange, not green, and named Donald.

  5. Marian says:

    A very perceptive take on separating the author and the subtext from stories, John. I guess a good story can survive underlying prejudices and points of view. I loved the Chronicles of Narnia because it was so imaginative, and with Christianity being so dominant in Western culture, by not being a Christian I was less distracted by the symbolism, although by the time I was in my teens I knew it was there. And thanks for the memories of Fractured Fairy Tales–they were a family favorite.

    • John Shutkin says:

      Thanks, Marian. To say I was not distracted by the Christian sympolism in Narnia is, of course, an understatement. But maybe I am happier for my obtuseness, even if my daughters tease me about it.

      And delighted that, like Khati, you remembered Fractures Fairy Tales. One is never too young for satire, right? And, as you may recall, they were narrated — delghtfully — by Edward Everett Horton.

  6. Suzy says:

    I never read the Narnia books, but I’m sure if I had, I would have missed the Christian symbolism too. I think my kids did read those books, but not until they were old enough to read them on their own. I don’t know what they thought about Aslan, I guess I should ask them.

    I still love Dr. Seuss, and would read his books to a grandchild if I ever had one. As Dana tries to say, don’t throw the baby out with the bath water. Maybe a few of his books need to go, but the rest are invaluable.

  7. Betsy Pfau says:

    So happy to be reminded of Fractured Fairy Tales (yes, narrated by Edward Everett Horton – who can forget that voice); those were the best. We all loved those in this household! And thank you for the thoughtful insights into the other two authors. Time gives us new perspectives on beloved works by long-dead authors. Do we “cancel” everyone or learn and grow, as the Suess estate did? I was a big fan of “Cat in the Hat”, but didn’t read many of his other texts until my own children came along. They were fun and we didn’t dig too deeply (Jeffrey’s after-school group acted out “Horton Hears a Who”; pretty cute).

    I never read the C.S. Lewis books to my kids, but Jeffrey was a fan and read all of them himself. We did see the movie (Liam Neeson voiced Aslan). It wasn’t until I saw the 1993 movie “Shadowlands” that I realized Lewis was a Christian theologian and considered the Narnia trilogy to be a Christian metaphor. I saw “Shadowlands” on TV, so long after it was released (no streaming services in those days). I doubt Jeffrey saw Narnia as anything other than a good fantasy story.

  8. Dave Ventre says:

    Being a fan of an artist with a less than stellar personality trait (or two. Or ten!) is problematic. I grew up loving the stories of H.P. Lovecraft; it was only when I was a bit older that I noticed the racism and xenophobia implicit in much of his work. And older still when I learned that it was so pervasive that the excuse that “he just reflected his era” won’t wash; many of his contemporaries thought he was nuts on the topic.

    But you can’t go wrong with Rocky, Bullwinkle and the Fractured Fairy Tales!

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