“In the great green room…”
- first line of Goodnight, Moon by Margaret Wise Brown
There is fine dining along the interstate of children’s literature, but for the most part it’s a quick trip to a fast food joint. The food comes in two unseemly flavors. The first is overly sugary claptrap filled with cute talking animals who try to teach valuable lessons such as sharing is good and hitting your little sister with a frying pan is bad. The second is annoyingly realistic slice of life stories that flow like MTV videos and teach bad behavior.
An example of the former is the Arthur series featuring a cloying “nice” aardvark and his posse of “hip” animal friends. The simpleminded books gave way to a TV series, which begat lunchboxes, coloring books, t-shirts and on and on and on. The Arthur stories are so commercially driven at this point – so bland in everyway imaginable – that you can die of a sugar overdose just touching one.
Arthur and his ilk (Clifford, Dora the Explorer, etc.) are multimedia extra value meals so intent on teaching cliché platitudes to sell more DVDs and plastic toys that they forget about the basics, like interesting characters, compelling narrative, and plot. Introduce Arthur to your kids and get ready for a marketing bulldozer to barrel over your household.
Then there is the second type of children’s book, best illustrated by the Olivia series. Olivia is a pig who exhibits extremely poor behavior. Her father is a detached sycophant who excels at bribing Olivia while her mother is an exhausted overachiever who seems unable to utter the word “no.” Olivia is a demon seed. When she wants anything from her parents – she demands it by screaming.
Olivia and her friends (Contrary Mary, etc.) come from the realism school – showing parents who don’t know how to parent that they aren’t alone. You’ve met these people before at playgrounds, parties or commuting on the bus. There’re the ones with the mercurial 3-year-olds who get lectures about doing the right thing rather than stern rebukes for bad behavior.
These books make appalling behavior endearing. So when Olivia’s mother says to her that she loves her daughter despite “wearing her out” we’re all supposed to smile warmly and think, “Oh, that pesky Olivia!” When, in fact, Olivia’s mother needs counseling and Olivia a visit from a professional British nanny with a cruel streak. Read your children enough Olivia and watch their behave change – for the worst.
Then there is Margaret Wise Brown.
Brown is that small French bistro off the interstate. The building is a bit worn, but the food! Fresh ingredients prepared by a master chef. Brown’s books invigorate the soul. Brown is best known for three of the best children’s books ever written – Runaway Bunny, Little Fur Family, and Goodnight Moon (as well of dozens of others).
Why is Brown so good? Because she’s a writer first – choosing her language with the deft of a poet. She condescends to her audience, but instead creates stories that respect the intelligence and imagination of her readers – even if they are five and six year olds. Her stories are vibrant and original; never pandering. That’s why you can pick up Goodnight Moon over and over again and still revel in the beauty of it. Try reading Olivia more than five times and you’re ready to cook a pig over a fire pit and eat it with your bare hands.
Brown understands the needs and desires of modern children – despite the fact that she died in 1952. Even more tragic was that Brown was 42 years old, recently engaged to marry a Rockefeller, and by all accounts at the top of her game. She died from complications related to appendicitis in Nice, France while on a book tour.
There’s no telling what a writer of Brown’s considerable talents could have accomplished had she survived. Fortunately for parents, we are left with a legacy of beautifully written children’s books. Take this wonderful passage from Little Fur Family and you’ll see what I mean:
“It was a wild wild wood. Wild flowers grew all over the ground and wild winds blew through the air. Wild nuts fell from wild nut trees and wild grass tickled the fur child’s nose, tickled his nose and made him sneeze… Kerchoo!”
Fine dining indeed.
Read about How Robert Cormier Radicalized Teen Literature here
Labels: literature, Maragret Wise Brown