Bad Children’s Books are Worse in Verse

My pre-literate kids pick out some excellent books at the library that I would have overlooked; the “Mr. Putter and Tabby” series is sweet without being sappy (and features an elderly man as the protagonist, which I find refreshing), and The Perfect Pumpkin Pie is delightful in a grotesque, Dahlish fashion. (It starts with a grumpy old man dying of stroke before he can eat his pie.) They also select some real stinkers; the latest bomb cluttering up our counter is I Saw Santa in Washington, D.C.

The premise is mildly interesting. Santa vacations in D.C. and is seen by various children at Washington landmarks. The book has, however, several deficiencies: It appears to have been illustrated by someone who’s never actually visited D.C.; the “map” has Capitol Hill next to the National Cathedral, the National Mall is wayyy too far north of the Potomac, and I don’t even know what various of the buildings are supposed to be. Santa spends most of his trip shopping, there are dinosaur exhibits at the Air and Space Museum, and instead of showing things like the National Gallery, Archives, Washington Monument, or other popular D.C. destinations Santa goes to Six Flags America.

But the reason I have banned the children from bringing me this abominable execration is that it is in verse, and truly wretched verse at that. Sample:

“‘It’s true,’ Santa says. ‘Washington, D.C. has it all:

great sights, tasty bites, fun times great and small.'”

Ugh. Search as you will for any discernible meter or rhythm. Feel how the hackneyed rhymes (“all” vs “great and small”) stumble off your tongue. The authors are so inept at poetry that sometimes they can’t even think of a proper rhyme, and make “plans” rhyme with “firsthand,” and “disguise” with “outside.” Santa’s dialogue is stilted because it is cast into this ridiculous doggerel.

In contrast, let’s look at a mediocre book in prose–Thomas’ Christmas Delivery. This features Thomas the Train delivering packages around the island of Sodor, and in plot and characterization it is unmemorable. The drawings are competently done, though the humans have a rather sinister woodenness that makes them look like they belong in a Twilight Zone episode; still, this book is perfectly tolerable to read. Here’s some sample text:

“Suddenly there was a shout. Mrs. Kyndley had slipped on the snowy walk and dropped a bowl of cranberry sauce. She was not hurt. In fact, she looked very funny covered in sticky red goo from head to toe. She laughed along with everyone else.”

It’s a bit appalling that the book promotes laughing at an older woman who’s slipped and spilled cranberry sauce all over herself, but there is no painful, forced rhyme with which to torture the adult reader.

Rhyme is, of course, much used in children’s books, and it can be very effective. Sandra Boynton’s books have bouncy, cheery rhymes that make them great fun to read and to listen to. The build-up to the climax in But Not the Hippopotamus lends a sense of urgency and excitement:

“Now the hog and the frog hurry out for a jog

with the cat and the rats in their new running hats,

while the moose and the bear and the goose and the hare

are doing their best to keep up with the rest–

But not the hippopotamus.”  (I try to read the text in as even a pace as I can and take a breath after “rest.”)

“Then the animal pack comes scurrying back,

saying, ‘Hey! Come join the lot of us!’

And she just doesn’t know–should she stay? Should she go?

But YES the hippopotamus!

(But not the armadillo.)” (My voice builds to a crescendo until I’m fairly shouting “But YES the hippopotamus,” and then I revert to a quiet voice for “But not the armadillo.”)

This is rhyme as it’s meant to be–consistent, easy to follow, assisting the story every bit as much as the pictures and diction do. When it works, it makes children’s books very enjoyable to read. It can lend simple words a kind of quiet grandeur, as in Goodnight Moon; it can set a mood or help children memorize the words as they follow along.

However, if you’re an author writing a children’s book and you aren’t comfortable with verse, I beg you to forego it and write in prose. You can turn out a perfectly reasonable mediocre book in prose–see the countless Curious George sequels, which are utterly formulaic–but a mediocre children’s book in bad verse becomes an execration.

 

My Middle Child’s WikiHow on Going to Bed

  1. Trash the family room you’ve just cleaned up. Clean up your mess extra slowly.
  2. Bring a book to your adult. Ask to be read to.
  3. Repeat Step 2 as many times as your adult will allow. A few extra pages or books can usually be squeezed out of the adult with an adorably lugubrious expression. Be careful not to whine, however.
  4. It is now time to brush your teeth. Ask your adult to carry you up because you’re too tired to walk.
  5. If the adult does not comply, it is possible to roll upstairs. Flail your arms and legs for maximum dramatic effect.
  6. Be unable to locate the toothpaste and toothbrush. There is usually time for hijinks with siblings before your adult finds your dental hygiene items.
  7. Brush your teeth very quickly and sloppily. This is actually an effective delay technique, because the time you spend listening to your adult’s remonstrances and reluctantly re-doing your brushing is considerably longer than if you just did a good job the first time. Your adult should help you with your brushing, but make sure that you jerk around like a hummingbird with a seizure.
  8. Go to the bathroom.
  9. Ask for a drink.
  10. Spill your drink.
  11. Ask for another drink. (Note: Some adults preemptively bring up sippy cups or closed water bottles; in this case, losing the drink in the crevices of your bed may be substituted for Steps 8 and 9.)
  12. Get into pajamas. Protest they’re scratchy, too small, too big, too warm, too cold, or have the wrong pattern.
  13. Get into bed. Play pretend with your adult.
  14. Ask for another story.
  15. Ask for a song.
  16. Ask for another song.
  17. Bring up a Serious Topic such as mortality, bullying, finances, or other potentially worrisome and complicated subject.
  18. Give and get hugs and kisses from your adult.
  19. Insist that the first set of hugs and kisses didn’t take. Give and get another.
  20. Wail that you’re lonely/scared/sick as your adult leaves.
  21. Your adult will finally leave. Time to bang on things, sing, have epic robot battles, shoot your wall, or do other restful activities.
  22. Practice an injured look and hurt tone for when your adult yells at you to be quiet and go to sleep.
  23. Pass out on the edge of your bed.
  24. Fall out of bed, develop a bloody nose, vomit, have a nightmare, or wake up bored at 2:00 AM. Your adults will welcome the opportunity to spend more quality time with you.
  25. Sleep until 6:00 AM, when you can put everyone in a cheerful mood by singing hymns at the top of your lungs.

Every Child Needs Someone Who Thinks the Sun Shines Out of Their Every Orifice

“Hurrah!” I cried as my 3-year-old proudly showed me the poop in his potty. “Good boy! You did such a good job!” I tried not to retch as I wiped him and cleaned up his potty. “You are such a big boy!” My son grinned from ear to ear, then did a little self-congratulatory dance with his pants around his ankles. It was almost cute enough to make up for the grossness. Almost.

Successful potty training is pretty disgusting, but accidents are worse. I do not like cleaning these up. When they occur I try not to express my revulsion at dealing with the soiled clothes. Instead, I matter-of-factly say, “You’ll get it next time, sweetheart.” And they do, sooner or later.

My reaction to my kids’ pooping and peeing is at once fake and genuine. Yucky substances are still yucky even when they come from our beloved children, and I don’t really think that peeing in a toilet is a unique, magical event that shows how magnificent my kids are. I do not, for instance, congratulate my spouse when he goes to the bathroom. I am, however, truly delighted and thrilled when I see my kids progressing toward independence and being able to do something they have not been able to do before. First words, first steps, first successful grab at a toy, first time sitting up, first drawing, etc really are momentous–and so are days without potty accidents.

But any parent with the least amount of common sense ought to realize that his feelings are very specific to his place as his child’s parent. Most consider it in poor taste to post pictures of what comes out of our offspring’s butts; other people should not be expected to share our enthusiasm for our children’s advances in potty training. Mastering a bodily function is important, but it isn’t quite as uncommon or worthy of laud as, say, making a scientific discovery. I have more than once scrolled through my Facebook feed and wished people would remember this.

And when we say that someone thinks the sun shines out of So-and-So’s backside, we generally mean that they have a contemptibly unrealistic and elevated view of So-and-So. We’ve all met parents who describe their spoiled brats as “spirited” or their bossypants spawn as “natural leaders,” and we roll our eyes at the parents’ refusal to see their children’s flaws. Such refusal is harmful to the children, because without a sense of their kids’ weaknesses their parents cannot give them the guidance they need to grow up combating those weaknesses. This is at least as bad as not teaching kids how to deal with money or do laundry, because it can affect their relationships throughout their whole lives.

But it is good for parents to rejoice over each successful milestone in a manner befitting the reception of an athlete who’s just won an Olympic event. How they express such joy depends on the parents’ culture and personality, but it is every child’s right to have someone love them enough to cheer them on when they go in the toilet. In that sense, it is entirely fitting for parents to think the sun shines out of their children’s every orifice.

Three Ho-Ho-Ho’s for Santa

At the extended family Christmas party, my daughter sat on Santa’s lap for the very first time.

“I was okay with it, because I know it was really Uncle P,” she told me comfortably. “I don’t understand why my friend at school believes in Santa; she’s pretty smart.”

My 4-year-old screeched, “That sounds like Uncle P” when Santa came down from the bedroom and said “Ho, ho, ho.”

Luckily, nobody noticed their outbursts. I didn’t want them to spoil the secret of Santa for other kids in the family, or at my daughter’s school; but the truth is that the ones who would be most upset that my older two don’t believe in Santa are the adults around them. Last year, my nearly-four-year-old son believed fervently in Santa, loved him, and thoroughly enjoyed the magic of Christmas. This year, after my daughter whispered to my son that Santa didn’t exist, my son immediately accepted this and still loves Santa and thoroughly enjoys the magic of Christmas. It’s true he didn’t stare creepily at the Santa at the firehouse all through our pancake breakfast this year (which is probably for the best), but he did smile and cuddle on Santa’s lap and have a wonderful time.

My youngest child has just turned 3 and isn’t yet aware that there’s a distinction between fiction and reality. His older siblings alternated between elaborately and exaggeratedly playing into the Santa thing in front of him, and telling each other within his hearing that it was really their parents who brought all the presents. (Not true. Their grandparents brought most of the “Santa” gifts.)

I’ve never lied to my kids about the existence of a magic fat guy flying around the world delivering impossible numbers of gifts. Now that two of them are avowed aSantists, I’ve been freed to join in the game with enthusiasm, munching on carrots for the reindeer and leaving thank-you notes for the zucchini bread. (Yes, zucchini bread; I was too tired to make cookies, and Santa said it was a nice change anyway. So there.) I don’t have to worry about sending conflicting messages or undermining my trustworthiness as a parent, but I get to do all the fun Santa things that I’ve been looking forward to doing ever since I was too old to be on the receiving end of these games.

Jesus is the Reason for the Season, and we celebrated the incarnation of our Lord with many hymns, Bible readings, prayers, and church services. I think, however, that it is not wrong to enjoy the material trappings of the holiday–dinners and cookies, presents and cards, visits with family and time off from work and school; fun with gingerbread houses and with Santa. The love we express through these things and activities is real and true and honors the season. I say with Dickens that “it is good to be children sometimes, and never better than at Christmas, when its mighty Founder was a child Himself.”

Gingerbread Houses

I’m not sure whether gingerbread houses are about the journey or the destination. What is the destination, after all? A beautiful display, or the happy filling of sugar-hungry stomachs? Fresh, perfectly baked gingerbread that’s quickly been shaped into a house is delicious, especially when accompanied with some coffee, but overcooked gingerbread that’s been sitting for several hours makes for much sturdier, easier-to-shape houses.

Certainly the process of making gingerbread houses is intermittently fun, and teaches valuable lessons about patience, following directions, measuring carefully, problem solving, and other Good Life Lessons I can’t be bothered to enumerate. It also provides Family Bonding and Festive Memories and other Feel-Good Things. It provides a nice metaphor for parenting small children; the parent must spend lots of time doing careful, boring work so that the child can enjoy a special experience. Every year, after the gingerbread house is made, broken, and eaten, nostalgia casts its rosy glow over the whole process and obscures the annoying parts while emphasizing the enjoyable ones.

Withal, it simply wouldn’t be worth it without a nice finished product, unless you’re one of those monks who spend hours creating elaborate and ephemeral mandalas that signify the transience and vanity of all things.

But all of it together–the compromise between taste and decoration, the tediousness and the fun of making, assembling, and decorating the components–adds up to something special to do every December. Gingerbread houses aren’t necessary to living your best Christmas season, but they’re a lovely extra and a tradition we plan to continue.

First gingerbread house

2017: I didn’t think to buy extra candy for our first house, which promptly fell apart.

IMG_6029

2018: Probably our best house, structurally; there’s something obscene about grounding it on a Dunkin Donuts box. We braced the corners with Mega Bloks.

IMG_6435 2019: Less of a frosting-laden aesthetic nightmare than the others. Also, the best-tasting gingerbread. Unfortunately…

IMG_6441

…this collapsed about five minutes after I took the first picture. Oh, well. Sic transit gloria mundi, or whatever the Latin phrase is for “gingerbread house.”

On Regrets

I have regrets. I regret the time in 4th grade when I didn’t stop people from making fun of the Jehovah’s Witness kid for not celebrating Halloween. I regret the time I joined in making fun of another kid who was acting obnoxiously, probably because he felt alone and attacked. I regret the time I shoved a basketball into a girl’s stomach because I thought she’d pushed me, and the times I said I’d play with the little girl down the street and broke my promise to her, and the time I tried to spit Tic Tacs on people from the skylift at the local amusement park. (Luckily, my aim was terrible.)

I regret exploits that weren’t malicious, but were stupid; as a teen, I shouldn’t have worn an accident-victim costume to church on Halloween and scared my pastor’s small children. I shouldn’t have drunk too much while celebrating my brother’s birthday one year; the wages of that sin luckily weren’t death, but a really miserable hangover at work the next day and an upset stomach the entire weekend thereafter. (Yes, I don’t tolerate alcohol very well. This has probably saved me from further stupidities.)

For many errors, I can say, “Well, I learned from my mistake,” and “This led me to where I am today, which isn’t so bad.” I think it’s a near-universal impulse to do so, and to place past mistakes in a narrative that allows us to minimize our regrets. We don’t like feeling bad about ourselves, and we like to believe that our choices turned out All Right. It’s a little more difficult for some of us to do so than for others; someone just getting out of prison after serving a couple of decades for armed robbery is going to have to work a little harder not to have regrets than someone whose mistakes haven’t led to such drastic consequences.

It isn’t all bad to consider our mistakes in this way, or to regard our errors as opportunities to grow. The old saw “Good judgment comes from experience; experience comes from bad judgment” has some truth to it. But like many proverbs, it’s only a half-truth, and may be balanced by “Experience is the best teacher, but her fees are very high.” Some of my screwups (such as drinking too much) could have had very serious consequences if God hadn’t been kind enough to protect me, and some were examples of meanness that do and should shame me. For others I wish desperately I had made a different choice to be courageous and kind, instead of sinning.

We cannot ever and always flagellate ourselves for our sins; if we confess our sins, God is faithful and just to forgive us and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. Thank God. It is vitally important for us to identify a) when we have done something wrong or foolish; b) what we can do (if anything) to make amends or minimize the harm we’ve done; and c) apply what we’ve learned to our future lives so that we don’t return to our folly like the proverbial dog to its vomit. Even when we make decisions that aren’t necessarily evil or stupid but which turn out to be wrong nonetheless, it is quite useless always to moan “If only I had done or not done X!”

But I think there is a kind of freedom and honesty in eschewing the common statement, “I have no regrets.” Everyone walking this Earth has done something to regret, or let some opportunity pass. I think it is wise to acknowledge this.

And how does this relate to parenting? Well, in my ideal vision, my children will never make the wrong choice. They will always be good, wise, loving, temperate, diligent, and honest. They will live out the true faith and their lives will be a reflection of Jesus. My ideal vision, of course, is not truth; as I have just remarked, we are all sinners. How they regard their own missteps is very important, because there will inevitably be such missteps. I hope that they will have the courage to acknowledge when they have done wrong or foolish things, which once having been done cannot be undone; at the same time, I hope they will not then be crippled by these bad decisions, but can grow and learn. I do not want them to do anything regrettable, but since they will, I hope that they, too, will look back on their lives and say, “I have regrets.” Perhaps these regrets will keep them from mocking another, or succumbing to some temptation, and enable them to live right lives.

Boys, Girls, and Bikes

My 6-year-old daughter and 4-year-old son are getting bikes for Christmas. My son could ride my daughter’s old 12-inch bike, but he really wanted a bike that was blue, not pink and white. We figure he’s earned it. He’s worn pink snowpants, snow jackets, blankets, hats, and mittens without complaint; when he was a baby we put him in our daughter’s adorable fluffy pink bunny snowsuit. This is not because we’re gender-progressive, but because we’re cheap and the gifts we received for our first child were for a girl. He’s also painted his fingernails and worn lipstick, again not because we’re gender progressive, but because little kids love putting grownups’ colorful stuff on themselves; when I say he’s “worn lipstick,” think less “Desmond Is Amazing” and more “circus clown.”

But now that he’s nearly 5, my son has pushed back on wearing or using things that are pink and purple. He stopped letting his sister put him in dresses a year or so ago, and he wants to wear and use blue, green, and red things. In other words: He wants to signal that he is a boy, not a girl. Now, there is no biological correlation between a given color and one’s sex–color usage is heavily dependent on the cultural meanings associated with that color, and 100 years ago you might have dressed your little boy in pink and your little girl in blue.

Saying that color meanings are culturally bound can be a way of dismissing the question altogether–after all, these rules are changeable and arbitrary! Let’s throw the whole thing out!–but language itself is changeable and arbitrary, and people generally agree that it is nevertheless useful and important to be able to attach meaning to certain phonemes. All of us exist within a culture, and the way we respond to cultural norms says a great deal about us. It is disingenuous to pretend otherwise. Certainly in an age in which gender dysphoria seems to be encouraged rather than treated, I do not wish to put up any roadblocks toward developing a healthy acceptance of their own sex.

We weren’t paranoid about rigidly enforcing gender norms when the children were very small. My husband and I did not think that it would affect our son’s masculinity to stick him in a pink bunny suit when he was tiny. (And he was soooo pwecious!) He behaved like a boy and preferred boyish toys as soon as he passed out of the potted-plant infant stage, occasional raids on my makeup notwithstanding. In general, I don’t think we should assign too much importance to a little boy carrying around his mother’s purse, or a little girl pretending to use her father’s razor; children imitate their beloved parents and enjoy dress-up and imaginative play. Parents who freak out or decide that their children are transgender are reacting inappropriately to a normal developmental stage. 

We do, however, encourage our sons to think of themselves as boys who will someday become men, and we are pleased to see the almost-5-year-old making choices with that gender identity in mind. My daughter has reveled in being a girl as soon as she understood what a girl is, and we think it is good for her to embrace her femininity. This is not to say that girls who despise pink, purple, dolls, unicorns, and dresses cannot be feminine, for these things are merely outward trappings of femininity; however, they can be useful to a girl in thinking of herself as a girl and being content to be a girl.

And so we are taking on the expense of giving our son a 12-inch bike that is blue and black and looks vaguely like a motorcycle. When he grows out of it, his younger brother (who still likes sparkly nail polish but has never tolerated being put in dresses) can use it. Our daughter will receive a new 16-inch bike that she’s approved, to which we shall attach a girly-looking basket.

But because we’re cheap, our daughter’s new bike will be green and blue. I mean, healthy gender expression is great, but we don’t want to shell out for a whole fleet of quickly-outgrown bicycles.      

Thank You, Kids

Dear Kids,

Thank you for snuggling with me.

Thank you for thinking that each new rock you see is the most wonderful and amazing object in the world.

Thank you for asking questions foolish, wise, and absurd that make me think about the world in a new way.

Thank you for forgiving me when I sin against you.

Thank you for your uncomplicated generosity.

Thank you for trusting me.

Thank you for observations trite, deep, and bonkers that bring me new illumination or make me laugh.

Thank you for rolling around like little puppies.

Thank you for the slobbery kisses.

Thank you for confiding secrets to me at night just before you go to sleep.

Thank you for the wonderful pictures you draw.

Thank you for transforming day by day into new and wondrous creatures.

Thank you for dinnertime and bedtime prayers; tuneless but hearty renditions of hymns; close attention to Bible stories (especially the bloody ones).

Thank you for accompanying me on walks and bike rides.

Thank you for making Christmas really, really fun again.

Thank you for being my captive audience when I want to be professorial, and even enjoying my “lectures.”

Thank you for trying my new dishes, even if they Look Funny.

Thank you for giving me a really worthwhile occupation.

Thank you for telling me new stories, and listening to mine.

Thank you for your love.

With Much Gratitude, But Not Nearly As Much As I Should Have,

Mom

The Scariest Phrases

“Don’t look behind you!” “The call is coming from inside the house!” “Get out of there right now!” These and other phrases are designed to create tension in scary stories and movies; but when people become parents, they acquire a new vocabulary of horror:

“Don’t Look Over Here”

When they are very young, you can ask them “Why shouldn’t I look over there?” and they will reply, “Because you’ll get mad if you do.” It’s best not to have this dialogue–just look, and get ready to control any violent impulses you may have after seeing the damage. Remember, homicide is bad parenting.

“I Have a Surprise for You!”

The terror in this one comes from the fact that, rather like the Chance cards in Monopoly, the surprise could be something nice–your kid just cleaned her room, or drew you a picture. Or she could have captured a venomous spider and is holding it in her bare hands for you to see, or has painted the walls of her room, or “made lunch” by taking all of your pantry ingredients and turning them into an expensive bowl of inedible globs. There’s nothing quite like the little thrill of apprehension you get when you plaster on a smile and prepare to see what the surprise is.

“I Didn’t Do It”/”I Didn’t Do Anything”

This phrase is only frightening when it is said out of the blue, not in response to your inquiry as to who’s left the light on or spilled the cereal all over the floor. If your child comes in and announces that he hasn’t done it (or anything), it is safe to assume that he is guilty of something.

“Look What I Did All By Myself”

Like “I Have a Surprise for You,” this could be something nice the child has done. Often, however, it involves either “cleaning” that is in reality property damage, “cooking” that has created an enormous mess and wasted ingredients, or some really neat feat of skill such as climbing up the outside of the stairs and jumping several feet down that may send the child to the emergency room.

“Mom, [Sibling]….”

There’s almost never a good ending to this phrase. Usually, you have either a hurt sibling, or someone has been behaving badly–generally the sibling being tattled on AND the tattler. And getting the true, complete story of what happened works just as well as it did in “Rashomon.”

“Hey Mom! Look at That Man/Woman! Why Does He/She…”

This phrase is always uttered at the top of the child’s lungs, and all present are about to hear about others’ obesity, lack of mobility, vitiligo or other skin condition, or other physical peculiarity or behavioral difference delivered in the most tactless way imaginable.

“My Tummy Doesn’t Feel Good”

Is appendicitis involved? Will you be spending the next several hours cleaning up vomit and diarrhea? Who knows?

Eat your heart out, Freddie and Jason and company; you can’t scare me. I’ve got kids.

An Appreciation of Roald Dahl

Good fantasy, like good humor and much other good literature,* comes from people who see the world as it is. This may not be as obvious with fantasy as with humor, which relies upon subversion of the expected or upon some common reference or experience to make people laugh; it may not be as obvious with fantasy as with, say, “grey studies of hopeless misery, where nothing happened till page three hundred and eighty, when the moujik decided to commit suicide.”

A little reflection, however, will show that it is only common sense. If you have books about aliens, wizards, or incredible occurrences you’ve got to work at least as hard at suspension of disbelief than you do if you’re describing the life of a few ordinary people. Otherwise you wind up with the sort of books I wrote when I was six, in which a man’s helpful cat uses his ears to make rainbow magic for no particular reason. And books that deliberately play with that which is not are commenting upon that which is, which requires some understanding of reality. To see what I mean, check out anything by Terry Pratchett; most of his books are set in an alternate fantasy world but contain numerous (humorous) allusions to the art, literature, history, philosophy, religion, science, and cultures of our world.

I began reflecting upon Roald Dahl’s essential realism while putting away George’s Marvelous Medicine before the cat peed on it. (One of our cats thinks that anything left on the floor is a litterbox in disguise.) Dahl wrote plenty of stories for adults that aren’t fantastic and that show a rather dry, cynical wit; probably his most famous story is about a woman who gets away with murdering her cheating cop of a husband. But even in his children’s books, which are populated by crazy men operating supernatural candy factories, witches who transform children into rodents, and little boys who fly away on huge fruit accompanied by oversized insects and a spider or create potions that make a little old lady taller than a house, you can see that realism at work.

Consider Matilda, the tale of a genius girl who is unappreciated by her parents and who uses her extraordinary mental powers to defeat her school’s sadistic headmistress. The book starts off with an extremely realistic observation: “It’s a funny thing about mothers and fathers. Even when their own child is the most disgusting little blister you could ever imagine, they still think that he or she is wonderful.” Dahl goes on to talk about how parents try to convince everyone else that their “little blisters” are in fact extraordinarily brilliant and marvelous, and anyone who’s conversed with parents (especially online) knows that they are quite likely to overestimate their kids’ intelligence or other qualities. Brats are “spirited,” bossy pants are “natural leaders,” argumentative little snots “question authority because they’re too smart.”

Matilda is in a family that makes the opposite error and takes no interest at all in their daughter, which, as Dahl notes, also occurs in real life (though it is fortunately rarer than the other sort of parents). Matilda’s family members are cartoonishly mean, petty, and oblivious to Matilda’s genius and gentleness, but Dahl captures well the sense of powerlessness that a child can have in his or her surroundings. “But the fact remained that any five-year-old girl in any family was always obliged to do as she was told, however asinine the orders might be.” Miss Trunchbull is again a much exaggerated version of an abusive school official, but abusive school officials exist and cause a great deal of harm to the children in their care. In a sense, Dahl is using hyberbole to tell truths about children in a way that reflects their own thinking, which tends to be unbalanced and lacking perspective.

That this distortion is deliberate can be seen in the way Dahl portrays the other children in Matilda’s class. Matilda is not a genius among dunces–she is a genius among a class of ordinary children, some of whom are quite bright themselves. A boy named Nigel can already spell simple words and quickly picks up others, for instance; he is a very realistic smart little boy, and Matilda’s friend Lavender is a clever little girl. Matilda herself is no space-alien creature; extraordinary geniuses who teach themselves to read at ridiculously early ages do exist. Conversations on the playground between various of the children are believable and entertaining.

An aspect of Dahl’s work that often troubles adults is the antagonism between adult and child. In Matilda, there are “good” adults–the young teacher Miss Honey and the librarian–but much of the book shows Matilda’s struggles against the evil or stupid adults in her life. George’s Marvelous Medicine has a malevolent grandmother; The Witches has a bunch of adult women pretending to be nice to children but who are secretly child-hating witches; James and the Giant Peach has two awful aunts; Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is peopled with various monstrous adults.

I do not believe that Dahl is trying to encourage children to view adults as enemies. There is a long history of killing off parents in stories and making children struggle without the normal support expected from a family; Cinderella and many others are orphaned and left with cruel relatives, turned away from their homes, separated from their families, and even sent to what is expected to be their deaths (“Hansel and Gretel,” various Baba Yaga stories). Such situations accentuate the heroism of the central character and serve as underdogs who triumph against long odds, as well as being characters that childish listeners can relate to.

Note also that there are “good adults” in Dahl’s books; Miss Honey and the librarian; the boy’s grandmother in The Witches; the insects and spider in James and the Giant Peach; Charlie’s grandpa in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. All of these characters are able to empathize with the children and prevent them from feeling totally isolated in a world that can be strange, confusing, and frightening. Again, what strikes me most about Dahl underneath the absurdity of his plots and even the cynicism of much of his characterization is a strong sense of empathy for children; I believe this quality prevents his books from being repulsive, as they otherwise might be, and contributes to his status as a classic children’s fantasy writer.

 

*Except for mysteries. Agatha Christie was a mediocre writer but an excellent plot constructor; nearly any “fair” whodunnit is following some trick she used first. It’s probably correct to say that we’re looking for different qualities in a mystery than we are in other genres; for an early critical essay on murder mysteries, see Raymond Chandler’s “The Simple Art of Murder” (but only if you don’t mind having the plots of some very famous mysteries spoiled. SHAME ON YOU, Mr. Chandler).