We’re not going to knock reading here at Baby Plus Two. We’re big fans of reading; in fact, in our former lives when we were pretending to be academics in the literary fields of Europe and Asia, we used to pretty much read six impossible books before breakfast every day and then go and write a chapter instead of lunch. So it’s in that spirit of enquiry we present to you Some Serious Questions We Have About Literature For Very Young Children, first in a forthcoming occasional series.
Spoilers ahead, for anyone who hasn’t ever read a book in their lives. (If that’s you, stop reading this and go sort that out).
The Tiger Who Came To Tea (Judith Kerr, 1968)
This book is a stone-cold classic, and Scarlett loves it as I have loved it for years. And yet, there’s something about the plot that bothers me. We are asked to believe that when Daddy arrives home to find no dinner, no groceries in the cupboards and an unbathed young daughter it’s the fault of the titular tiger. This tiger turned up unannounced, ate all the cakes, consumed the dinner that was definitely cooking on the stove, totally ate all the groceries out of the cupboards (they were there, mummy swears) and then, for an encore, drank all the water out of the taps so that nobody can have a bath. That’s what one version of the narrative tells us, anyway.
Myself, I picture the scene somewhat as follows:
INTERIOR, EVENING. A SUBURBAN KITCHEN IN THE LATE 1960s.
Daddy [weary after a hard day’s work at the advertising agency]: What’s for dinner?
Mummy [with a glazed look]: There’s no dinner. A tiger ate it.
Daddy [spotting the empty packet of pills on the kitchen table]: But surely you went shopping today? What do we have in the cupboard?
Mummy [listless]: Nope. Tiger.
Daddy: And our daughter isn’t bathed and in bed yet because…?
Mummy [eyes weaving]: Tiger.
Daddy [stoically]: Here we go again. Alright, coats on, everyone. Fun trip to the cafe it is.
They go to a cafe. It is fun. Little daughter doesn’t seem to mind at all.
MUSIC UP: Mother’s Little Helper by the Rolling Stones
And to nobody’s surprise, we never see this much-storied tiger again.
The Very Busy Spider (Eric Carle, 1984)
Eric Carle is of course best known for his 1969 work, The Very Hungry Caterpillar, the tale of a young larva with big aspirations and a bigger appetite. The Very Busy Spider is something of a companion piece, except our protagonist here is an arachnid who is too self-involved to bother with basic fucking civility. Sample dialogue:
“Neigh, neigh!” said the horse. “Want to go for a ride?”
The spider didn’t answer. She was too busy spinning her web.
It goes on like this for several pages (and several animal noises). I mean, I get being busy, or even using busyness as an introvert’s excuse excuse for preferring time alone, but the spindly-legged bint is too rude to even say “I’m sorry, I can’t go riding/running/rolling in the mud because as you can see I’m quite literally snowed under here.” Possibly this is a metaphor for the selfishness of the mid-1980s, but really this isn’t the sort of positive message I want to share with my child about the value of conventional social speech. Say no thank you if you don’t want to play with someone, you insufferable twunt.
The pages have a fun silvery thread embedded in them that you can trace with a finger, and the illustrations are lovely. Just read some other words over the top and mentally rename it The Very Socially-Able Spider Who Always Responds Courteously, FFS.
Goodnight Moon (Margaret Wise Brown, 1947)
I wish I could, but I just can’t improve on this affectionate takedown by Racquel D’Apice.
“Really? Dark green? You don’t think maybe dark green walls with a tomato-colored floor is a bit much?”
“No, it’ll look amazing. We can break up the monotony of the color with some dark green and yellow striped curtains.”
“That’s an amazing idea. On non-matching red and yellow spearhead curtain rods? Do you think a tiger skin rug would be overkill?”
“For a young child’s room? No. Not at all. ”
I love it.
Mr Daydream (Roger Hargreaves, 1972)
If you haven’t read the Mr Men series for a while, and specifically the story of Jack and his cloud-shaped friend, you’ve probably forgotten how seriously trippy this one is. Jack hallucinates some kind of massive bird, and he and Mr Daydream fly around on it and meet crocodiles, giant pink elephants and other staples of the Pink Floyd live concert experience. I don’t know what toddlers make of it, but I think the entire story might work better after a lungful of PCPs.
Still, I like Jack as a role model. He goes to bed when he’s told and always says “Please” and “Thank you.” Much better than that rude-ass sodding spider.
Do you have a children’s book that slightly baffles you? Does the underlying existential angst of The Gruffalo haunt your dreams? Do you find Thomas The Tank Engine’s Stakhanovite dogma as troubling as I do? Perhaps you think that, fundamentally, it’s just a really bad idea to take a group of under-fives on a bear hunt? Share your ideas about young children’s books on a first edition of The House At Pooh Corner, or in the comments below.