Wednesday, December 06, 2006

BOOKS: Bye-Bye, Mon Cowboy

You can't read any amount of children's literature without having your suspension of disbelief tested waaaaaay beyond the bounds of a Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel. Beautiful virgins ascending to the heavens? I'll see you your virgin and raise you a giant red dog, a talking train, and a man with an improbably large hat who keeps a wild monkey in a city apartment without a permit.

I accept all these things, because that's how I roll, but I do find myself having my moments with
Richard Scarry, particularly in his Best Word Book Ever. I can handle elephants in sailor suits and pigs driving fire engines. This I'm used to. But if you examine the detail-packed Where's Waldo-esque illustrations in this book, more troubling questions emerge:
  • On the bears' farm, why is it that species which, in previous pages, wore clothes and seemed sentient are suddenly naked and contained in pigpens and such? Why do the farming bears all have a look of human-like consciousness on their faces, while the pigs, sheep, and cows all have disturbingly blank expressions that one can only describe as "a state of pre-food-ness"?
  • At the supermarket, do the pig customers, who have mysteriously regained their sentience, realize that the store is hawking bacon over in the meats department? Shouldn't a boycott be in order? What's equally alarming is that someone has parked a shopping cart right in front of the meat case, and sitting in the kiddie seat is a piglet who is happily gazing at the bologna. The fact that this porcine infant also seems to have been abandoned by his parents is almost incidental to the scene.
  • The zoo is possibly the most disorienting tableau. We see caged bears and elephants and beasts of prey, while the zoo's clientele seems to be exclusively rodent in nature. The zookeepers and other staff are all cats, who attend equally to the mice visitors and wild animals. I don't know why this scene troubles me, but it does. Deeply.
This is what happens when you're forced to read the same books over and over (and over and over, with no end in sight). I was relieved when Rusty -- who has his own issues with the Best Word Book Ever -- sent me this link, as evidence that not only are we not the only parents with a tendency to overly scrutinize our child's books, we're also not the only parents to fixate on this particular book. It's a Flickr photoset created by a member called kokogiak:
Richard Scarry's Best Word Book Ever, 1963 vs 1991 editions (with revisions). The 1963 edition is my own, bought for me in the late '60s when I was a toddler, and read to tatters. The 1991 edition belongs to my kids today. I was so familar with the older one that I immediately started noticing a few differences, and so have catalogued 14 of the more interesting differences here in this collection.
The changes are pretty much on par with what you'd expect. Mom and dad bunny are both in the kitchen now, not just mom. Chanukah has been added to the section on holidays. And the First Nations rabbit no longer paddles his canoe, having been replaced by a garden-variety Rabbit rabbit.

I was a little sad, though, to see that becoming a cowboy is no longer considered a viable career option:

Curse you, "progress."


restlessly said...

Neither is being a milkman, I see.

Carrie said...

I really like Richard Scarry, and apparently, so does everyone else. When I recently went shopping for kids' book for a soon to be born kid, I really wanted to get a Scarry book, really, any Scarry book.

But in the giant kids' bookstore NOT ONE COPY was to be had.

Christmas isn't that close, my friends.

Next time, it's gonna be all internet.

Also, hi Doppelganger. Long time no comment.

Anonymous said...

I'm going to have to find the 1963 version because my children deserve to see a "jumping gentleman" and a "beautiful screaming lady" rescued by a "brave hero."

Hello quotation marks.

Anonymous said...

*sniff* The forgotten bits of my childhood are always found on the internet. I really wish I had some of my old Richard Scarry books now. I feel the need to read one before bed.

And in other news, maybe it's just that elephants can't be cowboys anymore? I bet the horses put together a huge marketing campaign complete with documentation about the ill effects to their health of having to carry around another animal that weighs four times as much as they do. Wearing chaps.

landismom said...

I have to confess to not being a huge Richard Scarry fan, not from my own childhood, not when I had to read them to my youngest brother, and certainly not now with my own children. Unfortunately, they both love it.

Anonymous said...

This is what happens to parents who read kid books over and over and over and over and over ... AND have access to the internet.

Anonymous said...

My parents had their own issues with Richard Scarry, namely that when they turned to the page with the animal faces showing various emotions I would point to the sad pig and start yelling "Pig cry! Pig cry!" and begin crying myself, sensitive little soul that I was. Mom tried covering the picture or skipping the page, but I knew it was there. Pig cry!

RossK said...

I dunno.

When I was a kid I refused to read the books, not because I thought that cowboy elephants were scary, but rather because I thought the author was.


Anonymous said...

Marquez ain't my cup of tea. The most I can handle is Candide by Voltaire.

Carrie said...

Very entertaining post. =D Thanks. It's been awhile since I've spent time with Scarry.

Anonymous said...

The gender changes reminded me of the book I just finished "Packaging Girlhood" which discussed some of the subtle (and not-so-subtle) ways in which gender is introduced. The section about kid books was particularly interesting to me as a first-time mom. So I've been paying a bit more attention as I read to my son.

Today we read "Duck on a Bike" and noticed that as Duck passed all the female animals, they all seemed to expres concern or fear, while all the male animals all expressed admiration or competitiveness. Of course the pictures are all gender-neutral - it's just the pronouns that make the identification. So I decided to switch the "he" and "she" -- probably doesn't make a difference yet to my son but I thought I'd see if it made a difference to me.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for linking to this... I've been trying to think of the name of that book for years!