9:48 am
Mon May 3, 2004

Bedtime Stories

David wants his children to be well-versed in the classics; Homer, Shakespeare, and that "other" Potter.

Wilmington NC – [Click the Listen button to hear David's commentary.]

As a writer, I want my children to grow up familiar with the Western Cannon. Recently I tried to introduce Abby and Sellers to the cannon; they could hear just fine again after a couple of days. I'm afraid it'll take longer to fix the hole in the neighbors' garage. So I took back the cannon for store credit, which I used to buy the collected works of Shakespeare. Do you just love Sam's?!

I tried to make Shakespeare child-friendly, but I lost the kids at the part where Lady Macbeth shouts, "Out, darned Spot! Scat!" I was surprised, because the week before they'd run all over the house yelling, "A horsie! My kingdom for a horsie!"

So instead we're starting with the Bard's contemporary, Beatrix Potter. History doesn't record whether the two ever met, but if Shakespeare had shared Potter's skill at illustration he sure would have done better with the kiddie market. If you're a parent it's a good bet you own Beatrix Potter merchandise. At our first baby shower we got the Peter Rabbit breakfast set, mobile, and rectal thermometer.

But when's the last time you actually read Beatrix Potter? I don't mean the miniature four-page picture books or the spin-offs like Peter Rabbit's ABC's or Benjamin Bunny's Colors. I mean the whole, unabridged text of "The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin." I'll cut to the end: in a fit of pique the Old Brown Owl tries to skin Squirrel Nutkin alive but succeeds only in severing his tail. Nutkin gets off easy compared to Peter Rabbit's dad, whom Mrs. McGregor cooked into a pie. No wonder Mrs. Rabbit has kind of a PTSD thing about the lettuce patch. And here we are, the first story in the first real children's mega-hit book, and our hero is a delinquent hare being raised by a single mom.

Say what you will about Beatrix Potter, she doesn't need former Secretary of Education William Bennett to underline the virtues in her tales. I'm pretty sure after reading "The Tale of Peter Rabbit" Sellers isn't soon going to be sneaking under any fences to nibble onions.

Sometime after Shakespeare died, A.A. Milne was born. He was twenty when Potter published her first story and presumably already knew the hazards of scavenging cabbage. Perhaps that's why his stories of Winnie the Pooh are happily devoid of morals, unless you're a Taoist. (I should clarify that Taoism and Maoism are very different: Abby fell asleep by like page twelve of Chairman Mao's Little Red Book. And the illustrations are lousy.)

Like Potter, Milne gave birth to a cottage industry, perhaps the only one based on an actual cottage. And while the nineteen sixty-eight animated movie kept to the tone of the original stories, Disney's subsequent abuse of Pooh makes one wonder whether the ASPCA gives a darn about stuffed animals. Winnie should never be computer-animated. Under no circumstance should Eeyore dance. And, please, think of the late A.A. Milne before you strap a Winnie-the-Pooh diaper on your child's bum.

Of course some great children's authors are still with us. Eric Carle, for instance, is going strong, churning out new works even as Carter's pushes a line of clothing based on his nineteen sixty-nine classic The Very Hungry Caterpillar. The first book Sellers memorized was Carle's Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? He also likes Polar Bear, Polar Bear, What Do You Hear, and Panda Bear, Panda Bear, What Do You See. Sadly I've been unable to find a copy of the less popular Dung Beetle, Dung Beetle, What Do You Smell?

But what I see looking at my children's bookshelves are a host well-written books with engaging characters, from Angelina Ballerina to the Wild Things. Weaned on these classics they'll be reading Shakespeare by next week. After all, everyone knows Henry the Fifth is just a retelling of Babar.