Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Monkeys, Maids, and Other Polically Incorrect Things

I am a reader. This is not a new thing. I have been a reader since I was born. (Okay, someone else was doing the reading then, but I still enjoyed it.) When I was little, my mom read my books to me so many times that I could recite many of them, and it was a family pastime to have me do this for company. I guess it's fun to make people think your three year old can read. I had favorites back then, and some of them have stayed with me over the years. I loved Curious George. (So I'm not super original. Sue me.) I loved Dr. Seuss and Madeline and Corduroy and all the other books that mothers read to their babies. Some children's books I discovered as an adult. I'm obsessed with A.A. Milne's Winnie the Pooh and The House at Pooh Corner. I adore anything by Beatrix Potter (so much so that I even sat through that mediocre sapfest of a film with Renee Zellweger and Ewan McGregor.)

I am also a book collector. It is not enough for me to love a book. I have to own it. My children's book collection is significant, and I have been lugging it from house to house for my entire adult life. And now, my book hoarding has finally paid off. With the arrival of Lucy Addison, I now have a legitimate excuse to display and read from all my childhood favorites. So every day, I pull out the Boppy, prop up the baby, and read a good book.

This revisiting of my old favorites, however, has brought to my attention the politically incorrect nature of some of the classics. Now, I am not one to be particularly P.C., but I must admit that I did get a little chuckle thinking about how they are selling these less-than-modern tomes to children at your local B&N. In a world where everything has a non-offensive title (I'm not short, just vertically challenged), it's nice to know that we can count on classic children's literature to take us back to a different time.

Amelia Bedelia - The story of an artless, hapless maid with a penchant for taking things much too literally was one of my childhood favorites. Upon re-reading, however, I was shocked to find our friend Amelia working away in what amounts to a modified French Maid outfit, complete with lace apron and cap. Nothing says, You're my inferior, like making your employees dress in what would now be considered a Halloween costume. Then there is the cavalier way with which Mr. and Mrs. Rogers hire, fire, and re-hire poor Amelia Bedelia. I'm certain that she's not getting any health benefits at that job. Perhaps the president could use the frequently unemployed maid as his new poster child for the health care bill. I'm sure it would improve his standings in the polls for the under ten set. Also hearkening back to a time long ago (and maybe never) was the way which Mrs. Rogers lives. Not only does she have a maid, but she has a sewing circle, for crying out loud. Neither Mrs. Rogers nor any of her lady friends have jobs. So why do they all need maids? Oh, that's right, to clean their mansions. Now there's some relatable characters for today's youth. Either you're so rich that you have a staff to wait on your every need, or you're so poor that you must wander the streets looking for work (See Come Back, Amelia Bedelia.) Don't worry, A.B., you're still one of my favorites, and I swear I don't find it offensive that the only reason the Rogers take you back at the end of each book is because you can bake.

Curious George - So this little primate was definitely before the days of the Crocodile Hunter and Animal Planet. We are introduced to our long-limbed friend as he swings happily about his jungle binging on bananas and just being, well, curious. Then along comes the Man in the Yellow Hat, or as I will henceforth refer to him, The Man. The Man tells George that he knows somewhere where he'll be very happy...the zoo. Are you kidding me? Our monkey friend seemed just fine swinging on vines in his (probably doomed, let's be honest here) rainforest. The Man honestly thinks he'll be happier in the ZOO? Never mind the fact that he tricks George into a bag to trap him. Now there's some light reading for children. Just when you thought it couldn't get any more politically incorrect, poor, little George gets thrown in jail for playing with the phone and calling the fire department! (And while we're on that subject, what fire department has the number 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-9? And shouldn't a monkey that can work a rotary phone be congratulated not imprisoned? I have trouble dialing the numbers on my cell phone's touch screen.) Of course, this is a children's book, and it simply must have a happy ending. So what becomes of our mixed-up monkey? Does he hop a jet back to the jungle and live happily ever after? No. He gets dumped in a zoo where The Man buys him and all the other trapped animals balloons. That's right. Balloons. And let us not forget that there is actually a book entitled, Curious George Gets a Job. I wonder if his employer pays for insurance.

Beatrix Potter's stories - Forget the outrage over violent television and video games. Miss Potter had it all covered way back in the day with her fantasy-meets-horrific-realism stories or as I would like to rename Peter Rabbit's story, When Farmers Attack. That's right children. This is not just a morality tale of do good things or bad things will happen. This story is VERY specific. Do what your mother says or you will get eaten and die. Kudos to Mr. MacGregor, though, for his clever mocking of the naughty Peter by hanging his jacket on a stick in the garden. That's not disturbing at all.

These are only three small examples of the politically incorrect nature of the books I treasure, and it is these very details that, in part, make them so dear to me. I'm not naive enough to say they hearken back to a simpler time, so we'll just say a different time. And yes, Lucy Addison will be hear about Madeline and her life in a Catholic girls' boarding school where the parents never visit their children. At some point, she'll probably even read some Mother Goose in all its Gothic horror.

She will not, however, be sung "Rock-a-bye-Baby" as a lullaby. A song about a child falling out of a tree? A girl's got to draw the line somewhere.

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