I’ve been thinking about the books I read as a kid and, on the surface, I don’t think they have much in common with what kids today are reading. When I Google to see popular kid’s lit, things like
Charlotte’s Web, Where the Sidewalk Ends,
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and Where the Wild Things Are pop up. These
books seem light-hearted in comparison to what I remember.
As a small child the books I read over and over were Aesop’s Fables, Mother Goose Rhymes, and Grimm’s Fairy Tales. The first taught me morals, the second was for fun, and the last showed me fantasy worlds, grim though they were. They all seem a little dark as I look back and remember.
Although Aesop only insinuated good and bad, it was easy to see the difference and to determine that the reward for good behavior was preferable to the punishment for bad behavior. Aesop also taught me to be wary, to look beneath the surface and see that things are not always as they may seem. There are over six hundred of these fables written by a man believed to have been a slave in ancient
That might explain some things. All of his little stories were told through the
eyes of animals, and I think that is what pulled me into the book as a child.
My favorite Aesop tale was The Lion and The Mouse, where the lion had the option of eating the mouse or listening to the mouse’s plea that he might prove useful later, which he did by chewing a rope in two when the lion was caught in a trap. This taught me that kindness was preferable to snap emotional decisions, to not measure a person’s value by appearance, and to think of the future, a thing a small child rarely thinks of. Even now, when certain situations come up, one of the old Aesop’s Fables pops into my head, slows me down a little and makes me think before acting.
Mother Goose was my introduction to poetry, and I continue to think of poetry as rhymes, though there are many many different kinds. Remember Hey diddle diddle, the cat and the fiddle, the cow jumped over the moon, Jack be nimble Jack be quick, Jack jump over the candlestick, and I even learned my months with Thirty days has September, April, June and November. Many of the Mother Goose poems were so endearing they became songs like Baa baa black sheep, have you any wool, Yes sir, yes sir, three bags full, and Hush Little Baby don’t say a word, Papa’s gonna buy you a mockingbird. This last one has been recorded by Carly Simon and James Taylor, changed up just a little but still the same idea.
The Mother Goose Rhymes are attributed to many different origins some dating back to seventeenth century
France and beyond, but the first
publication was by Charles Perrault in 1697, published in French and later
transcribed to English in 1729 by Robert Samber. So I guess Mother Goose was
neither a mother nor a goose, although I do have that picture embedded in my
And then somehow I was introduced to Grimm’s Fairy Tales with immediate favorites of The Three Little Pigs, Little Red Riding Hood, Snow White, Hansel and Gretel, and Cinderella. Fear seems to be the common thread through all these dark stories. I don’t remember how I got this book but I do remember having my own copy and considering it a huge treasure. I can even remember dreaming about Hansel and Gretel. Now, as an adult, it’s doesn’t seem quite as child-friendly. In fact, I bought a copy awhile back intending to read some of the stories to my then small grandchildren. I changed my mind and tucked it away in the bookcase.
The brothers who wrote these tales, Jacob and Wilhelm, originally penned much more gruesome scenes which today might be considered R or X rated. They were not written to entertain children, but somehow children became their main audience, and in future publications the adult content was cleaned up, and cleaned up even more in our time by Walt Disney and others.
The Grimm brothers were German librarians whose intents were to hand down German folklore and in contrast to later publications, the originals did not always have happy endings. Snow White was not wakened by the Prince’s kiss but by a good jarring of her glass coffin, and the wicked witch who was really Snow White’s mother is forced to dance herself to death in a pair of red-hot iron shoes. Ouch! And in Cinderella, her step-sisters actually cut off parts of their feet trying to fit them into the glass slipper. Yuck, sure glad I didn’t have that version; it could mar you for life.
Kids today read about moral improvement, emotional challenges, and diversity but the writing styles are very different from my era, what I would call a little dumbed-down and a lot of happy-upped. Many kids only read graphic novels (we called them comic books) which leave little to a child’s imagination. Everything is right there on the page, no mind visualization necessary. I think this is sad especially when stories help us so much to make sense of ourselves, sometimes even shaping our future selves.
I’m glad I have my little kid reading memories and even though I don’t have the tangible books, those synapses from yesteryear continue popping through my brain, keeping me on the straight and narrow.