As a fable it’s incoherent.
June 3, 2015 11:21 PM   Subscribe

"Why so Poky? The scourge of terrible canonical children’s books." by Gabriel Roth, Slate
Reading to one’s children is, as everyone knows, one of the great pleasures of parenthood. I love the creaturely warmth of my daughter snuggled up close and the feeling of giving her something intrinsically human and necessary. And Eliza loves being read to. She enjoys the stories and the pictures, but more than that, I think, she responds to the mental intimacy: the knowledge that she and I are looking at the same pages and interpreting the same sentences. It’s a balm for the terrible isolation that arrives around age 2, along with language and self-consciousness—the knowledge that one’s experience is inescapably private. And so the time I spend reading to her can feel, for both of us, like communion.
The problem is that young children have terrible taste and enjoy garbage. Another problem, which compounds the first problem, is that they want to hear the same books hundreds of times in a row. So for all the joys that storytime can offer, it frequently entails a kind of dismal self-abnegation that’s too excruciating even to describe as tedium—an actively painful sense of my precious time on earth being torn from my chest and tossed into a furnace.
posted by joseph conrad is fully awesome (40 comments total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
 
I've hidden books on occasion. I'm not proud of this, but I'll admit it.

Heck, just tonight I had to hide "Bread and Honey," which we'd read the three previous nights and which I simply could not take again. I keep trying to get him to obsess over enjoyable books. Sometimes it even works, temporarily.
posted by Scattercat at 11:51 PM on June 3, 2015 [2 favorites]


Last night I read the lovely "The Snail and the Whale" to my (nearly) two year old. We got stuck on a page with a picture of a fire engine and a digger, where he decided that he needed to point at the digger and say "digger" for approximately all of time, and absolutely refused to let me turn the page or close the book...

Point being that as much as we adore them, little one's can make even enjoyable books quite tiresome...
posted by Cannon Fodder at 12:22 AM on June 4, 2015 [8 favorites]


'Course, you can always change up the story on them...
posted by ibmcginty at 12:40 AM on June 4, 2015 [11 favorites]


I used to find that, combined with interrupted nights, reading and re-reading the same simple books to my first child would induce a kind of vaguely hallucinogenic near-sleep state in which the stories would gradually spin out of control. Or I would keep turning the pages at the same rate as normal and just mumble gibberish.

Most of the time it didn't seem to make a difference. Whether that supports the assertions in the article re. intimacy being the key aspect or a comment on my normal reading ability, I don't know.
posted by sarble at 1:05 AM on June 4, 2015 [1 favorite]


Totally agree with the author about The Poky Little Puppy, reading the article made my teeth itch.
posted by sarble at 1:07 AM on June 4, 2015


I see his point, but if an adult book did something similar he'd probably be talking earnestly about its thought-provokingly ludic approach to Western expectations of narrative and its skilfully transgressive subversion of the conventions of fabulation.
posted by Segundus at 1:29 AM on June 4, 2015 [11 favorites]


Most awful are the 'classics' that sneak into the household as gifts from grandparents. In Germany we have horrors like Der Struwwelpeter and Max und Moritz, both mostly revolving around children being 'comically' gruesomely punished for not conforming to various norms. I have no qualms whatsoever anymore about making such books vanish (permanently).
posted by marijn at 1:50 AM on June 4, 2015


Great article. The Poky Little Puppy really is baffling in its pointlessness, but it's not as bad as fellow Little Golden Book Scuffy the Tugboat, which I used to love as a child but now realise had an unfortunate moral along the lines of "don't have ambitions above your place in life".

My daughter is getting old enough to start appreciating the classic children's stories that are actually good, like Winnie-the-Pooh and the Magic Pudding, but getting here has been a hard slog of Beatrix Potter, Mr Men and assorted princess-themed library books that I had no choice about. At least I've managed to mostly avoid Thomas the Tank Engine.
posted by A Thousand Baited Hooks at 2:24 AM on June 4, 2015


Der Struwwelpeter

Oooh, oooh! I have that in translation! I shall dig it out for my two-year-old! Snickety-snick go the scissors of the scissor man! (No, I won't: it has big-lipped black people pictures, and he's going to grow up rich and white and privileged, but he's not going to think it's amusingly rude and subversive to secretly like old racist charicatures and share this with other white people...)

I can read THE GRUFFALO over and over, but he's mad on fire engines, so we had some tedious "Firefighter Moose" story for a while. I vary it by telling the story differently each time and spotting some new vocabulary/information to bring in.
posted by alasdair at 2:33 AM on June 4, 2015


At least I've managed to mostly avoid Thomas the Tank Engine
Probably for the best. Other engines come and go but that stuff 'goes on' forever.
posted by comealongpole at 2:39 AM on June 4, 2015 [2 favorites]


Beatrix Potter is ruthless, not twee.
And how could you deprive your children of Struwwelpeter (SLYT)? They'll like not be properly culturally imprinted with absolute terror.
posted by glasseyes at 2:48 AM on June 4, 2015


If you are reading to a two-year-old, you need Mother Goose. Or maybe Wallace Tripp's wonderful nursery rhymes (My kids used to chant one about Napoleon from his books). After that, you move up to fairy tales. There are a lot of small children books that have value: Goodnight, Moon (because of finding the mouse), then you move up to the Purple Crayon -- it doesn't take long. There are lots of books that are disposable, same as for adults, and little-known classics (Mr. Bear Squash You All Flat) that are exciting to discover. But: nursery rhymes and fairy tales. Whining about so-called classics that are vapid and uninteresting is an adult pastime. But every time you re-read a wretched story, you help imprint it. I have noticed this particularly in children's videos watched over and over by kids in some non-reading households, but I think it also holds for books.
posted by CCBC at 3:05 AM on June 4, 2015 [2 favorites]


I don't know which books it was, but I would not have it when my father tried to skip pages or rush through the book in any way. Knowing me, I wouldn't have let him change a single word, either.
posted by jeather at 3:58 AM on June 4, 2015


I don't know which books it was, but I would not have it when my father tried to skip pages or rush through the book in any way. Knowing me, I wouldn't have let him change a single word, either.

I was that way with Pano the Train. A while back I thought of hunting down a good condition copy as a gift to my mom, but then I realized she might not be overjoyed to see it again.
posted by Ray Walston, Luck Dragon at 4:11 AM on June 4, 2015


I really want to agree with the author, and it's hard not to agree with the statement that "The problem is that young children have terrible taste and enjoy garbage."*

And I am one of those parents who absolutely bought my son all the books I loved as a kid, regardless of merit (I actively dislike almost everything about The Little Engine That Could, but when it came as part of a free library program, I kept it and read it and he loves that thing, and I can sometimes almost enjoy it because of that same nostalgia factor that makes it so fun to read him my favorites.)

And every time I see The Poky Little Puppy at the bookstore or mentioned online, I think maybe I should have bought it, because I did love it as a kid, and it was a huge part of my childhood because it was one of the few books that both my parents and my grandparents owned (when your grandparents live far away and you only see them a couple times a year, every kid-related item becomes iconic, I think). But I never bought it and since I forgot what it was even about, I was really ready for this takedown to make me feel good about never inflicting it on my own precious child.

But holy cow, how can she say it had nothing to recommend it as a moral: THIS IS A STORY ABOUT GETTING TO EAT ALL THE DESSERTS! And in the end, by being smart, GETTING MORE DESSERT WITH PARENTAL APPROVAL PLUS JUSTICE!

I mean, I'm not gonna run out and buy it now, but this was a whole book about dessert. Who poops on that?


*(Metafilter: The problem is that young children have terrible taste and enjoy garbage.)
posted by Mchelly at 5:24 AM on June 4, 2015 [2 favorites]


I don't know which books it was, but I would not have it when my father tried to skip pages or rush through the book in any way. Knowing me, I wouldn't have let him change a single word, either.

My father inadvertently discovered that I could read at age 3 when he tried to do this very thing. He thought it was memorization at first but then he brought me the newspaper and asked if I could read that, and it turned out I could read most of the shorter words.
posted by dlugoczaj at 5:25 AM on June 4, 2015 [2 favorites]


The snark is delightful, and then the last paragraph of the article is a gut-punch:
And so we go back to the beginning, and once again I tell her about the puppies digging a hole, going for a walk, looking for their slowpoke brother. “He wasn’t going down the other side,” I say. “The only thing they could see going down was a fuzzy caterpillar.” There’s a big picture of a caterpillar. And once again I begin to feel my finite remaining hours on this earth slipping inexorably away while my daughter sits next to me, mesmerized. Which is what parenting is sometimes: the pouring of one’s ever-diminishing stock of time into this other being, her own supply seeming, for now, inexhaustible.
posted by HeroZero at 5:25 AM on June 4, 2015 [1 favorite]


This is wild, I was literally just talking about The Poky Little Puppy this weekend, making the exact same point. My daughter is two, and I finally "lost" this book behind her bookshelf. She has 80-100 books, so I'm not going to feel too bad about it, and we'll get it back in the rotation eventually.
But, I will take this opportunity to talk about how much I love this current children's book author Andrea Beaty. I'm so nuts about her books, primarily Rosie Revere, Engineer and Iggy Peck, Architect
The former is about a young girl who is dreaming of being an engineer, and is always tinkering. So awesome. I swear I've bought half a dozen copies and given them out already. It also helps that her rhyming is damn near impeccable. Just all around perfect books.
posted by staccato signals of constant information at 5:26 AM on June 4, 2015 [3 favorites]


I only liked the poky little puppy as a kid because he got soup.

I like soup.
posted by Lord_Pall at 5:32 AM on June 4, 2015 [2 favorites]


If a Little Golden Book classic is going to burrow into my brain and eventually cause a fatal aneurism, it's going to be A Name For Kitty.

Spoiler alert: a smarmy farm boy asks his parents and all of the farm animals for ideas to name his new kitty before settling on.... Wait for it..... KITTY
posted by dr_dank at 5:49 AM on June 4, 2015 [3 favorites]


I agree that The Poky Little Puppy is quite meh. I like that it subverts the moralism of many children's fables but I suspect it was done out of carelessness and not craft.

I read it to my kids using my personal copy from when I was a child, so it has nostalgia going for it.

In my experience all of the Thomas-related book product was terrible. So bad that even the kids eventually noticed.
posted by dweingart at 5:50 AM on June 4, 2015


I've hidden books on occasion. I'm not proud of this, but I'll admit it. Heck, just tonight I had to hide "Bread and Honey," which we'd read the three previous nights and which I simply could not take again.

reading and re-reading the same simple books to my first child would induce a kind of vaguely hallucinogenic near-sleep state in which the stories would gradually spin out of control.

Becoming a parent has made me consider book-burning to be a fun weekend activity.

I don't have any kids of my own, so reading the comments in this thread is giving me a better understanding of what The Babadook was really about.
posted by Strange Interlude at 6:09 AM on June 4, 2015 [3 favorites]


"Your favorite band book sucks, my precious child. So it's kind of embarrassing to hang around with you, people might think I have a terrible taste in literature."
posted by aught at 6:10 AM on June 4, 2015 [2 favorites]


I just want to say that, regardless of the merits of the argument, this article is beautifully written. I was so amused that I felt the need read a good chunk of it, out loud, to my wife until (irony!) she basically begged me to shut up.
posted by Dreadnought at 6:30 AM on June 4, 2015


ibmcginty: 'Course, you can always change up the story on them...

I found it useful to suppress my own unhapiness at the re-re-re-re-reading tic, and then after Dear Child went to bed I could enjoy some catharsis, like this jewel. [SLImgur].

"Good night, bowl of mush," indeed.
posted by wenestvedt at 6:30 AM on June 4, 2015 [1 favorite]


My son is almost 13. We read Dr. Seuss ABCs so many times when he was a baby, I can recite it from memory, even now. See also, Green Eggs and Ham, The Fat Cat Sat on the Mat, and Where's My Teddy. I can do dramatic readings of all of them on command. So, I've got that going for me.
posted by dejah420 at 6:35 AM on June 4, 2015 [2 favorites]


When I was a kid I loved Frederick by Lio Lionni. I then got Tico and the Golden Wings by the same author.

Tico is a horrible children's book. The theme of it is, if there's anything special about you, get rid of it and hide it or else no one will like you.
posted by Legomancer at 6:40 AM on June 4, 2015


Oh, they did NOT just diss the Poky Little Puppy. This will not stand.
posted by edheil at 6:59 AM on June 4, 2015


I prefer Little Cottontail. That book has serious action in the third act!
posted by Liquidwolf at 8:43 AM on June 4, 2015


Most awful are the 'classics' that sneak into the household as gifts from grandparents. In Germany we have horrors like Der Struwwelpeter and Max und Moritz, both mostly revolving around children being 'comically' gruesomely punished for not conforming to various norms. I have no qualms whatsoever anymore about making such books vanish (permanently).

I loved reading these when I was young. I mean look at this illustration.

So awesome.
posted by longdaysjourney at 8:43 AM on June 4, 2015


I just love that the illustrator of Poky also did stuff like this and this and this.
posted by Atom Eyes at 9:29 AM on June 4, 2015 [2 favorites]


One of my favorite activities with my kid is doing the "Old McDonald" song and changing the lyrics to include dinosaurs, zombies and pirates. An Arrh Arrh here, an Arrh Arrh there.
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 9:51 AM on June 4, 2015 [1 favorite]


Another problem, which compounds the first problem, is that they want to hear the same books hundreds of times in a row.
My son isn't that discerning right now, but as a result of me eliminating all the books that are too glurgy, I do end up reading the same books over and over. (Plus, I guess repetition is good for him.) The way I keep from getting bored is by reading in wacky voices, which admittedly may someday annoy him. But right now, he's just as content with me reading One Fish Two Fish in a Wizard People voice as with me using a normal voice.
posted by ignignokt at 10:02 AM on June 4, 2015




Mr. Offalark and I have nicknamed "Guess How Much I Love You?" as "Guess How Much I'm an Asshole?" Big Nutbrown Hare is constantly one-upping Little Nutbrown Hare, and it is Not Okay.

Also currently hating on "The Hedgehog Leaves Home", which we got at Ikea, and our 2-year-old inexplicably loves but the writing is terrible and there's a random moose and every time I get to the page I'm all WHY IS THERE A MOOSE. Husband and I change up the verbage on that one on a regular basis.

At my mom's house, I found a copy of "Noisy Nora", and realized just how awful it is ("Nora," said her sister, "why are you so dumb?"), but I adored it as a child. The mice. The rhyming. The put-downs. Ahhh, childhood.

"Are You My Mother?" is still well-liked but I can't help but notice there's a car in the middle that baby bird mistakes for his mother, and then it never gets referenced again. I wish I could edit that car out. It just doesn't further the narrative one bit.
posted by offalark at 11:08 AM on June 4, 2015 [1 favorite]


Oh man, somewhere I have a little movie clip of one of my daughters c. 3-y.o. They had a set of little board books with the standard nursery rhymes, and every time I read The Old Woman Who Lived In A Shoe, I'd get grumpy at the original (the part about "she gave them somme broth without any bread, then scolded them soundly and sent them to bed"? who the fuck is this caricature of a welfare mom? that's not what moms do) and tell it my way: "There was an old woman who lived in a shoe, she had so many children, her uterus fell out! She gave them yummy soup and bread, then hugged them and kissed them and sent them to bed." So I read it that way for about six months.

Then the book fell out of circulation for another six months or so. When kid found it again, she was overjoyed! She insisted I read it to her. And I thought to myself, hmm, she's getting older, I should probably omit the anatomical bit, so I substituted "she didn't know what to do," and kid stopped me and said, "No dad, her uterus fell out."

Somehow I managed to hold it together long enough to get my camera, and I recorded a little snippet of me saying, "Kid, will you help me tell the story? There was an old woman..." with her chiming in.

Yep.
posted by disconnect at 11:50 AM on June 4, 2015 [3 favorites]


Extra Yarn and I Want My Hat Back spring to mind.

I agree with this so much I bought the shirt.
posted by zinc saucier at 11:54 AM on June 4, 2015


> I've hidden books on occasion. I'm not proud of this, but I'll admit it.

I don't have kids, but when I was in high school I often babysat for our next-door neighbours and their kids FREAKED OUT the one time I hid whichever book it was they wanted me to read over and over and over again. I had to pretend to "find" it to calm them down.
posted by The Card Cheat at 12:52 PM on June 4, 2015


Weirdly, this is the *second* negative review of "The Poky Little Puppy" I have come across on the internet today. (Admittedly, the first one probably would not make sense to anyone who has not been following the Hugo Award controversy closely.)
posted by kyrademon at 2:28 AM on June 5, 2015


So my mother was a substitute librarian while I was in gradeschool, and when she had posts at the children's section of some branch or other she'd sometimes pop me down in a corner or wave me over to the YA section. Reader's Advisory work is both especially subtle and brutally frank with younger readers, and all of the librarians have their tales of revelations made after communication gaps were bridged by book recommendations. So this was a tale I remember overhearing (though not reliably) passed around the break room:

An exasperated parent comes to the desk asking for anything at all that would save the family from Yet Another Bedtime Reading of some truly trashy supermarket check-out impulse buy of a book about a puppy. Hey, it may even have been Poky, but I always remembered it as one of those product tie-in books for like a Pound Puppies stuffed dog or something. The story was bland and the artwork anodyne, and the writing was bad enough to set these parents' teeth on edge.

So the librarian takes the girl for a discreet stroll around the collection, not suggesting anything but just asking her about the much-maligned book and what her favourite part was. Eventually they come back with five titles that had nothing to do with dogs, and one beaming and excited little girl. The parent gasps, and asks semi-privately, "So how did you do that? We've tried every book on our shelves and she'd never take any of them!"

"Oh," says the librarian, trying not to step on any toes, "I just told her my job is to learn about books, and I asked her to teach me why that one was so good. She told me it was because the puppy was adopted...



...just like her."

Sometimes we need to find out why a terrible book captures a child's imagination. There's often immense potential, there.
posted by rum-soaked space hobo at 2:54 PM on June 5, 2015 [5 favorites]


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