6 Children's Books Whose Real Story Flew Over Your Head
Unless you're some kind of weirdo who still reads the same books from childhood -- or the kind of weirdo who actually has kids of their own -- you probably haven't checked out any picture books in a while. Well, guess what: There's some heavy shit out there. Since our prepubescent brains weren't equipped to untangle them, let us present a series of book reports on some of those childhood favorites that totally flew over your head while you were busy eating glue.
The Cat In The Hat Is About Finding Our Moral Compass In A Godless Universe
Despite having been turned into a feature film full of boner jokes and regret, Dr. Seuss' The Cat In The Hat continues to endure as one of the most-read children's books ever. And what's not to like? After all, it's the whimsical story of a talking cat who owns a goddamn hat. And! It also works as a treatise on modulating your sense of moral value in the absence of a god.
You see, the book finds two kids being left alone by their mother, who presumably had a gig in another children's book across town. So, the girl (Sally) and the unnamed boy (Tyler Durden?) just sit there and stare out the window.
All the calamitous events of this story could have been avoided with a good old-fashioned TV set.
In strolls the Cat in the Hat, a figure of anarchy and moral decrepitude. He promises meaningless frivolity to Sally and her brother, encouraging them to disregard their mother's rules -- if she's not here, what does it matter? Only the family's pet fish tries to remind the kids that adhering to a code of conduct is important, the freaking killjoy. This is a good point to mention that the image of a fish has traditionally been used to represent the church.
This explains why he asks the kids to drop money in the bowl after each sermon.
Of course, authority figure or not, the fish is still a goddamn fish. He can preach all he wants, but can't ultimately force the kids to do anything. So the Cat's shenanigans are allowed to continue, but then it turns out the fish had a pretty good point -- the house does get totally effed up. These dumb kids may as well have invited Led Zeppelin to crash there.
We'll skip over whatever gross conclusions one could draw from kids playing with their "Things."
But then, in stark contrast to all those children's stories where bad decision-making and irresponsibility are punished, the Cat simply shows up with a magic-cleaning machine and fixes everything. By the time the mom comes home, there's no evidence that the children were indulging in any sinful pleasures. Yay! Nothing matters and we are alone in a cold, indifferent universe!
Then the mom realizes there was a gas leak in the house and their kids were tripping balls.
The final passage of the book asks, "Should we tell her about it? Now, what SHOULD we do? Well ... What would YOU do if your mother asked you?" The implication here is that the rules and moral guidelines handed down by society are meaningless. A goldfish can't stop you from doing a bunch of crazy shit. If no one is watching over us, then you are the ultimate arbiter of how or if you're to be judged. Basically: You need to find your own moral code to navigate life. Dr. Seuss was more like Omar from The Wire than we thought.
The Snowman Is A Primer On Death (According To Its Author)
Raymond Briggs' classic picture book The Snowman is the magical tale of a boy who finds his snowman has come to life. It's kind of like the story of Frosty, except this snowman's magic isn't dependent upon stealing clothing from poverty-stricken street performers. The boy and his new frozen buddy play around the house and even fly across the country, thankfully not taking out any passenger jets in their feverish pursuit of Christmas adventure.
"I can't feel 90 percent of my body! Wheeeee!"
Then, in a real gut punch of an ending, the little boy wakes up the next morning to find the snowman has melted, either because the weather got warm or the family dog got jealous and had a flamethrower.
Those aren't buttons, those are dog turds.
So, is the story sending a message about the fleeting magic of youth? Maybe it's about not leaving your stuff out in the yard overnight? Nope, according to Briggs himself, the book was "designed to introduce children to the concept of mortality." In his words: "The snowman melts, my parents died, animals die, flowers die. Everything does." (We're assuming the editors had to shoot down his original title, Everybody Dies.) And it's not just the ending; this heavy theme is hinted at throughout the book. For instance, we see that the boy's father wears dentures:
Thankfully the Snowman never put them on, sending the story into Lynchian nightmare territory.
This means that the dad is actually pretty old to have such a young kid -- so mortality is a concept this boy is going to have to deal with at some point soon. We also see some visual foreshadowing of the snowman's death when he lies down in the coffin-like freezer:
This metaphor is confusing us, because Dracula too was pretty immortal when he slept in his coffin.
Of course, Briggs' message of learning to cope with loss probably didn't get through to most people. This includes the ones who made the TV sequel where the Snowman comes back to life, not to mention the video-game adaptation in which the little boy builds a snow golem while simultaneously battling anthropomorphic piss droplets.
To be fair, nothing says "Christmas" more than piss and snow.
Paddington Bear Is About The Immigrant Experience
A Bear Called Paddington is the beloved story of that cuddly bear found by a nice English couple in Paddington Station. Good thing picture books can't convey odor, because this plot is more or less boils down to "imagining the joys of adopting a feral animal loitering on the floor of a train station."
"This jar has been my toilet for the past five years."
Despite the fact that it's pretty goddamn crazy that there's a talking bear in a duffle coat, most people react to Paddington not with amazement, but with prejudice. Like the cab driver who charges extra for bears:
"Nothing personal, I just hate brown people."
Even Paddington's adoptive family try have him fit their mold rather than learn about his culture. Instead of taking a few minutes to learn his Peruvian name, they literally give him the first "English one" they see: the name of the goddamn train station they're all standing in.
This is set in a reality where bears can talk, and Spanish is a dead language.
It's pretty clear that Paddington's story is meant to represent the immigrant experience in England -- but it's likely an even more specific commentary than one might realize. The location of Paddington Station was one of the means by which a large influx of West Indian immigrants entered Britain in the 50s. The racial tension bubbled up into the brutal Notting Hill race riot in 1958 (not to be confused with the Notting Hill riots from 1999, when people demanded Hugh Grant's head). Incidentally, 1958 is the same year the first Paddington book was published.
The recent movie adaptation didn't ignore this context, incorporating calypso music in the soundtrack as a reference to the Notting Hill immigrant culture. Even Paddington's distinctive suitcase and "Please Look After this Bear" tag aren't totally apolitical -- they were inspired by the author's memories of children being evacuated during WWII, standing in a train station with "a label round their neck with their name and address on and a little case or package containing all their treasured possessions." So, yep, Paddington is a refugee.
Today's refugees aren't such big fans of red hats.
If all that wasn't enough, one of Paddington's best friends is an actual Hungarian refugee who escaped Hitler. This all means that Paddington becoming a symbol for immigration reform isn't as inexplicable and random as we once thought.
Much like how Harry Potter has become a symbol for not leaving babies on the doorsteps of jackass families.
Corduroy Is About the Pitfalls Of Materialism
You might remember Corduroy, the bumbling toy bear from children's literature who, unlike Winnie the Pooh, never tried to curb teen crack use. Corduroy was the simple story of a bear who goes in search of a missing overalls button -- or that's what The Man (your dad) wanted you to think. Intentionally or not, it's also a layered allegory about how empty the promises of consumer culture are.
Which is a lot more palatable coming from a cartoon bear and not, say, a turtleneck-clad free-association poet.
At the beginning of the book, Corduroy is for sale at a department store, but nobody wants to take him home. Corduroy thinks it's because he's flawed, so when the store closes, he goes looking for something he thinks will make him whole: the missing button. So, we have a character going in search of what's missing in his life in a pantheon of consumerism, like a teen browsing Hot Topic for that one shirt that speaks to his tormented soul.
Anyway, the language of the book makes it clear that Corduroy is dazzled by the opulence:
"That man mopping diarrhea from the bathroom floor must be the king!"
Corduroy thinks he finds the button, AKA the one material object he believes will give him fulfillment -- but it's sewn onto a mattress. Meaning that the happiness provided by the hollow pursuit of wealth is merely illusory. Corduroy was basically Mad Men, but featuring an adorable bear with (hopefully) fewer vices.
Alternate lesson: Never leave home without a pocket knife, kids.
Because Corduroy doesn't belong in the "palace" of the upper classes, he's then escorted out by the night watchmen. It's worth noting that he looks just like a cop:
Ironically, the bail is set at "one overalls button."
Eventually, Corduroy is bought by an African-American girl, which itself was rare for the time. She takes him back to her family's apartment, and the narrator specifically mentions that the place "looks like complete shit" (okay, we're paraphrasing here) compared to the luxurious illusion Corduroy had sought earlier. And yet, it makes him happy.
The blanket appears to be stitched together from several restaurant napkins.
While the author wouldn't admit that he wrote Corduroy was leftist propaganda, he did go on the record as saying that he "wanted the story to show the vast difference between the luxury of a department store [and] the simple life [most people live]." That's a more delicate way of putting it than "BURN CAPITALISM," we guess.
The Little Engine That Could Is An Early Feminist Hero
For parents that want to introduce kids to an anthropomorphic choo-choo train without all of Thomas The Tank Engine's fascist bullshit, there's The Little Engine That Could. It's the classic story that teaches kids about self-confidence, and to always give strangers a ride no matter what. Even if they're dressed as terrifying clowns.
Everyone on this train was murdered shortly thereafter.
In the most popular version of the story, the train happens to be female -- possibly because in 1930, you had to turn women into anthropomorphic objects in order to empower them. The evidence that The Little Engine is actually about feminism is pretty compelling. The story finds a bunch of childlike animals and clowns stranded, trying to flag down trains as they pass. Note that the trains are all dudes, and they're all total jerks for no good reason.
Even Ringo's narration couldn't make this train douchebaggery seem charming.
Three male trains explain (trainsplain?) why they can't help out the stranded circus folk before the pointedly female train comes along and goes "eh, sure."
You're not supposed to chug and drive.
This train is smaller, and has been told she can't go over the mountain. She's been relegated to a life of domesticity, hitching trains together in the yard and probably cooking coal sandwiches. Nevertheless she agrees to try, and of course, succeeds -- it would be a goddamn awful children's book if it ended with a fiery wreck filled with burning clowns. How does she manage to do this? Purely through repeating "I think I can" over and over again.
That farmer is about to get whooped for staring at her carriage.
Note that the "little engine" doesn't have to change anything within herself. She's always been able to do what the male trains do -- she's just been told she couldn't. So, this is actually a progressive story of gender equality, with the only downside being that we now know trains are sentient beings that have been enslaved for humanity's transportation needs.
Yup, Frog And Toad Taught Kids To Accept A Gay Couple
Frog And Toad Are Friends is a series of children's books about two amphibian best buddies in a quaint forest home. Think The Wind In The Willows, but with fewer mammals and DUIs. The book features charming tales such as Frog and Toad wolfing down cookies as if they just knocked over the Keebler joint two trees down:
When Frog and Toad is adapted for prestige TV, this scene will be a years-long storyline.
Or going for a naked swim together:
Not fanfiction. Trust us, you don't want to see the fanfiction.
A lot of the stories end in big gestures where they prove that they love each other ... which some have interpreted as meaning that they, you know, love each other.
You know it's true love when they overlook your hideous toes.
Sure, they could just be platonic best friends, but there's something very life partner-y about Frog and Toad's relationship. This isn't a baseless theory either -- the author, Arnold Lobel, revealed to his family he was gay just four years after the first story came out. And while gay men can obviously write stories about talking animals who aren't gay, Lobel's daughter later claimed that "Frog And Toad really was the beginning of him coming out."
In this new context, stories like "Spring" become especially sweet and poignant. That's the one in which Frog wants Toad to come out ... and enjoy the warm April weather. The curmudgeonly Toad won't leave his bed, only rising when Frog tricks him into thinking it's May, and the two have a lovely (albeit lie-filled) stroll.
And then Toad died from his deadly allergies.
For more children's products that just got a little too adult, check out 6 Bafflingly Dark Moments In Beloved Children's Book Series and 8 Kids Movies With Horrifying Scenes You Forgot About.
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