Thursday, August 13, 2009

Do mother and father know best?

I read something recently that mentioned parents disagreeing about what they should let their daughter read. It got me to thinking about the whole idea of deciding what our children read. When they're infants, of course the adults get to pick. But after that, I'm not so sure we should exercise much control over which books our kids choose. Maybe it's just me, but I have never been smart enough to make the right decisions about what Abbie reads.

Take In the Night Kitchen by Maurice Sendak, for instance. I didn't object to Mickey's nudity or the other aspects of the book that have caused so much controversy. But I did find it a little unsettling -- there's definitely something a bit strange about a little boy encountering a group of Oliver Hardy figures in his home at night and narrowly escaping being baked inside a cake.

But my perspective was an adult one. Abbie loved the book. She picked it out at the library and we read it over and over for a time. I don't know why she loved it, but I suspect it had something to do with Mickey flying around and taking charge of what scared him at night and all the fantastic scenery he moves through.

As in so many other instances, I realized I didn't have to understand what the appeal was -- I just had to trust Abbie to know what she needed. (Which was easier to do after I talked to a friend who assured me that her two perfectly well adjusted children had loved it when they were little, too.)

I guess I shouldn't have been surprised when a couple of years later Abbie developed a huge fondness for Jack the Giant Killer stories. If you don't know these stories, they're related to Jack and the Beanstalk but much more gruesome. The plot is the same in all of them: the unlikely hero Jack uses his wit to slay the mighty giant.

Abbie encountered the old stories in a vintage children's book when she was about four, and was entranced. Not only did we read and re-read the Jack stories, but we invented new ones. Dozens of them. When we were traveling or had quiet time, Abbie would beg for a Jack story. She'd help set up the scene -- this time, the giant has fire for hair! -- and I'd spin out yet another variation. My Jack sometimes trapped giants and tamed them, but lots of times he invented new and better ways to outwit and kill them. After all, who was I to tamper with the Jack formula?

Bruno Bettelheim says in The Uses of Enchantment that fairy tales help children through important developmental stages. It's easy to see how Night Kitchen and the Jack stories could help a child cope with being the youngest and smallest in a world full of mysterious and large people and things. If Howard and I had censored Abbie's reading, maybe she would have missed out on something she needed. Maybe she wouldn't be as confident when she moves out into the world to confront her own giants and ... chubby mustachioed bakers.