Friday, September 18, 2009

Magic, loss and other topics for children

On learning of Mary Travers' death, I listened to Puff, the Magic Dragon yesterday morning. Abbie had never heard it before. She seemed surprised when I got teary at the end, not expecting either the sad ending or me to react to it. But of course I have both moved beyond childhood and lost friends in my life, so I know what it feels like to sadly slip into my cave. With her on the cusp of adulthood, I couldn't help but feel an extra twinge on her behalf.

It is urban legend that Puff is about smoking marijuana. But Peter Yarrow says it's not (actually, sings that it's not here), and that's good enough for me. The song is about losing innocence, which is a lot more profound than singing about getting high.

The theme of lost innocence seems to explain why so many people have connected to the song over the years -- well, that and the catchy melody. We all feel some reluctance and regret about giving up the magical time of childhood. I find I like it that Peter, Paul and Mary sometimes sang a final verse in present tense when they performed the song. Wonder and magic and delight live by the sea, and we can still frolick in the autumn mist when we choose to.

Which brings me to children's books. When Yarrow published the story, the illustrations suggested a happier ending, showing a little girl coming to play with Puff. My first reaction was disappointment. It seemed like children should encounter the original story, with all its poignancy. They could take from it as much as they were ready for -- a fun story about having a dragon for a friend, or a story of loss.

But now I'm not sure. If I like the addition of a present tense verse, isn't it good to allow kids the same uplift? Yes, the Puff story should be a chance for young children to learn about loss and sadness in a safe fictional place. Children will find out that loss and change are part of life, one way or another. Puff is a good way to encounter that hard truth early on. So letting children know that even with loss you can grieve and survive and even be happy again seems like the right way to end the story.

It's called hope. And we all need as much hope as we can get.

Rest in peace, Mary Travers.