In Praise of Frog and Toad

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Once again, Joshua Gibbs offers us plenty of encouragement and food for thought. In his recent article, Why We Need Frog and Toad More Than Ever, he extols the virtues of children’s books which offer opportunities for growth rather than banal celebrations for existing.

If I were not a Christian, Arnold Lobel’s Frog and Toad books would be my holy scripture. When I meet a sane adult, I assume his sanity comes largely from having heard Frog and Toad stories in his youth. Yesterday, I read my sophomore humanities students four stories from a Frog and Toad anthology. It would be impolite to assume you, noble reader, are not intimately familiar with all the Frog and Toad stories, but, in case too many years have elapsed between today and your last reading, I will briefly describe the four stories I read to my sophomores.

After offering synopses of the Frog and Toad stories entitled, “Cookies”, “The Lost Button”, “Tomorrow”, and “A Swim”, each as funny as they are profound, Mr. Gibbs points out the clear yet deftly presented lesson from each story:

Like many children’s books from the 60s, 70s, and 80s, Frog and Toad stories involve the two titular characters overcoming common problems which arise from vice. “Cookies” is about gluttony, “The Lost Button” is about anger, “Tomorrow” is about sloth,” and “A Swim” is about pride. In each story, the only way to beat vice is through some form of suffering. Good things do not happen in Frog and Toad stories apart from suffering, self-denial, or self-control.

As an avid library patron as well as a teacher and homeschool parent, I can attest to Gibbs’ follow-up point. Namely, that most contemporary children’s stories fall far short of Frog and Toad when it comes to teaching relevant life lessons. It’s almost as if they fear children can’t handle real life opportunities to suffer -even on a small scale- and grow as a result:

However, children’s books have become increasingly squeamish when it comes to addressing genuine human problems, let alone the idea that vice must be painfully overcome through virtue. In the 1970s, a girl named Tina in a children’s book might be afraid to learn to ride a bike, then slowly learn with the help of her mother and friends. Today, the same book does not involve Tina learning anything, but is simply 1) a celebration of the fact Tina can already ride a bike or 2) a celebration of the fact Tina could learn to ride a bike if she so chose or 3) a celebration of the fact that while Tina cannot ride a bike, she can do 50 other interesting things. Granted, not all contemporary kids books are this banal, but one should not pick up a lately published children’s book and expect to find a character like Frog, who recognizes that he and his friend are gluttons and properly concludes, “We need will power.”

Now there’s a novel thought; that children benefit from learning self-control at an early age. Instead, and this not true of all contemporary children’s books, but I have seen this dynamic more than once:

Contemporary children’s books are big on celebrations. Were Frog and Toad stories rewritten today, Frog and Toad would feel no need to stop eating cookies but finish the bowl and celebrate their new curvaceous amphibian bodies. Toad would feel no need to clean his house but celebrate the fact that some people are simply messy and others are just neat. I also sense that Toad is— to us, at least— a lost button survivor, and that regardless of how unvirtuously he handled losing his button, he deserves a medal just for having something mildly unfortunate happen to him.

Gibbs makes an excellent point here, and all of this: the refusal to teach delayed gratification, suffering, and overcoming problems through strength of character, have lead us to the situation that many of us,old-fashioned as we are, lament today:

This current tendency (in children’s books and the world beyond) to sidestep problems and suffering and instead focus on praise and celebration has not made our lives more enjoyable, more satisfying, or more peaceable. While lately published articles suggest Americans are among the most stressed out people in the world, I am not content that “most stressed out” distinguishes handling a lot of stress well from handling a little stress very poorly. As opposed to teaching our children that their problems can be overcome, we have lately begun telling them, “You are good. Your problems are part of who you are. Your problems do not need to be overcome, because you do not actually have any problems. The problem is with the world. The world has not properly understood you or celebrated you.” In this, the secular world has largely followed the late Christian tendency to rob people of their right to struggle against sin. “Not perfect, just forgiven” and “God accepts me as I am” are nothing more than half-pious ways of saying, “I was born this way.” No wonder we are such a stressed-out people. We speak as though fighting sin were treason against the self.

I think I’ll end right there and invite you to click over and read the whole thing.

I know this much: I’ll never think of Frog and Toad quite the same way again.

Anne of Green Gables: Reviews of two versions

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Anne of Green Gables, by Lucy Maud Montgomery. Originally published in 1908.

As I re-read this book along with the kids in my writing and literature class, I was almost instantly reminded, as I often am , of this saying from the late C. S. Lewis:

“No book is really worth reading at the age of ten which is not equally – and often far more – worth reading at the age of fifty and beyond.”

Because Anne of Green Gables is such a widely read and well-known story, I’ll offer the Goodreads synopsis for the sake of time. There are several angles concerning the story and its recent modern adaptation that I wish to explore in this post. From Goodreads:

As soon as Anne Shirley arrives at the snug white farmhouse called Green Gables, she is sure she wants to stay forever . . . but will the Cuthberts send her back to to the orphanage? Anne knows she’s not what they expected—a skinny girl with fiery red hair and a temper to match. If only she can convince them to let her stay, she’ll try very hard not to keep rushing headlong into scrapes and blurting out the first thing that comes to her mind. Anne is not like anyone else, the Cuthberts agree; she is special—a girl with an enormous imagination. This orphan girl dreams of the day when she can call herself Anne of Green Gables.

The Cuthberts do keep Anne, of course, else this delightful story full of adventure and learning wouldn’t be the beloved story it has become for over 100 years.

One of the most wonderful, and for me equally taxing aspects of Anne’s character, is her persistent insistence that everything must be expressed or executed in the most romantic and poetical way possible. There are times when I find her expressions utterly delightful. I laughed out loud this:

“People laugh at me because I use big words. But if you have big ideas, you have to use big words to express them, haven’t you?”

And conversely rolled my eyes at this, despite my sympathy with Anne’s drab dress as insisted on by Marilla:

“It is ever so much easier to be good if your clothes are fashionable.”

It was such fun to revisit the characters of Green Gables and Avonlea. As before, Matthew Cuthbert and Gilbert Blythe were my favorites (besides Anne of course). A good story, including those written for children, never goes out of style.

Book: 5 out of 5 stars

As it happens, I learned that there is a new adaptation of this beloved story recently released on Netflix. I made a point of refusing to watch or allowing my kids to watch it until we had finished reading the book in class. We are not quite finished as an entire class (this week we’ll wrap it up), but I and my daughter have finished reading it, so I decided we could safely take a peek at how these producers adapted the story.

The first season, despite artistic licenses and addition of melodrama for viewers, wasn’t horrible. Because I love the original story, I was a little perturbed at the ways they changed the story to create a more dramatic effect. I didn’t feel such changes were warranted.

I appreciated most of the castings, including the casting of Anne. The actress beautifully captures the spirit of the character as Lucy Maud Montgomery wrote her over 100 years ago. I felt a similar satisfaction with the casting of Marilla Cuthbert, Mrs. Rachel Lynde and Gilbert Blythe.

They did a less than stellar job with Josie Pye. Further, I detested the fact that made Miss Josephine Barry a spinster due to the fact that she was a lesbian who lived for many years with her “partner” Gertrude, recently deceased.

They licenses they took with some story lines were understandable in some ways, and in other ways unnecessary.

Overall, I was so turned off by the development of Miss Barry’s character that I was thankful for having done the research ahead of time -actually my daughter did it- which clued me in on what to expect in the episodes. It spared me from being blindsided by the “inclusive” propaganda.

As it turns out, not having seen those episodes left a better impression of the show on me than would have remained otherwise. As it stands, I definitely won’t finish it, and the kids and I are looking forward to enjoying the PBS adaptation sometimes later in the spring, after the hustle and bustle of the second semester is over.

Netflix adaptation: 3 out of 5 stars

 

In the Queue…

Today was a library run day. What started out as a quick trip to pick up a specific book, Thomas Sowell’s latest Discrimination and Disparities, ended with my checking out the Bible sized Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan.

Friedan’s seminal work is one of those books that I’ve read a lot about, and read a lot of excerpts from, while never actually reading the book to take in the entirety of Friedan’s arguments and the conclusions she drew. I don’t expect the reading to soften my disdain for the havoc she unleashed along with Simone de Beauvoir, author of The Second Sex.

However, I have learned over the years that many of the most notoriously damaging social thinkers and commentators in recent history had their fingers on the pulse of a real problem. It was their prescriptions which were toxic and culturally destructive. So I am reading The Feminine Mystique, but not until I finish with Thomas Sowell. Priorities!

I am also in the final stages of reading through Hippies of the Religious Right by Preston Shires. This is, so far a highly enlightening book and one that I look forward to exploring here.  In other words, there is some heavy reading going on here at present, but not all of the reading is heavy.

I also just finished The Adventures of Tom Sawyer with my kids, who had to read it for school. Whimsical, funny, and astute, it was a fun read and the perfect counter balance to all the weightier philosophical, cultural, and religious writings that have occupied my reading time. Because Tom Sawyer is such a well known and widely read work, I have decided not to review it here, but I will offer one of my favorite quotes from it:

“He had discovered a great law of human action, without knowing it—namely, that in order to make a man or a boy covet a thing, it is only necessary to make the thing difficult to attain. If he had been a great and wise philosopher, like the writer of this book, he would now have comprehended that Work consists of whatever a body is OBLIGED to do, and that Play consists of whatever a body is not obliged to do.”

Lastly, Advent is upon us, beginning on Sunday December 2, and after much research and exploration, we have rested on Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s God is in a Manger as the devotional for this year. Reflecting as we commemorate the Advent of the Savior is important to us, and I am really looking forward to this devotional.

That’s what’s in my queue. Do tell:

What is in YOUR reading queue as the end of 2018 rushes upon us?

Our love affair with magical nannies.

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There was a nanny debate the other night in our house. No, we’re not considering getting a nanny! The debate centered upon which is the most magical magical Nanny. Is it Nanny McPhee  (originally Nurse Matilda) or Mary Poppins? After this post at Of Maria Antonia recently reminded me of the similarly delightful Mrs. Piggle Wiggle, I came away wondering about our love affair with magical nannies, and began Googling in an earnest search for others I may have forgotten.

Including the delightful dog Nanna in J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan,  it was clear that the magical nanny trope extends beyond my original limited imagination of what a magical nanny is. She’s not only characterized by the possession of literal magical powers, but also has a magical effect on the entire family as she serves. The literary blog Slap Happy Larry outlines the general story arc of children’s books which employ the magical nanny trope:

  • The parents are colourless and unremarkable except for their utter cluelessness.
  • The nanny might be actually magic, or seems to work magic due to being a ‘child whisperer’
  • The children are highly spirited tricksters
  • The nanny sees right through the children and although she may have a harsh exterior, has a heart of gold
  • The children are at least upper middle class
  • Nanny stories of the old-fashioned kind, set in large houses, are probably from an earlier era such as the Edwardian
  • The plots tend to be episodic rather than dramatic, with each day bringing a new adventure which is over and solved by bedtime. But there is still a character arc whereby the children become better behaved (or more morally upstanding) by the end of the story.

Mrs. Piggle Wiggle, an American story, necessarily demands a slightly different twist on the notion than we find in the the other renown stories, typically written by British authors. In contrast to Nurse Matilda, Mary Poppins, or even Nanna, Mrs. Piggle Wiggle doesn’t live with her charges. Instead, she is a kindly neighborhood lady whom all the children love and all the parents trust to know just the trick to rectify their children’s bad or detrimental behavior.

This short exploration doesn’t even begin to address the numerous nannies and nursemaids to be found in adult literature, who are far more likely to have a significant effect than magical powers. The unrefined but devoted Mrs. Wix from Henry James’ What Maisie Knew springs to mind here. I’m not sure I could even exhaust the list in a short post as short as this one. This leads  me to the question:

What is it about the magical nannies that grabs hold of our imaginations and makes us enjoy them so? I have my own hypothesis, but I’d much rather hear yours first!

 

 

 

 

Beyond Early Readers — marginalia books

Our youngest two children -10 and 12- are beyond early reader and even the newly independent reader stages. They are currently reading Tom Sawyer for their literature class. However, those early years when young kids are just beginning to read independently are precious, and Marginalia Books offers some excellent suggestions for nurturing that stage of a child’s literary development.

 

My two oldest weren’t exactly fluent readers yet but old favorites like Mouse Soup and Frog and Toad were too easy. They needed something interesting and challenging but weren’t ready for most chapter books. Here are some of the early chapter books we found and loved: Mercy Watson Series by Kate DiCamillo We loved the […]

via Beyond Early Readers — marginalia books

Nurse Matilda

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Nurse Matilda, from Nanny McPhee, the collected tales of Nurse Matilda, by Christianna Brand. Originally published in 1964. I read the first story in the book, which was 132 pages. The entire volume (published in 2005) is 384 pages.

The past couple of weeks have been a little hectic. How hectic? I haven’t even made it to the library hectic. When coupled with the fact that I was spending far too much time imbibing the sensational, depressing and slightly infuriating news of the day, I decided what I needed was a good, funny children’s book. I don’t really need to go to the library to find a book, since I haven’t even read all of these yet:

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Given that there are shelves and shelves of books here, many that I haven’t ever read, I decided to poke around and find something cute and funny, and landed on this collection of beloved stories by Christianna Brand. They  are the stories on which the Nanny McPhee movies our family enjoys were based on.

Nurse Matilda is an ugly nanny with a magic stick who is called in by parents whose children are naughty beyond anything anyone else has been able handle, and the Brown children are the worst the nannies of their town have ever seen. Every group of nannies and nurses who run screaming from the Brown house after little more than one day on the job offers the Browns this advice: “You need Nurse Matilda!”

The Browns not only have children who are naughtier than most, they also have more children than most other families which makes their plight all the more lamentable. They don’t know who this Nurse Matilda is or how to reach her, but thankfully she mysteriously shows up at their door one day ready to tackle the task.

The children try as they might to rattle Nurse Matilda, but to no avail. They are no match for her, as she is able to handle all of their hysterical antics with aplomb, emerging victorious as she helps the children learn to be more obedient and mannerly. Along the way, the formerly ugly nanny becomes more and more beautiful to everyone in her midst as the children become better behaved.

I enjoyed this story’s slight twist on the ending that most people are familiar with from the movie, as it did surprise me, and I fully appreciate why Nurse Matilda is a beloved character. She was just what the doctor ordered for me this week.

4 out of 5 Stars

Reading level: This book can be quite enjoyable at the 3-4 grade independent reading level. As a read aloud, children as young as 1st grade would find it quite funny. Especially the baby.

Little House Books victim of woke hysteria.

There have been, throughout history, many great books written; books which have rightfully earned their spot on shelves as timeless classics. If we took a microscope to each and every one of those books with the express intent of removing any and all books with language in them which offends any particular group of people, we would have to remove the vast majority of books from the shelves.

If there was ever a set of books which finds me incredulous at the idea that they are harmful, it’s Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House book series. Our children love those books, and we have no intention of removing them from our shelves, despite being well aware of the “offensiveness” found within their pages. The Association of Library Services to Children cannot abide Wilder’s handling of Native Americans in her stories:

Laura Ingalls Wilder was on the brink of having an award named in her honor, from the Association for Library Service to Children, when in 1952 a reader complained to the publisher of “Little House on the Prairie” about what the reader found to be a deeply offensive statement about Native Americans.

The reader pointed specifically to the book’s opening chapter, “Going West.” The 1935 tale of a pioneering family seeking unvarnished, unoccupied land opens with a character named Pa, modeled after Wilder’s own father, who tells of his desire to go “where the wild animals lived without being afraid.” Where “the land was level, and there were no trees.”

And where “there were no people. Only Indians lived there.”

Although the complaint didn’t spark action at the time, the American Library Association has decided to make things right:

Now, after years of complaints, the Association for Library Service to Children, a division of the American Library Association, says it voted Saturday to strip Wilder’s name from the award.

The decision makes Wilder the latest target of efforts to purge from the cultural landscape symbols that honor historical figures who owned slaves, espoused racist views or engaged in racist practices.

Books, as well as their authors, are products of the time and place in which they are set and in which the author lives. All of these elements are an important part of what makes books rich and interesting, providing depth and context of history. If we strip away all evidence of cultural and linguistic markers which are out of step with our modern sensibilities, we lose far more than we gain.

In exchange for the temporary and shallow pride of being able to signal our postmodern virtue, we miss out on the opportunity to discuss the why, hows, and wherefores of the cultural past. We miss out on the opportunity to explain to our children cultural and linguistic evolution, including the things which we find objectionable today.

In our home, we do not shield our children from books which contain derogatory racial terms, including or even especially terms which may be personally offensive to us as a black family. Why should we forgo an opportunity for them to learn, grow, and acknowledge the amount of progress our country has made in its treatment of black Americans, something we believe is generally true against the recent backdrop of inflammatory headlines?

When reading the Little House books, or Peter Pan, or any number of books which refer to Native Americans in ways that our current cultural iteration finds offensive, our children inevitably ask questions. These questions open the door to dialogue and understanding.

Further, I find it offensive to hold authors or anyone else who lived 100 years ago to a standard of behavior which didn’t exist when they were alive so as to retroactively smear their work and exact punitive redress. Laura Ingalls Wilder was a product of her time, and her books reflected that.

To publicly flog her for a series of books which have an imperfect presentation of current ideology, while ignoring the virtues and morals within their pages is just another example of how “wokeness” is killing our humanity, our ability to enjoy life and our ability to enjoy truly great literature.

More than that, to emphasize a cultural negative at the expense of all the hard work, family togetherness, faith, charity and community the Little House books offer does more than shield us from the bad. It shields us from the good as well.