Mental Horizons,  Writing

Old Cabins and Old Books

I like rain on a tin roof, or the outside of a sailboat, until it becomes a deluge. We’ve been living with the constant rain for a week now and the toddler and I both have cabin fever. Geoff just works and the dog sneaks outside regularly to get muddy. And I’m not talking drizzle, either. It’s a constant, pounding downpour that makes it hard to hear the person I’m trying to talk to for work or what Skye is doing in the next room.

For the summer, we are spending some time at my family’s mountain cabin. This cabin was bought by my family in the early 1900s as a hunting lodge. Each subsequent generation has added on to the cabin, to the point where we now have plenty of space, a generous kitchen, running water, and electric lights. My generation is just now starting to make its impact doing things like bringing the electrical system up to code, adding a new water heater, patching the roof, and of course bringing in WiFi.

The cabin is a lovely place, with a tin roof that helps you go to sleep when the rain is beating down, old furniture that has withstood the test of time, chipped dishware, random funny signs, and lots and lots of old knickknacks. There is even a shelf full of children’s books that Skye has been enjoying working her way through, “reading” them to herself or curling up with me at night under piles of blankets to listen.

While not all the old toys work, and many of the books are missing pages, some are entertaining and many of them are classic children’s books that our parents and grandparents read. It’s been somewhat interesting to me to read these books in the context of our current generation and current moral thinking and my thoughts on raising my child.

In some instances, there are some entertaining changes that I have to make to the books. For example, in one book about a teddy bear that goes to the beach for the day, I have to edit one page so that instead of “sunning in his buns,” the teddy bear takes a nap in the shade.

With its attractive yellow color and picture of a monkey on the front, Curious George is one that my daughter has been asking for recently. As a classic children’s book, and as someone who generally appreciates classic books for what they are and the context in which they were written, I was happy to read the book to my child. It had not been a favorite book for me growing up, so I did not remember the original premise of the story. However, considering how much Curious George is still around in children’s media, I assumed that the story would be cute, maybe a little dated, but on the whole, OK.

Short version to this rant, the story is not OK and I don’t understand why it’s considered a classic. As the story progresses, I become more and more frustrated what some people still seem to think its OK to teach children. The first time through, we read it without commentary, and I put it aside hoping that she would go back to the teddy bear getting skin cancer at the beach.

Classic children’s books are enduring for a reason, there’s something in them that attracts children. Maybe it’s the funny thought of the monkey stealing the balloons or the firemen running around trying to respond to the prank call. Whatever the reason, Skye wants Curious George to remain in our reading rotation. Which means I need to come up with a way to talk to my child about the problems with the book.

Let’s start with the fact that the man in the yellow hat goes to Africa, sees a monkey, decides he wants him, and captures it. While they’re rowing back to the ship, it even clearly states that the monkey is sad about being taken.

Of course, this is a book about an animal right? And of course, we move animals around to zoos all the time to protect them. Except, this is a highly anthropomorphize monkey it is more like a little boy then it is like a monkey. So now you’re running into the problem where, essentially, a child-like character – that your child is relating to – is taken from its home where it was free and minding its own business and taken to the big city where it gets in all kinds of trouble, all for behaving like it normally would, and is finally put in a zoo after escaping prison.

When I googled Curious George criticism, I did manage to find a few articles, mainly academic papers, not mommy blogs, on the problems of the original series. Apparently, they continue into subsequent books. While it’s obvious that the series has issues regarding African-American history, racial tensions, power dynamics between African-Americans and white men, etc. these issues are so blatant I am somewhat surprised that these books remain popular for children.

Skye is absorbing plenty of cultural messages right now, many I’m not sure where they come from. Some I’m comfortable with, such as being mindful of her impact on the planet and learning to sort her recycling. Others, such as her latest conviction that a woman can’t be governor (another story), I’m concerned where the idea came from and how I can best counter it. Example, though impactful, only goes so far. Just like she’s observing what I’m doing, she’s paying attention to our friends, family, her peers, and what she’s absorbing through the media for further guidelines on how the world works.

None of this is simple. I know that the morals I try to teach her today will be dated by the time she’s a grandparent and the books I’m reading her now as entertaining, or frustrating, as the Curious George my grandmother would have read to my mother.

Research on the generation behind me (I’m a millennial, complete with my flex job and desire to document everything on social media), shows a conservative, highly religious generation that simply wants to be left to live their lives without fear of gunmen, terrorists, and others. My child’s generation is still forming, but it seems, more than ever, that instead of mocking, demeaning, or fearing those different than us, we need to teach children to reach out and try to understand. Tonight, we’re going to start by talking about Curious George.