Tuckers and toxic masculinity: Beatrix Potter can be surprisingly problematic
Recently I’ve been grappling with my inclination to censor the books I’ve been reading with E. What could possibly be so problematic about Beatrix Potter? And can censorship ever be justified? Head over to my Medium article for my musings on these questions, and more!
A post masquerading as a book review when it’s really just a lengthy parental humblebrag
What do you want to know about me? Oh, here you go – I bought my 18 month old a book about Emmeline Pankhurst recently. There you go, infer all you like about my pseudo-intellectual, neurotic-feminist credentials. Does it sound like a dry read to you? It is. It’s so incredibly dry. Informative, absolutely, but there’s not an ounce of humour or even excitement to be gleaned from its pages. It talks about law-breaking, unjust arrests and daring acts of revolution with all the verve of an accounting manual.
But E genuinely seems to like it. She now requests it in that autocratic manner of all toddlers – ‘Panks! Panks!’. I’m aware this sentence puts me squarely in the camp of Those Mums – the ones who swear their child’s favourite food is broccoli, and they’ve always preferred quinoa to chocolate.
I do feel faintly ashamed that my indoctrination is so blatant. I’d always assumed I would impart my political beliefs and values by osmosis and eye-rolling, in the manner of all parents everywhere. I thought it would take much longer before I could create a child who would confidently parrot my views in public. And yet here we are: I can pause at the end of a sentence in the book and she’s memorised the ending: ‘How were women treated E?’ ‘Unfairwly!’ ‘And what did they want?’ ‘Wotes…’
Bear in mind this is a child who only dimly grasps that she’s a girl and not a cat, and yet she’s able to regurgitate the word ‘suffragettes.’ What even is this?
I can’t identify what E actually enjoys about the book. The story is quite abstract and the illustrations are pretty but unexciting. Yes, obviously, to be completely honest, I am of course hoping that her early fondness for this text predicts her incipient revolutionary values and superior intellect. Surely it’s either that or else I’m teaching her that it’s cool to break the law. Best to polish the anecdote anyway, so it can be trotted out either in court or in her Harvard graduation speech, as appropriate.
Having used books as a guide and a solace through all experiences of my own life, it’s perhaps unsurprising that I have turned to these in order to instruct my child. Without faith in my own communication abilities, I bought a book called Going to Nursery to assist with psychological preparation (read: indoctrination) for that very life event.
Unfortunately, this strategy may have backfired. There are several issues with this picture book which only became apparent after it arrived, to my dim surprise following a panicked nocturnal Amazon Prime purchase.
First and most concerning, nursery is presented herein as a delightful utopia. Of course, I wanted E to eagerly anticipate her own admittance into this hallowed space, but I didn’t want her to be disappointed, or worse, to enjoy it more than being at home with me. Nursery, as depicted in this book, is chockablock with multitudes of cute, fluffy pets skipping through sunshine whilst laughing children play in pristine sandpits. I fear the reality of beginning in a Scottish winter will be far different. Our nursery has no animals that I know of but it is in the middle of the city, so perhaps we can hope a rat will make an occasional appearance. E will have access to an outside play area but it’s all rubber flooring rather than the idyllic flower-strewn meadow of this accursed book. There’s a dearth of adults in Going to Nursery too – only one seems to preside over the motley gang of children romping free through these pages. The adult-to-child ratios cruelly enforced by the powers that be will allow E no such freedom, I fear.
The brutal disappointments only continue. The children at this nursery eat biscuits for their snack, while I know very well that the menu at our nursery features such snacks as quinoa and broccoli quesadillas. Yes, really. Luckily E is convinced that the biscuits in the book are actually oranges so we may yet have dodged that bullet.
More genuinely problematic is the narrative of the book, which explains that big children go to nursery whilst babies stay at home (with their mums, it’s tacitly implied). I mean, this…isn’t true? I assume it’s been written to prepare older children for preschool. But E still calls herself a baby and it breaks my heart a little every time I explain that she’s big enough for nursery. Potentially more psychologically damaging is the part of the story where a little boy suggests that crying for your mum at nursery is naughty. E has seized on this word and repeats it each time we get to that page. The boy is gently persuaded out of this belief, but E hasn’t grasped the concept of the unreliable narrator yet and takes his proclamation as absolute truth.
Probably best to set aside some of the funds I hope to earn while she’s in childcare for the eventual therapy bill. I’ll be sure to keep meticulous records so that twenty years from now she can explain that it was with this very book that all her emotional difficulties began.
Happy Birthday Wombat was our first foray into the Australian picture book series by Jackie French and Bruce Whatley, which began in 2002 with the award-winning Diary of a Wombat.
I’ll confess that at first read I thought this book was rather odd, and I couldn’t quite understand E’s love for it.
It took several read-throughs before it dawned on me – it’s the Ulysses of children’s books. Like Ulysses, it’s a daring experiment in narrative style which aims to push literary boundaries. James Joyce’s seminal work of modernism was controversial in its time. HBW has cunningly sidestepped such divisiveness by aiming at an under-five audience still grappling with literary criticism and perhaps not even au fait with the great debate on modernism vs realism in literature.
HBW is told from the wombat’s point of view, and there’s little anthropomorphising here. This is an unreconstructed wombat, whose existence revolves around food, sleep, and digging holes. (Insert your own off-colour joke here about men/politicians/etc as you wish.) The language is simplistic and consists mostly of verbs – as appropriate for babies as it is for wombats. As with Ulysses, much of the meaning is found in the liminal spaces between the words, and in this case the pictures. On the textual level, the story is of the wombat’s day and his battle with mysterious foes. The illustrations tell a different story, of the wombat’s rampant destruction of a little girl’s birthday party. This irony, and the playfulness of the word choice throughout, lends the book a laconic tone. I’m sure there are plenty of novels written for adults which lack such sophisticated nuance.
The illustrations are simple and charming, with one slight caveat. A fuzzy halo of red and blue surrounds each of the pictures. Once you notice it it’s all you can see and I’m not sure what the intent was, other than contributing to the psychedelic feeling of the whole.
Despite studying Joyce at university, there’s a lot about his work I don’t understand. I worry I’m also missing the point with Happy Birthday Wombat. My sympathies are with the little girl whose birthday cake is eaten and bouncy castle deflated, rather than with the eponymous wombat. E adores it though and laughs gleefully as the wombat pops balloons.
There’s an added bonus to reading this one in the UK; it seems as fantastically whimsical to me as a tale of a unicorn invading a birthday party would. Maybe it is. I have only vague notions about wombats and their reality. That’s ok though; the average Dublin housewife of 1904 had, I imagine, little in common with Molly Bloom, yet her character was heralded as a triumph. I confess I had rarely considered the day-to-day of a wombat before reading this story and now I’m determined to stay forever uninformed.
The completionist in me feels anxious though to go back to the start of the series. Just as Ulysses stands as discrete chapters but can only be understood completely as a whole, perhaps it is also so with the wombat oeuvre. I’m going to have to read them all to find out.
It wasn’t until Judith Kerr’s death this year that I put together the author of the classic picture books The Tiger Who Came to Tea and the Mog series with the author of When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit, a book I was captivated by as an older child. While I still remember parts of Pink Rabbit vividly, I’ve got only the foggiest recollection of any of Kerr’s picture books and no conscious memories of experiencing these for the first time. It was a delight to rediscover Mog the Forgetful Cat with my own daughter and although much of it was far beyond her comprehension at fourteen months, there’s a lot here she appreciates even now.
As for me, I consider Mog a masterpiece in narrative structure. Kerr’s plot and pacing is impeccable, each word and illustrative detail purposeful. Mog’s forgetfulness is not incidental but is rather the crux of the entire story, which romps along to a satisfying conclusion. I’ve read umpteen books on how to write a novel but next time I attempt to structure my WIP I’m just going to come back to Mog and try to follow exactly what Kerr does.
Mog is the wordiest of all the books E owns so far, and unlike most of them the story here requires a certain level of intelligent deduction. There are several pages where the words alone don’t explain what’s happening – we are told that Mog falls asleep on a chair and dreams she is a bird, and then when she wakes Mrs Thomas is annoyed. The reader also has to consider the illustration, which shows Mog sleeping on top of Mrs Thomas’ hat, which is then squashed and torn. (Is it strange that even as an adult it feels gratifying to work out what’s going on by connecting the words and the pictures? I’m sure I’ve read some thrillers recently which have been less intellectually taxing than this.) I imagine that the different levels to the book will give us lots to discuss even when E is a few years older.
The language is simple but the sentence structure is almost poetic, with considered repetition of key words and phrases, such as the charmingly retro ‘Bother that cat!’ There’s a nostalgic feel throughout – this is a universe of clunky black and white TV sets, milkmen and policemen in proper hats. After being thwarted in his robbery attempt – SPOILER – the burglar even enjoys a cup of tea with the Thomas family and the bobby. Perhaps more incredible is that he was stealing an alarm clock and some cutlery. I do realise that proper, actual adults own silver, or did in the 70s anyway, but I still can’t fathom how this thief could possibly be making a decent living wage if this is the extent of his typical takings.
The illustrations are lovely – E likes each and every drawing of Mog, and the double-page image of Debbie’s dream, with the tiger and the monkey in the tree. She always wants to skip over the page where Mog is sad and alone in the dark garden, which I fondly imagine is because of her sensitivity to this powerful moment of despair.
I do worry about Mr Thomas. I can’t help but feel that darker truths could be lurking beneath the comfortable veneer of this happy landscape. Mr Thomas appears careworn, with bags under his eyes and a distinctly dishevelled mode of dress. His cheeks surely are a bit on the red side – the effect of excessive alcohol consumption? Could his insistence on watching the fight on television and his extreme reaction to Mog’s tail over the screen be a clue to what is going on? I suspect gambling addiction and spiralling debt. Even his reaction to the burglar is suspect – we are told that Mrs Thomas acts immediately to call the police, while the children rally around Mog. Mr Thomas seems immobilised, either too enfeebled by his previous night of drinking, or perhaps even in league with the burglar, in some complicated insurance scam….
There really is something for everyone here. We don’t yet own any others in the series, but I feel compelled to buy the next. Check in again to read more thoughts on Mog’s future adventures and the fate of Mr Thomas.