Sunday, January 24, 2010

Curious George Takes a Beating

The Man with the Yellow Hat places said yellow hat on the ground. An unsuspecting primate, “George,” ventures near, inspects the hat, and is suddenly netted and captured. Whisked away from his family and natural habitat, the monkey soon finds himself across the Atlantic in an American metropolis. His captor introduces him to all sorts of addictive pleasures… pipe smoking, heavy food, and frequently leaves him unsupervised in his home. During one of these periods, the monkey unwittingly dials the fire department, and is once again captured and then jailed for making a “false report” of a fire. Our hero escapes, only to be imprisoned again, this time in the city zoo.

In later adventures (it is never explained how he is finally released from the zoo and comes to live with the negligent Man with the Yellow Hat), “George” (once again, unsupervised) ingests a puzzle piece and has to be hospitalized; gets into a bike accident, is picked up by a couple carnies and is persuaded to perform in an animal show; and is sent into space without the proper training (by a professor at a museum of natural history, mind you, not NASA) and nearly fails to eject himself when instructed. He is compensated for risking his life with a worthless medal.

This is what I’m reading to my child. This is what she begs me to read. Every. Day.

I have nothing against Curious George. I, too, once identified with his impishness, his insatiable desire to explore, his complete lack of impulse control. But I’m reading it on a whole new level. One that makes me wonder: what is being communicated to my child when I read to her?

It is the classics that make me the most uncomfortable. The books that have been around for decades. Take Babar the Elephant. On page three, Babar’s mother is shot dead by a hunter. He runs off to the city and finds a wealthy benefactress who recognizes his longing for a fine suit and indoctrinates him in a world of gentility and materialism—supplying him with nothing an elephant needs: cars, dinner parties, an elite education, stylish clothes—and it is these things, not his prowess as an elephant, that earns him his place as king, once he returns to the jungle. Or, in A Fly Went By, in what is quite possibly a Cold War analogy (I credit Kevin with this analysis), a fly is pursued by a frog, who is pursued by a cat, who is pursued by a dog…etc. etc. each animal erroneously believes he is being chased by a larger animal —but his fear is unjustified, for the thing that has set it all in motion is a lame lamb whose foot is stuck in a tin can. The chase is instigated by a man with a gun, who jumps to conclusions when he hears the thud of the lamb—he is the first to run. The story has the appeal of repetition and rhyme, but it is the presence of the gun that stops me. Does Sophia need to know what a gun is? What killing is? Does death have to enter her psyche just yet?

And, do we have to kill off the mother quite so early?

I have to admit, I take some editorial license with these stories. Babar’s mother is “hurt.” I omit mention of “guns” and “killing.” And sometimes, I add my own color commentary, speaking out against the exploitation of George and chiding Babar for forgetting his elephantness. Each time I do, the liberal in me is at odds with the liberal in me—what right do I have to censor these stories? To adapt them to my own sense of morality? But what’s worse? To adapt these stories or not read them at all? To what extent do we shape our children’s understanding of the world by the books we select to read to them? And where do we draw the line between imposing our own interpretations and letting our children formulate their own understanding? Conversely, to what extent is this an obligation of a parent—to impart our values and help guide our children to a higher stage of moral development?

I know my days of censorship are numbered. It won’t be long before she discovers violence, and injustice, and hate. But I’d like to preserve her blissful ignorance as long as I possibly can. And then, when it feels right, to help her think critically about what she reads and arrive at her own complex understanding of the world and what has been written about it.

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