Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Monday, May 10, 2010

children, stories, and tears

Here’s a meditation on children’s books that can still make adults cry. The list is largely what you would expect: The Velveteen Rabbit, The Giving Tree, Charlotte’s Web, etc. Oscar Wilde’s “The Happy Prince”, which Lynne Sharon Schwartz has called “the saddest story ever written,” which may well be true, is mentioned also. I was also pleased to see the story link to this strange and epic thread at my old stomping grounds The American Scene.

I didn't read any of these when I was a child, but I read The Velveteen Rabbit as a teenager. I was a receiving clerk at a bookstore, and when opening a box of books paused, for some reason, to read that one. Did it extract a tear or two from my callow adolescent eyes? Indeed it did. But primarily it made me angry: I saw it as a crassly blatant attempt to manipulate the emotions of children, who, I thought, are the softest of targets for this kind of thing. Not long afterward I read Charlotte’s Web and had the same response.

And I’ve never been able to dismiss that initial response: I still find myself annoyed by, if not actually angry at, children’s books that end in death or other catastrophic loss. This is probably not rational — a good case can be made for the need to introduce children to the fact of death — but I have always had this lurking feeling that some of these writers enjoy the task just a little too much.

9 comments:

  • Andy Crouch said...

    To my mind The Velveteen Rabbit and Charlotte's Web are in completely different categories. Velveteen is awfully close to rank manipulation. But Charlotte's Web is a much more carefully told story, and the loss at the end is not only integrated with the story but mitigated by the next generation of Charlotte's progeny.

    And by the way, as far as I know my children never cried at the ending of Charlotte's Web, nor do I remember doing so as a child . . . whereas I'm not sure I have ever gotten through reading the final paragraphs aloud as an adult without having to compose myself. (Same for the ending of Winnie the Pooh, which entirely undid me reading it one night with my 6-year-old daughter. I literally had to leave the room, much to her confusion I think.) Perhaps that would be an interesting followup: children's books that don't make children cry, but make adults sob for what we love, have lost, and will lose.

  • Andy, I think you're surely right about Charlotte — I was describing my teenage reaction, and when I say I've never gotten over it that's more of a confession than a boast.

    About the end of the Pooh stories, I am with you completely. It's all I can do to get through those last paragraphs without a moan.

  • Hey, how about a spoiler alert, guys? Some of us are still working on Charlotte's Web!

    I kid.

    The end of Sterling North's Rascal is the only thing that's ever choked me up while reading to my kids. It's a strange and obscure chink in my emotional armor, such as it is.

  • Also, Naked Lunch. Forgot that one.

  • Yeah, Matt, that one gets me right here, if you know what I mean.

  • They didn't mention Where the Red Fern Grows--a full-on tear-jerker for me even when I was a kid.

    I'd also second Andy's comments about crying as an adult. Reading the end of Meindert DeJong's The House of Sixty Fathers broke me up, but likely it broke me up as I read it from a father's viewpoint. (And I might add that unlike the plot that brought out your teenage cynicism DeJong wrote a happy ending where real life gave a sad one.)

  • "And by the way, as far as I know my children never cried at the ending of Charlotte's Web, nor do I remember doing so as a child . . . whereas I'm not sure I have ever gotten through reading the final paragraphs aloud as an adult without having to compose myself."

    -- That was *exactly* my experience with Charlotte's Web, and I think it's because, as a child, I identified with Wilbur. It was his story I cared most about. As an adult, I identify with Charlotte, and I can appreciate Wilbur's loss more deeply. For my child self, and for my own children, the story has a happy ending; Wilbur stays on the farm for the rest of his days, and he always has friends.

  • I've always thought "The Giving Tree" is the perfect primer on dysfunctional relationships. Love doesn't mean letting someone cut you down, figuratively or literally, till you're nothing but stumps. The tree would have been better off severing her own limbs and building a very high fence to keep Miserable Man from repeatedly using her. I fail to see the redemption in this tale and am happy the kids rarely request it.

  • Oscar Wilde's The Selfish Giant always gets me, and, I think, rightly so. But there were many places in The Lord of the Rings and Watership Down (adult books, more or less) that choked me up when I was reading these to my daughter.

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