“I’ll love you forever, I’ll like you for always, as long as I’m living, my baby you’ll be.”
Those words are iconic for a reason. “Love You Forever,” the beloved book by Canadian author Robert Munsch about a parent’s overwhelming love for their child, is a staple on children’s bookshelves around the world, in Canada and beyond.
It’s also, if you happen to have read it recently, perhaps better understood as an allegory. Because one part of the story, lovely as it is, stretches credibility just a little.
The beginning, where the mom repeatedly tells her baby how much she loves him, even when he’s being super annoying? That’s adorable. The end, when the son is grown up and sings to his ill mother, and then to his own baby? Unspeakably moving. But it’s the middle — the part where the son is a grown adult living on his own, and the mom will occasionally sneak into his bedroom to check on him and sing him a lullaby — that’s kind of weird.
Enter “Topher Fixed It,” Atlanta-based playwright Topher Payne’s project to provide alternate endings to classic kids’ books that might inadvertently pass on some not altogether healthy ideas.
Payne is a big fan of Munsch’s original book, he told HuffPost Canada.
“It’s a beautiful story,” he said. “When the mother’s actions are taken metaphorically, it expresses a parent’s boundless love for their child, and the desire to nurture and offer affection at all stages of the child’s life.”
But when taken literally, it’s a bit iffy, to say the least — especially because of the implication that the son will repeat his mom’s slightly creepy behaviour.
“It sets up the cycle of behaviour repeating itself in the end,” Payne said. “Clearly the son is inheriting his mother’s routine, and presumably her ladder. That’s just chilling.”
In his reboot of “Love You Forever,” which he’s offering for a free download with a suggested donation to The Atlanta Artist Relief Fund, the adult son installs bars on his window to keep his boundary-oblivious mom out. When she shows up, rather than let her do the whole unsolicited lullaby routine, he says:
“I love you forever, I like you for always, but what’s going on here isn’t working for me.”
Looking through the bars, from atop the ladder, the mom looks predictably stunned (and a little hurt).
“Sometimes we hesitate to tell someone we love that we need a little space because we’re worried about hurting their feelings,” Payne wrote.
Later, when the son apologizes about the window bars and simply expresses his need for space, his mom is also able to express that she isn’t getting everything she wants, either: she wishes they could spend more time together. They figure out a solution that works for both of them, where they go on special outings, but ones that are always planned in advance, and preceded by a text or a call.
“Love You Forever” is the third children’s book with slightly problematic themes that Payne has updated — the others are “The Giving Tree,” which he adapted to “The Tree That Set Healthy Boundaries,” and “The Rainbow Fish Keeps His Scales.”
The idea came about while Payne was co-hosting an online story time for kids during the pandemic lockdown, he said.
“I saw the opportunity to reconsider some beloved children’s books with questionable messaging. So I wrote alternative endings, hoping they’d serve as a conversation starter between the reader and child,” he said. He hopes kids will look at the original ending, look at the alternative, and explore the different choices.
In many ways, these book are products of their time, and the desire to update them stems from what we’ve learned about child development since they were written.
“When I was a kid in the ’80s, that wasn’t something that was really acknowledged: a child’s ability to set boundaries, particularly with adults,” Payne said. “I think that’s a pretty crucial skill for their healthy development.” His added that his books incorporated feedback from a few different mental health professionals.
Not everyone is going to be thrilled when someone suggests a change to a beloved story from their youth, and Payne said some people have accused him of “messing around with their childhood memories.”
That’s not his intention, he said.
“If it doesn’t work for you, then the original books are still right there, undisturbed, for your enjoyment,” he said. But “if the alt ending offers some sort of catharsis, that’s fantastic.”