I love the books from my childhood. There's a dark humor woven throughout the stories my mother would read to me that I don't find on my 6-year-old daughter's bookshelf. While I appreciate the lessons about friendship and imagination imparted by Pinkalicious and Olivia, and the somewhat sterile adventures of the Disney princesses and other popular heroines, I miss the sinister ogres and misbehaving children of my youth.
And so, between tales of Elsa and Sofia, I try to mix in some of these old treasures -- even though some of the darker material can be hard to swallow. I glance uneasily at my daughter as I read about Pierre's parents leaving him home alone to be eaten by a lion, or about the child-eating monster in Zeralda's Ogre, or as I explain what a guillotine is in Madeline and the Bad Hat. Of course, these stories could be worse. I recently came across a collection of Grimms' fairy tales, and between the parents who lured their children into the woods to be eaten by witches and the bride who fled a pack of cannibalistic murderers, it's a wonder any children slept through the night after the Grimms' tales were published.
Still, I like exposing my daughter to edgier, higher-stakes adventures. While she's not quite ready for cannibals, she can certainly handle some bad hats and ogres. What I have a harder time with, however, is some of the language used in these older stories, published in the days before political correctness. I'm taken off-guard when I come across words like "stupid" or "dumb." Even harder for me, as the mother of a young girl, is the word "fat." In the eyes of my 6-year-old daughter, a body is just a collection of arms for grabbing apple tree branches, legs for racing against Daddy in the summer sun, tippy-toes for lifting her to the forbidden (a.k.a. Mommy's) cookies, a mouth for reporting on the misdeeds of her little brother. She doesn't fully understand that some bodies are considered "good" and others "bad" -- or the harm that can come from calling someone fat.
So I cringe as my beloved Frances sings about her friend Albert, "Fat boys that eat too much lunch can't do a thing but munch and crunch" (Best Friends for Frances, by Russell Hoban). I'm even somewhat uncomfortable with casual, anthropomorphized references, such as Dr. Seuss's "Some are thin. And some are fat. The fat one wears a yellow hat" (One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish). Yes, I'm being overly sensitive, but as a writer, I believe in the power of words, and I want my daughter to wield their power with understanding and compassion -- never to bully others.
Language is a reflection of the world we live in. Children aren't always kind in books because they aren't always kind in life. I'm not looking for literature to turn children into saints, or to ignore their often mischievous nature and shifting allegiances. But I am looking to teach my daughter kindness. Like it or not, language is inextricably linked to how we perceive and treat others. If my daughter sees someone with a different body type, and the word that immediately comes to her mind is the pejorative "fat" -- reinforced by her favorite stories at home -- what kind of impression will she have of this person? Will she be ready to befriend them? Will she look past the surface? It's my hope that by avoiding cruel and judgmental language in our home, my daughter will be a little less cruel and judgmental in the world.
Hey, a mom can hope, can't she?
And so, I skip over offensive words and sections. My daughter isn't aware of Frances's taunting of "Mr. Fat Albert" as she walks away from the no-girls baseball game (a slight for which Frances justifiably gets revenge later). I don't think the story loses much in translation. Yes, my daughter's going to learn about the hurtful power of words like "stupid" and "fat," but not from me, and not from these imaginative, often un-PC books from a less-careful time. I'd like to preserve her innocence as long as possible. After all, the dark, no-holds-barred world of YA literature is just around the corner.