Children want the witch to die

Published December 16, 1995 8:15PM (EST)

When Miss L, who had become a gypsy through some enchantment involving hoop earrings and a peasant blouse, held my hand closer to the candle, peered at it through her half-glasses, and intoned, "You will go on a long voyage," she was right on the mark.
A kindergarten teacher, she knew from experience that a little repetition can't damage an eternal truth. David and Maggie and Beth were going on long voyages, too. So were Mark C. and Mark Z. Not a child ducked under the bedspread roof of the school-fair
fortune-telling booth, but was going on a long voyage. After all, long voyages, with adulthood at the end, are what childhood is about.

Children are not born knowing the way, though -- they have to learn it, by keeping their eyes and ears open. A lot comes in through those eyes and ears, noise as well as information. Stories distill some of the chaos, picking out details worth particular
attention, and giving a shape and meaning to what might otherwise make no sense.

Grown-ups, whose job it is to help children find their way, tend to fill their stories with signposts in the form of boldly highlighted morals. (Miss L.'s many stories were meant to instruct as well as entertain.) That's obvious to most people when they
think of 19th century children's classics. "Heidi," "The Secret Garden," "Peter Rabbit," "The Snow Queen," even that tender swashbuckler, "Treasure Island," all blare intricate riffs on: Grow up good.

Though it's harder to see today's message because it so pervades our lives and language, current books are just as preachy. They merely preach a different moral: Grow up healthy. Books as unlike each other as "Sarah, Plain and Tall," Patricia McLaughlin's somber tale of broken hearts healing, and "In the Night Kitchen," Maurice Sendak's ebullient, nude romp through childish desire, give their young readers instruction in psychological doctrine.

That's not to say those books are bad. Though the worst of the old and new sound as though they were written by Puritans or guidance counselors, many are marvelous. And not because they transcend their moralizing, but because they do it so well. Children
love morals: they want the witch to die; they want the new mommy to make home a loving place again. Even for today's readers, "Little Women" owes a lot of its appeal to saintly Beth March, not solely to rebellious Jo.

The March girls, whose author didn't supply them with children's books of their own, take the same sort of delight from passionately reading and discussing John Bunyan's "Pilgrim's Progress" that my contemporaries and my friends' children get from "Little Women." Though Bunyan's 17th century Christian allegory, a long voyage to end all long voyages, is hard to read these days, the sisters' enthusiasm rings true. "Pilgrim's Progress" supplies them with fantasy that's ballasted by significance, just as books
like Sendak's inspired odyssey, "Where the Wild Things Are," do for modern children.

In a very general way, the old stories are in favor of repression, the new ones against it. This passage -- from the godawful "Children's Annual 1853," an anthology of tripe every bit as awful as the worst of today's psychobabble-spouting bunny rabbits -- is a wake-up call to young Victorians: "Now, we must be very pure in our thoughts and desires if we would have pleasant dreams, and live in harmony one with another, because the dream-spirit will take the opportunity, when we are sleeping, to show us all the faults that we have ever done, and will make us see them in spite of our will to close our eyes against them; and this is not the worst that he will do, for he delights to magnify our faults, that he may thereby torment our very souls, more and more."

In contrast, "Gorilla," a beautiful picture book by Anthony Browne, uses dreams the modern way -- as psychological medicine. The young heroine, Hannah, lives in a sterile, orderly house with her father, who's always busy. Naturally, Hannah longs for a gorilla, and naturally, her father is too busy even to take her to the zoo. Browne shows her loneliness and his neglect through meticulous drawings of the rooms where they live. In the kitchen's oppressive morning geometry, Hannah's father hides behind his newspaper.

She eats her supper sandwich alone with a TV in an empty room
where the TV casts its light, the wallpaper is covered with flowers and butterflies, but beyond that tiny circle, its dark shapes look like wolf heads, bats, and dim, horned things.

Then, the night before Hannah's birthday, a gorilla comes to her in her
dreams. She's terrified at first, then delighted. Wearing her father's coat and hat, the gorilla takes her on a wild (but safe) trip across the rooftops. When she wakes up, it's her birthday, and her father has finally found time to take her to the zoo.

Browne's moral is typical of stories concerned with a child's psychological health. Too busy is bad, he suggests. Too much order is bad. Children need attention, and fathers need to be in touch with the warm, flexible, furry part of themselves -- their inner gorilla.

Compared to adult literature, children's books are still young, scarcely two centuries old (which is one reason the March girls had to make do with "Pilgrim's Progress"). If they could duck into Miss L.'s tent, doubtless she'd tell them that they're in for a long voyage. I wonder what the next generation of morals will be about, once our descendants tire of inner gorillas, the way our century tired of self-denying virtue. But one thing I'm sure of -- most of the best ones will still have morals.

By Polly Shulman

Polly Shulman edits news articles for the journal Science.

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