Monday, December 8, 2008

Confusing Story Time

My daughter loves to look at books. And we love reading to her too. There are some children's books that boast beautiful artwork and meaningful, well-written stories. But the genre of juvenile literature also includes some truly disappointing crap. Sometimes the duds are in the form of stories starring familiar television characters, but not as often as I would have thought. Most of our books are hand-me-downs, and some feature characters from TV shows that Madelyn has never seen (Arthur, Rugrats, Pooh...). Contrary to what I would have originally assumed, several of these books are relatively delightful, making them fairly bearable to read over and over again. And since Madelyn doesn't associate the book with a desire to watch the characters on television, I make no distinction between reading these and other generic early-readers.

One particular set of books is so horrid that I feel compelled to share them for your mutual enjoyment. I actually ordered this set of "books" about manners from a catalog. I should have concluded based on the price of around $8 for ten books that they weren't really books at all, but more like booklets. I would easily forgive their small size and flimsy materials if the content of said booklets was respectable. Rather, the stories are kind of confusing, and the messages about manners vague. So gather the kiddies around for story time, because here are my two favorites.

Bear and Hippo were playing together when they saw something buried in the sandbox. They reached in together to pull the object out.

"My goodness," said Bear, "it's a dollar." [Author could use a lesson on playground colloquialism.]

"What should we do with it?" asked Hippo.

"We should see if it belongs to someone," Bear said wisely.

The two of them walked around the playground until they happened upon Skunk. [Happened upon? Really?]

"Hey, Skunk. We found a dollar," said Bear, "and we're trying to find its owner."

"I wish it were mine. I could use it to buy a new book," said Skunk. [Yes, just what every kid would do with a dollar.]

Bear and Hippo said goodbye and left to see if anyone else had lost a dollar. [But Skunk had not lost a dollar, so "anyone else" could be read incorrectly.]

They saw Mouse and Piggy playing in the sandbox and checked to see if it belonged to either of them.

"I wish I had a dollar to lose," said Mouse.

"Me too," Piggy said, laughing. "You guys should buy some candy with it. That's what I would do." [Prejudiced stereotyping: the fat pig wants to buy candy.]

"That would be nice," said Bear, "but somebody might need this dollar."

The two friends kept searching. They saw Kitty and Bunny and went to see if either one had lost the money, but neither had.

"Maybe you could put up a sign so the owner will know where to find you," said Kitty.

"Yeah," Bunny said, "that way you're sure to find the owner, if there is one." [We are now halfway through the story, and the central plot conflict has nothing to do with sharing.]

Hippo thought the sign was a good idea, so he and Bear posted one on the fence surrounding the playground.

"We'll find the owner of this dollar for sure now," said Hippo confidently.

"Let's set up a table and wait for the owner to stop by. If no one claims it by the end of the day, then we can keep it for ourselves," Bear said.

They waited all day, but nobody came to claim the dollar. Their friends stopped by from time to time and offered advice on how to spend the money. Finally, the sun began to set. Bear and Hippo decided to call it a night.

"Okay. We'll bury the dollar until tomorrow and then we can safely say it is ours," said Bear. [Where does this burying idea come in? They agreed that if the dollar wasn't claimed by the end of the day, they could keep it. What is Bear's motivation here?]

The next morning they met to dig up the dollar, but it was gone. Just then Turtle walked up with a dollar in his hand.

"Look what I found buried over there," he said. [Since Bear and Hippo had found the money buried in the sandbox, didn't they think it was possible for the same scenario to repeat? If they are wise enough to devote an entire day to finding the owner of one dollar, I'd think this wouldn't be a big surprise.]

"That's mine!" Hippo and Bear yelled together. [Oh! Three lines from the end, the concept of needing to share is finally introduced! I guess this is where we are to assume that Hippo and Bear are fighting over the dollar, even though the single preceding line doesn't entirely indicate it.]

Suddenly Bear realized how silly they were being. [One line to introduce the conflict, and one line to resolve it. He 'suddenly realized' they were 'being silly' so everyone now wants to share. The natural way kids resolve conflicts!]

"I know," he said. "Let's share." [Bear is brilliant! But did they share with Turtle too? He didn't deserve any of their hard-earned dollar.]

Bear and Hippo wanted to do the right thing, but then they got greedy. It wasn't until they shared that everyone was happy. Friends always have more fun when they share.

[I'm not sure that shouting "That's mine!" reads as being greedy. I would assume Bear and Hippo still intended to share the dollar between themselves, but they were right (although perhaps a bit intense in the delivery) to explain to Turtle that they had found the dollar the day before. This story was much more about working together to find a solution, being patient, and doing what is right than about sharing. Those are good concepts to teach as well, of course, but kids would learn more about sharing if the conflict were one they might regularly encounter, such as fighting over toys or sharing their favorite snack. The message here about sharing is pretty hazy.]

One day after lunch Mouse and Turtle were playing happily. Then Mouse felt something squish between her toes.

She looked down and saw a candy bar wrapper on the ground and her foot covered in chocolate.

She and Turtle looked over and saw Bear eating the same kind of candy bar he ate every day. [At least it wasn't Piggy.]

Mouse went to talk to Bear.

"Bear, look at what you've done to my dress," said Mouse. "Please don't just drop your trash everywhere!" [There's the magic word, but used in an obscure context for a children's lesson on saying Please.]

"It's just one little piece of garbage," said Bear. "It's not hurting anything."

"It ruined Mouse's dress," said Puppy. "Besides, Mouse asked nicely, and there's a trash can right here!" [The same Bear that put up signs about a lost dollar and waited at a table all day to find its owner can't toss his wrapper into a trash can five feet away.]

Puppy decided that they'd have to prove their point another way. [Because, apparently, saying please doesn't always get you what you want...] They followed Bear every day after lunch and picked up his litter each time he dropped a candy wrapper.

"We'll show Bear how to clean up," said Skunk as he stuffed a wrapped in to Puppy's backpack. [When did Skunk get involved in Puppy and Mouse's little mission?]

"I hope so," said Puppy. "He's got to learn his manners somehow." [Ah, a very subtle emphasis that there is a manners lesson in this booklet.]

Back in the classroom, the students tried to talk to Bear about littering again.

"Littering makes the playground look like a dump," said Puppy.

"That's silly," said Bear as he tore off a piece of paper, dropped it, and watched it float to the floor. "Look. This piece of paper will just blow away," he said, "never to bother me again." [They are inside the classroom now, so how will it blow away?]

"Please Bear, you have to try to understand," said Mouse as she opened a book. "All of this trash makes it hard for the fish to live in a pond. It all starts with innocent litter, like yours." [Mouse is holding a book open to a picture of trash floating in water: a green bottle, a tin can, a tire (can that even float?), and a candy wrapper--which looks just like the one that Bear dropped! Gasp!]

The picture made Bear feel a little bit sick. When it was time for lunch, he could barely finish his meal. [Bear's sense of decency comes on rather suddenly in both of these stories. I would commend the author for character continuity throughout the series if it weren't for Bear's outstanding social awareness in the last booklet.]

The others ate quickly and hurried outside to carry out their plan.

They took all of the wrappers they had cleaned up for Bear and spread them out in the sandbox. Mouse made a flag out of one of the wrappers, then stuck it in the top of Bear's sand castle.

"That's perfect," said Mouse, very pleased. "He'll learn his lesson now." [A little vindictive?]

When Bear strolled outside, he finished his candy bar and dropped his wrapper on the ground as usual.

"What's going on here?" asked Bear when he saw the sandbox.

Mouse answered, "We picked up all of your litter and put [the word 'it' should be here] in the sandbox to prove how gross littering is." [This message is unexpectedly strong for a booklet called "Please."]

Bear realized he was wrong about litter. He quietly threw away all of the wrappers. [What better way to "teach a lesson" to your friend than by embarrassing him in front of everyone?]

"Please excuse my behavior," he said. "I promise I will never litter again." [Hey! There's the word of title significance again!]

In this story, litterbug Bear's friends remembered their manners, even when Bear did not. "Please" is one of the nicest words you can use. When you'd like someone to do something, or you'd like to be forgiven, always ask nicely by saying "please."

[Once again, we have a nice story here about why littering is not appropriate, but any contextual lesson about saying please is ambiguous at best. Why not call this booklet, "Don't Litter" instead?]

I hope you have enjoyed this installment of Confusing Story Time.


jaeyde said...

This is why children's authors get so up in arms about celebs thinking they can write children's books. Just because they're kids doesn't mean it doesn't take a modicum of skill to write for them. :P

Bridget said...

Yikes. I think the books would have been more effective and understandable if they consisted of just the epilogue.

I did get a good laugh reading them, though. Thanks.

Miriam has a similar cheapo book about sharing and there's one line that bothers me. One of the animals (why are they always anthropomorphic animals?) is not being nice to the others so they leave him alone. Then he says, "It's no fun playing by myself." I don't like that line because I want Miriam to learn that it IS fun to play by herself, at least sometimes. The last thing I need is for her to think that she has to have other people around her in order to have fun.

Stupid kids' books.


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