Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Why aren't there murders in children's books?

Can anyone explain to me why, when most Americans no longer live on or even near farms, the books we use to teach kids about their world are full of agrarian animals and scenes. It's not just the older books--Boynton's books are full of cows, pigs, sheep, and chickens.

One of 3B's favorite books is her Barnyard Dance, but when the hell will 3B ever see a barnyard? OK, that's actually a trick question, since Grammy lives on a dairy farm in Vermont, so 3B gets to see a barnyard a few times a year. But a barnyard dance? How the hell is he supposed to know what that is?

Why not a book about a breakdancing contest? Fashions being as cyclical as they are, that's more likely to be a part of his daily routine than a hoedown.

And, as for those animals, he'd be better served if his books were full of squirrels, feral cats, dogs--mostly mutts and rescued greyhounds, thank you very much--and those little black birds that are everywhere--including in our stroller--and pigeons, seagulls, chickadees, and murders of crows.

I'm not kidding about the crows. Several times a year, they descend in concentrations of massive numbers throughout the area. One afternoon, they roosted in the trees of the nature preserve across from our office, giving everyone the heeby-jeebies, squawking all afternoon long, as if taunting us: "Try to get to your car! Caw! Caw! Caw! It's a long way to the garage! Caw! Caw! Caw!" No wonder a group of them is called a murder.

But seriously, back to the cows, pigs, sheep, and chickens--anyone know why we can't shake our agrarian roots? Is it because books about where most of us work these days--the veal-fattening pens in cube farms--would be too grim? Hey, maybe we could liven the place up and hold a barnyard dance in the copier room . . . anybody? Anybody?

If you know the answer, please share. This isn't a trick question. I honestly can't figure it out.

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  1. Three reasons:

    1 - American's long for an agrarian society that no longer exists because it reminds us of the pioneering culture that we evolved from

    2 - The variety available for the "cast" is too diverse to resist (where else can you get a pig, goat, chicken and cow in the same room?) -- even Orwell gravitated to the farm to tell a story

    3 - Kids love animals because they are colorful and interesting looking

  2. I think we tend to give our kids what our parents gave us, so certain tropes get repeated and handed down indefinitely, even after our culture has left their context behind.

    Farm scenes are one thing; using animals as characters in fables is another, whether it's the Bremen Town Musicians or Animal Farm. Why do we teach kids about zebras and giraffes? If I had to vote, I'd say it's because zebras and giraffes and cows and cats are interesting. Kids (I hope) are interested in learning about the big world out there, about things that are different from where they are.

    Not all kid lit is about farms. I don't remember Dr. Seuss writing about a farm anywhere, though he may have. His single most famous book is about kids sitting at home all day going stir crazy. Richard Scarry wrote about farms, but also about planes and trains and automobiles, construction equipment and ships.

    Murders? Snow White? Treasure Island? Killing Time in the Phantom Tollbooth? What's the deal with Rumpelstiltskin wanting to kidnap the kid--is that a story from the back of a milk carton, or what?

    And for life in the big city, there's Mike Mulligan and his steam shovel; there are the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler; people seem to like Eloise. In other media, Sesame Street drifts toward the urban; Peanuts to the suburban.

    Part of the question is why there are farm animals in kids' books. Part of the question is which books we choose for our kids.

    The best part, the biggest part, no matter what's in 'em, is that the kids are getting books and not growing up on Wii and DVDs.

  3. Good observations all, FAU and MrJ.

    Although I'm not sure what kids you know that don't grow up Wiiing--you should see how many diapers we change around here.

  4. With a memo... and an agenda... and a conference call, everybody.... nah. Just doesn't have the same flow as Barnyard Dance.

    I agree with fau... farm animals are kind of fun, even if the most involved interaction we get with them these days is pulling the wrapping off them and dropping them on the grill. :)

  5. Where I live, farm animals are a way of life. Wild animals frequent the place too.

    As far as books, I encourage my kids to read whatever they want. When they were little, we went to the library often and read whatever they pulled off the shelf. Remember when you are reading to 3B that he can comprehend more than he can say. Especially as he gets older and starts to talk and then read, his listening vocabulary and comprehension far exceeds his reading and speaking ability. I would not start on Tolkien just yet, but books that are labled for 4 to 8 year old readers may fascinate him if you read them to him. You may find more topics out there. One favorite sent by brother #2 was I Stink about a NYC trash truck. I had to explain about putting the stuff on the barge at the end, but the rest of it (smelly stuff) was rather appealing to the little one.

  6. Anonymous12:17 AM

    I think Boyton is just a little obsessed with farm animals if you ask me. We have actually found some good books not focussed on farm animals. ZD likes to read Chins I Am A Bunny by Richard Scary since it is all about going out and observing nature. Also we have one called Ducks In Muck which has some clever ducks escaping capture. Yes they are farm animals, but these farm animals are happily residing in a wetland (or the muck as the book puts it). Of course right now Chins is really completely infatuated with Look, Lokk which has no narrative ark what-so-ever. I have seen some good city children's books, but you do have to search for them. I believe The Snowy Day takes place in a city?

  7. Yep, The Snowy Day and other books by Ezra Jack Keats are urban (my childhood favorite: Whistle for Willie). Maybe it's a 60's-70's thing...remember The Electric Company?

    I like reading farm theme books because I like my kids to know (on at least an abstract level) where their food and clothing come from. After we eat, we say "thank you farmers, thank you cows, thank you wheat seeds" etc.

    But then I think books about wild animals are important too. I like "Blueberries for Sal" and "Make Way for Ducklings" by Robert McCloskey, both for the wild animal encounters and the groovy East Coast milieu.

    And yes, if you want murders (homicides, not crows) then fairy tales are the way to go. But wait until they're 6 or 7 for the really gruesome ones. (I read Grimms' Snow White to my kids the other day. Big mistake. I could see the wheels turning madly behind their wrinkled brows: the mother dies? the stepmother is mean? she wants the huntsman to cut out her stepdaughter's heart and liver? They were like Charlie Brown: AAAAAUUUUGGGHHHHH!)