Earlier in the year we looked at a Puritan primer that taught little Bible lessons while teaching the alphabet (A is for Adam). And, as we discussed in class today, I've been thinking about the secret messages I remember in books I read when I was quite young, and books I read to my children before they could read.
Here, for example, is one of my favorite nursery rhymes:
Baby, baby, naughty baby,
Hush, you squalling thing, I say.
Peace this moment, peace, or maybe
Bonaparte will pass this way.
Baby, baby, he's a giant,
Tall and black as Rouen steeple,
And he breakfasts, dines, rely on't,
Every day on naughty people.
Baby, baby, if he hears you,
As he gallops past the house,
Limb from limb at once he'll tear you,
Just as pussy tears a mouse.
And he'll beat you, beat you, beat you,
And he'll beat you all to pap,
And he'll eat you, eat you, eat you,
Every morsel snap, snap, snap.
Not exactly a ditty to sing at the ACLU! The message is not so secret: being good equals being quiet.
The book Mrs. Piggle Wiggle also came to mind. She (and note her title suggests she's married) is a sort of Super parent who is called in to handle recalcitrant children. In "The Never-Want-To-Go-To--Schooler," she takes a boy who pretends to be sick by speaking as though he had a cold and gives him IGNORANCE TONIC (caps, hers). The medicine makes him unable to talk in his regular voice, so the neighborhood kids say things like "Gosh, what a dummy." He learns his lesson and -- within a day -- becomes not only polite but literate. The unmistakable message: Go to school or you'll be ignorant. This is a message we all might agree with, though the methods seems rather out-of-date now.
Many books have been revised of late because the books convey values our society no longer holds. Sometimes these changes are hugely important.
Take The Story of Little Black Sambo, a very popular and very racist picture book from the turn of the 20th century. The word "sambo" is a racial slur and the book and subsequent cartoons depicted the black title character in rather unflattering terms. Recently the book was recast as Sam and the Tigers: A Retelling of "Little Black Sambo", by Julius Lester and Jerry Pinckney, who set out to reinvent (reconstruct?) the story with beautiful and flattering illustrations and the witty change of the title character to Sam, who lives in Sam-Sam-Sa-mara, a land where everyone is named Sam.
Other reinventions of different books have met with more resistance. Some, for example, find wolves in Grimm's Brothers stories too be too violent for our tamer, more domesticated world. Yet, others complain about these revisions. Think of the lines from Andrew Bird's Measuring Cups: "Just another children's story that's been declawed/When the tales of brothers, grim and gory have been outlawed." I recently learned that one of the most banned kids' books in the past 30 years has been In the Night Kitchen by the brilliant Maurice Sendak. Why was it banned? Because in one frame Mickey, a little baby, is naked. Full, frontal, infant nudity. Interestingly, according to Sendak, the United States is the only Western country to object to that scene.
What secret messages can you find in books you read or that were read to you? What else were you learning to read when you were learning to read letters?