"NES: Spiritual Warfare"

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As a kid I loved playing the Zelda games for Nintendo, but I wasn't allowed to own The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past because it has Link journey to the "dark world," which was thought to be potentially too dark, too scary, and too unwholesome for me.  (Given that Muppet Christmas specials and Care Bears gave me nightmares, this probably wasn't a bad decision.)

So, instead, I had Spiritual Warfare, a NES game by Wisdom Tree, a Christian video game maker.  On the surface, it seems like good clean fun: you only hurl fruit at people, not bullets; you answer Bible trivia questions along the way; and the background score consists of traditional hymns.

It is a very, very, very close copy of the original NES Zelda game, so the first lesson you learn is that that commandment about stealing isn't considered applicable to intellectual property.  The second lesson you learn is that it is never OK to go into a bar or a casino.  If you do it, an angel takes pieces of your armor away and you have to go into the "slum" to retrieve it.

The third lesson you learn is that the denizens of the city are all trying to kill you, so you need to arm yourself, which in this case means using the "fruit of the spirit" as weapons.  The pear is "meekness," the pomegranate is "love," the apple is "patience," the grapes are "joy," and the banana is "faith."  The grapes explode and fling shrapnel like a dirty bomb, which is pretty joyful, I suppose.  You can also throw Samson's jawbone like a boomerang, and use vials of God's Wrath to explode things.  I will leave the spiritual implications of all this for others to discern, but I think it is safe to say the theological framework of this setup is a tad murky.

When you "convert" people by hurling fruit at them, they immediately drop to their knees in prayer, then disappear (uh oh), and leave either their souls (in the form of a dove) or a demon (!) behind.  The demons will attack you, and you have to kill--er, convert--them by hurling more fruit.  The human souls you can collect and use as currency to purchase neat things like weapons and armor from the angels' stores.

Angels also occasionally show up to ask you some Bible trivia, much of which was a bit over the head of this elementary-schooler.  I wasn't sure how best to answer questions about whether "lusting after a woman in your heart" was the same as committing adultery, or if "the demon-possessed man severely beat the sons of Sceva," or if it was true that "out of man's head comes evil thoughts, adultery, theft, slander, lying, and these sins defile a man."

At the end of the game, you go to the Demon Stronghold, which appears to be Hell.  You defeat Satan (!) and are congratulated.  You will spend the next several nights hiding a banana under your pillow to throw at the demons that are now constantly haunting your nightmares.

Lesson learned:
Food fights=salvation.

(Watch the game played on YouTube here)
Spiritual Warfare for the Nintendo NES
Pay to play the game on your computer here


"The Princess Bride"

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I realize that The Princess Bride is not necessarily intended to be a children's movie, but its PG rating, fairy tale theme, and above all, its title--just take a survey of young girls and see how many are into princesses and/or brides--make it very appealing to children.

Now, I like The Princess Bride.  I quote it, I laugh at it, I think it's hilarious.  Now, anyway.

I caught my first glimpse of the movie at a tender age when I was on vacation with extended family at the beach.  The beach house television was amazing since it got both the Disney Channel and HBO!  HBO was verboten to me, however, since I was told it was an "adult channel," which of course made it all the more enticing.

My aunts and uncles and cousins were going to watch this new, cool-sounding movie on HBO while I was supposed to play downstairs.  I could hear them howling with laughter at the screen, and I was peeved not to be considered old enough to join in the fun.  Besides, I reasoned, what could be bad for me in a comedy?  Comedies are for lighthearted fun and witty jokes!  I love to laugh; I will join them and they will see they should have allowed me to watch it with them after all!

So, after I couldn't stand the taunting laughter above me anymore,  I snuck upstairs.  Still half-hiding behind the banister, I looked at the screen.  A naked man was strapped to a torture machine and was having the life sucked out of his body!  He was writhing in agony.  And screaming.  His back arched up like a rainbow of pain as the horrible, horrible suction cups sucked his life essence out like so many man-made leeches.  Oh, it was terrifying.  I ran back downstairs in terror.

This is what they were laughing at?  I never could look at those aunts and uncles and cousins the same way again; they had just revealed themselves to be a bunch of sickos.

Lesson Learned:
Never go against a Sicilian when death is on the line.

The Princess Bride.  Dir. Rob Reiner.  Perf. Cary Elwes, Mandy Patinkin, Robin Wright.  20th C Fox, 1987.
The Princess Bride (Two-Disc Blu-ray/DVD Combo in Blu-ray Packaging)
(See the Machine clip on YouTube here)


"Halloween is Grinch Night"

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For a short period while I was young, I referred to the bathroom as "the euphemism"--as in, "Stop the car; I've got to go to the euphemism!"  I like to think that adults were charmed by my obviously sophisticated wit and wordplay and my subtle commentary on the bowdlerization of the American vocabulary--or, it could have been a funny word I stole from a Dr. Seuss special.

Dr. Seuss can be wonderful but also so, so scary.  Although for sheer terror, nothing can top his live-action film The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T, which involves children being enslaved to play a giant piano by an evil totalitarian piano teacher.  In "Halloween is Grinch Night," the evil piano teacher moonlights as the voice of the Grinch, taking over from Boris Karloff.

From the opening credits, you know you're in for some trippy, scary stuff: multicolored dancing skeletons, swooping spirits, and menacing bat-birds all terrorize poor little Eukariah.  Eukariah's parents, Mariah and Josiah, smell a sour-sweet wind and know that means only one thing: it's Grinch Night, so everyone needs to stay inside!

Meanwhile, we see the Grinch himself back at his lair, murmuring thoughtfully, "It's a wonderful night for eyebrows."  Then his eyebrows leap off his face and do a little dance.  These kinds of disturbing non sequiturs are peppered throughout this special and that's what makes it so awful to behold.  "It's a wonderful night for eyebrows"?  Are eyebrows inherently evil?  Is this Eyebrow Night as well as Grinch Night?  Does Peter Gallagher come roaring down Mount Crumpet and furrow those those twin bushy wonders of his at you?

Anyway, Eukariah heads out to the "euphemism" (an outhouse, in this case), but gets lost and  winds up face to face with the Grinch, who opens a hatch in his Wagon of Menace to release a bunch of evil spirits to torment the hapless Who--klansman geese, rubbery green ghosts, spooky keys, blue spermatazoa, wobbly blobby ballerinas, sentient archways, lizard people, and footed swastikas--frankly, I'm just guessing at what most of these are intended to represent, but regardless, they're scary.  Even scarier is that Eukariah presumably still has to go to the euphemism.  Or has he already made a synecdoche in his Who-breeches?

Lesson learned:
Indoor plumbing can prevent childhood psychoses.

 "Halloween is Grinch Night."  Dir. Gerard Baldwin.  Perf. Hans Conried, Henry Gibson.  ABC, 1977.
 Dr. Seuss - Green Eggs and Ham and Other Favorites (Grinch Night)
(Watch it on Veoh here)


Uncle Arthur's Bedtime Stories: A gender analysis

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Uncle Arthur's Bedtime Stories, that inimitable source of childhood trauma, has some pretty distinct patterns in its tales which have become apparent after rereading them for this blog.  In a break from my regular posting format, I thought I'd address my findings here.

For my analysis below, I'm considering only Volume One of the 1964 edition.  Every volume has a "Lesson Index," so in italics is the "lesson" as written there, followed by the story title and description.  I include here only stories primarily about children that purport to teach a moral lesson, excluding only the "Bible" and "prayer stories".

Stories about female children:

Beauty, How to Find-- In "The Fountain of Beauty," Mother agrees that Nora is "dreadfully plain" but assures her that while "paint for your lips and powder for your cheeks" only "spoil" beauty, plain Nora can become beautiful by being less "cross and rude."

Grumbling, Cure for-- "Little Miss Grumbletone" is scolded when she grumbles as her brother Jimmie throws pillows at her in the morning, and is punished by being forced to eat, between sobs, every bite of her cold leftover lunch for dinner that night.  (The fact that Jimmie was hitting her with pillows is never acknowledged.)

Conceit, Cure for-- In "The 'I-Know-That' Girl," a girl is abandoned by her father at Trafalgar Square because she shows herself to be too conceited by saying "I know that."

Contradicting, Effect of-- "Little Miss 'Tisn't" must be taught a lesson because she contradicts people.  The most egregious example is when Father claims to have seen "a little man who was only three feet high" today in town, and his daughter expresses doubt.  "The worst of it," the story tells us, "is that she will contradict even in front of visitors, when it is so difficult for anyone to punish her."  (Great tip for kids!)  So her mother shames her by bringing her teacher into their home to witness the contradictions in action.

Curiosity, Days of-- "Curious Katie" wants to see what kind of custard treat her mother has prepared for her and her friends and hidden in a cupboard.  Although her mother forbids her to look, Katie takes a peek and inadvertently lets the cat into the cupboard as well, who eats the treat.  The ending: "Suffice it to say that pussy received a good slapping, Katie's inquisitiveness was reduced to normal, and the three little girls had a very plain supper of bread, butter, and jam."

Mischievousness-- "Mischievous Maggie" is such a little scamp that, one day "Daddy discovered little Miss Maggie sitting on the kitchen table cleaning his shoes with stove polish!"  (The text acknowledges this was likely a well-intended mistake.)  Another time she takes apart the alarm clock "[trying] to find out where the noise came from"-- "Did you ever hear of such a girl in all your life?" our story asks.  Maggie's father gets a new camera and takes Maggie's picture with it.  She is anxious to see how they turned out, so she opens the back and accidentally exposes the film.  Her father explains that "because of her naughtiness, [the pictures] would never be seen by anyone" and she learns a lesson for a lifetime.

Example, Effect of-- In "Echoes," Mary realizes that her younger brother repeats the rude things she says about her mother's cooking.

Laziness, Cure for-- "Dreamy Dora" sleeps in late in the mornings, so Mother punishes her by putting her to bed with the baby at half-past six and Dora cries herself to sleep.

There are also the outliers.  There's "Mother Love," which isn't really about children, and the only real story about a good girl, "Nellie's Wish," in which an unselfish girl gives her doll to another poor girl in need.

Results and conclusions:
Female children are bad when they are curious or impolite.

Stories about male children:

Courage-- In "The Man Who Could Not Move," a paralyzed man retains a cheerful outlook on life.

Faithfulness-- The reason "Why Victor Slept So Well" is because Victor is an industrious boy who works hard and anticipates his employer's needs.

Helpfulness-- "Wilfred's Secret" is that he runs the "Surprise Package Company," which does nice things for people who don't expect it.

Faith, A Child's-- "Jesus Understood"

Honesty Pays-- "Peter Pays Up" because he eats blackberries from the store and his Grandma makes him fess up to the shopkeep and pay for them.  The shopkeep rewards his honesty by giving him a nice jam doughnut.

...I'm sure by now you get the idea, so I'll just list the other titles and lessons about good boys for reference: Love, How to Show-- "How Much Love?"; Owning Up, Reward of-- "Conkers and Conquerors"; Quarreling, How to Stop-- "How Tony Made Up"; Persistence-- "Kocking Out the 'T'"; Tithing, Reward of-- "How Tommy Opened Up the Windows of Heaven"; Police, Respect for-- "Georgie and the Man in Blue"

Plus, there are at least two "bad boy" stories: Tardiness, Cure for-- "When Dick Was Late" and Greediness, Cure for-- "The Hollow Pie."

Results and conclusions:
Male children are good when they are industrious and courageous.

Lessons learned:
The boys tend to get "rewarded" for the values they embody or the lessons they learn, but the girls are more likely to get "cured" of them.  The boys also all have names, while the girls are often referred to only by the negative traits they represent.  I'm sure much of the discrepancy in the depiction of male and female children can be attributed to the time in which they are written and published, although the attitudes regarding male and female roles seem more in line with the mid-nineteenth century than the mid-twentieth.  The harmful stereotypes perpetuated here are worth noting since these stories are still being actively published today, and many of the volumes have rave (if nostalgically hazy) reviews on Amazon from folks who read these stories to their own children and grandchildren.  Really warped children's stories can be wonderful fun, but unlike the stories where a child gets eaten by a lion, or controlled by an evil book, Uncle Arthur's stories have a very unbalanced message that's easier for kids to internalize and accept as truth.

Text source: Maxwell, Arthur S.  "The Hollow Pie."  Uncle Arthur's Bedtime Stories. Vol. 1.  Washington, DC: Review and Herald, 1964.


"The Secret of NIMH"

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This is a movie that scares you silly as a kid but then provokes an agonizing moral dilemma when you're an adult.  Not many kids' flicks can do that, I think.

For kids, there is nightmare fodder aplenty--creepy old owls with glowing eyes, creepy old rats with glowing eyes, bizarre mysticism, a secret lair with cobwebs and lighted skulls, treachery, danger, blood, gore, needles, death, etc.

You get that the story is about Mrs. Brisby, whose son Timothy is sick with pneumonia, and she needs to move her cinder block home with him in it so he doesn't get hit by the plow.  She goes to the rats for help with the move, and they tell her she has to drug the evil cat Dragon so he doesn't interfere with their plans.  (A word here: what does Don Bluth have against cats?  This plus An American Tail will turn young viewers into dog people for sure.)

Mrs. Brisby gets caught in a cage and tries to free herself but wounds her arm on a wire.  (We know she's a mouse, but she's an anthropomorphized mouse, with a family, and a name, and a kickin' red cape, so this is like seeing Minnie lying there naked and bleeding while we watch in frozen horror.)  Meanwhile, she overhears that NIMH will come to exterminate the rats, and she flees to warn them. 

As an adult, you realize what NIMH actually stands for--the National Institute of Mental Health.  Yes, the faceless threat of unspeakable evil here is the organization responsible for researching the human brain and safeguarding your sanity.  This revelation is depressing enough to drive one to happy pills--or, you know, not.

The film explains NIMH in a PETA-approved flashback: "In the beginning, we were ordinary street rats..." but then they are captured and caged by NIMH.  As Nicodemus says, "They were put through the most unspeakable tortures, to satisfy some scientific curiosity." (Here we see terrified monkeys, rabbits, and puppies huddled and panting in cages.)  "Often, at night, I would hear them cry out in anguish. Twenty rats and eleven mice were given injections."  I can count on exactly zero fingers the number of times it is appropriate and advisable to use the phrase "unspeakable tortures" in a children's movie.  Egads! 

Of course, the movie's real punch has yet to be delivered.  The rats have rigged a pulley system to move the Brisbys' home, and, as Jenner explains with an evil glint to his accomplice, "Accidents... could... happen."  So he crushes Nicodemus to death with the rigging holding a cinder block!

I wonder if this movie has proved problematic with scientists, psychologists, and other medical professionals who have work associated with NIMH.  Think their friends assume much of their time is devoted to rat extermination?

Lesson learned:
Don't teach rats to read.

The Secret of NIMH.  Dir. Don Bluth.  Perf. Elizabeth Hartman, Derek Jacobi, Dom DeLuise.  MGM/UA, 1982.
(Watch the full movie on Hulu here)
The Secret of NIMH (2-Disc Family Fun Edition)


"Peter Pan"

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Disney's animated version of Peter Pan (1953) never really interested me, but I watched this video of the Broadway version more times than I can count.  Looking back, I realize that my willing suspension of disbelief combined with my utter naivete led me to believe some pretty strange things:

1.  If a girl wears a very short belted outfit, tights, and cute boots, everyone will assume she's a boy.  While this may have been true in the 1960s, today, thousands of sorority members across the nation have adopted this as their daily uniform.  Mary Martin would more likely be mistaken for a Chi Omega than a puckish lad.

2.  Just think happy thoughts and you can fly.  Tried it.  Doesn't work.

3.  A large dog is an excellent substitute for a human child care provider.  I do see the advantages of this: you only have to pay the help in cans of Alpo, and they're less likely to seek better employment elsewhere.  However, a problem does seem to be made apparent when Nana is tethered to her doghouse and your children are abducted by an enigmatic eternal manchild.

4.  You can detach your own shadow and sew it back on.  When I was inside the house watching the movie, I would realize that I had no shadow and begin to worry, but once I was outside, it would be there again.  Shadows are like muddy boots or stray dogs; you pretty much have to leave them at the front door.

5.  Soap does not make a good adhesive.  This one's actually true.

6.  Not believing in fairies will kill them.  Well, this idea will scar a child for life.  Every kid should probably buy into a kind of Pascal's Gambit re: fairies, and believe in them just in case.

7.  Clapping will bring someone back to life.  If you're ever with someone on his deathbed, and he expires, you probably don't want to start clapping.  Witnesses might get the wrong idea.

8.  You can shoot a woman in the heart with a bow and arrow and she will agree to be your "mother."  This is probably not a good idea in general.

9.  You can abduct women out of their bedroom windows to force them to do your "spring cleaning."  See above.

10.  "Indians" are blondes who say things like "Ugg-a-wugg."  Ugh indeed.  This one's actually pretty ugly.  Talk to your children about how lyrics like "ugga-wugga-wigwam" and "ugga-wugga-meatball" (???) are pretty strange choices coming out of the mouth of a very Nordic-looking "Indian."

Lesson learned:
Take note, Spider-Man musical--this is how you do non-injurious Broadway stuntwork.

Peter Pan. Dir. Vincent J. Donehue.  Perf. Mary Martin, Cyril Ritchard, Sondra Lee.  NBC, 1960.
Buy Peter Pan [VHS]
(Watch the Indians' dance on YouTube here)


"Puff, the Magic Dragon"

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I met Peter Yarrow once, and he was a really nice guy.  I bet he gets pretty tired of baby boomers giving him a wink-wink and a nudge-nudge and telling him they "know what 'puffing the magic dragon' is really about."  So that's not what I'm addressing here.  Besides, are there any children who hear this song for the first time and think, "Why, those lyrics could be construed as a hidden extended metaphor for cannabis use!"

No, I'll tell you what they think when they hear this song for the first time:

Hey, a song about a dragon!
Dragons are awesome.
This dragon is friendly and plays with a kid just like me!
They even scare off pirates!  Cool!
Wait--where did Jackie go?
Why is Puff crying?
Why is Puff crying?
Why am I crying?

Before I ever really listened to the song's lyrics, I assumed things would turn out really well for Puff and Jackie.  After all, Children's Video Library had made a cartoon version in 1978, followed by Puff the Magic Dragon in the Land of Living Lies (1979) and Puff and the Incredible Mr. Nobody (1982).  The existence of sequels tends to bode well for beloved characters in movies, right?  But the movies just confused me more.  In the first one, for example, there's a Jackie Draper and a Jackie Paper, who's like some kind of 2-D alternate self, if I recall correctly.

The movie certainly doesn't end with a depressed dragon with green scales falling like rain.  Poor Puff.  It's amazing how much pathos can be worked into a few simple lyrics about a magical dragon.  Hmmm, maybe I'll feel better about this after a good frolic in some autumn mist.

Lesson learned:
If you never abandon your imaginary friends, you'll need therapy.  But if you ever abandon your imaginary friends, they'll need therapy.

Leonard Lipton and Peter Yarrow.  "Puff, the Magic Dragon."  Warner Bros., 1963.
Puff The Magic Dragon - Book and CD Package


"The Giving Tree"

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When I wrote about Goblin Market, I mentioned that it might be the only poem to have been featured in both children's anthologies and Playboy magazine; there is, however, more than one poet with that honor.  Shel Silverstein wrote wonderful children's poems in books like Where the Sidewalk Ends, penned the famous song "A Boy Named Sue," and yes, wrote some hilarious things for Playboy.

The Giving Tree is the story of a consensual, non-monogamous BDSM relationship between a man--the Dominant, and a tree--the submissive. 

The tree loves the boy, and for his part he enjoys touching her limbs, tasting her fruit, even carving his name into her skin.  This makes the tree happy.  Later, the boy uses her limbs to build a house for his wife, and the tree gladly allows this, too, and is very happy.  She probably always knew that the boy had other subs in his life, but the exquisite pain made her feel things again she hadn't felt in years.

Eventually, the boy makes a boat from the tree's trunk, which she's not too keen on, actually, because really, everyone's got limits.  Then the boy returns again as an old man and wants a place to rest, and the tree allows him to sit on her stump and is happy again, because it's really hard to find a good Dom when you live outside a major city.

Lesson learned:
Always establish a safeword.

Silverstein, Shel.  The Giving Tree.  New York: Harper & Row, 1964.
The Giving Tree (Slipcased Mini Edition)


"The Dark Crystal"

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Seriously, this movie is terrifying.  Seriously.

It begins with a backstory that is too bizarre and convoluted to fully explain here, much less to understand as a child, so I'll just say that there are nice, hairy-brontosaurus-looking creatures called the Mystics who must complete a crystal to defeat their evil other halves, some naked-rotting-vulture-looking creatures called the Skeksis.  Helping the Mystics is Jen, a who is a Gelfling, a Posh Spice-elf-looking creature. 

We witness horror upon horrors (the Skeksis empress dies, Jen's parents die, various creatures are captured and beaten), and, just when we find some blessed levity with the antics of the Podlings (who look like cute hairy potatoes), they're all captured and taken as slaves of the Skeksis. 

There is an evil Skeksis scientist who straps the podlings into a chair, shines a beam of crystal-light into their eyes, and drains them of their "vital essence" drop by drop, as their skin sinks in and their bodies shrivel and they are left as mindless zombies.  After watching this, your children will be terrified of the eye doctor for the rest of their lives.

Lesson learned:
Girl gelflings: always with wings.

The Dark Crystal.  Dir. Jim Henson, Frank Oz.  Perf. Stephen Garlick, Lisa Maxwell, Percy Edwards.  Jim Henson Productions, 1982.
The Dark Crystal (25th Anniversary Edition)
(Watch the trailer on YouTube here)


"All Dogs Go to Heaven"

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Lots of children wish they had the power to communicate with animals, so it's a pretty common trope in stories aimed at kids. (How else to explain the annoying presence of Ma-Ti on Captain Planet?  "Heart?"  What kind of classical element is that?  Somewhere, Aristotle rolls over in his grave.)

The orphan (of course) Anne-Marie can talk to animals, so her gift is taken advantage of by an evil gangster bulldog, Carface Carruthers, who uses it for gambling purposes.  Stay with me here--at the beginning of the movie, Carface also kills his partner Charlie by getting him liquored up and running him over with a car and knocking his lifeless body into a river.  And it really is supposed to be a kids' movie, I promise.

Charlie, a German shepherd, is the Byronic hero of the tale.  He goes to Heaven--we are told, per the title, that all dogs go to Heaven--but he has a score to settle with Carface, so he takes his "life watch" and heads back to Earth to take care of his unfinished business.  He is warned that he will stay on Earth as long as his watch keeps ticking, but as soon as it stops, he will go straight to Hell.  Yes, Hell!

Questionable canine theology aside, this is the driving force of the film: the specter of our protagonist's eternal damnation.  We even get a horrific nightmare scene where Charlie is tortured in Hell.  As the film rolls along, we see the dogs gamble (not like this), steal, lie, get beaten, get nearly sacrificed to an alligator by a tribe of rats, get tied to an anchor to drown, set a generator on fire, and more.  Still a kids' movie.

Eventually, Carface gets eaten by the alligator, Anne-Marie becomes part of a family whose wallet Charlie stole, and Charlie indeed goes to Hell.  He ultimately gets to trade up for a spot in Heaven since he died saving Anne-Marie, but it turns out that Carface is up there too, wreaking havoc.  Bad dog!  Bad, bad dog!

Lesson learned:
Dog Heaven should be a little more selective.

All Dogs Go to Heaven.  Dir. Don Bluth.  Perf. Burt Reynolds, Dom DeLuise, Charles Nelson Reilly.  United Artists, 1989.
(Watch the Hell scene here on YouTube at about 2:15)
All Dogs Go to Heaven


"Julie of the Wolves"

This book remains pretty popular YA reading.  I liked it, but I remember reading it more as a "how-to" guide for renouncing humanity and becoming a wolf, although I'm pretty sure now that wasn't the book's intention.

Thinking her father is dead, the Eskimo woman Julie is coerced into a marriage at 13 to Daniel, a mentally disabled man.  Daniel says his friends have been taunting him--"Ha, ha.  Dumb Daniel. He has a wife and he can't mate her"--so he tries to rape her.  (This scene is disturbing but brief, and apparently it's gotten this book challenged or banned in several places.  I don't advocate that, myself.  I say, inform yourself, read the book if you choose, and if it warps you you'll have great blog fodder for later!)

Julie escapes, reverts to her Eskimo name, "Miyax," and goes out to live among the wolves.  She gives them names like Amaroq and Nails and Jello, and she acts as a wolf herself.  Miyax nurses from one wolf and even gets another to regurgitate food for her so she can eat it.  This book convinced me that I could effectively communicate with wolves, since I had read all of Julie's hints and tricks.  There were no wolves handy, but I'm pretty sure I tried biting the top of the family poodle mix's nose in order to show I was pack leader.  (It didn't work.  But I wonder if Cesar Milan read this book?)

Amaroq, the pack leader, gets shot from a plane and Miyax mourns.  Then she learns her father is alive, but he owns the plane that is being used to hunt the pack for sport!  Miyax peaces out and heads back out to the wolves.

Lesson learned:
In a pinch, wolf vomit.

George, Jean Craighead.  Julie of the Wolves.  New York: Harper & Row, 1972.
Julie of the Wolves (rack)



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Pinocchio already starts with one strike against it because it is extremely difficult to spell.  Strike two is that it features toys becoming Real, and, as many of the other entries here suggest, I am royally creeped out by sentient objects.  As for strike three--well, there are just too many to choose from.

Budding entomologists might be confused by Jiminy Cricket, who looks less like an insect and more like an odd-nosed lizard in a top hat.  (Of course, he seems fairly correct when compared to the four-limbed insects in A Bug's Life.)  Jiminy Cricket serves as Pinocchio's conscience--a surprising choice since the loud crickets outside my window bent on keeping me awake at night don't seem to have much compunction at all.

Pinocchio is a living puppet trying to become "a real boy," and he has misadventures along the way.  He's forced to perform on command and is locked in a cage by Stromboli, a villain whose name will make pizzeria menus seem sinister for the rest of your life.  Pinocchio escapes only to be coerced into illegal gambling and underage tobacco and alcohol abuse on Pleasure Island, where boys turn into literal jackasses.  The boys are then sold into donkey-slavery in the salt mines to boot.

Our wooden hero escapes and returns home to find that Gepetto, his maker, has been swallowed by Monstro the whale.  Right.  So Pinocchio gets swallowed by the whale too and in one of the most squirm-inducing, sinus-tingling scenes in the history of cinema, they build a fire inside the whale's stomach cavity to make him sneeze them out.  It works, but Pinocchio gets killed, and the Blue Fairy brings him back to life, as a "real boy" this time.

Lesson learned:
Save the whales!  Or set them on fire; your choice.

Pinocchio.  Dir. Ben Sharpsteen et al.  Perf. Cliff Edwards, Dickie Jones, Christian Rub.  Disney, 1940.
Pinocchio (Disney Gold Classic Collection)
(Watch the trailer on YouTube here)


"Little Bunny Foo Foo"

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Our children's rhyme begins with an unprovoked assault by a roving Lagomorphological sociopath.  To wit, "Little Bunny Foo Foo, hoppin' through the forest, scoopin' up the field mice and boppin' 'em on the head!"

The Good Fairy is displeased with this behavior, and she says she will give our boy Foo Foo three chances, and if he doesn't behave, she "will turn [him] into a goon."  But what exactly does the threat of becoming a goon entail in this context?  What exactly is a goon?  Let us turn to the Oxford English Dictionary to find out.

The OED traces the etymology of "goon" to a comic strip character called "Alice the Goon," a giant Amazonian woman with hairy forearms and a flowered hat, featured in Popeye cartoons.  It seems unlikely that this is what the Good Fairy is thinking of; wouldn't increased height and powerful forearms only render Foo Foo a more formidable enemy to the field mice?

The most common use of "goon" is to denote "a stolid, dull, or stupid person."  But that seems pretty much like the status quo for Foo Foo, doesn't it?  Bunny MENSA members probably don't count "bopping field mice on the head" among their hobbies.  There is a definition for "goon" that means one who is "hired to terrorize workers," but again, whether the mice are in a union or not, that's pretty much what Foo Foo's already doing, isn't it?

So, if there is no real threat to Foo Foo here, is the Good Fairy suggesting not that he stop his behavior, but that he modify it to be more effective?  Would a new verse have Bunny Foo Foo breaking their knees instead?  If the mice are in a union, is the Good Fairy a racketeer?  And are these the kinds of values we want to teach our children?

Lesson learned:
Hare today, goon tomorrow.

Little Bunny Foo Foo: Told And Sung By The Good Fairy



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Yeh-Shen is most famous as a book, but I first saw it as a cartoon on CBS Storybreak.  It's a Cinderella story, so you already know she's going to be abused and gets to marry royalty.  In this version, however, Yeh-Shen's "fairy godmother" is a magical talking fish called Gold Eyes.  Gold Eyes helps Yeh-Shen do laundry by splashing the clothes with his tail. (Mmm, Downey fresh!)

After Yeh-Shen's wicked stepmother finds out about Gold Eyes, she bags him and cooks him for dinner.  Yeh-Shen returns home to find that her fish friend is reduced to mere bones, and her stepmother taunts her that as Gold Eyes was being cooked, he would cry out, "Yeh-Shen!  Yeh-Shen!  Tell them to use more soy sauce!" 

Poor Yeh-Shen is devastated, and curls up in bed that night with her dead pet fish's bones.  (This is not supposed to be creepy at all).  Gold Eyes' spirit tells Yeh-Shen that he wants to return her kindnesses to him from beyond the grave, and he magically conjures up a feast for her.  Later, when Yeh-Shen's stepmother and stepsister are going to the all-the-ladies-find-husbands festival, Gold Eyes' bones transform into a beautiful robe and slippers with golden scales, so Yeh-Shen is able to go to the festival too.

Although the king does not come to the festival, Yeh-Shen does attract the attention of a nobleman.  He quizzes Yeh-Shen about her identity, but our heroine remains koi (hyuk, hyuk, hyuk).  Later, when she leaves the festival and loses her slipper, the nobleman brings the slipper to king, who exclaims, "I've only seen her slipper but she captured my heart!"  So romantic!

Yeh-Shen goes to try on the slipper to reclaim it from the king, telling the guards that the slipper belongs to her friend the fish.  The guards respond reasonably by throwing her in a dungeon.  After Yeh-Shen is released, she is able to grab the slipper and return it to its mate.  Now Gold Eyes can finally journey "to the pond of his forefathers" and Yeh-Shen marries the king.

Lesson learned:
Foot fetishes are common to royalty all over the world.

Yeh-Shen: A Cinderella Story from China.  Dir. Ray Patterson.  Perf. Michael Bell, George Takei, Emily Koruda.  20th C Fox, 1985.
Book: Yeh-Shen: A Cinderella Story from China
Movie:  Yeh-Shen: A Cinderella Story from China [VHS]
(See it on YouTube here)


Uncle Arthur's Bedtime Stories: "The Hollow Pie"

image Don Nelson
"Robert had the very bad habit of always taking the biggest and best of everything for himself."  So begins today's morality tale from Uncle Arthur.  We know what the moral will be after this sentence, so the real payoff is seeing how Robert will learn his lesson.  Let's find out, shall we?

Mother is tired of Robert "disgrac[ing] the family," so she enlists her sister's help to nip this little problem in the bud.  Auntie invites them to dinner and Robert is positively giddy with anticipation.  As soon as he gets to Auntie's house, he eyes each dish and makes a mental note about which biggest, most-delicious-looking portion he wants for himself.  When the pies are passed around, Robert of course takes the biggest one, but he is disappointed to find that it is hollow.  "Poor Robert!  Tears filled his eyes, but as no one seemed to notice what had happened, he ate the crust as bravely as he could and said nothing."  At least he's polite.

Then, cakes are passed around.  Robert takes the biggest one, but the center is disgustingly bitter.  Robert eschews the dull oranges and pears and selects the big shiny apple.  After one bite, he discovers the center is bad.  Finally, the chocolates are passed around, and Robert takes not one but two of the "big beauties in the center," but they've been tainted with a horrible taste.

That night, Robert complains that the food was bad even though he always tried to take the best-looking portions, and his brother Charlie sagely advises that that might be the root of Robert's problem.  Thus, Robert "put 'two and two together' and at last decided that the best and safest course for him would be to follow Charlie's suggestion in the future."

This is the end of the story, but it leaves us with so many questions: What did Auntie put in the food?  How did she distribute it?  Were the other family members in on it?  How did they know Robert would take two chocolates instead of one?  What about her menu--pies, cakes, fruit, and chocolate--is Auntie trying to send her entire family into a sugar-induced coma?

Is Auntie the sort of aunt who would put the poison into only the biggest portion or vary it up a little? Now, a clever aunt would put the poison into several portions, because she would know that only a great fool would always reach for the biggest portion.  Robert is not a great fool, so he can clearly not choose the portion that is not the biggest.  But the aunt must have known Robert was not a great fool, she would have counted on it, so Robert can clearly not choose the biggest portion in front of him.

Lesson learned:
It's a good idea to build up an immunity to iocane powder.

Source: Maxwell, Arthur S.  "The Hollow Pie."  Uncle Arthur's Bedtime Stories. Vol. 1.  Washington, DC: Review and Herald, 1964. 25-28.
Uncle Arthur's Bedtime Stories: Volume 1Buy Uncle Arthur's Bedtime Stories Volume 1 on Amazon



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I do have a somewhat perverse affection for "cautionary tales," but Pierre I genuinely like.  I love how it sounds so intentionally off-putting-- Pierre: A Cautionary Tale, in Five Chapters and a Prologue, with about 50 pages of text and "a suitable moral" at the end.  What self-respecting, Play-doh-eating preschooler would pick that up and think, "Yes, this is the book for me!"?

Although Pierre has loving parents and a pretty good life, he has an insufferable habit of saying "I don't care" to just about everything.  Pierre pours syrup on his hair, he flips upside down in the folding chair, and he won't "care" about anything, even when his mother plies him with Cream of Wheat or his father attempts to placate him by allowing him to fold the folding chair.  (Incidentally, I never understood why either of these were used as some kind of enticing reward.  Cream of Wheat is not very exciting to people under the age of 60, and I have folded a few folding chairs in my time and nothing magical ever happened.  Maybe I was doing it wrong.)

His parents leave Pierre alone while they go to town (cf "Mother Love") and while they're gone, "A hungry lion paid a call / He looked Pierre right in the eye / And asked him if he'd like to die."  The specter of imminent death should be a harsh reality check for the tyke, but no, he replies, naturally, "I don't care."  So the lion ate Pierre.

Pierre's parents come home to find a lion in their son's bed who says "I don't care" in a suspiciously familiar voice.  They take him to a doctor, who flips the lion upside down and shakes Pierre out.  The lion offers Pierre a ride home if he would care to climb on him, and this time Pierre decides he does care.  The lion stays on as a weekend guest, which must have been awkward since he'd already tried to eat his hosts' son, but maybe he brought a really good wine or something as a nice hostess gift and that smoothed things over.

Lesson learned:
Oh, this one's easy.  "The moral of Pierre is, 'care'!"

Sendak, Maurice.  Pierre: A Cautionary Tale.  New York: Harper Collins, 1962.
Pierre: A Cautionary Tale in Five Chapters and a Prologue
(Carole King sings the story on YouTube here)


"Peter and the Wolf"

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This is the famous musical composition by Sergei Prokofiev rendered as a Disney cartoon. Each character in the piece is represented by a corresponding instrument: the bird is a flute, the duck is an oboe, the wolf is a French horn, etc.  There is also a narrator that repeatedly addresses the characters-- e.g. shouting "Look out!"--but he does not appear to be able to actually assist them.  If the bleakness of the tundra and the animals' tears that freeze at the end of their noses doesn't depress you, then the Beckettian futility of the narrator's attempts to interact with hand-drawn characters who are personifications of wind instruments probably will.

There are several other scary aspects of this cartoon: Ivan the cat's bloodlust for Sasha the bird for one, and Peter only being armed with a pop-cork rifle against a huge man-eating wolf for another.  But the most disturbing part for me is when Sasha attempts to tell the hunters about the wolf.  The bird draws letters in the snow, and the narrator reads aloud: "W-O-L-F.  Wolf!"

But the letters spell BONK.

Well, actually Волк.  But I didn't know what the Cyrillic alphabet was, so I would rewind the tape again and again, scratching my head about "Bonk."  I knew there words like "knight," which was pronounced "nite" instead of "kuh-nig-uht," but I still couldn't figure out how "Wolf"="Bonk."

Anyway, to get back to the story, poor Sonia the duck appears to have been eaten by the wolf--and in the original composition, he was.  In fact, in the original, "if you listen very carefully, you'd hear the duck quacking inside the wolf's belly, because the wolf in his hurry had swallowed her alive," which doesn't seem like it would be particularly reassuring to a child.

Here, we see a single feather left by her footprints, and we watch Sonia's entry into Duck Heaven.  But then we have some Disney ex Machina and it turns out that Sonia was hiding in a hollow tree trunk all the time!  This is a wonderful, wonderful day!

Lesson learned:
Every child needs a rifle.

Peter and the Wolf.  Dir. Clyde Geronimi.  Perf. Sterling Holloway.  Disney, 1946.
Make Mine Music (Disney Gold Classic Collection)
(See it on YouTube here.)


"The Adventures of Mark Twain"

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The "Mysterious Stranger" segment of this movie has become something of a phenomenon on YouTube, so for reference I'm including a link here; you really do have to see it to believe it.  (Please let me know what happens after you do, because I don't know that I've ever been able to make it all the way to the end.)

When this thing first came out, it was no internet meme--heck, there was no internet--so parents would pick it up as a Beta videotape, think "claymation=wholesome family fun," and plunk their children in front of the tube for awhile to watch it.  I even know folks who had this movie shown to them in elementary school.

I have read that they often censored this segment for television, but that's a bit like closing the barn door after the horse got out, isn't it?  The damage has been done; you will never be able to read Mark Twain again, at least not normally.  The Prince and the Pauper?  Satan.  The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn?  Satan!  The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County?  Also Satan!

I can only speculate that this was a movie intended to dissuade any future English majors.  See where a literary life of the mind has left Mark Twain, kids?  He's despondent on an airship, determined to destroy himself and his own creations by exploding into Halley's comet, while hallucinating a claymation apocalypse!  Is that what you want for your life?  Doesn't an accounting major seem much more pleasant now?

Lesson learned:
Satan's a sorry name for an angel.

The Adventures of Mark Twain.  Dir. Will Vinton.  Perf. James Whitmore, Gary Krug, Chris Ritchie.  Clubhouse, 1985. 
Adventures of Mark Twain


"Where the Red Fern Grows"

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This book's reputation precedes it, so I knew going in that the dogs would die.  It is well-established that in YA literature, if there is a dog, it will probably die (e.g. Old Yeller, Sounder) or at least be horribly abused (e.g. Shiloh, Call of the Wild).  So, while it is very sad that the dogs die, reading a YA title with a dog in it is a little like being a hospice worker: you know death is pretty much what they're there for.

Billy orders his coonhounds from an ad in a magazine and has them sent to him in the mail.  Because nothing says "humane treatment" like putting a puppy in a box via USPS.  I am only assuming that this was a conventional practice at the time.

Billy lives in the Ozarks during the Great Depression, so his hunting and killing of raccoons is, again, normal and expected.  His dogs, Old Dan and Little Ann, gain reputations as the best coonhounds in the area.  Rubin and Rainie Pritchard are jealous of the dogs, and bet Billy that Old Dan and Little Ann can't catch the infamous "ghost coon."  After Billy's dogs are successful but Billy refuses to kill the "ghost coon," Rubin knocks Billy down and the Pritchards' mean dog, Old Blue, starts to fight Old Dan.  Suddenly, Rainie shouts that "they" are killing Old Blue, since "Faithful Little Ann, bitch though she was, had gone to the assistance of Old Dan."  (Ann might be a little bitch, but she's not a little bitch, you know what I'm saying?)

When it looks like Billy's dogs are going to win the fight , Rubin threatens to kill the dogs and charges after Old Dan and Little Ann while brandishing an axe.  Here is the part where we might expect what happens to dogs in YA fiction to happen to these dogs, but no.  Instead, Rubin trips and stabs himself in the stomach with the axe.

And he's not dead yet.

Rubin softly pleads for Billy to "take it out of me," a few times, and Billy sees Rubin's hands are curled around the axe blade and he's trying to pull it out himself.  Billy does Rubin a solid and pulls the blade out for him: "The blood gushed. I felt the warm heat as it spread over my hands."  (By the way, bad idea, kids.)  Even though Rubin has just had the head of an axe yanked out of his abdomen, Billy actually believes that Rubin is going to be able to get up.

Then we get what I think must be the most horrifying passage in all of YA literature:
"His eyes were wide open, staring straight at me.  Stopping in his effort of getting up, still staring at me, his mouth opened as if to say something.  Words never came.  Instead, a large red bubble slowly worked its way out of his mouth and burst.  He fell back to the ground.  I knew he was dead."

Well, I don't know about you, but I'm never chewing cherry bubblegum ever, ever again.

Lesson learned:
The pull-out method rarely works.

Rawls, Wilson.  Where the Red Fern Grows.  New York: Doubleday, 1961.
Where the Red Fern Grows

Nickelodeon short: "Fast Food"

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When I was little, I never tried a shamrock shake or lime Kool-aid, and a green congealed salad?  Forget it.  That's because this innocuous little cartoon taught me that green food coloring comes from live frogs.

The premise of the short is basically Iron Chef: Frog Edition.  It's St. Patrick's Day, so the three competing chefs must each make a green-colored dish using the frog provided.  The frog, for his part, makes futile pleas for help from his bell jar prison.

The chefs squabble over which parts of the frog they will use for their Swamp Mist Bleu, Frog-a Souffle, or Ribbit Rarebit.  A food fight ensues--clunk! pow! bonk!--as they clamor for the frog's liver, fat, or the whole darn frog.  Suddenly, the announcer says there has been a "terrible mistake"-- it's not St. Patrick's Day; it's Valentine's Day!  (Meanwhile, the frog has escaped in the melee.)

There is a pause in the action and we see a very red parrot looking quite worried.  "Uh oh," it says.  "Polly wants a cracker.  Polly does not want to be a cracker."  We are only left to speculate about the poor bird's fate after the credits.

Lesson learned:
Red velvet cake may contain trace amounts of scarlet macaw.

Watch "Fast Food" via Retro Junk


"Pee-wee's Big Adventure"

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Because Pee-wee is essentially a child in a man's body, his hyper energy and mannerisms seem natural to a child.  He loves his awesome red bicycle, he has a house filled with super-cool gadgets, and he competes with the town bully.  When Pee-wee's bike gets stolen, that's pathos a child can relate to, so you're totally with him as he goes on a quest to find it.

The film is directed by Tim Burton, true, but for the first half of the movie, it's Tim Burton Lite--colorful and carnivalesque.  So when Large Marge appears, you're expecting another slightly off-kilter character with zany antics.  Then she starts telling her story: "On this very night... ten years ago... along this very stretch of road... in a dense fog just like this... I saw the worst accident I ever seen." 

At this point you are wide-eyed; the woman has your full attention.  There is going to be a ghost story in the middle of the Pee-wee movie?  That's unexpected, but ghost stories are always cool.  You might anticipate hearing that when the girl takes off the green ribbon from around her neck, her head falls off, or to learn that in the dark, dark box there was a ghost, or that the viper has come to vipe your vindows.

Marge continues with her horribly specific description: "There was this sound... like a garbage truck dropped off the Empire State Building... And when they pulled the driver's body... from the twisted, burning wreck,... it looked like... this!!!"

And that's when you suddenly see the most terrifying claymation sequence this side of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.  The dead driver was Large Marge!  The dead driver was Large Marge!  This is the part where Marge haunts your nightmares for a good two and a half years.

Lesson learned:
There is no basement at the Alamo.

Pee-wee's Big Adventure.  Dir. Tim Burton.  Perf. Paul Reubens, Elizabeth Daily, Mark Holton.  Warner Bros., 1975.
Pee-wee's Big Adventure (Widescreen)
(See the scene on YouTube here.)

"Not Now, Bernard"

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This one is charmingly creepy, if there can be such a thing.  Bernard just wants a little attention from his mum and dad, but every time he tries to speak to them, they reply with a peremptory "Not now, Bernard."

Then we learn what Bernard's been trying to tell them--"There's a monster in the garden and it's going to eat me."  Like a latter-day Cassandra, Bernard finds his words go unheeded, so when he ventures back out to the garden, sure enough, the monster eats him.  All that remains of the boy is one small shoe dangling out of the monster's mouth.

The monster goes into the house to wreak some havoc, but the parents don't ever look up from their activities, only saying "Not Now, Bernard" as the monster bites the father's leg or jumps up on the TV set.  The monster is sent up to Bernard's room and told to go to sleep.  "But I'm a monster," the monster weakly protests.  "Not now, Bernard," the mother replies.

So, it seems DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince were right-- parents just don't understand.  One could argue that the events of the book are Bernard's Calvin-like fantasy and he is the monster, but the illustrations don't seem to support that.  Bernard's grisly murder goes unavenged.

Lesson learned:
If a monster kills and eats you, your parents won't ever notice.

McKee, David.  Not Now, Bernard.  London: Andersen P, 1980.
Not Now, Bernard (Mini Hardback)


"The Velveteen Rabbit"

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When this book was read to me, I had no idea what velveteen meant, but I figured it was like "Florentine" or "Argentine" and denoted that the rabbit was from Velveeta.  I realize now this is not the case.

Although the boy of the story is initially overjoyed to find the velveteen rabbit in his stocking, soon reality hits: "For at least two hours the boy loved him, and then Aunts and Uncles came to dinner, and there was a great rustling of tissue paper and unwrapping of parcels, and in the excitement of looking at all the new presents the Velveteen Rabbit was forgotten.   For a long time he lived in the toy cupboard or on the nursery floor, and no one thought very much about him."

All of the toys snub the velveteen rabbit (shades of the toy racism found later in The Christmas Toy) except the skin horse, who is the oldest toy in the nursery and claims to know all about how toys become Real, since he considers himself Real.  He sagely asserts that "When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real."  The skin horse admits that becoming real hurts because "most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby."  Horrors!

Then the boy decides he loves the rabbit, takes it everywhere with him, and when he says that the rabbit is Real, the rabbit believes him.  All this changes when the velveteen rabbit meets some really real rabbits outside, and they tell him he can't be real because he doesn't smell right, can't hop, and besides, he doesn't even have any back legs!  The velveteeen rabbit is devastated.

Things become even bleaker when the boy becomes very ill, and, because the doctor sees the rabbit as "a mass of scarlet fever germs," he is put in a sack with the boy's old picture-books to be thrown on a bonfire.  The rabbit crawls out, cries a tear, and from that tear the Nursery Magic Fairy appears and says that when toys "are old and worn out and the children don't need them any more, then I come and take them away with me and turn them into Real."  Then what about the skin horse?

The velveteen rabbit is now a really-real rabbit and happily joins the other live rabbits.  (Side note--do stuffed rabbits really need to become real rabbits?  Rabbits seem to multiply just fine on their own, but what do I know?)

This story really warped my view of illness because "scarlet fever" had no meaning for me, and I thought any fever meant I'd have to throw all my books and toys into a bonfire.  This was a particularly horrifying prospect considering that at any time, the toys could become alive!  I did not want my stuffed sheepdog to be the next Joan of Arc, so I tried to stay as healthy as possible at all times.  If my bedsheets were changed out after a night sweat or my toothbrush was tossed after a nasty cold, I would grow very suspicious, keeping my germs close but my stuffed animals closer.

Lesson learned:
When toys get old and you don't see them around the house anymore, they've become Real.
And when Rover gets old and you don't see him around the house anymore, he's gone away to live on a nice farm.

The Velveteen Rabbit.  Williams, Margery.  New York: Avon, 1922.
The Velveteen Rabbit