"The Monster at the End of this Book"

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Rebellion, destruction, metafiction-- that's what The Monster at the End of this Book is all about.  Lovable, furry old Grover implores you, emphatically, not to turn to the next page, because, per the title, there will be a monster at the end of the book.

Grover scrambles to build barriers to prevent you from turning each page, but you gleefully snap his ropes, splinter his barricade, and topple his brick wall.  You revel in destroying his creations, and feel schadenfreude at his mounting panic.  The payoff?  To get to the monster promised at the end, if the suspense doesn't kill you first.  For the more sensitive child, a dilemma arises over whether you continue to turn the pages and torment poor Grover (bullying is bad) or stop turning pages and never open the book again (but reading is good!). 

Grover somehow brings out the id in every child--in 1984, an interactive book for the Talk 'n Play came out titled Lovable, Furry Old Grover in Please Don't Push the Red Button.  The Talk 'n Play was like an audio "Choose your own adventure," where you'd push either the green, yellow, red, or blue buttons at key turning points to hear an audio track that corresponded with the path you chose.  In Please Don't Push the Red Button, the only object was not to push the red button, but that's what everyone did-- because something about Grover just makes you want to fight the power.  As he desperately pleaded, cajoled, and threatened you to please push any other button but the red one, you reveled in this newfound spirit of subversion, a nascent Brandoesque sense of anarchic rebellion against authority: "What are you rebelling against?" "Whaddaya got, Grover?"

Lesson learned:
If an authority figure tells you not to do something-- play with matches, hit your brother, run out into the street-- it is way more fun to actually do it!

(Alas, this is also the monster at the end of this blog.  I will try to continue to post when possible, but Grover here signals the end of regular weekday postings.  Whatever you do, please don't push the comment button.)

Stone, Jon.  The Monster at the End of this Book.  Illus. Michael Smollin.  New York: Golden P, 1971.
The Monster at the End of this Book (Sesame Street) (Big Little Golden Book)


"The Oregon Trail"

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Parents have always worried about video games.  I'm sure even Pong held the threat of perhaps putting an unwary gamer's eye out.  Some, like The Legend of Zelda, have been accused of being too dark (hence this substitution), others, like Grand Theft Auto, are condemned as overly violent.  But do you know what those games all have in common?

None of them forces you to witness the deaths of your own family members, one by one.

But that's exactly what The Oregon Trail does.  On Fridays in fifth grade, we would be allowed 45 minutes in the Apple IIe computer lab, where we had the option of playing either Number Munchers or The Oregon Trail.  I couldn't multiply fast enough to avoid getting eaten by Troggles, so I always opted for the latter game.  We were told this was realistic and educational, and were encouraged to imagine our companions as our own family members.  So I would enter the names of my siblings, cousins, and friends so they could join me on my journey.  Along the way, they would all inevitably die.  They would die of things I'd never even heard of-- cholera? dysentery?  But a broken leg, now that I'd heard of.  You can die of a broken leg?

The other lessons I learned from the game were even worse.  When hunting, you can shoot at deer, or rabbits, or bison.  The rabbits are really hard to target so they should deserve a bigger payoff, right?  Wrong.  Rabbits net just a pound or two of meat (not nearly enough to feed your starving family), while those stupid, slow-moving buffalo offer hundreds of pounds of meat and make for easy targets.  The "correct" choice, then, is just to shoot all the buffalo you like, even though you can only drag back a measly hundred pounds of meat.  But killing them is fun, and in the game, at least, they never become an endangered species.

Lesson learned:
Caulk the wagon; don't ford the river.

The Oregon Trail.  The Learning Company, 1971. 
The Oregon Trail, 5th Edition 



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Imagine being a kid and riding in a car with an adult--say, your parent or grandparent.  Everything is fine until you smell a fart and you know it's not yours.  Do you:
A) Point and laugh.
B) Say nothing, lest you risk the accusation of "he who smelt it, dealt it."
C) Prepare yourself for your imminent demise.

Me, I would choose C every time.  Because if there's one thing Hatchet taught me, it's that farting equals death.  You remember how Brian's plane crashed and he had to survive alone in the wilderness with only a hatchet between himself and certain death?  Do you remember how that all started?

Let me refresh your memory:
"Now the plane lurched slightly to the right and Brain looked at the pilot.  He was rubbing his shoulder again and there was the sudden smell of body gas in the plane.  Brian turned back to avoid embarrassing the pilot, who was obviously in some discomfort.  Must have stomach troubles."  
If you are in a plane, a car-- heck, an elevator-- and this happens to you, it is not stomach troubles.  Do not ignore the fatal flatulence.

Then, later:
"Now there was a constant odor, and Brain took another look at the pilot, found him rubbing his shoulder and down the arm now, the left arm, letting go more gas and wincing.  Probably something he ate, Brian thought."
No, Brian, don't rationalize this away.  This is serious.  Farting means death.  Farting means death!

So, the pilot dies.  Brian lands in the Canadian woods and has to find food, build shelter, and make fire to survive.  Until things start to go badly and Brian goes mad and keeps repeating the mantra "Clouddown" to himself and tries to pull a James Franco and hack off his own arm with the Hatchet to commit suicide.  "For ages 12 and up" the book says on the back cover.  Indeed!

Now, Hatchet has sequels.  Sequels!  The bizarre premises employed to get our boy back out into the wild with his hatchet are just as ridiculous as you might expect.  According to the publisher's website, in The River, "the government wants him to go back into the wilderness so that astronauts and the military can learn the survival techniques that kept Brian alive" so he agrees and goes back, and of course things don't go as planned. But really, the government needs to pay to learn the survival techniques of a thirteen-year-old boy?  No wonder we're in debt.

Lesson learned:
The only way you will survive after a plane crash is if you carry a hatchet with you on your flight.  You hear that, TSA?

Paulsen, Gary.  Hatchet.  New York: Penguin, 1988.
Hatchet: 20th Anniversary Edition


"Swan Lake"

image Trina Schart Hyman
When Black Swan came out, there were a lot of reviews that basically said, "Isn't it amazing how Aronofsky made the sweet ballet Swan Lake seem so dark and twisted?"  No, it isn't.  When it comes to ballet, people tend to think pink tutus, beribboned slippers, and Angelina Ballerina.  But that's not what Swan Lake is about at all.

Even the dust jacket of the illustrated version of Swan Lake perpetuates this myth.  It claims that "the graceful figures in Trina Schart Hymans illustrations float magically across the pages," which calls to mind soft pastel drawings of willowy dancers wearing tiaras and tulle, and not the abject horror you see to the right of this text.  No, these images are ones that will sear themselves into your brain and reemerge when you hear something go "thump" in your closet late at night, which might have been a hanger, but oh crap it also could be a huge, caped, disproportionate, evil owl-magician with teeth!  Couldn't it?  Yes, it could.

The story: Young Prince Siegfried is hunting swans with his crossbow and falls in love with one of the swans instead when he sees her turn into a human.  This swan queen, Odette, explains that she is under the spell of an evil magician and can only become human at night.  He pledges to marry her.  But the evil magician makes an villainous doppelganger of Odette called Odile, and the prince accidentally becomes engaged to her instead.  Odette is so sad she drowns herself in the lake, and the prince follows suit.  Then the evil magician dies too.  The end.

What can be learned from such a tale?  The book contends that it "serve[s] to remind those who hear it that the power of real love is greater than all the forces of evil added together," but that doesn't really seem to be the case.  Instead, it should probably have some kind of lesson about looking before you leap, or having more than just a one-night stand before you decide to marry someone, or at least having a good divorce attorney on retainer in the case of mistaken identity.

Lesson learned:
Per Wikipedia-- yes, swans do "divorce."

Fonteyn, Margot.  Swan Lake.  San Diego, CA: Gulliver Books, 1989.
Swan Lake


"Who Framed Roger Rabbit?"

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There are a lot of children's films that are universally acknowledged as traumatic.  When Bambi's mother gets shot, even the Carhartt-and-camo-clad kids in the backwoods of Georgia shed a tear or two in between bites of their venison jerky.  When Dumbo's mother has to cradle him in her trunk from behind the bars of her isolation cell, partisan politics are forgotten, and Democrat children embrace Republican children and weep for their loss of innocence.  And when Littlefoot's mother gets slaughtered by the merciless Sharptooth, everyone forgets that all the dinosaurs are dead anyway, since about 65 million years ago.

You know helped me cope with these movies?  The knowledge that they were cartoons-- lines and paint on paper-- so they couldn't really die.  Of course, Roger Rabbit changed all that.

Roger Rabbit shouldn't have been a children's film: it's the story of a hard-drinking, washed-up detective who gets hired to take pictures to prove an adultery case and winds up solving a brutal murder committed as part of an evil corporate plan to destroy mass transit and build freeways and billboards.  (Got all that, kiddies?)  In between, there's the aforementioned adultery and murder, plenty of bestiality, some torture, and for good measure, a sexualized infant smoking a cigar.

But, as anyone who was a kid when this movie came out probably remembers, the movie was heavily advertised as a chance to see all of your favorite cartoon characters in one place--Woody Woodpecker, Mickey Mouse, Bugs Bunny, Donald Duck--something that had never happened before and never would again.  There were Roger Rabbit happy meal figurines, stuffed animals, and a Nintendo game.

But to get back to the cartoon thing.  Roger Rabbit suggests that not only are cartoons real, but they can kill humans, and yes, they can even die.  We see Judge Doom drop a sweet little cartoon squeaky shoe into his "Dip" of turpentine, acetone and benzene, until it sizzles and dissolves.  Later, Judge Doom reveals that he is the toon who killed Eddie's brother, as his eyes bulge out and turn into daggers.  Then when he dies, red and yellow paint runs out of his molten eye sockets like so much ketchup and mustard, and it was a full year before I ever ate another hot dog again.

Lesson learned:
Never play pattycake outside of marriage.

Who Framed Roger Rabbit?  Dir. Robert Zemeckis.  Perf. Bob Hoskins, Christopher Lloyd, Kathleen Turner.  Touchstone, 1988.
Who Framed Roger Rabbit (Vista Series)
(See Judge Doom's terrifying toon transformation on YouTube here)


"The Little Mermaid"

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The story of "The Little Mermaid" sprung from the ever-twisted mind of Hans Christian Andersen, he who also gave us such horrors as "The Little Match Girl" and "The Red Shoes."  The original tale is quite different from the well-known Disney version with its singing crustaceans and comical seagulls.

Andersen's little mermaid turns fifteen and finally gets her long-awaited chance to go to the surface and see its sights.  The oyster shells she has to wear to do so hurt her, but her grandmother sagely advises, “Pride must suffer pain," a theme that will run throughout the tale.  Thanks, grandma!

Some of what happens next is much as you might remember it from the Disney tale: the little mermaid ventures up to the surface, falls in love at first sight with a prince, then saves him from a shipwreck.

Later, the little mermaid waxes philosophical, asking about the different natures of humans and merfolk.  She is told that humans have a relatively short lifespan but possess an immortal soul that can ascend "beyond the glittering stars," and merpeople can live about 300 years but have no immortal soul--when they die, they simply turn into seafoam.  "Is there anything I can do to win an immortal soul?” she asks.  “No,” her grandmother tells her.  Unless she is able to win the love of a human and he marries her, because, in a startling--and very disturbing--literalization of 19th century coverture law, "then his soul would glide into your body and you would obtain a share in the future happiness of mankind. He would give a soul to you and retain his own as well." 

So, the little mermaid's quest is not just for the prince's love but to gain an immortal soul.  What is this--Pilgrim's Progress for kids?  Faust in reverse?  Where are the thingamabobs and dinglehoppers?

The little mermaid realizes that the prince could never fall in love with her while she still has a tail, so she asks the grotesque sea witch for help.  The sea witch can give the mermaid legs, but the price is steep.  Not only will the little mermaid have to cut off her tongue as payment, the legs themselves will cause excruciating pain: "Your tail will then disappear, and shrink up into what mankind calls legs, and you will feel great pain, as if a sword were passing through you. But all who see you will say that you are the prettiest little human being they ever saw. You will still have the same floating gracefulness of movement, and no dancer will ever tread so lightly; but at every step you take it will feel as if you were treading upon sharp knives, and that the blood must flow."  Aaaauugh!

But the little mermaid agrees, and soon she's up "where the people are" sporting a pair of bleeding feet.  At court, the prince's slaves (yes, he has slaves!) sing for him and the mermaid dances and charms everyone.  "The prince said she should remain with him always, and she received permission to sleep at his door, on a velvet cushion."  Like a lapdog.  What a charmer!

The prince grows fond of "his dumb child" as he calls the little mermaid, but he says his true love must be a girl who lives at the holy temple, who he believes was the one to save him from the shipwreck.  The mermaid can't tell him the truth, and, when he meets the temple girl and decides to marry her, she doesn't disabuse him of the notion either.

The little mermaid realizes all is lost for her, until her sisters turn up and reveal they have sold their hair to the sea witch to obtain a dagger.  If the little mermaid stabs the prince in the heart with it and lets his blood drip onto her feet, she will regrow her tail and be a happy mermaid again.  Alas, she can't bring herself to do it.  She begins to dissolve into sea foam, until suddenly, Lorax-like, she is lifted into the air and told that she is now "a daughter of the air" and will spend the next 300 years in a purgatorial state before she can enter heaven.  During this time, she can float in and out of children's houses unseen, and if the children are good, she gets a year off her sentence, but if they are naughty, she will shed tears, and for each tear another day is added to her sentence.

First off, how on earth does Mr. Andersen have the gall to blame children like me for the mermaid's problems?  Shouldn't the sea witch, or the prince, or even the temple girl be held responsible here?  And what a burden to place on a child: it is your fault that the little mermaid doesn't have an immortal soul yet!  Well, I regularly clap to show I believe in fairies, and I often ring bells to ensure an angel gets his wings, but I make no promises about behaving just in case a mermaid-spirit should fly through the window at a given moment.

Lesson learned:
Mermaid math: if naughtiness (n) =+1 day per tear (t), but goodness (g) =-365 days, then the question is of how many tears, on average, are produced per naughty act.  Let's guess that each n=50t, assuming we have a very weepy mermaid.  Then, since 7n=+350 days, you could theoretically commit 7 naughty acts for every good one, and the mermaid would still come out over two weeks ahead: 7n+1g=-15 days.

Andersen, Hans Christian.  The Little Mermaid.  1836. 
The Little Mermaid



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I have friends who say they were scared or even scarred by this movie, but Labyrinth is awesome.  Here, I defend my stance on Labyrinth's not-scariness and expound upon its self-evident awesomeness.  It is the perfect movie for children because:

1.  It offers an optimistic solution to the problem of annoying younger siblings.  Have to sacrifice your social life to babysit your bratty baby brother?  Don't despair!  His permanent disappearance can be easily arranged.

2.  It inspires hope.  Jennifer Connelly's acting is abysmal in this film, but later she won an Academy Award!  As young viewers watch her melodramatically stomp her feet and whine "It's not fair!" every few minutes, they can reflect on the power of perseverance in chasing one's dreams.

3.  It teaches life lessons.  The first one being, of course, that life isn't fair.  The second being that if you want to shove something unpleasant into an individual's mouth, just pinch their nose shut so he cannot breathe (it really works!).  The third lesson is that you should never kiss boys because the world will drop out from under your feet and pretty soon things could start smelling very, very bad.  The fourth is that some animals can pull off their heads and appendages and interchange them and still be fine--although I haven't yet determined what kind of animals those are.  My experiments will continue.

4.   It offers great relationship advice.  Labyrinth features a palpable will-they-or-won't-they sexual tension between the 15-year-old Sarah and the pushing-forty Goblin King.  I have learned, in fact, that there is a whole section of the internet dedicated to erotic fan fiction between these two characters.  It's good for tweens to learn to embrace just how sexy Stockholm Syndrome can be in case they're ever in a similar situation. 

5.  It will command and maintain your child's attention.  What is the one thing every child remembers about this movie?  How well David Bowie fills out a pair of jodhpurs.  No CGI required!  While "Dora the Explorer" and "Handy Manny" eventually become tiresome and boring, David Bowie's crotch will always enthrall.  (Witness this truth in meme form here.)

Lesson learned:
See above.

Labyrinth.  Dir. Jim Henson.  Perf. David Bowie, Jennifer Connelly, Toby Froud.  Lucasfilm, 1986.
Buy Labyrinth (Anniversary Edition) on DVD
(Watch the trailer on YouTube here)


"The Lorax"

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The Lorax is famous in both its book and cartoon forms, and the content remains largely the same.  And I was relentlessly exposed to both in my early '80s childhood, those halcyon days of Earth Day celebrations in the multipurpose room, rhythmic-clapping songs about recycling, endangered species poster presentations, conservation field trips, anti-poaching educational film strips, and Woodsy Owl and Smokey the Bear. 

Although vastly superior in content and creativity, The Lorax is arguably less subtle in its ecological message than its bastard progeny, Captain Planet and the Planeteers.  We get it: cutting down trees is bad.

So, parents buy this book, with its tree-paper pages, to feel like they are making a difference and teaching their children, once and for all, that cutting down trees is bad.  The kids cry at the end when the Lorax's home looks like a nuclear wasteland, and go through a box of tree-tissue Kleenex to make the hurt go away.  Maybe the kids need some more cheering up, so the parents take them to McDonald's to get a styrofoam-encased cheeseburger and a happy meal with a cheap plastic toy that'll fall out of the car onto the pavement, unnoticed and forgotten.  For irony's sake, let's imagine it's a sad plastic Lorax.

The Lorax is a pint-sized, mustachioed orange critter--imagine Snooki-cum-Wilford Brimley--who is the sole voice of reason against the Once-ler's wanton destruction of the truffula tree forest.  The Once-ler--who is seen only as a pair of malevolent green gloves, a gimmick that proves Hitchcock was right about imagined horror being worse than perceived horror--is massacring the truffula trees to create thneeds, an item, like the Snuggie, that nobody needs but everyone momentarily wants.

The thneed production pollutes everything, so the swans, the bar-ba-loots, and even the fish have to leave and seek sunnier climes elsewhere.  Eventually, the last truffula tree is felled, and the Once-ler's factory shuts down.  The Lorax has an apotheosis and ascends into the skies, leaving behind only "a small pile of rocks, with one word... UNLESS."

So the message, we are told, is that UNLESS someone like us cares, then nothing will get better.  Really, Once-ler?  Putting the onus on the younger generation after you screwed it all up?  As a child, I felt the weight of this given duty quite keenly, and would feel horrible pangs of guilt if I used, say, more than two squares of toilet paper: I am a truffula tree killer!  Then I went to college and took environmental science courses that included dozens of thick xeroxed handouts, so I felt a little less personally responsible then.

Lesson learned:
It is actually not possible to lift oneself up by the seat of one's pants without suffering a severe wedgie.

Seuss, Dr. [Theodor Geisel.]  The Lorax.  New York: Random House, 1971.
The Lorax (Classic Seuss)
(Watch the wanton destruction of Truffula trees on YouTube here)


"Alice in Wonderland"

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It seems that everyone who saw the 1985 TV movie version of Alice in Wonderland/Through the Looking-Glass never forgot it.  How could you?  Sammy Davis Jr. as the Caterpillar, Telly Savalas as the Cheshire Cat, Ringo Starr as the Mock Turtle-- not to mention Red Buttons, Shelley Winters, Roddy McDowall, Sid Caesar, and the list goes on.

As a kid, these names likely mean nothing to you, although you're sure to recognize a few faces under all the fur and makeup.  The real appeal here is how cool everything looks.  The Disney cartoon version is colorful, sure, but there's no sense of how bizarre Wonderland really is-- when Alice grows to the size of the house, or she meets a giant  hookah-smoking caterpillar, it's all still just lines on paper.  In this move, it is all tangibly real, from the mad tea party to the Queen of Hearts' croquet game, which makes it all extra awesome.

Of course, there's a flipside to this, since that means that when the terrible duchess and her equally-malicious cook are sniping at each other, throwing dishes, and poisoning a helpless baby with pepper, then that's real too.  Even realer is when Alice tries to save the squalling baby and it turns into a squealing pig in her arms!  Or when Carol Channing as the White Queen howls in pain that her finger is bleeding before it happens and then rasps that she is feeling "muuuuuuch beeeeeeettterrrr" before transforming into a sheep.

Still, a lot of cool things happen too, and by the end, things seem to be going pretty well for Alice: after her many adventures in Wonderland, she makes it to the castle, where all her friends are holding a feast in her honor, and she is declared a queen.  Hooray!  Wearing a crown and clutching a scepter, Alice is the happiest little girl in the world as the Red and White Queens reveal a giant present, all wrapped in red ribbon, and just for her.  She opens it, and then--

Horrors upon horrors!

It is a giant, flying, fire-breathing Jaberwocky!  What kind of sick, twisted gift is that?  The screams of the dinner guests continue for a full five minutes.  And even when Alice escapes, the Jabberwocky follows her home!

Hey guys, let's just... turn the VCR off for now.  It might overheat, or something.  And that Jabberwocky might give my little sister nightmares or something.  I mean, I'm not scared, but, you know, she could be.  OK?

Lesson learned:
Beware the Jabberwock, my son! The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!

Alice in Wonderland.  Dir. Harry Harris.  Perf. Natalie Gregory, Red Buttons, Carol Channing.  Columbia Pictures Television, 1985.
Alice in Wonderland DVD
(Watch the terrifying Jabberwocky attack on YouTube here)


"Babes in the Wood"

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That image of the dead children on the left margin of the site?  That's from "Babes in the Wood," illustrated by Joseph Martin Kronheim.  There's another famous version by Randolph Caldecott (yes, he of the eponymous Award), but I actually like the pictures better in this one.

Mother and Father are dying, and their will stipulates that their children should inherit their estate--but if their children die before they come of age, then the children's uncle will stand to inherit.

I want to pause a moment here to ask why children's tales, since time immemorial it seems, have to tap into kids' absolute worst fears.  Kids don't have that much to worry about in life--they don't have nightmares about mortgage payments, or the IRS, or a meeting with a new client, or how to divide holiday time with a significant other's family.

No, kids' biggest fears are things like letting go of your mom's hand and then not being able to find her again, or that that toy robot they accidentally broke won't be able to be fixed.  So, we up the ante-- "your toy is dead and guess what?  Your mother is dead too"-- and even give them things they didn't know they needed to worry about: "Even though you are a child, you are mortal and someday you will die.  (Now pray the Lord your soul to keep, and if you die before you wake, pray the Lord your soul to take.)"  Hmm.

Now what was I talking about?  Right, Babes in the Wood.  Their parents die, their uncle takes them in, and then he hires two ruffians to take the children out into the woods and kill them.  One of the ruffians grows softhearted and refuses to kill them, a scuffle ensues, and the "good" bad guy wins.  Things are finally looking up for our babes in the wood!

They are hungry, and the nice ruffian says he'll be right back to bring them bread.  He disappears to head off to town and is never seen again.  The poor children wander around aimlessly until they die.  They don't even get a burial; a robin covers their bodies with leaves.  The evil uncle apparently gets thrown into prison on unrelated charges and dies there, but we never do hear what happened to the ruffian.

I like to imagine he had zany misadventures, and maybe picked up a wisecracking gnome as his sidekick on his way out of the woods, and then in town he ducked into the pub and played a perfect game of darts so the next round was on him, boys, and then he remembered to get to the bakery before it closed, but accidentally picked up rye bread at first, until the gnome reminded him that the kids actually wanted pumpernickel, and he headed back to the woods with a song in his heart and laughter on his lips, just waiting to tell the kids the funny story once he saw them again.  Something like that.

Lesson learned:
If you want something done right, you've got to do it yourself.

Kronheim, Joseph Martin.  My First Picture Book.  London and New York: Routledge, c. 1875. 
The Babes in the Wood, and The Milkmaid (Illustrated Edition) (Dodo Press)