"The Cat in the Hat"

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It started a book,
Then it was a play.
Next movies and sequels
Joined in the fray.

I guess we've all read it
At one time or two,
But in fact it's quite twisted
When you think the plot through!

These two too-young kids 
Are left all alone,
On their own when a stranger
Barges into their home.

He ruins their stuff,
Then boxes he brings
And demands that these kiddos
Must play with his "Things!"

(In fact, if this tale
Had a different editor
This story might end like
To Catch a Predator!)

By the end of the story,
The cat has now fled.
The house is cleaned up,
And no one is dead.

Then when Mother comes home
And asks what occurred,
Of the stranger who'd been there
They say not a word.

The Lesson learned here is,
When Mom's at the store
Beware all strange felines
And lock the front door!

Seuss, Dr.  [Theodor Seuss Geisel.]  The Cat in the Hat.  New York: Random House, 1957.
The Cat in the Hat


"Follow That Bird"

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Sesame Street taught me a lot of valuable life lessons.  Through it, I learned some rudimentary sign language, how to count to 12, and the fact that when people die, like Mr. Hooper did, they don't come back (and that revelation in itself is a post for another day).

This is part of why the message of Follow That Bird comes as such a shock.  The main antagonist is Miss Finch, a social worker who places Big Bird with a family of dodos so he can "be with his own kind" (a strange choice since as we all know, Big Bird is actually a lark).  Instilling a fear of social workers in young children doesn't seem like the best idea, especially since in this case she does seem to have a point: Big Bird is just six years old and living on the street, his only best friend is an extinct and possibly imaginary woolly mammoth, and he regularly hangs out with grouches who live in trash cans.  So, living in a suburban home with a nice nuclear family doesn't seem like such a bad tradeoff.

In an attempt to flee from Miss Finch, Big Bird takes refuge with the Sleaze Brothers, an aptly-named pair who run a traveling funfair.  The Sleaze Brothers kidnap Big Bird, paint him blue, and force him to perform in their show as "The Bluebird of Happiness."  As said "Bluebird," Big Bird sings what is perhaps the saddest song ever written, "I'm So Blue."  Criminal psychologists could show this scene to easily diagnose sociopathy; in fact, if you don't shed at least a tear or two, you're probably not even human.

Five years after Follow That Bird, the band They Might Be Giants released a song called "Birdhouse in Your Soul" that never failed to remind me of this heartbreaking scene.  Luckily, I felt no dubious emotional connection to "Istanbul (Not Constantinople)" so the album wasn't a total loss.

Lesson learned:
Make a little birdhouse in your soul.

Follow That Bird.  Dir. Ken Kwapis.  Perf. Carol Spinney, Jim Henson, Frank Oz.  Warner Bros., 1985.
Watch Big Bird break your heart as the "Bluebird of Happiness" on YouTube here.
Sesame Street Presents: Follow That Bird


"Are You My Mother?"

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What are a new mother's most innate, primal fears?  Perhaps the thought that she will be a bad mother, or that something bad might happen to her baby, or--if she watches a lot of Lifetime movies--the anxiety that, due to some mixup, the wrong mother will raise her child

How about a kid's most immediate fears?  Getting lost, losing a parent, or perhaps finding out that your parents aren't really your parents after all.

With the classic children's book Are You My Mother? P. D. Eastman has tapped into every single one of these fears, all in clear, simple language, that, as the cover boasts, your child can read all by himself.

In the beginning of the book, the mother bird realizes her baby is about to hatch, so she goes off to find food.  The baby thus enters the world cold, alone, and abandoned, and promptly falls out of the nest.  He asks a kitten if it is his mother, but "the kitten just looked and looked."  This is perhaps the most implausible aspect of a book that contains talking animals, a robin sporting a polka-dot kerchief, and an excavator gentle enough to transport a baby bird.  I cannot imagine any cat that would "just look and look" should it be approached by a helpless baby bird fallen out of its nest.  Just saying.

Over the course of the next few pages, the baby bird is devastated to learn that a hen, a dog, a cow, a boat, a plane, and a "snort" (excavator) are not its mother.  The scene where he futilely chases after the airplane in an image reminiscent of a reverse-but-equally-desperate North by Northwest moment is particularly poignant.

Eventually, the baby bird meets and recognizes his mother (he knows it is she because she is "a bird," although I'm not certain how that reasoning disqualifies the hen), and the reader learns that phenotypical biology trumps all, even though she is a neglectful parent who abandoned her child in the first hour of life and maybe her offspring could have been much better off as the adopted son of the cow.

Lesson learned:
Make sure your child knows that the excavator is not actually called a "snort."  Otherwise, when your hyperactive, jittery offspring pleads loudly in the toy store that he really needs a "snort," someone might call Child Protective Services.

Eastman, P. D. Are You My Mother?  New York: Random House, 1960.
Watch the story told on YouTube.
Are You My Mother?


"The Itsy-Bitsy Spider"

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Much in the same vein as "Baby Bumblebee," "The Itsy-Bitsy Spider" is a children's song that has built-in hand gestures to reinforce the lyrics.  I always found the thumb-to-forefinger climbing movement to be impossibly difficult for some reason; I think that as a toddler I would have likely failed any and all field sobriety tests out of implausibly bad hand-eye coordination.  Or perhaps my preschool spiked our juiceboxes to get us to pass out at naptime.  Either way, the nuances of the isty-bitsy choreography still elude me.

The lyrics of the song go something like this:

The itsy bitsy spider climbed up the water spout.
Down came the rain, and washed the spider out.
Out came the sun, and dried up all the rain,
And the itsy bitsy spider went up the spout again.

So, the protagonist of the song is a spider, which is a surprising choice given arachnids' bad reputations.  The only other exception to the spider-as-antagonist rule that I can think of is Charlotte's Web, which is devastating in its own right as a book that will make you cry when a spider dies, and--here's the kicker--be happy that it laid eggs and had lots of little spider babies!  "Hooray," the child reader thinks, "now the barn is full of brown recluse spawn!  Now that cool rat will have some new friends to play with!  ...Mmm, I bet Wilbur would make a pretty radiant BLT."

The itsy-bitsy spider of the song is an excellent exemplar of the tragic hero.  He shows determination and resolve in his quest to climb the water spout, but fails through his own frailty and the cruel intervention of the gods (I mean come on, how convenient was that sudden downpour?  I'm looking at you, Zeus).  He is brought low through these external forces (Have you ever seen what happens to a wet spider?) and yet continues in his Sisyphean pursuit.  The song's preschool-age audience, however, rarely appreciate the enormity of such peripeteia, and continue to laugh and wiggle their fingers in glee.

Lesson learned:
If itsy-bitsy spiders climb up your spout again, 1-800-TERMINIX.

 Fisher Price: Itsy-Bitsy Spider