YA books: a cure for optimism

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Hey kids, do you ever feel happy, laugh at funny jokes, dance like no one's watching?  Do you ever take pleasure in uplifting stories that speak to the triumph of the human spirit?  Do you, in short, have faith in humanity?

Let's cure all that for you with your middle school reading list.

Yes, reading YA fiction is an exercise in masochism, offering a dystopic worldview and a sense of the futile struggle for decency in the face of man's inhumanity to man-- in short, it is much like the experience of middle school itself.

Here, a brief rundown of some perennially popular YA titles:

* Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O'Dell, 1960.
Island of the Blue Dolphins
When everyone in Karana's tribe is setting sail to leave their island home forever, Karana sees her brother being left behind and jumps ship to stay with him.  Shortly thereafter, her brother is killed by wild dogs, and Karana must survive in isolation for many years with only the animals of the island for companions.  What's even worse is that the book is based on the true story of Juana Maria, who was rescued after 18 years alone on an island, only to find that no one could understand the language she spoke--and she died a mere 7 weeks later.

* Watership Down by Richard Adams, 1972.
Watership Down: A Novel
War seems somehow even more brutal when the soldiers are all cuddly little bunny rabbits.  Humans appear here too, as a kind of faceless, menacing threat of evil--they destroy the rabbits' homes, shoot them, and catch them in snares.  This is "The Tale of Peter Rabbit" but with blood and urine and carnage, and where Mr. McGregor isn't the only antagonist to fear; Flopsy might make a shiv out of a carrot and go after Cottontail.

* Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson, 1977.
Bridge to Terabithia
This is one of those books that the older kids warn you about before you even know the basic plot-- you know beforehand that it's going to be sad, much like Where the Red Fern Grows or the movie My Girl.  So, while you might anticipate Leslie's death, what you don't realize is that the book will also ensure you will never use a rope swing again in your entire life.  Most elementary school-level books encourage imaginative play, but this book's message is unequivocal: imagination kills.  LARPing ruins lives. 

* Good Night, Mister Tom by Michelle Magorian, 1981.
Good Night, Mr. Tom
Books set during World War II are rarely uplifting, and that goes double for YA books.  So how do you make a WWII YA book even more soul-crushing?  Why not add in a heartbreakingly self-loathing, bed-wetting child who is horribly abused by his own mother?  I remember not being able to sleep all night after reading one scene where the boy is locked in a closet for days holding a dead baby.  How can one face 7th grade gym class after something like that?

* The Goats by Brock Cole, 1987.
The Goats
I remember the description of the story on the back jacket of this book began with the words: "Stripped and marooned on a small island by their fellow campers, a boy and a girl..." and that was all I had to read.  I knew what "stripped" meant, but not "marooned," but the co-ed context gave me hope that "marooning" must be the term for one of those tips described in Cosmo that I didn't quite understand yet.  Sure, the kids on the front cover were quite possibly the most unattractive pair I'd ever seen, but still!  Ultimately, despite my imaginative "maroon" ideas, there was no purple prose, just some message about bullying in its stead.  Disappointing.

Lesson learned:
Even at age 13, YA lit confirms it: you will die alone, misunderstood, and unloved, and--if you're especially unlucky--marooned.


"The Truth About Mother Goose"

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Writing about Mother Goose Rock 'N' Rhyme recently, I was reminded of another Disneyfied look at Mother Goose nursery rhymes that was--if you can believe it--even more macabre.  It was the short "The Truth About Mother Goose," which is a kind of exposé of the origins of popular nursery rhymes. 

One has to wonder how many of these explanations are apocryphal, in the same spurious vein as the "true story" everyone hears about "Ring Around the Rosie" being about the Black Death.

The most memorable part for me was the bit considering "Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary," which the cartoon claims tells the tragic story of Mary, Queen of Scots.  In this segment, we see, among other things, the beheading of one of Mary's lovers and the exploding(!) of her "weakling" husband.  As the camera then pans to reveal the innumerable corpses of soldiers who died defending Mary's honor, all piled into sky-high mounds, Mary reflects on the carnage with an unruffled, "Oh dear."

After Elizabeth I grows jealous of Mary's popularity at court, she has her cousin imprisoned in the Tower, and the jester-narrators sing the saddest, most dirge-like rendition of "Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary" that you'll ever hear as Mary ascends the Tower steps and the screen fades to black, indicating her botched execution via multiple strokes of a butcher's axe.  Ouch.

Lesson learned:
Mary, Mary, quite contrary, how does your garden grow? / With silver bells and cockle shells, and the tears of kids who watch this show.

"The Truth About Mother Goose."  Dir. Bill Justice, Wolfgang Reitherman.  Perf. Page Cavanaugh Trio.  Disney, 1957.

Watch Part 1 on YouTube here and Part 2 here.
Walt Disney Treasures - Disney Rarities - Celebrated Shorts, 1920s - 1960s


"Mother Goose Rock 'N' Rhyme"

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Here's a fun puzzler for your pub trivia night: Where can you find Little Richard, the Stray Cats, Debbie Harry, Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel all working together on a 1990 musical project?  Nope, it's not Band Aid.

What if I tossed in Ben Vereen and Pia Zadora for good measure?  Or, just for kicks, Shelley Duvall, Woody Harrelson, Katey Sagal, and Cheech Marin?  Still stumped?  There's a Dweezil Zappa cameo in there too...

The film is Mother Goose Rock 'N' Rhyme, a former staple of Disney channel daytime programming in the early nineties.  And if you've ever wondered at the possibility of bestiality between Mary and her Little Lamb, this is the movie for you.

The basic story is that Mother Goose has been kidnapped and her son, Gordon Goose, tries to rescue her with the help of the "Rhymies" who inhabit Rhymeland.  Gordon feels superior to the Rhymies because he believes himself to be Mother Goose's biological son, but at the end he learns he is simply a product of one of Mother Goose's earlier, less memorable poetic endeavors and his entire life has been a lie.  ("What was that, sweetie?  No, of course you're not secretly adopted!  Wherever did you get that idea?  Have you been watching that movie again?"  As a child, I remained skeptical.)

Bobby Brown plays all three blind mice (what, Stevie Wonder wasn't available?), and ZZ Top play the three men in a tub, although strangely, given that they're in a film that promises both "rock" and "rhyme," they never sing or play any instruments, just silently point.... and float along in their tub.  Very odd.

But the most terrifying part has to be when Gordon is banished to the castle dungeon by Old King Cole and is shackled to the wall and tortured by a metal band whose aesthetic falls somewhere between Gwar and KISS.  (Just follow the bouncing ball to sing along--it's an interactive torture experience, kiddies!  Sample lyric: "You've been a BAD BOY, a VERY bad boy, / we'll have to PUNISH you!")  

Apparently they are called "The Dank," which is actually kind of awesome, and the lineup includes the lead guitarist for Ratt.  Then, because being subjected to karaoke-ready dungeon death metal Guantanamo Bay-style somehow hasn't cheered Gordon up enough, he is tickle-tortured by two creepy clowns in yellow fright wigs.  And this is a kids' movie?

Lesson learned:
After The Shining, Shelley Duvall must have wanted to tackle a really dark film for a change.

Mother Goose Rock 'N' Rhyme.  Dir. Jeff Stein. Perf. Shelley Duvall, Dan Gilroy, Jean Stapleton.  Disney, 1990.
Mother Goose Rock N Rhyme [VHS]
Sing along with the terrifying dungeon song on YouTube here.


Taking a gander at what brings you to the Goose

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I have never really promoted this blog anywhere, so it's been pretty interesting to see how folks wind up finding it.  The most popular posts have continued to be the Uncle Arthur analyses, with many searches in particular for "Jesus Understood," "The Hollow Pie," and "The Two Carolines."  Judging from the accompanying search terms, it seems there's a whole coterie of individuals who were traumatized by these bedtime stories and who now strive to exorcise their childhood demons via Google search.  "Uncle Arthur horror," "Uncle Arthur's Bedtime Stories scared me," and "Why Uncle Arthur?," you are not alone!

There's also a large contingent of educators who seem to find the site.  To those looking for "Not Now Bernard lesson plans," "Teaching Itsy Bitsy Spider hand movements," and "Love You Forever classroom activities," I'm afraid I can't help you.  I think you could probably effectively impart the same key life lessons by sitting the kiddos down in a semicircle on a cold concrete floor and having them watch Requiem for a Dream, and then at the end, telling them you're all out of Goldfish and juice for the day.

To the surprising percentage of you seeking out "smother stories," I regret to inform you that this is not a fetish site.  No one here is getting smothered with feather pillows, silk, or various body parts as you seem to so fervently desire-- at least that I know of; I haven't finished going through all the Disney movies yet.  I do sincerely hope you're not looking for smothering instructions for some kind of real-life application-- instead, might I humbly suggest couples counseling?

The most recent bump in page views can be attributed to a sudden upswing in people Googling "David Bowie's crotch."  If my blog was not what you were expecting, crotch-ogling-Googlers, let me direct you to this (SFW) vintage photo of the Thin White Duke.  Since I can't accommodate the other searchers here, I thought I'd at least try to throw you a--ahem--bone. 

Lesson learned:
For those of you looking to actually make "smothered goose," this Emeril recipe sounds quite promising.