"Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory"

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Let's get the obvious out of the way: the infamous boat ride from the 1971 movie Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory might be one of the single most disturbing scenes in all of children's filmdom.  It just comes out of nowhere--first you're in a magical candyland where the river is chocolate and the daffodils are edible teacups, and next thing you know, you're thrust into some acid-dropping film student's homage to Un Chien Andalou

What just slithered across that dude's face?  Wait--what just happened to that chicken?  Did it just get its head cut off?  There's no decapitation in kids' movies!

When the 2005 film Charlie and the Chocolate Factory came out, it sparked a wave of nostalgia among people who'd watched the original version as kids.  The boat scene was seen as a rite of passage, something that scared us all senseless as kids but which was almost laughable now: a kind of trippy cinematic non sequitur.

But no one really seemed to talk about the actual message of the 1971 movie-- a movie that, it's worth noting, changed the title of the original book (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) to Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, which suggests that it is the eponymous chocolatier, not the Dickensian pauper boy with a heart of gold, who is the film's protagonist.

And what does Willy Wonka do?  He metes out justice as he sees fit, punishing those whom he deems unworthy and rewarding (after berating and terrifying) the worthy.  Yes, he's a bug-eyed, nougat-making, Old Testament-style Santa Claus.

So theoretically he humiliates/disfigures/maims/kills(?[!]) only the "bad" kids, right?  Which is how most people remember the movie: bad eggs who had it coming to them get their just des(s)erts.

My problem was that I was all of those kids.  I loved chocolate!  I would uncurl the outer layer of a Little Debbie Swiss Cake Roll and eat it as a sheet before unrolling the cake part and licking off the frosting (heaven!).  I loved to chew gum!  I would buy pack after pack of Freshen Up Gum, with its burst of minty juice inside that lasted all of five sweet seconds.  I loved TV!  I mean, just look at this ridiculous blog.  And, while I hope I wasn't half as demanding as Veruca Salt, I did spend a lot of time loudly lobbying to get a pet--maybe not a golden goose, but still.

So you can imagine the paranoia I felt during my first trip to Hershey Park.  Any old sadistic cane-toting curmudgeon who hated the way that kids today liked gum and chocolate and television and things could do terrible things to you with no repercussions and probably even get his own movie named after him provided he sang some catchy tunes.

Lesson learned:
Oompa loompa doompadee dare
It doesn't really seem very fair
Oompa loompa doompadee drat
To incinerate a kid for being a brat

Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.  Dir. Mel Stuart.  Perf. Gene Wilder, Jack Albertson, Peter Ostrum.  Paramount, 1971.

Buy Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory DVD


Lefty from "Sesame Street"

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"Sesame Street" has a lot to answer for, from the creepy visuals of "Twin Beaks" to the heartbreak of "Follow That Bird."  But one of the strangest things about "Sesame Street," bar none, has to be its inclusion of a kiddie-friendly flasher.

OK, maybe now I realize he wasn't necessarily supposed to be a flasher--perhaps he was meant to be more akin to... an inept drug dealer? an unsavory knockoff Rolex salesman?

But really, a shady character luring you over just so he can open his trenchcoat to show you something?  You can see how I remembered him as a flasher.

Apparently his name was "Lefty," and he's absent from the current incarnation of the show, and for good reason.  He was always approaching the other characters and trying to get them to buy whatever letter happened to be under his coat at the time.  Would you like to see his D?  Maybe a little T and A?  Fancy a nice F?  It's easy to see how Lefty could be rated X.

Lesson learned:
When Lefty asks you "Would you like to buy an O?," it's best to remember that that's only legal in the state of Nevada.

Buy Sesame Street: The Muppet Alphabet Album, Vol. 2



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I still was listening to LPs as a kid.  There wasn't a large selection for me to choose from (that interested me, anyway--I wasn't one much for Dionne Warwick or Roger Whittaker), so there were a select few we kept in constant rotation. Chief among these was the Psalty series, which followed the adventures of a "big... blue... singing... songbook!"  While an anthropomorphized hymnal might not seem like the most appealing--or marketable--of children's characters, Psalty and his retinue of spunky children sang a lot of catchy tunes and it was always fun to sing along.

I never knew until recently that there were videos to go with the audio of the Kids' Praise albums-- and it's a darn good thing, too.  Psalty appears as a man in gold facepaint with blue Bob Ross-like facial hair, and Charity Churchmouse has flesh-colored prosthetic Dumbo ears and a '50s-style circle skirt and looks like she just ducked out of a low-rent Furry Convention. 

The album featuring Charity had one profoundly scary moment for me, when she has a nightmare that the conman Risky Rat is trying to lure her into signing a "con-trap"--I mean "contract," and make her his "slave"--er, that is--his "star."  Without being able to see Risky Rat, I was able to conjure up an image of him that was truly terrifying: a kind of cross between Ratigan from The Great Mouse Detective and Warren T. Rat from An American Tail, with a little Jenner from The Secret of NIMH thrown in. 

Still, nothing would have been quite as scary as the way Risky Rat is depicted in the video Psalty's Salvation Celebration, in which the whiskers-twirling villain actually tries to prevent children from saving their immortal souls (!!!). 

Lesson learned:
Always take a talent agent's promises with a grain of Psalt.

Kid's Praise! 4: Singsational Servants.  Perf. Ernie Rettino.  Maranatha Music, 1984.
Watch Kids' Praise 4 on YouTube here (Risky Rat appears around 32:00).
Buy Psalty Kid's Praise! 4 Singsational Servants CD

"Pecos Bill"

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Where I live, it's been over 100°F lately, and as I walk across parking lots in oven-like conditions, seeing the horizon line itself writhe with the heat, I've found myself thinking of "Pecos Bill."

Then, once I started thinking about it, I found I couldn't stop.  I was trying to decide if all my memories of the cartoon could possibly be real, or if I'd embellished them in my nightmares.  Did it truly feature interspecies suckling, à la Romulus and Remus? Was there actually a scene where the hero rides a cyclone, rolls a cigarette on his tongue, and lights it with a lightning bolt?  Did he really take potshots at Indians donning warpaint until he'd created the Painted Desert?  And were Roy Rogers and Trigger somehow involved?

So I watched it again to find out.

The cartoon starts with Bill as a toddler heading west with his family, until the wagon hits a bump and baby Bill goes flying out and lands in the mud.  Since he's one of 16 children, nobody notices or cares.  (As a member of a large family myself--my name was often confused with a brother's, or another brother's, or a sister's, or, more often, the dog's--this was a particular childhood fear of mine realized.)

He's then raised by coyotes (a childhood dream of mine realized, though yanking a coyote pup off its mother's teat to feed was perhaps a bit too visceral for me).

One day, young Bill sees a young colt near death and being attacked by buzzards.  Bill jumps into the fray and pummels the birds so hard their feathers fly off.  In the aftermath, when Bill and the colt gaze at each other through matching blackened eyes, it is, as the narrator says, "the beginning of a bee-yoo-tiful friendship."  They seal the deal with an Eskimo kiss.

In fact, "Pecos Bill" is a love story in the same vein as Passion In The Desert.  Sure, later on Bill enters a more conventional romantic relationship with Slue-Foot Sue, but his partner for life is surely Widowmaker, his horse.  They laugh alike, they walk alike, at times they even talk alike-- well, yodel, anyway.  When Bill begins to woo Sue, we see Widowmaker looking on and weeping.  Then when Bill and Sue decide to get married, Sue wants two things: a bustle and a chance to ride Widowmaker.  In a jealous rage, Widowmaker bucks so hard that Sue's bustle bounces off his hide and sends her sailing off "like a Roman candle."  (The fact that a rootin'-tootin' catfish-ridin' cowgirl like Sue is undone by such a frivolous a symbol of womanly vanity seems uncharacteristic, but oh well.)

Bill tries to lasso Sue to bring her back down, but Widowmaker sabotages the attempt, and Sue winds up landing on the moon.  Bill goes back to living with the coyotes, and he and Widowmaker live out their days together.

Lesson learned:
You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make him like your girlfriend.

"Pecos Bill."  Melody Time.  Perf. Roy Rogers, Bob Nolan.  Disney, 1948.
Buy Melody Time (Disney Gold Classic Collection) DVD


"Fuzzy Bee and Friends"

A Smother Goose literature review

First off, the title is misleading (beyond the fact that you'll need to avoid calling it "Busy Bee" by mistake).  Like Godot, Fuzzy Bee never actually appears.  His likeness graces the cover but is nowhere to be found inside.

Anyway, Fuzzy Bee has a posse.  It seems implausible that a bee would have allies as diverse as a snail or a worm--given that it spends most of its time in a hive full of other bees--so if your child is well-versed in apiology, he or she might have some questions about this.  (For the less informed child, you might also wish to explain that not every part of a bee is "fuzzy.")

An omniscient narrator introduces each of Fuzzy Bee's friends in turn, alternately ridiculing them ("Keep moving snail, you're really slow") or making spurious claims about their temperament ("This dragonfly is really tame").  The last page contains the soliloquy of a megalomaniac butterfly fishing for validation: "Oh me, Oh my!  I wonder why / I'm such a splendid butterfly!"

Fuzzy Bee is also a text mired in scandal; two characters have been excised from the most recent version without explanation.  Rumors that this move was spurred by an affair between Sally Spider and Mr. Fly are still mere allegations at this point, however.

Then there's Squishy Turtle and Friends which, like a Whit Stillman film, continues the thematic elements of Fuzzy Bee while introducing a new cast of characters.  Oddly, the narrator seems to be sadly misinformed about blue whales, suggesting that they could potentially live in a freshwater lake given that it's large enough, and that they eat "little fish with shiny scales."  To divert the savvy reader from questioning the veracity of these claims, the narrator threatens you with a crab who "knows / just how to pinch your tiny toes," and then ends the tale with the threatening spectre of a "hungry shark" (see above).

Lesson learned:
In truth, blue whales eat only krill / (and "squishy" turtle means roadkill)

Priddy, Roger.  Fuzzy Bee and Friends.  New York: St. Martin's (Priddy Books), 2003.
Buy Fuzzy Bee and Squishy Turtle 2-Book Pack


Lies Your Parents Told You

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Whenever April Fool's Day rolls around, I think about a particularly gullible relative of mine who believed that spaghetti grew on trees.  He had been duped by a 1957 spoof broadcast of a "Spaghetti Harvest" and for years believed in the existence of Swiss spaghetti orchards.
I've always thought April Fool's Day was pretty lame, and now with the advent of social media, it's close to unbearable ("ZOMG Im pregnant!" "Lulz, j/k!").  And then I realized that if you're a parent, you get to perform April Fool's Day-style trickery all year round.  A kid is going to learn about the world through his parents ("This is a doggie.  We pet the doggie verrry gently."  "That is a lion.  We back away from the lion verrry slowly."), and so there's a certain trust in place there, and parents have always used this to their advantage.  They will tell you that if you make that face again it will freeze that way, or if you swallow a watermelon seed, a vine will grow in your stomach, or that if you suck your thumb again, a tailor will materialize and cut it off.
The idea behind most of these parent-isms is that the ends justify the means.  You don't want your kid making that face, or sucking his thumb, or whatever, and saying "watermelon seeds aren't nutritive and could present a potential choking hazard" is less tangible an idea than the image of growing a watermelon vine in one's gut.  Of course, the tricky part is when the kid stops believing you-- he tried it, and his face won't freeze after all-- or, conversely, when he won't stop believing (with apologies to Journey), and therefore refuses to eat noodles for fear of growing an internal spaghetti forest.
Parents also tell kids lies just because it's fun for them sometimes, with the same motivation, I imagine, that compels your older relatives and clueless coworkers to send you email forwards with animated gifs that tell lame, dubiously inspiring stories and then promise at the end that if you don't forward it to fifty other people you'll die, possibly from a watermelon seed.  
Some of the lies even seem beneficial-- the Tooth Fairy, for example, is a useful tool to help kids get over the fear that's a natural result when parts of your body suddenly start falling off, leaving gaping, bloody holes in your face.  The idea that a mythical being will visit you and leave you money when this happens seems like a pretty fair trade, then (accounting for inflation, of course-- if the Tooth Fairy leaves you a quarter but gave that girl in your math class a ten-spot, that's pretty cold comfort).
As I began reading parenting manuals, I wondered what they might have to say about the acceptability of parental white lies.  So far, Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny and his ilk haven't made an appearance, but I did come across a particularly unexpected bit of advice in that venerated staple What to Expect the First Year.  In describing how to help your child "reach his or her maximum potential," it suggests: "[try] talking about people you see ('That lady is very old,' 'That man has to ride around in a chair because he has a boo-boo on his leg,' 'Those children are going to school')" (384).
So... I'm supposed to foster his genius by teaching him to talk about the handicapped and the elderly like they're not there?
Or maybe the lesson is to construct plausible fictions aloud about everyone you see around you, like you're taking an oral exam for a freshman creative writing class. ("That girl's pants are too tight because she eats her feelings," "That man is driving that car because he's insecure about his masculinity," "That woman is using coupons and paying with a personal check because she doesn't realize that some of us have places to be right now.")
While not exactly a lie, the statement that a stranger you see who uses a wheelchair "has to ride around in a chair because he has a boo-boo on his leg" is obtuse at best.  This strikes me as one of the more pernicious and ignorant "tales for children" that I've come across yet.

Lesson learned: 
...And stop cracking your knuckles; it will give you arthritis!

Murkoff, Heidi, Arlene Eisenberg, and Sandee E. Hathaway.  What to Expect the First Year.  New York: Workman, 2009.


"The Brave Little Toaster"

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Fear: An Imaginary Portrait of the Creative Team Behind The Brave Little Toaster

Visionary #1: You know what I've always wanted to do?  Make a film that really forces an encounter with the shadow archetype in a Jungian sense--something that so terrifying that it could provoke an increased fear response, perhaps even triggering a phobia, outside the normative ontogenetic parade.

Visionary #2: Oh, sure.  So, a Disney children's film, then?

V1: Of course.  But kids are so jaded these days--what's left that would scare them?

V2: How about a horribly deformed toy

V1: That's a good start.  For maximum horror impact, I'm thinking a creepy doll-- no, just its head!  And it has a missing eye!  And the body of a mechanical spider!  And it's alive!

V2: We could call it "Spider Baby!"

V1: Ah, no, that's no good; toys come to life has been done before.  We need something even more uncanny.  How about household appliances come to life?

V2: The marketing team won't like that.  What kind of character would they use to promote the movie, a desk lamp?

V1: It's so crazy, it just might work!  Plus, can you imagine the retail opportunities?  Kids begging their parents to buy them vacuum cleaners, refusing to go to sleep unless they can cuddle their clock radios, playing in the bath with their toasters...

V2: Well, maybe not that last one.  So what else are kids afraid of?  Lightning?

V1: Done!  Let's fry a protagonist with it.

V2: How about fear of death?

V1: Yes!  I'll add in some near-misses with drowning, quicksand, vivisection, and then for the grand finale... a car crusher!

V2: Gosh, that's a little drastic, isn't it?

V1: Not at all!  Here, I'll have a car go into the crusher on purpose, just to show it's no biggie.  Automotive suicide!  Now there's a phobia I bet they haven't included in the DSM yet.  It's still lacking something though, something universally terrifying, something so sinister their sheets won't be dry for weeks...

V2: Um... an evil clown?

V1: Perfect!

Lesson learned:

The Brave Little Toaster.  Dir. Jerry Rees.  Perf. Deanna Oliver, Jon Lovitz, Tim Stack.  Hyperion, 1987.
Buy The Brave Little Toaster DVD


Tinny tune adventures

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One of the things I've discovered as a parent is that kids' stuff tends to play music--and I use that term loosely.  Whether it's a mutant stuffed animal or an infant swing, you can bet that if you turn a knob, squeeze it, jiggle its foot, or whatever, it's going to have the capacity to play a tinny MIDI tune of "If You're Happy and You Know It" or "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star" ad infinitum, and you're soon going to start hearing these ditties on a loop in your sleep, maybe even accompanied by dreams that you're driving an ice cream truck... to Hell. 

I feel like the makers of these toys are perhaps conducting some kind of covert psychological testing on new parents--something like the Stanford Prison Experiment, where the prisoner-parents cease to remember who they are or why they're there, knowing only that they are hearing "It's a Small World After All" for the five hundredth time and maybe even starting to think they like it.  It seems the folks over at Sterling Cooper Fisher Price have become masters of the earworm, selecting only songs more insidiously catchy than "Chili's Baby Back Ribs" and more inane than "MacArthur Park."  And while I've already explored the beautiful dark twisted fantasy that is "Rock-a-Bye Baby," I'd be remiss not to mention a few other favorite toddler tunes that have some pretty messed-up messages.

"Alouette"--All about plucking the feathers off a poor lark (Big Bird?), body part by body part.  Second only to "Baby Bumblebee" as the theme song of animal torture aficionados and future serial killers.

"Oh My Darling Clementine"--A miner's girlfriend tragically drowns so he consoles himself by getting busy with her little sister instead.  With its incestuous overtones, a favorite folksong in West Virginia.

"Hush, Little Baby"--Don't say a word.  Because I'm going to buy you a series of inappropriate and ill-thought-out gifts, and when they all inevitably break, or die, I'll throw more money at the problem in hopes that you'll love me.  The ballad of the absentee father?

Lesson learned:
Cheer up!  At least there are "cigarette trees" to look forward to in "The Big Rock Candy Mountain," so it's not all bad.  (Well, until you're "buggered sore," that is...)

Buy 100 Singalong Songs for Kids CD


"Little Boy Blue"

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Some childhood trauma seems to be nearly universal if you came of age at a certain time--what child of the Eighties didn't have nightmares about wheelies?--but other sources of fear are unique to the individual.  I'm not sure anyone else on the planet shared my horror at the Study in the board game "Clue," for example.  But I have been surprised at how many people remember--and not with fondness--the Uncle Arthur stories.

I haven't ever encountered anyone else who had this particular experience, but for some reason, the "Little Boy Blue" poem I knew growing up didn't have anything to do with blowing horns or cows in the corn.  I remember asking other children at school if they knew "the real version" and being stared at as if I had lobsters crawling out of my ears.  The version I knew--by Eugene Field--was a bit more bleak than the well-known nursery rhyme.  It begins:

The little toy dog is covered with dust,
   But sturdy and stanch he stands;
And the little toy soldier is red with rust,
   And his musket moulds in his hands.
Time was when the little toy dog was new,
   And the soldier was passing fair;
And that was the time when our Little Boy Blue
   Kissed them and put them there.

The poem confirmed my belief in the emotional lives of toys, and upped the stakes a bit, because not only could they die, but you could die as well!  The phrasing too of the child's death-- "And, as he was dreaming, an angel song / Awakened our Little Boy Blue," was eerily similar to the conclusion of "Jesus Understood," and suggested the possibility that not only could Jesus kidnap and murder you, but there were angelic henchpersons who could do the deed as well.  I imagined them toting around harp-cases with guns in them, like heavenly old-time gangsters.

Lesson learned:
Always make provisions for your stuffed animals in your will.

Field, Eugene.  "Little Boy Blue."  1888.

Buy 101 Famous Poems


The Island of Misfit Toys

Now that I'm a parent, I often wonder what future blog fodder I might be exposing my child to.  Of course, I'm not going to be reading any Uncle Arthur stories at bedtime, and I won't be popping Return to Oz in the DVD player expecting Bert Lahr's jowls to be the scariest aspect of it, but it seems as though a certain amount of childhood trauma is inevitable.  This truth has recently been driven home for me since I've started having nightmares about alien giraffes.  Let me explain why.  First, a quick review--

This is what a giraffe looks like:
Note the horns.  (image via)

However, this is what a giraffe looks like on children's goods:
G: Giraffes have spots.
A: And, apparently, antennae.

 Here are a few other examples of the Alien Giraffe phenomenon:


And the weirdest one of all... the giraffe who was in a horrible spill at a chemical factory, and as the ooze pooled around his mangled feet, was transformed into this monstrosity:

Once you start noticing it, you'll begin to see hideous, smiling Island of Dr. Moreau-type creatures everywhere you look.  
To wit:
Front legs attached backwards, or the knuckle-walking monkey (not ape, note the tail) that evolution forgot?

A zebra with a dog's nose, or the white tiger that ate Roy--with a mohawk?
Then there are children's clothes.  Sometimes they have very helpful instructions embroidered on them:
(A useful reminder about reducing the risk of SIDS)
And sometimes, they offer really terrible advice:
What's next?  A romper with rattles that says "Shake me," a onesie with soccer balls that says "Kick me," or a footie pajama set with frolicking lambs that says "Marinate me, roast me until tender, then serve me with mint chutney"?
Lesson learned:
At least if you catch the mutant giraffe toy moving, you can kill it.


"Little House on the Prairie"

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My television-viewing options were quite limited as a kid.  "The Simpsons" was unknown to me until college, and even "The Wonder Years" was off-limits due to its treatment of burgeoning young adult sexuality.  I was, however, allowed to watch ABC's catchphrase-laden "TGIF" lineup (and "Did I do that?"  Why of course, "don't be ridiculous!"... OK, now I'll "cut! it! out!"...), which I'm sure rendered me a joy to be around. 

I was also allowed to watch "Little House on the Prairie," which played in syndication on a seemingly endless loop on TBS.  It looked like wholesome family fare, what with the smiling Laura in her gingham frock playing airplane in the meadow (anachronism?  hmm...) and leaping joyfully in the air at the end of every episode.  Sure, there was conflict--often driven by Nellie "Bad Seed" Oleson and her busybody mother--but there wasn't any swearing, and even if there ever was, Pa would probably fiddle right over it and make it all better again.

But there was also a darker side to the "Little House."  And it made me afraid of two things: nosebleeds, and cornmeal.

Nosebleeds?  Well, that's what killed off Albert.  It meant he had leukemia (!!!) and was going to die.  Imagine my terror after every pinkish-looking sneeze thereafter.

As for the cornmeal, there was an episode called "Plague" where rats have infested the town's cornmeal supply, which gives everyone typhus.  I have been suspicious of cornbread ever since.  Yes, it might make a delicious accompaniment to chili, but is it really worth dying for?

There were other traumatizing episodes too--I mean, life on the prairie was hard, and as The Oregon Trail will teach you, death is pretty much inevitable--not to mention "Sylvia," which involved a masked child rapist who kills Albert's first love (not horrific enough for one episode, they extended it out for two!), but that's a tale for another time.  Play us off, Pa!

Lesson learned:
Maybe it wasn't such a bad idea that they blew up the entire town.

"Little House on the Prairie."  Worldvision/NBC 1974-83.  Perf. Michael Landon, Melissa Gilbert, Karen Grassle.
Buy Little House on the Prairie: The Complete Nine-Season DVD Set


Goodnight gosling

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My apologies for the lack of updates!  I--well--I hatched a gosling, so to speak.  So I have been reading--and rereading, and rerereading--a lot of board books lately, and have discovered that even with a monosyllabic vocabulary and an average of five words per page, there's often the suggestion of something sinister.

For instance, in Goodnight Moon there is that old lady who demands, in a whisper, that we must "hush."  Given the sparse furnishings of the rodent-infested room, I find this suggestive of what is perhaps a hostage situation.  "Goodnight nobody" and "goodnight noises everywhere"?  Maybe in the little house with the red balloon, nobody can hear you scream. 

Lesson learned
You don't want to know what's in the mush.

Brown, Margaret Wise.  Goodnight Moon.  HarperCollins, 1947.
Buy Goodnight Moon