If you’re thirty or over, you remember those friendly hardcovers with the shiny binding: Poky Little Puppy, Tawny Scrawny Lion, Goodbye Tonsils–even if you don’t remember the titles you remember the covers. In a typical family household of modest means, these were most of the children’s books. In many households, they were the only children’s books, and at 25 cents apiece (throughout the 1950s and 60s), even poor families could afford to pick one up every now and then at the grocery store.
But it’s not enough to just have a happy clappy birthday party any more. Life is conflict, and children’s book publishing is conflict too, at least when adult book authors want to get in on the action. A few years ago, Go the F* to Sleep was a sleeper hit among adult sales. Billed as an answer to Goodnight Moon, it “hilariously” depicted the increasing frustration of a parent trying to lull a recalcitrant (and totally sleepless) child to sleep, first gently then with intensifying irritation. And profanity. Except for the language, it’s pretty funny–but then, the language was the entire selling point. (You want to see the .pdf? Okay, here’s the .pdf. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.)
The stink bomb for Little Golden Books got a more mixed reception. It’s called Bad Little Children’s Books, and it seems to consist mostly of classic Golden Books covers redone for adult sensibilities. Once it hit the bookstore shelves the stuff hit the fan. Although one Huffington Post poster called it “Hilariously twisted“, another Huffington Post poster pans it as “Not just offensive, but Bad Comedy.” To see what kind of hilarity we’re talking about, click the second link–I have neither time nor inclination to upload them here.
Some of these redone covers are mildly funny, if lazy. It’s the equivalent of those song parodies your class wit made up in study hall. But some of them are creepy, especially those that hint at child exploitation. Is the whole idea one big child exploitation? Probably not, but it sure looks like childhood exploitation.
Childhood can be funny, for sure; also perplexing, frustrating, and exhilarating–for adults. (Most of whom don’t remember that well what it’s like for the kids.) That’s why Go the F* to Sleep took off–not because it lampoons Goodnight Moon. Except for the lulling rhymes and the general theme, it has no point of contact with Goodnight Moon. If we’re a little inconsistent about protecting children, we want to protect childhood–especially ours, unless it was absolutely rotten.
I think for most adults, growing up puts a soft focus on those years, a focus they would like to maintain even while acknowledging the unhappy parts. If our childhood was reasonably normal and safe, we don’t feel the bad parts. We feel the good, and part of that good, surely, was sitting next to mom or dad or grandma, reading a book. Maybe even a Little Golden Book–the one with the chewed corners and torn pages that Dad always says, “Not again!” (Come on, admit it–part of the fun was making him say that.)
Bad Little Children’s Books spreads a bit of cynical slime. Not intentionally–it just seemed a good idea at the time. We’re often guilty of sentimentality about childhood, but we don’t like cynicism.