“I was raised to be charming, not sincere,” This is one of my favorite quotes from Stephen Sondheim’s musical Into the Woods. It’s Prince Charming’s rational explanation to Cinderella when she finds out he’s a cad. Ah, the fairy tales of my youth! So many subtle messages sent to guide me on my way through life; through the woods.
Russ Towne, A Grateful Man, and I had an interesting conversation in the comment section of his December 29th post, “From the Other Side of the Door”. We were discussing the popularity of the movie Frozen. I find the movie quite sad; particularly the part where Anna is trying to coax her sister Elsa out from behind the locked door by singing, “Do You Want to Build a Snowman?” To me this is poignant and heartbreaking, reminiscent of the scene in Bambi when his mother is shot by a hunter.
Our conversation centered on the merits of these rather traumatic moments occurring in so many movies and children’s books. (We both write children’s books.) Although I understand the value of preparing children for the harsher realities of life using books, I feel strongly about my stories being of a more gentler nature. I want them to provide a sanctuary from the barrage of callous cruelty hurled at us every day, not only on the news, but also in our own communities – those villages it takes to raise a child. We agreed there is a need for both kinds of books.
I have an innate belief: Children should be protected by the adults in their lives. This responsibility includes being careful about the emotions stirred and the subtle messages found within the books we choose to read with them, especially at bedtime. We should be cognizant of the age-appropriateness of these books. Literature certainly is a strong tool to be used in helping to open discussions on very difficult topics, but there can be an “angst factor” inherent in reading certain books with little ones. “Are my parents going to leave me? Are they going to die? Is there a monster lurking in the shadows, waiting to steal me away?”
In my book, A Berkshire Tale, ZuZu’s Mama tells her stories at bedtime. “What would you like to hear?” she asks, after ZuZu has a particularly harrowing experience battling a ghost horse in the sky. “Anything without monsters in it,” the kitten answers with a sigh. They share a story in the warmth of the hay loft as the little tabby falls to sleep listening to her mother’s voice. “Sweet dreams, Little One,” she whispers to her baby.
The written word is a powerful tool. I taught literature to teenagers for twenty years and used books, poems, stories, essays to launch many in-depth discussions about difficult topics. Hopefully, some of my students learned from these stories and possibly even avoided the mistakes made by characters within the covers of a book. Or maybe they learned lessons about heroism or kindness or gratitude? Or maybe it prepared them for dealing with something difficult in the future? Identifying and empathizing with the literary characters with which we sometimes bond is a truly valuable experience. I am just not so convinced that children need this “preparation” to take place so very early in their lives. I could have done without the whole “Bambi experience” myself. And I’m quite sure some of the fairy tales those of my generation read sent out messages best not received.
And now we’ve circled back to the beginning of this post and Prince Charming. Fact: I know all the lyrics to Snow White’s plaintive song, “Some Day My Prince Will Come.” I walked around singing it as a child.
Someday my prince will come.
Some day I’ll find my love.
And how thrilling that moment will be,
When the prince of my dreams comes to me.
He’ll whisper ‘I love you’,
And steal a kiss or two.
Though he’s far away,
I’ll find my love some day.
Some day when my dreams come true.
Ironically, I actually did meet a man who has proven to be quite charming and loving and kind. And he added much to my already full life when we finally married. But I didn’t go through my life dreaming of a the perfect wedding day; the perfect wedding dress. Between the fairy tales and the ad companies, amidst all the emphasis on being the center of attention, on cakes and bridesmaid dresses and venues and favors and DJ’s, what chance do girls and young women have of grasping what should be the most important lesson of their lives? A relationship, a life together, needs to start and rest upon the firm ground created by two caring people. And that has nothing at all to do with the expensive superficialities of one “perfect” day. Fairy Tales! And don’t even get me into a conversation about wicked stepmothers and the negative relationships between women that concept has fostered.
After spending time hashing these ideas out with Russ (who not only is grateful but also very wise), I decided to watch one of the newer Disney movies, Maleficent. Its basis lies in the Sleeping Beauty Fairy Tale but the treatment of the story is different as is the ending. The themes of True Love, Betrayal and Revenge resonate through this movie. There are some very dark moments. The questions of “How do you define true love? Does it really exist? How do we define what makes a hero and a villain?”are answered with much thoughtfulness. But I doubt if I would have a very young child watch this with me.
And so, I’m wondering if any of you have favorite books or tales that made an impression on you as a child? Was it a lasting impression? Because many are.
I started this post with Sondheim’s Into the Woods and I’ll end there with lyrics from
Children Will Listen
Careful the things you say,
Children will listen.
Careful the things you do,
Children will see and learn.
Children may not obey
But, children will listen.
Children will look to you
For which way to turn,
To learn what to be.
Careful before you say,
“Listen to me”.
Children will listen.