Years ago, when my daughter and I first began drawing faces together, she discovered how easily tears could be added, and she would implore me, “Mommy, draw girl crying!” and I would do the round circle head, the eyes, the down-turned mouth, and last of all, the tears. My daughter is, and was then, a happy, sociable, energetic child, but during that phase she would have watched Bambi every day if I let her. Among her favourite books were the ones I mentioned in my last post, which have happy endings but go to dark places along the way — the threat of being eaten or embedded in stone. Such stories are still the ones she wants to hear again and again, long after the cute, sweet, light stories have been shelved and forgotten.
I like to muse about why children want these stories; when (if) they can be too much; how parents should handle the emotions they expose, and the inevitable questions they instigate. For instance, it took my daughter a long time to understand what the gunshot meant in Bambi, and to know what to do with the knowledge. When we read Babar, the story of an elephant whose mother is killed by a hunter, she immediately stopped me and asked, “Do hunters take moms away? Are there hunters in Toronto?” And for the rest of the book, she kept flipping back to that page where Babar’s mother was shot.
For weeks after the Bambi penny dropped, she’d ask, “Did you lock the door?” as soon as we got home. And then I started to hear her role-playing with her stuffed animals, and having one say to the other, “Your mother is not coming back. Your mother is never coming back.” (For a time I worried, but she is turning out just fine.)
First released in 1942, the movie Bambi holds up well today, and the book, originally published in Austria in 1923, is considered a classic and often referred to as one of the first environmental novels. Apparently its author, Felix Salten, wrote the story with an adult audience in mind, and indeed the Wall Street Journal reported that “you’ll find it in the children’s section at the library, a perfect place for this 293-page volume, packed as it is with blood-and-guts action, sexual conquest and betrayal.”
Salten was in his fifties by the time he wrote Bambi, A Life in the Woods, and had been writing plays, short stories, novels, and essays for years. But his books were banned by the Nazi regime in 1936, and as a Jew he was forced to leave Austria for Switzerland, where he remained until his death in 1945 — just three years after Disney released the animated version of his story, featuring a white-tailed deer rather than a roe, but retaining the heartbreaking scene in which “your mother can’t be with you anymore.”
I once met a grandmother who told me she didn’t think her toddler grandson should read How the Grinch Stole Christmas because she believed it was best to expose him only to happiness at his tender age. So that he would only be happy, I guess. But not even babies are “only happy.” In fact, you might argue that happiness is one of the more rare baby emotions. It takes weeks for a baby to smile; the wait is longer for laughter. (Said Charles Darwin, upon observing his own babies for The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, “In this gradual acquirement, by infants, of the habit of laughing, we have a case in some degree analogous to that of weeping. As practice is requisite with the ordinary movements of the body, such as walking, so it seems to be with laughing and weeping. The art of screaming, on the other hand, from being of service to infants, has become finely developed from the first days.”)
Actually — if one is looking for good messages in children’s literature, the Grinch is a stellar example. This is one of the rare Christmas stories in which the protagonist comes around not out of self interest or self preservation, but simply because he is moved by goodness. But I’ll save that for a December post.