I grew up in a very literate household, with teachers on both sides of my extended family. My grandmother was a teacher, my aunties were all teachers, and my mother was a teacher. The vast majority of my adult cousins grew up to become teachers or school administrators. So for Christmas and birthdays we didn’t get toys– we got books. And all that literature made us speak good. And read good. And right good.
I didn’t realize it then, but as an adult looking back at some of the things I read as a kid… some stories are fucked up.
The Rainbow Fish
What it’s about:
Here’s a story about a fish that is born inherently shiny and beautiful. All the other fish don’t like him because his beauty makes them feel uncomfortable and self-conscious of their own inherent value. So the shiny fish has no friends. But he figures out by giving away one of his scales to every other fish, eventually they all become his friends. By the end of the story everyone is the same because they all have one shiny scale, taken from the Rainbow Fish.
Why it’s wrong:
This is a book that is supposed to be about friendship and sharing. And from a cursory six-year-old read through– sure it is. But when you think about it, those other fish with whom he’s sharing his scales– they’re assholes. They don’t like the shiny fish until he gives them something. And it’s not like he’s not giving them a snack, or a soda, or one of his Pokemon or some monetary appeasement to make them happy; he is giving them an essential part of himself. He IS the Rainbow Fish, and they resent him for it and take it away from him piece by piece. But it’s just as much the Rainbow Fish’s fault; rather than face and overcome adversity, he lowers himself to their level of mediocrity. The message is, “Don’t shine to bright, or others will resent you” or conversely “If you are dull and ordinary, you can gang up on unique and brilliant individuals with superior numbers to pull them down to your level“
I want my kids growing up embracing their awesomeness. Childhood is rough, and nobody escapes unscathed but I want my kids to be able to handle criticism without buckling and conforming to the status quo like the Rainbow Fish.
Five Chinese Brothers
What it’s about:
As the title would suggest, it’s a book about five Chinese brothers. They all have seemingly random super powers, like a dialed down Mr. Fantastic if he was only able to stretch his legs, or one brother is fireproof Khalisi-style, and one brother can’t be decapitated (which raises the question, how did he figure out he had this power?) Anyhow, one of the brothers inadvertently murders a kid and is sentenced to death. The rest of his brothers take turns standing in for him during his execution using their unique powers to avoid death.
Why it is awesome:
Okay first off, you might be going “wait wait, one of the brothers murders a kid? Explain yourself. Well one of the brothers can hold the ocean in his mouth, and he does so with his kid-friend so the kid-friend can pick up seashells and treasure off the ocean floor. The kid is given specific instructions to come back to shore when the brother he waves his arms or else he might spit out the whole ocean and drown the kid. So of course the kid is a little shit and doesn’t listen to the brother, and ends up getting stuck at the bottom of the sea and killed.
That’s the first great lesson in this children’s book: “Follow directions or you – might – die!”
Okay the second great lesson: Family. The family of brothers band together, each one offering up their own lives as forfeit to the executioner in order to save the one brother. Granted each one has a special ability that helps them avoid death, but they’re still all at risk. The executioner could easily say “Y’know what, instead of trying to burn you, because I’ve heard rumors one of your identical brothers is immune to fire… I’m just gonna shoot you in the face” But the family works together to help the brother get away with the murder of a small child.
Yay… I think.
Butter Battle Book
What it’s about:
Two feuding nations feud over whether it’s better to butter toast on the top on the bottom. A small act of aggression by one side results is an arms race leading to near nuclear annihilation.
Why it is awesome:
Oh let me count the ways. One. they’re feuding over toast. It’s a super laughable premise but it’s extremely applicable to real life. Swap toast for religion, politics, nationalism… and you pretty much have most of the world’s problems explained. Two. the illustrations are awesome. One guy starts off with a stick with some pokey things at the end of it. In the ensuing arms race they get bigger and bigger weapons. I’m talking one guy with eight cannons sitting on two elephants:
(pew pew pew pew!)
Finally, the ending is great. The two characters are standing on the border of their countries with little red bombs that will ensure their mutual annihilation. Each one is poised to destroy the other, waiting for the slightest provocation to use their weapon of mass destruction. And then the book ends! Just like that. No happy warm and fuzzy ending. No peaceful resolve with everybody coming together singing Christmas carols even though the fuzzy green guy jacked all their stuff. Just anxious anticipation of the inevitable. “Who’s going to drop it? We’ll see”
And that’s a great message for kids. Nuclear destruction is just a button push away. Sleep tight!