Best. Word book. Ever. Revised & updated.

Richard Scarry’s Best Word Book Ever delighted my sister and me when we were little, and it’s continuing to see a lot of action our kids’ generation, too. But after wiping the dust off my memories about the book, I find a fascinating time capsule of popular culture, some of it charming, some not so charming.

This page from rotten dot com (an archive of disturbing illustration) provides a thorough biography of Scarry, including discussion of complaints over the stereotypical and demeaning depcitions of female and “ethnic” characters. (Eventually all the characters he drew were animals, but he drew them in clothing which clearly marked them. Then there were all those vocabulary words.) At the end of the 1960s,

Random House urged him to change with the times, and he wasn’t too difficult to persuade once he learned sales were being affected. His Best Word Book Ever was still his number-one bestseller, and it was accused of being the worst offender. And so he drew new art, using women workers on the job, and depicting men taking a more active interest in household duties.

Alan Taylor’s Flickr photoset documents some of the revisions made to this book’s original edition (1963, the vintage we have) for its republication in 1991. Fathers pop up in the kitchen, where they had never tread before; “beautiful screaming ladies” hanging out of burning buildings get expunged and replaced with “cat in danger”; and odious ethnic stereotypes are scrubbed.

I don’t have a copy of Busy Busy World from my youth, but if I did, I’d be interested to review after reading this account:

…changing times and buckets of hate mail at Random House suggested that characters like Manuel of Mexico (with a pot of refried beans stuck on his head), Ah-Choo the near-sighted panda bear from Hong Kong, and Angus the Scottish bagpiper were no longer acceptable role models for children.

Yegods! Shades of Babar! Because when you revisit this sweet elephant, you’ll see he’s often adventuring in front of a wince- or nausea-inducing colonialist backdrop. Last July I wrote about a lengthy essay on the Babar oevre in the New York Review of Books by Alison Lurie. In it she charts both the ignominy of this series and the attempt by the author’s son to repair it:

Jean de Brunhoff had drawn caricatured Africans in The Travels of Babar, and they must have seemed a reasonable subject for his son Laurent, who was only twenty-three at the time Babar’s Picnic was written. Soon, however, as people all over the world became aware of the hateful and harmful stereotyping of not only African but Asian and Native American people, Laurent was one of the first children’s book artists to make amends and include realistic drawings of black people in his public scenes.

What’s interesting in both these cases is how, eventually, either the author himself or the author’s offspring has worked to rectify onerous, dated characterizations. It certainly gets me to wondering what social changes will emerge in the upcoming generation, and how they’ll cast a telling light on the books we’re now reading to our kids. Like so many of us in alternative families, I look hard for stories that reflect not just my kids’ family structures, but those of kids in other kinds of alternative families, whether what makes them “different” from the norm has to do with who’s in their family, or how their family came about, or what-all. Because each of us who’s “different” in any way makes more space for “difference” generally, and our kids are definitely aware of that.

In the future, I get the feeling we’ll see more and more depictions of alternative families, in every which way. A lot of literature is already out there (here are just two lists, for LGBT and interracial families). More is sure to follow. But not a moment too soon: every kid needs them, whatever their family looks like.

Happy feet my @ss

IMG_5634 copy
Oops! Left the singing penguin in the middle of the street again!

I am still a novice at this parenthood thing. As a result, many aspects of the gig that are quite familiar to you vets out there are still fresh to me. Such as for example the sado-masochism that can be at the center of a lot of this business. Sometimes the kid’s the sadist, and yes, sometimes the parent is. And sometimes some external force is the source of the sadism, and one party, let’s say the kid, is loving it, and another party, let’s say the parent, is in living h-e-double toothpicks.

Absolutely every battery-operated, music- or sound-generating toy is a ticket to h-e-double toothpicks for most (hearing) parents with anything other than steel-encased nerves. Which is why the only people who purchase these abominations are those who either:

    a) Don’t have young kids around the house, and don’t understand what all this fuss is about, or
    b) Used to have young kids around the house and have now forgotten the havoc something like this can wreak, or
    c) Used to have young kids around the house, know exactly what they’re doing, and mean to exact some kind of sick punishment on you for any number of reasons, either transparent or long-buried.

To be charitable, my beloved’s father is probably in the middle camp. He’s not a malicious man. He might as well be, though, because he bought the item pictured above for the children of the household (which in its extended state includes our niece and nephew downstairs).

When the little musical note icon (located conveniently on the left foot) is pressed, this creature taps its toe, wiggles its wings, and commences to offer up a palsied version of “Santa Claus is Coming to Town.” By now, over a week into the ordeal, the batteries are beginning to wane, and it’s sounding more and more like the computer Hal, in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Remember Hal? At the end, when Dave unplugs him, he starts to trip, and sings a sad, sad version of “Daisy Bell” [a thousand thanks to Xah Lee]. Right now, the adults around here aren’t sure whether the Hal-ification of the demon penguin (or DP) mitigates or accentuates the torture. The only thing we’re in agreement on is that it’s torture.

We’ve worked something out, though. We give the various kids an opportunity to take their “turn” with the DP. So today it’s our turn, and we hope that tomorrow it’ll be the downstairs kids’ turn. Though my beloved and I can be forgiven, I think, if from time to time we “forget” and leave the DP downstairs on “our” days.

I’ve heard other folks come up with more appropriate solutions. You keep the song-singing toy in the trunk of your car, or in some other stash spot. Then when the kiddle is about to visit the friend or relative who sicked this toy on your otherwise peaceful household, you shove the toy in the kid’s hands for extensive enjoyment in the friend or relative’s company. And because it’s been stashed for a while, it will have built up even more caché. You can be sure it’ll be played ’til the batteries run out. So make sure to keep a spare set of batteries on hand, for the next visit.

If you want to see just how very much more worse it could all be, read this choice ditty from Dooce about “Gran Mal Seizure Elmo,” and don’t forget to view the video at the end.

A cautionary New Year’s tale, or Homo not so sapiens


Subject at left: innocently sampling first nickel bag.
Subject at right: jonesing big time for more, and unlikely to take “No” for an answer.

Our local hospital’s ER saw many cases of bodily misery this New Year’s Eve, some perhaps even stupidly incurred. But none was more stupidly incurred, I’m quite sure, than mine: squirrel bite. Essentially self-induced squirrel bite. Worse yet, self-induced squirrel bite on a body way overdue on tetanus vaccine. On a body whose beloved is more than ready to burst with child any moment. For this reason, said body cannot afford to degenerate into the stiff-limbed, lock-jawed illness that tetanus can bring on, one to two weeks following a puncture wound from a wild rodent. One to two weeks from now I hope to be knee-deep in newborn.

It all started innocently enough, weeks and weeks ago, when I began to coax a comely local gray tree squirrel onto our porch. I’d put nuts out and the next day they’d be gone. Then after a time, in the mornings the furry little customer would scurry up onto the railing and peer in the window looking for me. I’d come out with nuts, and she’d scamper off, but return later to eat furtively. Finally, she began to simply dart a short distance away and watch me lay out the booty. I’d hustle inside and gather my daughter up to the window, and together we’d behold the sight of this little darling holding nut after nut up to her busy mouth and nibbling away. It was an urban chapter of Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom, and I was Marlin Perkins and Saint Francis of Assisi all rolled up into one.

“Look sweetie, a squirrelie!”

I’d watch our daughter’s face light up, think sweet thoughts about her unfettered connection to Nature, etc.

Then the squirrel started to get cheeky.

Did I hear the warning sirens? Did I heed the writing on the wall? No, I did not. I thought, proudly, that I was demonstrating for our wee bairn the value of dogged determination. In an attention-deficited, rapid rewards-obsessed world, I was showing her the richness awaiting those with patience. I was bridging the divide between we the domesticated and they the wild, illustrating the value of the long view.

The squirrel had the long view too, and it encompassed every edible fruit and nut in our household.

By the afternoon preceding New Year’s Eve, I had managed to plow through most of our baking and cooking nut supply. The squirrel was hopping up onto the railing, scurrying up to the front door, and glaring at me. If she could have fashioned her tiny claw into a fist and pounded it I’m pretty sure she would have.

“Look, sweetie, the squirrelie!”  I said to our daughter as I rummaged through her snack supply for more nuts. Aha! Her bag of yummy toasted almonds!

Out I went, impressionable daughter following close behind. The day before, with the walnuts, I had begun to hold the nut in my hand for the squirrel to take. “Fool!”  I hear the zoologists among you cry. “Idiot!”  call out the worldly-wise. Ah, but there’s no talking sense to a Baba on a mission, and my mission was to show my girl how kindness and generosity triumph over all — including the proper, healthy boundaries between Homo sapiens and one and a half pound, sharp-fanged rodents with bushy tails.

I had been made careless by the walnuts. As anyone will tell you, a walnut is a nice, spacious nut. One can hold the edge of it and leave a wild rodent plenty of room to grab safely. Back then, the day before, the squirrel was careful and precise, still probably skittish and convincing herself that I was friend, not foe. But in the course of that afternoon she had a veritable walnut orgy; ate several Tollhouse chocolate chip cookie batches worth of them, in fact (so many she began to simply pack her mouth full and go off and bury the excess). In a short time I had moved from potential foe, to certain friend, to utter patsy.

Almonds, I discovered, are a smaller nut than walnuts, and if one is fool enough to hold it between thumb and forefinger, one will notice that once the almond is plucked up, the forefinger remaining bears a striking resemblance to another almond.

Or so the squirrel thought.

“OUCH, you little fucker! Leggo my fuckin’ finger!”

She had clamped down and was distressed to find the almond-ish looking object was attached to my hand, was indeed part and parcel of the hand itself. I had to whack the almond bag on the railing to get her to disengage. Even then all she did was hop a few feet away and watch me.

Our daughter studied my face, carefully memorizing the pronunciation and usage context of “fucker”  and “fuckin.”  Then she looked over at the smart, fat furry thing, nibbling away at the almond she did manage to score. Then she looked back at the dumb, finger-clutching, now squirrel-hating Baba.

I wagged my punctured appendage at the glib little creature. The squirrel that is, not my daughter. “You ungrateful little wretch! You, you, you future handbag you! That was no nut, that was my digit!”

One feverish online search and an advice nurse phone-chat later, I was headed for the emergency room for a tetanus shot. There I waited for five precious hours, five hours during which I’m certain I could have completed dozens upon dozens of newborn-preparatory tasks. Or provided countless foot and lower-back rubs to the obscenely pregnant beloved. Or even written on a chalkboard, hundreds of times, “I will not feed the squirrel, I will not feed the squirrel.”

Oh, I could have been stupider. I could have placed the nut in my daughter’s tiny, innocent fingers, and held them up to the squirrel. In five hours of soul-searching, while poor schmucks more wretched than I ralphed and moaned and doubled over in the ER waiting room, I managed only to conclude that:

    1) Innocent looking, furry little wild animals with bushy tails might be cute but they’re still frickin’ rodents;
    2) There’s a reason a huge gulf separates the wild from the domesticated; and
      3) You can be DAMN SURE I won’t be feeding that squirrel any time soon. Okay, or if I do, it will be on a little plate. Or maybe with

a nice, thick glove

    .