While spending time at my parent’s house with my daughters recently, I reacquainted myself with some of my favorite childhood books. My parents have a stash that weren’t subject to today’s politically correct sensors. My older daughter delighted in Maurice Sendak’s The Night Kitchen, which tells the story of a little boy who has a dream, who stay up all night mixing “milk in the batter, milk in the batter.” It goes without saying that the boy is naked in his dream, and that the illustrations are anatomically correct. Some books I didn’t let her read, like another Sendak book that still terrifies me, Outside Over There, about goblins who kidnap a baby while the big sister is in charge.
Then there were those books that I decided were worth the read, but that needed some on-the-spot, parental re-writing. My parents’ library’s version of the Three Little Pigs fell into that category. Did you know that the original mother pig sent away her children because she didn’t have the means to care for them? That it was a maudlin and traumatic farewell? And that each little pig set out on his own, and the first two, who built houses of straw and sticks respectively, were actually eaten by the Big Bad Wolf? Contrary to my memory, they didn’t escape to their older brother’s House of Bricks? And that the third little pig, after outsmarting the wolf in the apple orchard and the county fair, captured the wolf and ate him? Ate him? Need I remind you what the wolf had recently eaten?
Luckily, I thought, my four-year-old will not notice if I revise the story slightly. After all, I am quite experienced in such editing. The older brother in Tiki Tiki Tembo? Well, it’s not that he was never quite the same again after he spent too long in the well; he merely had to rest in bed for a few days, and learn to be a better listener. The family members in The Carrot Seed? They’re pretty harsh, so I soften their language a bit – “I’m not sure it will grow,” they say, instead of the definitive “it won’t come up.” I was confident I could appropriately re-work Three Little Pigs. Little did I know that my daughter’s grandparents had been reading her the book surreptitiously, word for word. When I attempted to deviate from the text, she carefully corrected me: No, the wolf eats the piggy, Mama. Then she wanted me to read the book again, the right way this time.
So much from shielding her from the winds that blow down Houses of Straw. And why is it that I was the one trembling after each reading, while she, resilient, asked for more?
You would think that I would have learned by now that, as parents, we are defenseless against the raging winds when they choose to blow. We painstakingly build our houses, confident they are made of bricks, and when the wolf shows up, unannounced and uninvited, he huffs and he puffs and he blows that house down. Maybe our children should be exposed to these stories from an early age. Will this help prepare them? Will this help them learn that the challenge actually lies in how we respond to those raging winds, how we choose to continue our stories, and build anew, once the illusion of solid structure has crumbled around us?