Tricks Are For Kids

23 Jan

I should preface this by saying that I’ve recently become an expert on the subject of children and their books. This is partly because I frequent the ball pit at McDonald’s, but mostly because I’m a manny. No, MS Word, that’s not a typo.

I am a man.
And I work as a nanny.
Hence: manny (n.) a babysitter with testes.

It’s a long story, and one I’d love to tell, but my next MEF isn’t due up until March, so for now, the point is simply that I have credentials. And, given my credentials, I can tell you this:

The single most interesting thing about children’s booksbooks for childrenis that they are written by adults.

As far as I’m concerned, adults and children are not the same species. Their brainstheir ways of thinking, of taking in information and stimuli, of perceiving the worldare fundamentally different. Consequently, trying to write a children’s book as an adult is like trying to manufacture dog food as a human.* You really have no idea how the dog will actually feel about the food, what it will taste like to his taste buds, the thoughts he will think as he consumes and digests it. To you, those pellets of artificial meat taste like the crust in your belly button rather unpleasant. But, despite not being a dog, you can still make dog food and see what happens (if he gobbles it up with fervid grunts, you have achieved success). Likewise, as an adult, you can write a children’s book, but you can never know what it’s like to be the target reader of your own work.



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 *Side note: As it turns out, from a parenting perspective, the parallels between dogs and children are numerous. It’s awesome. And I’m not just talking about the leash.

I’m talking about how:
– If your dog/child is being too loud, you send him outside.
– If you want your dog/child to sit/eat his vegetables, you reward him with a treat.**
– If you want to praise your dog/child, you say “GOOD JOB!!” in a high-pitched, patronizing voice.
– If you want to discipline your dog/child, you beat him with a wooden spoon.

**I once needed to traverse 10 blocks in 6 minutes with a 4-year-old who averages 1 mph on foot (do the math). To accomplish this feat, I brandished a clementine and told the gimp that he’d receive one slice of after each block. At this, he ran—nay, sprinted—down the sidewalk, stopping only at the intersections, where he would cock his head back, open his mouth, pant, and eagerly await his citrus reward.

[End side note]

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What we were talking about? Oh yeah: “As an adult, you can write a children’s book, but you can never know what it’s like to be the target reader of your own work.”

Valid point. Then again, maybe this doesn’t really matter. After all, children’s booksjust like dog foods (or all products, really)need only to appeal to the people purchasing them: adults. This is why Purina commercials are always talking about how their kibbles are “specially formulated with vitamins and minerals, to build strong bones and foster a long, healthy life.” This is why almost all children’s books are ridden with cliché messages of morality. You gotta sell it to the parents. Of course, dogs don’t give a shit about healthy living any more than children give a fuck about life lessons. If canines and kids were responsible for purchasing their own stuff, Purina would sell raw meat and Captain Underpants would be a bestseller.

But for now, while the adults retain control, the favorite food/books of dogs/children will be those that come closest to what they would choose themselves. For dogs, this means Beggin’ Strips. For children, this means whatever books glorify mischief or, at the very least, are devoid of moral instruction.

A few examples:

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Go, Dog. Go!

Synopsis: Dogs, hanging the fuck out. Mostly driving fast cars. They eventually end up at a raucous party and drop Jägerbombs.

Moral lesson? Nope.

Mischief Rating: PG
Nothing too extreme, but these pooches don’t bother with manners or etiquette (always a plus). They keep it real and tell it like it is…

Kid Approval: High

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Hop On Pop

Synopsis: I honestly don’t remember anything about this book aside from the fact that, in the eponymous (and most titillating) passage, two children gleefully employ their father’s tummy as a trampoline, and that, when reading this as a 3-year-old with my own dear Pop, I would explode (figuratively) with excitement upon reaching this page, and promptly reenact the scene. In retrospect, I’m not sure my father enjoyed the book nearly as much as I did.

Daddy: “Hey, Cakes! What book do you want to read tonight?”

Cakes: “HOP ON POP!!!”

Daddy: “Ooohh, dear, ha, ha… Umm, I don’t know about that one, son. How about something different tonight?”

Cakes: “HOP ON POP!! HOP ON POP!!!!”

Daddy: “…Maybe Pokey Little Puppy? Or Red Fish Blue Fish? Or Clifford. You love Clif—”

Cakes [screaming]: “HOP ON POP!! HOP ON POP!! HOP ON POP!! HOP ON POP!! HOP ON POP!!”

Daddy: “Or maybe The Three Little Pigs or The Little Engine That—”

Cakes [screaming, louder]: “HOP ON POP!! HOP ON POP!! HOP ON POP!! HHHOPP!! OONN!! POPPPP!!!!!!”

Daddy: “Oh. Ok, son… [sighs; trepidation sinking in] …I guess we can read Hop on Pop.”

Cakes: YAAAAAAAAYYYYY!!!! HOP ON POP!! HOP ON POP!! Hop, Hop, Hop on POP!!”

[Baby Cakes proceeds to jump on Daddy, performing bottom drops, 360s, and other acrobatic maneuvers. Daddy’s face turns purple, veins bulging, struggles to stifle groans of pain.]

Oh, the things you do for your children.

Moral Lesson? Abusing your parents = fun.

Mischief rating: PG-13
In addition to the hop-on-poppers, there’s also JIM. As you may recall, Jim is a heartless savage who enjoys gnawing on a tiger’s tail.
In the words of Seuss, “JIM IS AFTER HIM.”

To preschoolers, Jim is a hero. You can see it in his eyesthis is everything children aspire to be: PURE EVIL.

Kid Approval: Very High

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Curious George

Synopsis: There are various volumes in the Curious George series, but they all essentially follow the same formula:
– George sees something he wants to do, thinks to himself, “Aww hell yeah, this gonna be some fun,” and does it.
– George has himself a dope-ass adventure, wreaks havoc (people get hurt, things get broken).
– George gets caught, then let off the hook, learns no lessons, pulls same stunts in next book.

Moral Lesson? Being a monkey gives you impunity to do whatever you want.

Mischief rating: R
Let’s face it. “Curious” is a huge euphemism here. This monkey ain’t just “curious.” He’s downright disobedient, unruly, unlawfulan accomplished trouble maker. He’s snatching people’s balloons, destroying museum exhibits, prank calling the fire department. Remember Latarian Milton? George makes that kid look like an alter boy. Although they both agree: “It’s fun to do bad things.” You see that cover up there? That’s a the face of someone being apprehended by the authorities …and smiling about it.  If Jim is a child’s hero, George is nothing short of demigod. He embodies everything little rapscallions dream of: having adventures, recklessly pursuing fun, doing whatever they want, and getting away with it. In conclusion, the creator of Curious George is a goddamn genius, because he cracked the code. He figured out how to give kids exactly what they crave (i.e. some good ole hooligan mischief), and yet, by selling this monkey business in the name of “curiosity,” he also tricked parents into thinking they were buying a morality tale. Suckers.

Kid Approval: 100%

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The Cat in the Hat

Synopsis: Behold, The Godfather of all children’s books. You shouldn’t need it, but here’s a plot summary:
Kids left home alone while Mommy run errands. 6-foot talking cat show up at the door, let’s himself in. Cat is entirely naked save for a massive bow-tie and unfashionable hat. The goldfish (who, in the 1971 animated TV special, inexplicably goes by the name “Karlos K. Krinklebein”) sees that this cat is one sketchy dude; tells him to get out, get out, you should not be here while our mother is out. Cat ignores fish, proceeds to perform zany tricks, most notably the balancing (while atop a ball) of a teacup, some milk, three books, the fish, a cake, a rake, a toy boat, a toy man, a red fan, and his umbrella. Kids very much amused. Karlos K. Krinklebein not at all amused. Cat brings in red box, opens it, unleashes two things. Two things create mess. Children get upset, catch things with net, tell cat to get out. Cat mopes out, but returns with multi-purpose cleaning device, eradicates mess, then exits. Mommy returns, asks the kids how their day was.

Moral Lesson? As is the case with most of Dr. Seuss’s books, The Cat in the Hat actually has a not-at-all-subtle message. This is a cautionary tale about strangers, viz. “If a giant cat/sketchy dude shows up at your door and offers to perform tricks in your house, don’t let him. He’ll probably steal all your expensive stuff, or kill you.” The fish, Mr. Krinklebein, was right all along. But children don’t pick up on this at all. They perceive Karlos as a lame tight-ass party pooper; they instinctively dislike him because he reminds them of (wait for it…) their parents. The Cat, on the other hand, is the antithesis of parental tyranny. So, naturally, they love him. And, yep, the cautionary message goes straight over their headseven though it’s explicitly placed in front of them in the final passage:

When I read this book to the kids I babysit and asked them this closing question (“What would you do?”), they said, in all seriousness, “I dunno. Probably not tell her.”

Sometimes kids will say the wrong answer just to piss you off. This was not one of those times. They were saying the wrong answer because they legitimately thought it was the right answer. When asked to elaborate: “I mean, the cat was really fun. Plus he cleaned everything up after.”

Apparently, all it takes to win a tyke’s approval is a couple of “things” and an ability to clean up after yourself. Of course, when they say the cat is “fun,” what they’re really referring to something more sinister, something more alluringthat all-important ingredient that I’ve been talking about all along…

MISCHIEF!!!!!

Rating: XXX
The Cat in the Hat is like porn for children. He is the King of Tomfoolery. This feline is so admirably, enviably, inspirationally mischievous that kids are completely mesmerized by his antics and oblivious to the fact that he’s a villain, a likely thiefor, in their language, “a bad guy.” It doesn’t occur to them that this might be “too much mischief”for them, the term doesn’t exist. That hat is the perfect size for confiscating all of Mommy’s jewelry. But, hey! Look! It has stripes!

Kid Approval: Through the roof

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A point of clarification: There is, in my opinion, absolutely nothing wrong with children completely missing the message in The Cat in the Hat. In fact, I support this. Dr. Seuss was a jerk for writing a book that forces us to denounce such a lovable character. If anything, that children invariably misunderstand this book’s point only reaffirms my point: Kids like to be bad. Misbehavior is the greatest thrill they know. They are ripe with original sin, eager to eat the serpent’s Apple Jacks, endlessly entertained by any and all shenanigans. To break the laws set forth by their parents is to break free from the boundaries that enclose them, to achieve that glorious, sweet (though transient) victory of freedom. And when such freedom cannot be obtained first hand, the next best thing is to escape vicariously through the exploits of other, bolder, fictional ruffians.

So if you’re trying to write a children’s bookif you’re taking on the noble task of writing for a reader whose brain you can never fully understandhere’s my advice: Don’t bother with morality. Maybe present a facade of moral instruction so that parents will buy it and you can earn fame and riches. But if you really want kids to love your book, learn from these examples. You will see that, when it comes to literature, kids love but three things…

(1) Bright colors

(2) Anthropomorphic animals

and, above all

(3) Uncensored, unadulterated, unpunished MISCHIEF!

…Then again, don’t we all.

Cakes

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