Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Think of the Children! Tuesday: Alexander and the Terrible...Day

Okay, so as some of you know, I have a whole bunch of jobs (because being professionally angry about injustice isn't a particularly lucrative gig - yet), and one of those jobs involves taking care of very small children. Two of them, to be precise, both genders, one quite a bit smaller than the other. It's actually this kid taking care of -ing that inspired me to start Think of the Children! Tuesdays in the first place, because I saw some of the crap that people are putting out and slapping a "children's" sign on, and I got pissed. Like you do.

The thing is, it's all well and good complaining about the movies and televisions shows that we make for children, and trust me, I'm not giving up on that, but you have to bear something in mind here. Most kids, at least most kids I know (and I know a surprising number), get a lot more exposure to media and bias and all that crap through books, not movies and TV shows. Why? Because if you're a thinking, feeling, reasonably invested parent, you're probably already aware of the crappiness of most media. The parents I nanny for are really aware of how much time their kids spend looking at a screen, and seek to monitor it. Keep it as low as possible. That's great!

The flip side of this, though, is that books, for the most part, really aren't all that much better than movies and TV shows for representation. And sometimes, they're actually aggressively worse.

But we're going to hold off on the doom and gloom for another week or so (when we'll be talking about some of my all time least favorite kids' books - I'm sure you can't wait!), and today we're going to discuss a book that I think is absolutely amazing and should be required reading for not just every child, but every high schooler, college student, and grumpy adult. Ever. All the time.

We're talking about Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, by Judith Viorst, and illustrations by Ray Cruz. I'm actually pretty happy because I don't think anyone's ever tried to top Cruz's illustrations, as well they shouldn't. He's got the feel of the book down perfectly.

Anyway, since this is a kids' book, it's not too hard to summarize. In fact, a lot of you already know about it, or grew up with it, or read it to your own kids. It's been around since 1972, and from what I can tell, it's been resonating particularly well ever since. What's it about?

Alexander. Who is having a very bad day. And then who goes to bed.

That's it.

No, seriously, that's all the book is about. Alexander wakes up with gum in his hair, his brothers get cool cereal box prizes and he doesn't, he gets squished during carpool, his friend is mean to him, his mom packs him a super lame lunch, he gets in trouble at school, he has to go to the dentist, he has a cavity, he fights with his brothers, he has to eat lima beans, he has to take a bath, there's nothing good on TV, and his parents won't let him move to Australia. Then he goes to bed.

I realize that this doesn't really sound revolutionary as far as books go, but allow me to explain. You see, children's literature is usually much more of the perky, "I'll love you no matter what, yes, even if you poop in my jewelry box," and, "Hands are for hugging not hitting!" and "You can be anything you want to be, and screw anyone who says differently!" and "It's okay - no matter what happens it'll always get better," types. Books that are big and primary colored and morally simplistic. Which is, again, fine. In moderation.

Out of moderation, though, and let's be real, if any of you have ever tried to read "just one" book to a toddler, you know what I mean, these books start to grate on your very soul. Their unrealistic representations of relationships, work, family, friendships, potty training - it just starts to make you mad. Not because there's anything inherently wrong with loving unconditionally, not hitting, aspirations, or hope, but because if you feed kids a steady diet of sweet, saccharine moral pablum, they grow up to be, well, jerks.

That, and they end up with grossly unrealistic understandings of the world. They expect it to entertain them all the time. They expect things to work out quickly, because everything's always okay by the end of the book. 

They start to think that there must be something wrong with them, because it's not super easy and fun and colorful and quick. Kids are really fast to internalize stuff like that. And that idea that something is wrong with them? That's the first thing they'll pick up.

Also, it's just annoying for me personally. There's this one book, No More Diapers for Ducky, and in it this little duck comes over to play with her pig friend, but he's in the potty, so she plays without him (he is apparently in there for literal hours), and then she decides that she wants to use the potty. So she takes off her wet diaper and leaves it on the floor and then barges into the potty because no more diapers for Ducky! Yay!

Are you freaking kidding me? Do you, author, know what potty training is really like? POTTY TRAINING IS HORRIFIC AND YOUR BOOK ONLY MAKES IT MORE SO.

Anyway.

The thing about Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day is that it isn't easy. It isn't primary colored. It doesn't get resolved in the end. All that happens is that Alexander has a genuinely bad day, and then he goes to bed. You know what his mom says at the very end of the book? 

"My mom says some days are just like that. Even in Australia."

First off, I love this kid because he is constantly wanting to move to Australia, which is rad and I approve of his life choices. Second, I love this kid because he is such a little grump and I relate. But third, I love his parents so, so, so much for that line. Some days are just like that. Because, well, they are.

Everyone has bad days. It's part of being alive. Some days just suck. And you have to choose to have a good attitude to get through them. You have to try. It takes work. And you know what? That's okay. That doesn't mean there's anything wrong with you. It just means that you had a bad day. That's it. Bad days happen.

These are the books we need more of, to be honest. The books that tell you something you desperately needed to be reminded of, and the ones who do it with a smile and a pat on the cheek. So, you know, everything by Judith Viorst and Dr. Suess. And some other people, I guess.

Next week, like I said, we're going to look at some of the books I hate the absolute most when it comes to children's lit, but for today, we'll end on a high note. Or as high as a note on a post about bad day books can be. Some days are just like that. And if you're having one of those days today, just remember: it's okay. It might not get better today. But you can always go to bed.

I want that on a t-shirt.

I hear you, kid.

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