Memory is always a tricky thing. I have fond memories of many books that were childhood favorites, and I’m eager to share them with my children. Charlotte’s Web is one of them. I can remember reading that book a million times and it is inarguably a wonderful classic, a story full of warmth, friendship, and, yes, loss. Because it ultimately deals with death, I was hesitant about introducing it before I felt my oldest child was ready for that kind of conversation. But feeling like the time was right, I bought a copy, settled in and… oh.
Within the first pages Fern’s brother comes downstairs ready for school. Carrying a gun. I seem to have forgotten that part. I stammered. “He was holding his… backpack,” I ad-libbed as I read it out loud. “Is that a gun?” my child asked, scooting closer and looking at the first illustration. Actually, it was a rifle. “He’s taking that to school?” And here we go with a conversation other than the one I was prepared for.
This is not the first book in which this has happened. In a Curious George book (one of the classic editions, not a television tie-in edition) we learned about illegally hunting animals and what it means to be kidnapped when the Man with the Yellow Hat puts George in a bag and brings him home. Babar resulted in a discussion about racism. In a favorite picture book from my childhood, we were accidentally introduced to parents who threatened to spank their children if they made noise before 9:45 am on a Sunday. I mean, really, 9:45 am? What kids are quiet until practically lunchtime in a parent’s world?
Had I been prepared to talk about these subjects, all worthy of being discussed, I would have approached the books differently. As in probably not at night when we were both tired and not entirely up for a conversation about colonization. But with all these classics, I simply either forgot or it didn’t register in my childhood brain that there was something off.
There have been attempts to address some outdated ideas or beliefs. Richard Scarry’s beloved classic Best Word Book Ever, first published in 1963, has been slightly updated to show men and women in various roles (a daddy pushing a baby stroller, a woman working as a farmer) as well as a more inclusive community. The book retains its nostalgic charm, I think, but is much more relevant to today’s kids. I applaud the decision to do this.
I’m not suggesting we rewrite or revise every children’s book classic. Or any of them for that matter, although many people certainly have. Many of these books show up on banned book lists. Parents want some of them purged from their libraries. As an ardent foe of any kind of censorship, especially with books, I don’t advocate that. Do I sometimes wince at dated language or beliefs in books? Yes. And sometimes I’ll insert my own edits. I’ll make the garbage truck driver a woman, for instance. When we read The Very Hungry Caterpillar, a classic if ever there was one, I don’t call the caterpillar “fat.” My solution is one I’ve preached a million times: Read a book ahead of your child to scan for red flags so you are ready to discuss them. I admit that sometimes I don’t even do that myself. I should, especially since I hate surprises.
It is also important to consider the context of the time in which the book was published. It’s not realistic to think that a book published in the forties will hold up in mirroring the world we now live in. I like introducing my kids to books that feature arcane things like telephones attached to walls and weird objects like typewriters. But arcane beliefs? No. I don’t read the book about the parents who threaten to spank their kids. That said, some of these older books can be wonderful vehicles for discussions when approached in the right way. “Did you notice that there are no daddies at the playground? Huh, that doesn’t seem right, does it?”
I intend to keep reading my beloved childhood favorites, although now I do read them ahead of time. We’re continuing with Charlotte’s Web now, with the understanding that life on a farm is very different than life in the suburbs and an understanding that in today’s world we do things differently.
Like for instance that we wouldn’t have to worry about poor Wilbur ending up as breakfast. Um, we wouldn’t? No. “Because now we get bacon from the microwave.”
And there you have it, an updated classic.
Here are some classics that won’t make you say “whoopsies” when you read them: