There will always be a special place in my heart for particular children’s books. They are not the ones with exquisite illustrations or perfect prose. They do not contain whimsical meter and rhyme. They have never received a Newbery or Caldecott medal.
In all actuality, my favorites border on the absurd. They contain questionable themes, messages, and images for children. Yet far be it from me to overlook the missteps of the publishing industry. These kinds of comedic jewels should be celebrated, not ignored. In refusing to toss such books into the trash, I instead read them with great fervor and irony to my unsuspecting children. The boys stare, confused by my mirth, as I wipe away tears of laughter every time I visit Marianne’s Kiddie Lit Hall of Fame for the Tragically Inappropriate.
The first book I’ve placed in that category is The Tale of Pale Male by Jeanette Winter. This true story recounts the plight of a red-tailed hawk and his mate, Lola, as they decide to take up residency high atop a Fifth Avenue penthouse in Manhattan. As rat bones and feathers rain down from the building (“Evidence of Lola’s meals” the author tells us), the book’s illustrations offer detailed depictions of skeletal animal remains.
Because when all is said and done, nothing says love like pointing out rat bones to your 4-year-old as you read to him before bed. Joey’s response? “Ew. Dat’s yucky. Can we read Green Eggs and Ham next?”
Pale Male’s narrative continues as a completely grossed-out condo association mounts pressure to get the offending nest removed. Yet protestors and picketers (holding signs that read “Honk 4 Hawks”) quickly arrive on the scene and the spikes for the nest are put back. Pale Male and Lola return to raise an entire family of rodent-eating hawks in New York City.
Final Score: Animal rights activists: 1; Rat bone-covered homeowners: 0. I was totally on the side of the homeowners for this one, but the book is so earnest and funny without meaning to be that I had to give the work its due place in my courtesy ranking.
The next book that leaves both my husband and I holding our sides from laughter is Random House’s vintage The Little Fire Engine by Lois Lenski. Originally published in 1946, it is evident from the get-go that people were simply not buying home insurance back then. When a fire breaks out and Fireman Small arrives at the burning house, we see mom racing out holding a lamp while each of her children carries a chair. Fireman Small does nothing to dissuade the family from running back into the burning structure to grab a few more items.
It is only a few pages later when we realize that in mom’s haste to secure the furniture, she has accidentally left a child stuck on the second floor! Who can possibly remember all those kids when there are coffee tables to be saved?
After Fireman Small rescues the little girl, he chops a hole in the roof and douses the entire house in water. The gathering crowd shouts “Hooray!” The final pages include the family carrying all of their possessions back into their water-logged and smoke-damaged home. “The fire is over!” says Fireman Small. “Move right back in again!” The family smiles and obliges him accordingly. No need for an arson investigation or structural inspection. We are all left praying that it doesn’t rain now that the family has a huge 5-foot hole in the roof.
My final and perhaps most-loved story on the list is The Pumpkin Giant by Mary Wilkins and Ellin Greene. Published in 1970 (and very hard to find), the book tells of a menacing Pumpkin Giant who terrorizes an entire kingdom by eating all of the fat children. Two of the kids in the tale, a farmer’s son and a princess, are so morbidly obese that they are forced to roll around on their bellies instead of using their legs.
The story is actually quite well-written and illustrated, but the overt lack of political correctness would never fly in today’s publishing world. Our two chubby heroes end the story by killing the giant and making him into hundreds of pumpkin pies. They then marry and continue their unique habit of getting around town on their substantial tummies. I’m not sure if the message of the tale is bravery in the face of great obstacle, or more simply, “there’s someone out there for everyone.”
My love for these inappropriate books has got to indicate some kind of failing as a mother. I cringe when those moms known for their good taste try to steer me towards award-winning books that teach moral lessons and social responsibility. The stuff just isn’t funny. Falling rat bones are. These irreverent and humorous books guarantee that I keep reading to my kids. I figure for that reason alone, it’s a win-win.
At least that’s what I’ll be telling their therapists.