Literary Lessons

Staff Writer
Columbus Parent

My family likes to hunt for picture-book biographies at the library. We've learned about Pablo Picasso, Amelia Earhart, Andy Warhol, Helen Keller and others. Reading these books, I think my wife and I have learned as much as our elementary-age kids, which is a switch from the picture books we were reading aloud just a few years ago.

I'll miss some of the board books they now see as "too baby-ish" (e.g., Bear Snores On, Barnyard Dance!), but I'm mostly happy to graduate to the biographies and more complex stories. And fortunately they still enjoy Mo Willems' books.

Plus, some of the older books we've shelved are so politically incorrect they made me squirm. Three I won't miss:

Good Dog, Carl by Alexandra Day. My wife grew up with this series of books about Carl, a Rottweiler who takes care of a baby girl. And by "take care," I mean that Carl has to babysit because the socialite parents constantly venture out on the town and leave the baby home alone. Carl and the little girl both take this good-naturedly. She rides him like a horse; he lets her slide down the laundry chute and swim in the fish tank.

My only explanation for the parents' repeated endangerment and abandonment of their daughter is that maybe her temperament resembles that of Caillou. If that's the case, all is forgiven.

If I Ran the Zoo by Dr. Seuss. In this Theodor Geisel classic, young Gerald McGrew decides to release all the zoo animals and replace them with more exotic varieties, which he extracts from far-flung locales ("I'll hunt in the mountains of Zomba-ma-Tant, with helpers who all wear their eyes at a slant").

Dr. Seuss remains one of the best, but the racist stereotypes and the wild-animal philosophy in this one are a little much. There are some places you just shouldn't go. (Full disclosure: My wife works for a guy who once ran a zoo.)

Curious George books by Margret and H.A. Rey. Curious George is a little monkey little kids can relate to. His inquisitive nature gets him and his yellow-clad owner into zany predicaments. Along the way, George befriends his neighbors, none of whom seem to know that pet primates sometimes attack their owners and mutilate their faces.

George teaches kids all sorts of lessons, but I imagine the biggest takeaway is, "I want a pet monkey!"

I don't necessarily refuse to read these books to my kids, especially now that they're old enough to understand the difference between fiction and nonfiction. The idea of being left at home in the care of our insane, Kleenex-eating dog would be preposterous and hilarious to them.

I also don't want to raise kids who are overly critical of fantastical or antiquated representations of reality. (I admit I'm guilty of this.) At best, I would be presenting a sanitized version of the world. At worst, I'd be removing opportunities to talk about difficult, complex issues prevalent in older children's literature (racism, stereotypes, colonialism).

At the same time, there are lots of children's books out there, and thanks to the library (not to mention my mother-in-law, a former children's librarian), my kids are naturally curious about a lot more than George.

-Joel Oliphint is a freelance writer who opposes exotic animal ownership but does hope to one day box a Gox in yellow Gox box socks.