Our young friend Maddie recently celebrated her first birthday. Maddie loves berries and books! We do too! And thus, my partner and I gave her three books about berries.
One is a book about colors of fruit.
One is a counting book. Did you know that technically, grapes are berries?
And the other is a story. A cute little mouse finds a great big strawberry, but the narrator warns the mouse that a bear who lives in the woods would also like the strawberry. Bears are big and scary! As the narrator goes on and on, the mouse becomes more and more concerned. On one page, we see that the mouse has bound the berry in chains, holding the key to its padlock. On another page, both the mouse and berry are wearing Groucho disguises. Finally, the narrator makes a suggestion. The best way to solve the problem is for the mouse to cut the berry in half and share it. With the bear, I assumed? But no, that’s not suggested at all. With the narrator! And this is done, and having eaten half a humongous berry, the mouse is quite content.
My partner read me the story when the book first arrived, and I took it at face value. Today, though, before delivering the book to Maddie, I read it for myself. This time, I realized that, uh oh, the narrator was probably manipulating the mouse’s emotions to get some of the berry for themself. And while there’s an important role in literature for the “unreliable narrator,” who isn’t disclosing all their own knowledge and motivation to the reader, it hardly seems suitable to put the person reading aloud to the child in that role. Parent as trickster? Hm.
I grew up in what I now think of as a golden age for irony and meta-awareness in children’s media. My younger sister watched Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood and Sesame Street back to back, and the contrast between them was striking. It wasn’t just the pace, although that’s obviously different too, but the tone. Continue reading