Gunning for Your Children: When Picture Book Classics Pack Heat
This is my son:
He’s an appealing little squirt, and three years of age. That means that he has a particular adoration of construction equipment, sticks, hoses, and general mayhem. This, we anticipated. Encouraged even. But like a lot of parents out there I was not entirely ready for his #1 enthusiasm of all time. Better than bulldozers and excavators. More enticing than the longest hose.
My son is a gun nut.
You have a stick? It’s a gun. You have an oddly shaped piece of uncooked spaghetti? Gun. Lincoln Logs? Actually he was perfectly fine building with those. You know what he made? A gun store. I kid you not, he was hawking guns to us like some 1930s newsie on a busy street corner. “Come and buy your guns! Guns here!” As it turns out, pretty much every object in a home, no matter how innocuous, has the potential for mass destruction. Where’d he get this passion from? I’d love to say it was just the air we breathe. That somehow he contracted it through his skin by simply existing in 21st century America. Or maybe I could blame the other kids at his preschool (which would be an easy out, and not entirely unsupported by facts). Still, let’s face it. At least part of it comes from the books we read him. The ammunition soaked literary fare he’s devoured with evident adoration.
In the Sept/Oct 2004 issue of Horn Book, Vicky Smith (her future as a Kirkus editor but a gleam in her eye) wrote the article A-Hunting We Won’t Go. Roger Sutton said it began its life as a paper for the Simmons’ children’s literature degree, so hat tip there. The piece was notable since it argued that game hunting is almost universally reviled in children’s books. Smith came up with a few counter examples but for the most part her argument stands, and certainly I haven’t seen much change in the intervening 13 years since the piece came out. Of course, Vicky was primarily talking about novels when she wrote the article. Jane Resh Thomas’s Fox in a Trap and Mary Casanova’s Moose Tracks and Wolf Shadows aren’t exactly fare for 3-year-olds.
As it turns out, Vicky could have been talking about picture books too, if she’d wanted to. Hunting gets a pretty bad rap in all kinds of places. That said, guns in general aren’t really demonized in the same way. Go into a children’s library. They are EVERYWHERE. Oh, they’re sneaky little devils. You’ll be tooling about, reading a classic, and then BANG! (often literally). Down goes Babar’s mother (Bambi’s got nothing on that one). In come the gendarmes to aid Crictor, packing heat all the while. And then there’s this guy:
Do you know him? I didn’t either. Maybe I should have realized I wouldn’t be able to trust unknown Dr. Seuss titles anymore after my encounter with the Surprise! It’s Racist! content in If I Ran the Zoo. But look at that moose. Sweet fella. How bad could it get, huh?
As ever, it was my husband who came to me to give me the bad news after reading it to our kids. “This is an anti-immigration book with the most horrific ending I’ve ever seen in a Dr. Seuss title,” he told me. Come again now? Not so sure I can follow him down the anti-immigration rabbit hole theory (a bunch of animals take up residence in Thidwick the Moose’s horns and start demanding special treatment and truly it has been received that way) but there was no denying that the ending was . . . unusual. You see in the story Thidwick is a moose that just can’t say no. Animals move into his horns and since he considers them to be guests he just lets them mooch off of him. This all comes to a head (forgive the pun) when hunters come looking for a trophy. At the last moment, Thidwick remembers that this is the time of year when he sheds his horns and, in doing so, he sheds his “guests” as well.
Now here’s the last page:
In a New York Times piece published not long after the book’s publication one David Dempsey wrote, “Thidwick is a masterpiece of economy, and a shrewd satire on the ‘easy mark’ who lets the conventions of society get the better of him. The genius of the story, however, lies in its finale. A man of less consistance than Seuss would have let Thidwick be rescued by the creatures he is defending (this is the customary Disney riposte in similar situations) but Seuss’ logic is rooted in principle, rather than sentiment, and the sponging animals get what they deserve. Incidentally, this is also what the child expects.”
Really? Kids expect the spider to be taxidermied? That’s cold, man. Real cold.
Thidwick’s a pretty extreme example, but there are lots of other books where guns play a hand. My own childhood favorites included The Amazing Bone by William Stieg which featured this I’m-not-traumatized-but-if-I-were-could-you-blame-me picture:
I know that if I encountered this book today for the first time I’d be horrified. But you have to give credit to Stieg’s imagination here. I mean, bad guys are one thing. Gun-toting, knife-wielding, scary-clown-mask-wearing bad guys, though? That takes genius.
I also liked the Pinkerton books. One of them got into trouble years later for its jacket image:
To say nothing of some of the interiors:
The book has since been rereleased with images where the burglar is not packing heat.
And I also liked the books of Tomi Ungerer. It’s interesting to note that in the previous books mentioned here, it’s always the bad guys holding the guns. But, of course, this is not always the case. Take the aforementioned Crictor:
And where would we be today if The Three Robbers didn’t have their blunderbuss? Does giving a gun a silly name make it okay? Probably not, but blunderbuss is so very fun to say . . .
Now, of course, these books are all relics of the past. You’d no sooner have Curious George sniffing ether and smoking a pipe today than you would have folks toting around AK-47s in 2017. I remember quite clearly when Aaron Becker’s picture book Journey was a Caldecott contender. I mentioned this to an acquaintance at a party and she shook her head sadly. “I don’t think it has a chance. You know. With the gun in there.” Gun? In Journey? When I got home I torn through my copy and realized slowly what she must have been talking about. Repeatedly in that book the unnamed bad guy points at a purple bird, instructing his minions to capture it. The way Becker painted his hand makes it look mildly gun-like. So was it actually one? I think the clearest evidence that this wasn’t the case is the simple fact that my son has never, for even one moment, assumed that that pointing finger was anything but a hand. If you will recall, this is the same kid who thinks popsicle sticks and dowel rods spew bullets with aplomb. He knows from guns.
New books will have moments of mistaken identity like that. Older titles offer their own unique challenges. Publishers with a vested interest in republishing old children’s books sometimes have to weigh the advantages and disadvantages of keeping the stories the same. There are moments when their jobs are made easier for them, though.
Last year Enchanted Lion Books republished a little known Roger Duvoisin title called The Happy Hunter. In the story an older man decides he’d like to try his hand at hunting. He gets all the right clothes and the right gun. But as it turns out, he really is just doing it for the playacting. The animals know he’d never shoot them in a million billion years. So the book actually becomes a kind of gentle (without proselytizing) anti-gun tale.
I think I’ll be reading this one to my son pretty soon.
He’ll come for the guns.
He’ll stay for the story.
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About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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