In which Annie (high school teacher, mother of two young girls and a younger boy) and her aunt Deborah (children's bookseller, mother of two young women in their 20s) discuss children's books and come up with annotated lists.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Good authors, bad books

Dear Annie,

Your excellent discussion of Shel Silverstein's The Giving Tree leads my thoughts to another of my least favorite books,
Love You Forever
by Robert Munsch.

It starts with a mother singing to her infant son, telling him she'll love him forever, "As long as I'm living my baby you'll be."  He grows into a mischievous two year-old, an inconsiderate nine year-old, an Elvis-obsessed teenager, and finally a grown-up who moves out and gets a house across town.  In each of the episodes, the mother crawls into his room at night, checks that he's sleeping, then picks him up (without waking him), rocks him and sings her little song about loving him forever.  She even does this when he's an adult:
If all the lights in her son's house were out, she opened his bedroom window [top of ladder visible in window], crawled across the floor, and looked up over the side of his bed.  If that great big man was really asleep she picked him up and rocked him back and forth, back and forth, back and forth.
and then of course she sings her "as long as I'm living..." song.  One can only wonder what happened the nights she looked over the side of his bed and found him (a) awake, or (b) not alone.

So one day she calls him up and says, "You'd better come see me because I'm very old and sick."  She's too weak to sing to him, so he picks her up and rocks her in his arms and sings, "As long as I'm living my Mommy you'll be."  He goes home that night real sad, picks up his sleeping child out of her crib, and sings her his mom's song.

It's sappy and sentimental and a little creepy.  The mother's not being destroyed by her child, but she sure is having problems with separation, and the author is celebrating it.  As with The Giving Tree, this is not a book for kids.  It's in kids' book form, but aimed at adults and adult sentiment.  Don't forget, I'm gonna die -- be nice to your mother.

The thing I find so strange about both these books is that this isn't the way these writers usually are.  Munsch is the author of The Paper Bag Princess, Thomas' Snowsuit and many other funny and slapstick books which are very in tune with the pre-school sense of humor.  And we've written about Silverstein's poetry, also very plugged in to kids' ideas of what's funny.  Maybe their publishers suggested they write something that would sell every year on Valentine's Day and Mother's Day (that's when I get the biggest demand for both of these, from adults who really love them).  Or maybe, as your mother (my sister) suggests in her excellent comment, they're displaying their own unresolved issues with their moms.  There are wonderful books that present parental love in kid-friendly ways -- why celebrate the ones that aren't?




  1. I also find the mom here very creepy, but I see this book as having a message for kids: Mom will always love you. It's next to Runaway Bunny in terms of hitting the kid psyche. So I know kids who like it; it's not a good book for people over three and under parenthood, and even most parents find the adult take on it rather disconcerting.

    Maybe if he had drawn the family as giraffes or something it would be easier to take it less literally. I mean, I don't worry about Good Night Gorilla climbing into bed with the zookeepers.

  2. So glad I'm not alone in my aversion to these two books! I've reviewed The Giving Tree, because I think its message is harmful, but can't bring myself to look at that insipid Love You Forever book long enough to write about it.

  3. Aww, I like Love You Forever. Granted, taken literally, it's quite creepy and....impossible. So I just go with the idea behind it. But I'm right there with you on The Giving Tree (blech.)