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.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Behavior modification through literature

Dear Aunt Debbie,

I'm glad to hear from you about the ways in which independent booksellers are resisting and working around Amazon.  It always cheers me to know that you are physically selling books to real people, and thinking actively about what your customers want and need.  Let's hope the resistance continues!

And speaking of resistance....

Eleanor has been very 5-year-old tantrumy lately, pitching fits when she doesn't get her way about small things.  This morning I found myself drawing on literature as a way to engage her with what she's doing, and convince her that she wants to stop.  This isn't a new tactic on my part: Violet Beauregard in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Lulu in Lulu and the Brontosaurus have long been characters we invoke in the face of spoiled behavior: Do you really want to be like Lulu?

This morning, I struck on Katherine Paterson's The King's Equal, which I wrote about here almost two years ago.  We've been reading it again lately, more deeply.  Prince Raphael and the goatherd's daughter, Rosamund, make excellent foils for each other.  Raphael is spoiled and ungrateful in outsized ways.  After his father, the king, dies, Raphael collects insane taxes from all of his subjects, has lots of pictures painted of himself, and closes all the schools, putting children to work, because he feels only he needs to be smart. (Eleanor finds this part especially shocking.)

On his deathbed, the good king decreed that Raphael could only officially inherit the crown when he found and married a woman as intelligent, beautiful, and wealthy as himself.  Raphael believes there is no such woman, and threatens his advisers with imprisonment and death if they can't find him a bride by the end of the year.

Meanwhile, Rosamund is hiding in a shack in the hills with three goats and a magical talking wolf.  She is smart, kind, and grateful for the little she has (including a magically refilling small jar of grain), but Paterson manages to make her seem interesting as well.  After a time, the wolf tells her to go down to the castle and present herself as Raphael's bride.

Raphael declares her to be the most beautiful creature he's ever seen.  She proves her wisdom by telling him something about himself that even he doesn't know: that he's lonely.  And she proves her wealth by asking him whether there is anything he wants that he doesn't have.  Of course, there is -- lots.  Well then, she says, "perhaps you are poorer than I, for there is nothing I desire that I do not already possess." Ultimately, she proves herself to be more than Raphael's equal, and takes over the running of the kingdom while he goes off to spend a year with the goats, learning humility and how to bake bread.  When he returns, they are truly equals, and get to rule together.

I invoked Raphael and Rosamund this morning at the breakfast table, when Eleanor began to whine about walking to school instead of driving.  Which one do you like better? "Rosamund, of course!" Eleanor said, laughing.  And which would you rather be like?  "Rosamund!"  And what's Rosamund like?  We talked about kindness, and generosity, and more deeply about being grateful for what you have.  Eleanor seemed able to work through, in a way she hadn't before with this book, why Rosamund not wanting more than she has makes her wealthy.

And then we talked about what we have: enough food, enough clothing, loving family and friends.  "I have these Barbies, and I don't really even need them," Eleanor said.  Exactly.  And then we practiced: what do you think Rosamund would say if she didn't get her way about something little?  "Oh, well."  We ran through a couple of scenarios.  And the tantrum that had started ten minutes before dissipated.

I'm not saying Katherine Paterson is a magic bullet -- five minutes after this, Eleanor ignored all requests to put on her sneakers so we could go to school -- but it felt like a real working through of real issues, better than threats or pleading any day.

Love, Annie


  1. Did you read about the working conditions in some of the warehouses that ship for online retailers? Story here - I, for one, was shocked.

  2. Yet another reason to shop your local independent bookstore instead of Amazon. Thanks, Jessica.