Monday, February 23, 2009

Grim Tales

I was in the library searching through the picture book section when my 11 year old son wandered over and started flipping through a book. When he finished it, he snapped it shut and exclaimed in disgust, “She doesn’t even die!”

“Um, Honey, we’re in the picture book section,” I reminded him. “People don’t usually die.”

“But Mom, look what book it is.”

He held it up for me. There Was On Old Lady Who Swallowed a Pie. Ah, a take-off on that old fly-eater who finally chokes on a horse. I started trying to think of other kid tales with morbid endings. And I swear, at the exact moment I was wondering this, I put my hands on what might be the grimmest picture book ever.

The fable Light Foot by Natalia Toledo begins with the pesky problem of too many babies being born and overpopulating the world. So Death decides to intervene and do a little cleaning up. Death challenges all species on earth to a jump rope contest and eliminates them one by one, until she meets her match in a ­­­clever grasshopper.

The story is based on a series of images of animals jumping rope with Death by Mexican artist Francisco Toledo (Natalia’s father). The bold depictions of the skeletal Death would have given my kids nightmares for weeks. And it's confusing - it’s not really clear just how much of the world’s population is wiped out, for instance. There’s also a strange bit about a pair of shoes Death snatches from a corpse, then loses later – explaining why Death is silent and sneaky (also reassuring for small children).

I wasn’t sure if this was supposed to be a playful explanation of why grasshoppers are good jumpers, or a lesson in why Death is silent. Maybe I was just too stunned at seeing that many bones in a kid’s book that wasn’t about dinosaurs.

I did like the idea of weaving a story around an artwork series. Toledo’s warm earth tone images are a great representation of Zapotec culture. I think Light Foot would be an interesting coffee table book for adults, and I had to wonder if there was a mix-up in cataloguing this book. For me it’s a wolf in sheep’s clothing – masquerading as a picture book but meant for an older audience. I wouldn’t be tucking the kids in with this one.


Kim Kasch said...

Interesting. It's kind of like Coraline, it's not meant for the very young. You would think parents would be the guides - but we saw 4 and 5 year old kids at Coraline. And, my 24 year old son (who has a degree in multi-media design) which is one of the reasons he wanted to see it, said it was creepy for little kids. Plus, my son loves Neil Gaiman from Stardust fame.


Suzie said...

Have you ever read Hiroshima no Pika? Its a children's book about the bomb in Hiroshima. Its very gorey and very beautiful but I would never read it to a child under 12.

Kelly said...

That does seem a little much for children. But think about all the Disney movies, usually a parent is dead or a family member is wicked!

Rena said...

Isn't it crazy how some books are one extreme over the other? You have all the politically correct remakes of the classics. Then there are others that are so unbelievable, verses the ones that are downright frightening. Whatever happened to simple, honest picture books that tell a story that's not terrifying? Oh, I know -- they're out there. Sigh.

PJ Hoover said...

It sounds horrible! It wouldn't last a minute in our house.
Very odd indeed. I guess everyone has a story they want to tell.

adrienne said...

Kim - I'm always surprised at the number of tiny kids at scary movies - I wonder how they could be desensitized at such a young age.

Suzie - That does sound like a subject for middle school age.

Kelly - My daughter hated Bambi! There were many parts of the Disney movies my kids wouldn't watch.

Rena - I hear your frustration :) But yeah, the great ones are out there, too.

PJ - I actually picked it up because I thought the image on the cover was beautiful...but the story did creep me out.

Green Girl in Wisconsin said...

Huh. My sons like a "dark tale" now and then--funny enough it's the "multicultural books" that fit the bill with some death--I think there's much to be said for reality in books, but I'm also not a fan of gratuitous violence for children either. But it's not all unicorns and rainbows;)

Suzanne Casamento said...

I think your point about catalouging this book is very interesting. It's amazing to me that because it's "artistic," a book containing the images you described can be deemed acceptable for children. But when a YA author writes about very real subjects like drinking, drugs, sex or abuse, they get banned. It's so weird how that works.

Paris said...

Wow...I would think that is too much for young ones. I'm collaborating with a good friend on a story book for children. I am doing the artwork and they are writing the story. It is so important to me that it is a healthy book.

Thanks for this good post!

adrienne said...

Green Girl - I've noticed that, too - death figures more into folklore in some cultures. And picture books definitely are useful in teaching coping skills. In books for very young kids, there's usually a reassuring resolution.

Suzanne - There's always a struggle there - and I've also seen some pretty controversial subjects covered in picture books!

Paris - Have fun with that project!

Lily Cate said...

Well, this is another ringing endorsement for reading the book yourself before you read it to a kid! Good thing you flipped through it first, Adrienne!
I learned that one when I was quite little, and my grandma decided it would be lovely to read us the REAL Grimm's Fairytales- and then tried to edit as she read.
On the other side, I was watching Handy Manny (of all things) with my son, and it was a little annoying that the episode was about the Day of the Dead, but they carefully avoided saying those words in English. It was only "Dios de los Muertos". Usually, they translate the spanish, and vice versa.

adrienne said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
adrienne said...

Lily - Screening gets harder when they get to be 11 or 12 and start picking from the YA shelf...
and I can also remember having to edit as I read an old fashioned story book. Guess I learn the hard way!

Oh, and BTW, Blogger hasn't let me comment on some blogs lately. Enjoyed your Oscar posts :)

Mary Witzl said...

I got hold of a copy of Grimms' tales when I was about eight, and boy, what an eye opener! The one that really freaked me out was about a Mr Fox who caught women, killed them, then hid their corpses' in a big box. Way back when, tales for kids weren't all warm and fuzzy.

When our kids were little, a friend in India sent them a copy of the Panchatantra -- which is also not all warm and fuzzy. My kids cried their hearts out over it, but they really loved it.

adrienne said...

Mary - Considering how rough it was to be a kid way back when, it's no wonder the tales were gloomy.

sruble said...

DH just brought up the old lady that swallowed a fly last night!

I wonder if the other book was a bit like Madeline, where the artist had a bunch of cool images and they decided to make a story with them and put them in a book. Although with Madeline, it worked better/was more child friendly.

Stories for kids used to be much more violent, but that's changed. There's still the 3 little pigs, little red riding hood, and others like them, although I'm guessing nobody dies in most of the modern versions.

adrienne said...

Sruble - I didn't know that about Madeline...only that Bemelmans was a studio artist. Definitely more kid friendly!