Dr. V’s favorite classics: Bea and Mr. Jones

After the other day’s ranty post about an overrated classic, today let’s celebrate an underrated one!

Bea and Mr. Jones, by Amy Schwartz. Harcourt, 1982. 51qxvu6uetl

Dr. V’s take:

We’re familiar with the Freaky Friday plot: two people switch places (or even bodies) for a finite period of time and live life in each other’s shoes. Bonus points if the two people butt heads or appear to be opposites in any way at the beginning of the story, because the journey to mutual respect by the end is all the more gratifying.

Besides Freaky Friday‘s many (many!) remakes—-so many that people don’t realize that the original Freaky Friday was a young adult book from 1972—-this plot device has been employed by such illustrious works as Olsen twins movie It Takes Two, Eddie Murphy/Dan Akroyd movie Trading Places, the candy-maker episode of I Love Lucy, and multiple Disney Channel Original Movies.

The Freaky Friday genre peaked early, you guys. I give you Bea and Her Father—-one of the world’s most underrated children’s books that has everything great about this trading-places plot but also turns the tables on it. As I’ve noted before, pulling off a surprise ending in a children’s book is a rare, beautiful skill; this one will make you “HA!” out loud.

In addition to the adorable premise that Bea would be just as tired of pasting things on other things in kindergarten as her father is of meetings and paperwork, the illustrations—-in that classic line-y textured style*—-of five-year-old Bea in a suit at business meetings are hilarious and the ease with which everyone accepts their swap is delightfully weird.

Bea and Mr. Jones is also refreshingly 1980s about Bea being a girl. Compare these LEGO ads that circulated a few years ago with this one, and you can kind of see what I mean. Bea and Mr. Jones imagines a world in which a five-year-old girl is readily accepted as an executive with no resistance whatsoever, and she finds that it suits her well, even though there are no princesses in sight. We’ve made progress since the 1980s in many ways, but its possible that we’ve lost some things, too: if you’re weary of the constant drumbeat of princesses and sparkles, a girl protagonist for whom the “girl” part doesn’t have to be expressed in that exact way, and who feels no need to explain herself to anyone, is a great find.

But the surprise ending is really the best part. Go read the book before you read anymore of this post, because I really don’t want to ruin it for you.

Go on!

Did you do it?

Okay.

****spoiler warning****

We know how this story was supposed to go: everybody was supposed to learn a Very Important Lesson about how it feels to be someone other than yourself. Or, as we used to hear it phrased back when we had a POTUS who knew how to do sentences, how it feels to “climb into [another’s] skin and walk around in it.” Empathy, compassion, blah blah blah.

But Bea and her father are like, eh. Instead of learning to appreciate their own lives and respect each other’s struggles more, Bea and her father find that they really like being an ad exec/kindergartner. It turns out that bosses at ad advertising firms are on the same wavelength as strong-willed five-year-olds, while the values of kindergarten skew more toward cooperation and sharing (and of course, the ability to reach things is highly coveted). Bea and her father declare the swap a permanent success and everybody lives happily ever after. It is silly and charming and brilliant and a perfect book.

office-door

 

 

*I tried to find out if this style has a name, but came up empty. If you know about it, leave a comment or shoot me message!

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UGH: Rainbow Fish

rainbow-fish-page3
Awww, a book about a fish who learns to share! Or a book about a bunch of other nonspecial fish who learn to ostracize others until they receive the bribe they feel they so richly deserve. One of those.

Inquisitive mop-top: But why does the Rainbow Fish give away all of his scales, Dr. V?

Dr. V: Because, darling, the community surrounding Rainbow Fish was so petty and resentful of anybody different from them that they actually demanded that he decimate his literal body and give it to them as an offering before they would accept him. It’s a garbage book and it belongs in the garbage.

Inquisitive mop-top (who is astonishingly precocious and definitely not imaginary): But Dr. V, Rainbow Fish seems like a book you would love! It’s got all of your favorite things: beautiful full-page pictures, a misfit protagonist, and socialism!

Dr. V: True, wee nugget. Also true: Rainbow Fish began the book hella obnoxious. Flitting around marveling at how beautiful you are is lowkey rude and it also makes you very, very boring. If you don’t believe me, take a look at Kim Kardashian’s Instagram.

Im-t(wiapadni): And isn’t this book about [streams of pure light] [angel choir] ~*~*~*sharing~*~*~*~???

Dr. V: No, my dear baby musk ox, it is about a perversion of sharing: the lack of respect for anybody’s boundaries.

If the story of Rainbow Fish depicted its title character learning how to give the world something other than his shallow self-importance, and in so doing, making connections with others that eases his loneliness, I’d be on board.

If the story of Rainbow Fish depicted its title character learning how to show compassion for those less fortunate than he is, or returning the kindness of the those around him by sharing his beautiful scales, I’d be able to overcome the this-is-part-of-his-actual-body aspect of it and get on board.

However.

The story of Rainbow Fish depicts a mildly obnoxious gifted fish getting denigrated and brought down by all of the jealous uggos around him. One of them has the nerve to come up and ask Rainbow Fish to give him one of his scales. When RF refuses to remove a piece of his body and give it to him, Mr. Entitled-Fins gets angry with him, and all of the other fish side with Mr. E-F. Rainbow Fish caves, and this is a Valuable Lesson because it teaches children the universal virtues of recognizing the fact that everyone else is entitled to anything they ask for, so you should never hesitate to dismember yourself to suit others’ desires.

Rainbow Fish ends the book with lots of friends, of course, which teaches a second no less important lesson that if nobody likes you, you should give them stuff until they do; and that being special is bad, so if you’re special, make sure you unspecial yourself until everybody is the same.

No.

The real lesson to be learned here, children, is that jerks deserve each other. #classic

Let us leave them to their dysfunction forever and go be cool to each other elsewhere.

UGH: The Little Red Hen

thelittleredhen
By the fiftieth time of reading this, I have a few choice words for one Ms. Hen.

INQUISITIVE MOP-TOP:
But why didn’t the Little Red Hen share her bread, Dr. V?

DR. V.:
Because the Little Red Hen believes that she pulled herself up by her bootstraps and did all of the work of making the bread herself and is therefore entitled eat all of it herself, an act which is evidently made all the better for her if she can do so ceremoniously for an audience of contrite ne’er-do-wells. The lesson is, apparently, that the Little Red Hen deserves ALL THE BREAD and her neighbors deserve NO BREAD and also MOCKERY. However, the Little Red Hen is forgetting:

  1. she didn’t earn that wheat by being the most virtuous. She completely lucked into it—-and she got it for free, as a side effect of some anonymous wheat-picker’s labor! It was an actual hand-out! Is she chasing whoever dropped the grain of wheat to hand them a piece of her venerable Bread of Industriousness?
  2. the miller? Hello? Kind of an unsung hero here? Little Red Hen acts like taking the wheat to the mill is some astonishing act of determination, but surely the actual milling of the wheat entails some labor? I assume she must be planning to go down to the mill and pass out next-day croutons in the sequel.
  3. just because she decides she wants to undertake a project doesn’t obligate her neighbors to drop everything they’re doing to help her. If she asks for a favor, she needs to take “no” for an answer, and if she doesn’t want to give anybody any bread, she can just keep it to herself and nobody will care. She really cedes a good deal of moral high ground with the “PSYCH!” maneuver. RUDE.
  4. watering one plant is not that serious. It’s really not the kind of thing that anybody needs help with. It’s more like the kind of thing your friends do with you because they like your company and chatting with a person you like in a garden is nice.

So the real lesson, my little darlings, is that the Little Red Hen has no friends, probably because she’s the worst and nags everyone incessantly. If you ever find a free seed, you should try not assuming it entitles you to others’ free labor as well, and instead have fun with it.

With any luck your plant will provide you with something pretty and/or delicious, and you’ll want to pay it forward.

Dr. V’s Favorite Classics: The Snowy Day

The Snowy Day, Ezra Jack Keats. Viking (Penguin), 1962.snowydaykeats

Dr. V’s take:

Friggin April, man. In the slightly paraphrased words of T.S. Eliot, it’s trifling AF. In my region of the world, April invites back all the birds and flowers only to cruelly blanket them in snow.  Go ahead and grow, grass! April promises. It’s safe! You’ll be fiiiine! And then: boom. Frost. April is Lucy, the football is spring, and we are all poor, sad Charlie Brown.

April is cold, in so many ways.

HOWEVER.

The good thing about it is that we have one last (I hope, please let it be the last) chance to read The Snowy Day, the very best book ever written about winter. Though we often associate winter with dead bleakness, Keats’s collage-style illustrations in The Snowy Day remind us that, in the white light reflecting off of soft new snow, colors can look their brightest. Its prose is gentle and calm, and our hero Peter is cute as a button, wandering around enjoying the simple pleasures of whacking piles of snow out of trees and admiring his own footprints.

Much has been made about Peter’s race since the book’s release more than 50 years ago, and it would be a mistake to think that it doesn’t matter just as much post-Trayvon Martin and Tamir Rice to read a book about a young black boy who is free to roam the street and delight in the snow and tell his mother about his adventures, just as he should be. Peter is granted innocence that black children in literature and elsewhere can’t always take for granted, and it’s lovely and soothes the soul.

But I’ve always appreciated the very last line in the book as well: “After breakfast he called to his friend from across the hall, and they went out together into the deep, deep snow” (emphasis mine).

Friends, there are not a lot of books about kids who live in apartments. Those that do, such as the kids in Judy Blume’s Fudge books, tend to live in the type of apartment with a doorman or in a city high-rise. But Peter lives where so, so many kids live: in a regular apartment building, in an ambiguously urban setting, the kind of place where you make friends with the kids across the hall. When you’re raising your kid in an apartment building like thissnowy-day-001.jpg and constantly reading books about suburban kids using their imaginations in their own backyards, or casually referring to talking to their dads “in the garage,” or getting a new dog, and so on, it can seem like the literary world thinks that a childhood can’t possibly be idyllic unless the child’s parents have a mortgage. When your kid and the kid in the unit next door have fun by bouncing their basketballs off the Dumpster in the parking lot, it can be discouraging.

In this, Peter can still mean a lot to a lot of kids, of a whole variety of races, who get to see their joys reflected in a story as they experience them for once.

And the snow as Peter sees it on his 1962 snowy day still has the power to change anybody’s attitude about winter, if only for a few minutes.