Most people have books from childhood they think every child should have, and many of us, in adulthood, proceed to inflict them on the children in our lives. For me, I have three such books, the book of nursery rhymes, verse, and fairy tale collections published by Brimax in the 70’s and which have been out of print for ages. I still have my copies from childhood, and when the opportunity came for me to exercise my rights as an insufferable adult and foist them on my oldest nibbling, I dug up copies off the used book market rather than part with my own. After all, I want my nibblings to have access to the same gorgeous, corrupting influences that have stayed with me since childhood, but not if it inconveniences me.
I didn’t fork them over all at once since I’m engaged in a years long campaign to be the coolest aunt ever, which means delivering presents at times when they’ll be appreciated and remembered. The final, crowning jewel of the trifecta was delivered last Christmas. My sister is a great ally in my cool-aunt-campaign, so the last time I visited, she teamed up with me to suggest that maybe that night’s bed time story ought to be one from that really great book he got at Christmas and immediately forgot about.
Let’s pause a moment to get to know the nibbling in question. His mind is wired lawful-good in a way I find utterly, gobsmackingly unfathomable. If you strike a bargain with this kid, he expects the terms of the bargain to be fulfilled with a conviction that only comes from somebody who has never had a deal broken. He’s rigorous about please and thank you, not because he understands courtesy, but because he’s internalized them as a ritual that powers the functioning of the universe. (To be fair, that’s not actually far off from what courtesy is.) He does his assigned tasks thoroughly and completely because after, he gets screen time, and if he applies enough please and thank you, he might lubricate the machinery of the universe enough to get extra screen time. He believes his aunt turns into a dragon and eats little boys if you wake her up in the morning because she told him that was true and he has no notion that an adult might lie to him. (In my defense, it’s not a lie. It’s just a non-literal truth.) He knows he doesn’t have all the rules and formulae for the universe worked out, but he’s confident they’re all known and rigorously effective.
Meanwhile, at his age, when I asked, “What does cynical mean?” I was answered with, “Your attitude.” One of my first report cards called me out for, perhaps, being too sarcastic. My nibbling and I are not even a tiny bit the same kind of person.
I noticed the difference. I stared in shock as it was clearly and blatantly demonstrated time and time again. Then, when bedtime arrived, I applied absolutely nothing from these observations.
“Let’s read Snow White and Rose Red,” I said. “It was my favorite when I was a kid.”
“Mine too!” my sister says.
There we go. What paladin-in-training toddler is going to refuse a pitch like that? (Me. I would have refused on principle the moment I figured out I was being set up.) So we settle down in bed and open up the book and I put on my best cool-Aunt-reading performance and…well.
If you’re not familiar, Snow White and Rose Red is the story of two sisters who live in the woods with their mom. There’s no jealousy or backstabbing here. They’re just hanging out in the woods, having happy independent lives, chilling with their two rose trees outside the door. (One’s white, one’s red. It’s idyllic.) One winter evening a bear knocks on the door, and though the girls freak out for a minute, mom is basically, “He knocked. He’s not going to knock if he’s a problem. Yo Bear, come on in and don’t mess up the carpet.” So they hang out all winter and have a grand old time romping in front of the fire and that’s definitely not a euphemism for anything because mom was right there the whole time. Winter ends, summer comes, and the bear takes his leave to go protect his treasure now that it’s not covered in ice anymore. (Moral of the story right here: You could have nice things, but summer.)
So far, so good. Sort of. The nibbling was freaked out by the idea that a bear would randomly burst into your door after somebody knocked, but settled down when it turned out to be okay. The thematic consistency of, “The bear was courteous, therefore we knew he was good,” was lost on him, but he’s four. We can hold off on discussions of the mechanized underpinnings of fairy tale morality and ritualized underpinnings of contractual hospitality until he’s more mature. Like, say, when he’s six.
The story continues. While out and about in the woods, gathering berries and whatnot like idyllic sisters with favorite rose trees do, they encounter a dwarf with his beard stuck in a log. After other attempts at extrication fail, they snip off the end of his beard and set him free. At which point the dwarf completely freaks out and starts yelling at them for mangling his beard.
Paladin-nibbling was not having it. “Why is he mean?” he asks, clearly distressed and horrified at this reaction.
You can’t say, “Because he’s a dwarf.” It’s a lazy explanation that attributes a voluntary choice to an intrinsic quality of the individual. Also, it reinforces problematic understandings of fairy tale tropes. There was a brief second where my nibbling, and his mother, almost got a detailed explanation of the shared motif-space across collected fairy tales and how they often reflect the biases of the recorders more than the cultural sentiments distributed across the oral corpus. However, I do have some marginal ability to read my audience. Instead I opted for, “Because he’s a bad dwarf.” (Come back next week for ‘Enlightened parenting 101’.)
This did not satisfy, but we continued the story. When it all happened again, this time with a fishing line and impending threat of death-by-fish for the dwarf, the nibbling is plainly alarmed. Then, the third time, right as the dwarf really leans into his rant about stupid girls vandalizing his facial hair, a bear appears and kills him.
Now, come on. How many times have you stood in front of a childish temper tantrum over how you saved somebody’s bacon and they don’t like how, just wishing a bear would appear and put an end to the nonsense? Hundreds of times? I bet it’s hundreds. This story is amazing.
The bear is, of course, THE bear, and he is, of course, actually a prince under a spell that has now been broken. He’s all, “Hey, so, elder sister, wanna go back to my kingdom and continue the fun times we had all winter, except in the lap of luxury where there are no rude dwarves? I’ve got a top notch brother, so you and your sister can still share everything.”
She’s all, “Sure, so long as we can bring mom and those rose trees,” and if they haven’t yet died then they’re living there still.
It had been years since I’d read the story, and I’d never really thought about how delightfully on-the-nose it is that my sister and I both latched onto the story about really functional sisters who have a thing for bears and rose trees. (Okay, maybe only one of us is actually into bears…) In that moment, though, I’m full of awareness of how very great this story is, and what fantastic, enlightening experience we’re enabling for the next generation by sharing it.
How did the youth member of the audience feel? “I didn’t like that story.”
Even the next day, the kid was still distressed by the dwarf’s behavior. The fact that the situation was resolved by killing somebody is super not helping. Everything that is good and wonderful about this story exists entirely because it’s in contrast with or in response to elements of the universe this kid has no concept of. He can’t take joy in the correction of injustice because he’s fresh to the idea of injustice in the first place.
This is a fascinating window into a world view I have absolutely no personal experience with. This kid is in daycare, so I really, really don’t understand how his internal reality is robust in the face of daily life. Hey, good job raising a tiny idealist, baby sis.
The next night we tried a different story. One his mom suggested, because she thinks he’d like it more. He’s really into animals, you see.
Pro tip for folks angling to be the world’s coolest aunt: Don’t read your paladin-in-training nibblings The Ugly Duckling.