Saturday, March 4, 2017

"A Dangerous Book"

The image of the great, tall tailor stepping out of the shadows with shears in hand preparing to cut the thumbs off naughty, little Conrad is darkly intoxicating.

German cautionary tales, such as those represented in Struwwelpeter, provide a powerful commentary when viewed through a sociocultural lens.

Once upon a time children were not considered the precious little gems they are today.  In fact, the fairy tales collected and published by the Brothers Grimm were originally targeted for an adult audience.  The old stories kept things interesting back in the days when families and friends gathered around the hearth to entertain and pass the shadowy hours before retiring into slumber.

Hansel and Gretel 
The settings (an ominous forest), characters (mysterious witches) and storylines (struggles to feed and maintain a family) are familiar aspects of the most enduring stories (Hansel & Gretel, Little Red Riding Hood).

They were also reflective of the times.  The mortality rate for urban children under age five was as high as 66 percent in the late 1600s, it was not uncommon for women to die in childbirth, forests were dangerous and the majority of the population believed in - and feared - witches.

I've embarked upon an exploration of the history of these beloved childhood stories by Charles Perrault (Mother Goose), The Grimm Brothers, Hans Christian Anderson, Marie-Catherine d'Aulnoy and others for a university course I am teaching on Children's Literature.

As I learn more about the beauty and horror in bedtime stories I am grateful I dwell in a professional landscape that allows for research rooted in theory and research based on practical implementation.

I became curious about how children today would react to the darkest of the dark.  They were already fascinated with The Legend of Sleepy Hollow so would they embrace The Story of Little Suck-A-Thumb? Would it be too much?

If you are unfamiliar, check out this video.

I began by acting out the story embodying the great tall tailor who "always comes to little boys that suck their thumbs".  The children giggled and called for more.  That afternoon - and for many days since - they've reenacted the story on the playground.  They also silently ask to read the book during free time by holding up their thumbs and pretending to snip it off.  They even drew pictures.

The Story of Little Suck-A-Thumb

In the end, I suppose children today are undeterred by the warnings presented in Struwwelpeter to be "good at meal-times, good at play, good all night and good all day" or else a terrible fate awaits. thoughtful first grader did quietly comment as he handed the book back to me, "This is a dangerous book".



TJ Davis said...

I was different. Maybe we're all different somehow. The Star Belly Sneetches was a profound delight for me. You list recommended children's books. I thought you might consider any number of great works by the unequalled Dr. Seuss for a future list.
I enjoy your blog, thanks for the hard work.



"The Sneetches"

The first story in the collection tells of a group of yellow creatures called Sneetches, some of whom have a green star on their bellies. At the beginning of the story, Sneetches with stars discriminate against and shun those without. An entrepreneur named Sylvester McMonkey McBean (calling himself the Fix-It-Up Chappie) appears and offers the Sneetches without stars the chance to get them with his Star-On machine, for three dollars. The treatment is instantly popular, but this upsets the original star-bellied Sneetches, as they are in danger of losing their special status. McBean then tells them about his Star-Off machine, costing ten dollars, and the Sneetches who originally had stars happily pay the money to have them removed in order to remain special. However, McBean does not share the prejudices of the Sneetches, and allows the recently starred Sneetches through this machine as well. Ultimately this escalates, with the Sneetches running from one machine to the next….

"...until neither the Plain nor the Star-Bellies knew
whether this one was that one... or that one was this one...
or which one was what one... or what one was who."

This continues until the Sneetches are penniless and McBean departs as a rich man, amused by their folly. Despite his assertion that "you can't teach a Sneetch", the Sneetches learn from this experience that neither plain-belly nor star-belly Sneetches are superior, and they are able to get along and become friends.

"The Sneetches" was intended by Seuss as a satire of discrimination between races and cultures, and was specifically inspired by his opposition to antisemitism.[4]

Gary said...

Hi Tom - When I first started teaching I had a difficult time interpreting Dr. Suess into American Sign Language because of the rhyme and invented, clever words unique to his work. I've since figured it out - somewhat. I like The Sneetches but am partial to The Lorax. They both have wonderful messages.

Thanks for stopping by the blog and for commenting.


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