Messed-Up Things You Missed About Your Favorite Children’s Books
You can’t go home again, or at least not without noticing some offputting stuff you didn’t catch when you were a kid
I ’ve never been much of a re-reader. There are a few favorites that I’ve come back to here and there over the years, but it’s a rarity. When I got my first job out of college working for a major children’s book publisher in New York City, I found myself surrounded by familiar covers that jogged memories of long afternoons spent reading as a kid, but even then, there were few that I revisited. With a constantly growing TBR pile and limited hours and energy in the day, coming back to reads for a second time just never felt like a priority. Still, I reserved a special place in my heart for my old favorites, and I often found myself wishing for a reason to pick them up again.
When I came up with the concept for my podcast, I thought it would be a fun excuse to fall down the kid lit rabbit hole — not to mention an even better excuse to turn the acronym for a favorite elementary school pastime (SSR, also known as Silent Sustained Reading) into something racier (Sh*t She Read). Every week on The SSR Podcast, I chat with a guest about a throwback read from our middle or high school days.
I had no idea when I committed to revisiting all of these classics that my experiences with them today would be so different than the ones I had a decade or two ago. Here are seven messed-up things you probably missed about your favorite childhood reads.
1. Adults perpetually question the credibility of kid protagonists — especially little girls.
For middle grade readers, in particular, plots often hinge on an enduring tension between kid and adult characters over whether or not the former is telling the truth. Often, being a kid feels like a constant battle to win the trust and respect of parents and other key grown-ups, so tension like this is no doubt relatable for young readers. It’s also a great way for authors to raise the stakes in situations where child protagonists must make the challenging decision to circumvent the adults who doubt them. so they can right the wrongs and vanquish the evils that only they know about.
Maybe it’s the grown-up feminist in me talking, but as I’ve picked up on these patterns in so many of the middle grade books I’ve revisited lately — particularly with respect to young female protagonists — I can’t help but feel infuriated about the extent to which this lack of credibility has been made the status quo by classic titles. In Roald Dahl’s Matilda, the title character is told on multiple occasions that no one will believe her stories of abuse at home or at school. In The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, Lucy accepts the fact that no one will believe that she’s journeyed through an old armoire into a snowy wonderland. In Welcome to Dead House, the first book in R.L. Stine’s believed Goosebumps series, protagonist Amanda stops trying to warn her parents that there are ghosts haunting their new home (even as she collects additional proof!) because it’s just normal for them not to take her at her word.
In light of recent meta conversations about the importance of empowering young women to speak up in the face of abuse, it’s critical that future children’s books demonstrate examples of little girls who bravely share their stories (no matter how apparently unbelievable they might be) and are granted respect for doing so.
2. Many literary parents are shockingly irresponsible.
Often, it’s the sheer cluelessness of the adult figures in kid lit that allows the young narrators to step in, take matters into their own hands, and — in many cases — saves lives or the world. If literary moms and dads in books were as reliable as they’re expected to be in real life, reading-obsessed kiddos like me would have missed out on a lot of adult-free adventures and triumphs. It’s only when Mom and Dad are out of the way, for example, that Ella Enchanted’s Ella could go in search of the fairy that cursed her with unconditional obedience. Having been sent to boarding school so that her father can continue to ignore her after her mother’s death, our heroine sees the opportunity to make a break for it and go on her quest. Her father isn’t checking in on her, and she is accountable to no one. This seems pretty romantic when you’re a kid.
Now that I’m expected to behave like a responsible adult myself, though, it’s pretty stunning to consider just how irresponsible literary parents can be. Take Claudia and Jamie, for example, who disappear for days into big, bad New York City in From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. There is no subplot of their parents searching desperately for them or of a big rescue campaign. Instead, we’re left to assume that Mom and Dad are content to simply wait for their return… and that seems like a really bad idea.
3. There are a lot of double standards around meanness.
Children’s books are rife with schoolyard bullies and mean girls, most of which are obviously positioned as the villains that readers are intended to despise. We’re meant to cheer on the victims, to root for the underdogs, to hope that the characters who are so often on the receiving end of bullying might turn the tables and vanquish the mean kids.
But what happens when the bullied becomes the bully? In many of the middle grade titles that I’ve come back to recently, it seems that we are meant to endorse meanness on the part of protagonists, even when it seems senseless or is just as cruel as what’s coming from the antagonists. Why, for example, is it okay for Mia Thermopolis to spew judgmental mean girl rhetoric at the popular kids — or even at her best friend Lily, who she describes unflatteringly as looking “like a pug” — in The Princess Diaries? Why are we supposed to accept Harriet the Spy’s heinous writings — she notes certain characters she’d like to get hit by a car and taunts a classmate for her absent father — as her totally reasonable feelings? Just because a character has been positioned as “nice” shouldn’t give them permission to turn nasty. There has to be a better way!
4. Kid characters seem to know a lot about wills and estates.
This isn’t exactly messed up, but it’s ridiculous! I’ve never met a kid who was actively concerned with the post-mortem distribution of someone’s assets, but the world of kid lit might convince you that it’s a common stressor among youngsters. The plot of the first book in the Nancy Drew series, The Secret of the Old Clock, rests entirely on the premise that local eccentric Josiah Crowley’s assets have been divided improperly after his demise. Nancy spends the rest of the book fighting with the Topham family — who seem to have arbitrarily been made the villains — so they will give up the assets they’ve inherited from Crowley and give them to family members who Nancy deems more deserving. In hindsight, how bizarre is it that the intersection of death and money is at the heart of so many of these stories?
5. They feature language you’d probably prefer not to read out loud to your kid.
You need look no further than Little House on the Prairie for an example of a children’s book that’s full of language that’s potentially damaging or offensive to young readers. Laura’s observations about the Native tribes living on the land where she and her family have settled — shared with such novelty and fascination that you might think she was visiting a zoo — and her neighbor’s comment that “the only good Indian is a dead Indian” are extremely upsetting to 21st century readers brought up to value diversity, inclusion, and just generally not saying that whole populations of people would be better off dead.
Language like this is a product of the time in which books like Little House were written (1935, to be exact) — but how do we deal with language like this when making them available for kids to read today? As a big fan of the Little House series myself, I would never assert that we ban books like this because of these references, but I do think that parents and teachers must address them directly so they don’t seem acceptable to young readers who still have so much to learn about the world around them.
6. Girls have it way worse.
In Matilda, Matilda’s mother tells teacher Miss Honey that she best find herself a rich man who can take care of her. Matilda’s brother Michael is praised at every turn, while Matilda is constantly put down because of her interest in books and learning. Nancy Drew defers to her father at every turn and asks him to take the lead on big conversations related to her investigation, despite the fact that she’s supposed to be the detective. In Megan McCafferty’s 2001 YA novel Sloppy Firsts, narrator Jessica Darling gives the boys at school a free pass for sexual promiscuity while judging her female friends for doing the same.
The more books I revisit for the podcast, the more amazed I am by the extent to which double standards and power imbalances between men and women exist in so many of my childhood favorites. Am I looking for it? At this point, the answer is probably yes. But do I always find it? The answer is definitely yes — and without a lot of effort.
7. Looks are really important.
In the first sentence of The Secret of the Old Clock, we learn that Nancy Drew is “attractive.” Mia’s awkwardness and frizzy hair are much-discussed throughout The Princess Diaries. The four protagonists of The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants are pretty in different ways, but none of them are described as unattractive. In so many of my favorite children’s books, I see now that my ability to relate to characters or see them as “good” was often dependent on how pretty they were.
Yes, many adult books rely on physical description to an extent — but it tends to involve more detail and nuance, making it feel less like a straightforward commentary on what kind of person the character in question really is. Since a character’s personality traits tend to be developed and explored to a deeper level in books written for adults, appearance becomes just one more element of who they are. Titles written for kids are less likely to delve into complicated backstories and complex emotional examination, totally tipping the balance and putting a higher premium on the easier to handle superficial descriptors.
Even with all of these issues at play, I’ve been reminded over the last few months of just how magical some of the books from my childhood really are. As a 27-year-old, I’ve loved the experience of watching Kristy and her friends build a business in the first book of the Babysitters Club series, and of discovering the power of choice and agency alongside Ella Enchanted as she title character breaks the lifelong curse that forced her into unconditional obedience. While two additional decades of life lessons have made me much more painfully aware of the problems that are present in kid lit, they’ve also made me more appreciative of all that the category has to teach. Sharing these books with the next generation of readers, I think, is all about transparency and communication — being ready to explain the bad with the good, and explaining in no uncertain terms that adults do believe kids, for example, or that it’s never acceptable to make sweeping, dangerous judgments about groups of people. Nostalgia shouldn’t be a reason for us to ignore these problems… but it can definitely make it easier to forgive and move on as more discerning readers.