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I could not, would not like this book

Posted: Tuesday, May 09, 2000

Once upon a time, as they say in children's books, I was assigned to write a piece on the burgeoning popularity of Dr. Seuss. As a young reporter, I penned - or rather typed - words destined to live long after the newspaper had yellowed and crumbled into oblivion.

The only writers who are comfortable quoting themselves are pundits willing to call themselves pundits, but allow me to make an exception. My 24-year-old self described Dr. Seuss' ``Cat in the Hat'' as ``a volume of absurdity that worked like a karate chop on the weary little world of Dick, Jane and Spot.''

These words won me a place on that museum wall of blurb immortality: the book jacket of various ``Cats in the Hats,'' ``Green Eggs and Ham,'' etc. This blurb became my claim to fame among the younger generation.

Several flights of young friends who were absolutely unimpressed by op-ed columns were struck to see my words on their book jackets. ``Aunt Ellen, is this you?'' they would say, eyes widening as if I were Michael Jordan. ``Yes, Julie, Maggie, Laura, Matthew,'' I would answer, humbly averting my eyes. They would then utter some version of ``WOW!''

But there is, as they say, no free blurb. Lo these many years later, I discovered these very same words ringing on the back of a Beginner Book that was not written by Dr. Seuss. Indeed a children's book that I could not, would not, should not endorse. A story I do not like with or without green eggs and ham.

I know. I know. People who complain about blurb abuse are generally shrieking against the wind. The average movie critic who writes ``I just love trashing this movie'' will find his or her words magically translated into ``I just love . . . this movie.'' Beware the ellipsis.

But this book, ``Honey Bunny, Funnybunny'' tells a tale in which an older brother bunny, P.J., is mercilessly teasing Honey Bunny - dumping carrots on her head, hiding her security blanket in the refrigerator and painting her face green - until their parents intervene.

So, the unrepentant brother goes from teasing to giving her the deep freeze, ignoring her altogether. ``P.J. doesn't love me anymore!'' she finally cries to her mother. And she is only reassured that he does so love her, when - guess what? - he starts teasing her again. This time, he paints her face with polka dots.

I swear to you, I don't take bunnies or Beginner Books all that seriously. But these bunnies deserve that karate chop.

This not-so-honey of a book is a preschool training manual in the worst of male-female relationships. With a 200-word vocabulary you can learn an entire primer in culture.

Our little sister learns her lesson: that the wrong kind of attention is better than no attention. That you can either be abused or neglected. That painting your face with polka dots - or black and blue eyes - is a sign of affection.

The brother learns that withholding love makes you the winner. Love means you never have to say you're sorry.

If you want to see how that lesson plays out, check out your neighborhood schoolyard. Or shelter. As A. Patricia Carroll, the former nursery schoolteacher and grandmother who brought this blurbed book to my attention writes, ``What are the lessons here for a young child? Boys are supposed to tease and then abuse girls. Girls are supposed to look upon abuse as an indication of love.''

I took my plea to Random House's Alice Jonaitis, line manager for Beginner Books. Ms. Jonaitis gingerly acknowledged that ``we have received a certain amount of concerned letters suggesting that it encourages loving your abuser.'' As a younger sister - or perhaps as an editor - she said ``I have older brothers that teased me that I loved very much. It reminded me of my love for them.''

Well, one editor's ``teasing'' is this reader's meanness.

Would you, could you, should you, I asked Ms. Jonaitis, take my seal of approval off a story that rushes to its climax as the teasee hugs the teaser in gratitude for his ``sign of affection''? I did exact a promise to de-blurb that book at the end of this print run.

Thus, my claim to fame is about to expire. But Honey Bunny is slated to go on teaching another generation how to read the worst of social messages. So much, alas, for happy endings.

Ellen Goodman is a columnist for the Boston Globe.



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