Journal: News & Comment

Saturday, August 31, 2002
# 4:30:00 PM:

Frighteningly positive

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Fairy tales and nursey rhymes often have a dark edge, which, together with elegant wording, is usually what gives them their power and longevity. Now imagine this:

Hey, diddle, diddle,
The cat and the fiddle,
The cow jumped over the moon;
The little dog laughed
To see such a sport,
And the dish said, "We'll all do it soon."

or, more poignantly:

Little Miss Muffit sat on a tuffet,
Eating her curds and whey;
Along came a spider, who sat down beside her,
And brightened Miss Muffit's whole day.

or this:

Rock-a-bye, baby, on the tree top;
When the wind blows, the cradle will rock;
Birdies and squirrels will be at play,
And you can watch them
All through the day.

You don't have to imagine it. There's a whole book full of such creepily diluted nursery rhymes. It's called Positively Mother Goose, and it gives me the willies. My wife and kids found it by accident at the library, to which it had been donated by some smart family who didn't want it anywhere in their home.

The illustrations are pleasant, and the title gives little indication of what's inside. The jacket says that it "offers a refreshing new version of the traditional rhymes, promoting the values of self-esteem, conflict resolution, lifelong learning, and innovative thinking." (Buzzword alert!) Apparently, the "positive" new rhymes are "designed to honor what is valuable from the past while gently guiding us into the future." And the original rhymes (the "negative" ones, I guess) appear inside the covers for reference.

The back flap hints at the real story: "When [young co-author] Julia heard the line 'And down will come baby, cradle, and all,' her body stiffened, and she asked her mother to help pick up the crying child. [Her mother] Diane quickly got some white-out [my emphasis], and she and Julia wrote a new and positive Rock-a-Bye Baby. [Co-author Karen Kolberg] was fascinated by the cow who jumped over the moon. On the other hand, she was upset and scared by the dish that ran away with the spoon. Were they unhappy or afraid?"

Upset and scared by Hey Diddle-Diddle? I am a pretty lefty-leaning, love-is-good, save-the-world guy, but I find the book repellent, largely because its attempts at "positivizing" are so clumsy and didactic. I guess the authors don't want kids knowing that fear is normal and okay, or asking any questions about life. ("Why did the dish and spoon run away?" has all sorts of potentially interesting answers, in my mind.) The third co-author, Diane Loomans, is also the author of The Lovables in the Kingdom of Self-Esteem.

I am not making any of this up.


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