Mature Themes

J and I happened upon Shel Silverstein’s The Missing Piece at the library the other day, which I’d never read. Cracking it open with her felt like a bit of a crapshoot: would we get zany comedy (Where The Sidewalk Ends) or a disturbing, pseudo-love story (The Giving Tree)? Tree_stump1_30u06Who knew?? But reading is a tantalizing risk I love watching my kids take: at the library, unlike any other place we ever go, they get to pick whatever and however much they want and take it home with them. It’s a thrill for all of us–and recently, I was delighted to hear of research from education scholars Jeffrey Wilhelm and Michael Smith that shows what an edifying thrill this kind of unbridled pleasure-reading can be. So: we gave The Missing Piece a shot. It’s a fable–stylistically similar to The Giving Tree and only slightly less unsettling in what it suggests about love and heterosexual gender relations. If you read the rolling “circle guy,” as J dubbed him, as a hetero guy, then what you get is a dude who dabbles in serial monogamy, then ultimately rejects the idea altogether because it’s incompatible with his roving, rambling lifestyle and his overwhelming need to express himself. Circle Guy looks like a pie with a missing slice, and he’s searching for a sharp, slender little piece to complete him–someone who, in doing so, becomes indistinguishable from the whole they become together, or, in one particularly disturbing image, ends up shattered beneath the weight of Circle Guy’s crushing affection.

The Missing Piece does offer a few nods toward healthier relationships: one piece rejects Circle Guy because she wants to be her own piece, and the piece with whom he has the most successful relationship asserts that she “can be someone’s and still be my own.” The Missing Piece isn’t quite as bad as The Giving Tree, but both deliver the same dismal message about love: it  depletes and diminishes you, stealing what’s essential, whether it’s your limbs or your voice. The boy and the apple tree in The Giving Tree live by this model, and though Circle Guy opts out of it, both texts are fables bearing a message about how things are–for adults. These are the sorts of fables that annoy me when it becomes clear to me that I’m reading such a book to my kids. I am not at all against fables in a general sense: I relish reading my children versions of The Boy Who Cried Wolf, for example, because both E and J are such lusty criers of wolf about illness and injury: the message here is one they’re actively trying to understand and internalize in their everyday lives. The_Boy_Who_Cried_Wolf_-_Project_Gutenberg_etext_19994And I’m not opposed to reading with my kids about unsolved problems or complicated ideas that still stymie adults: among my favorites to read with them are Tony Millionaire’s Uncle Gabby and Lynda Barry’s Picture This, both amazing comics/graphic novel hybrids and both about what it means to represent the world around you, in words or images or both. This is common ground for my kids and I, and I like to read with them about what treading it feels like. When I’m struggling to compose just the right final sentence, I think of J and her frustrated tears when she can’t get the weirdly bony head of the Pokemon character she’s drawing to look exactly like the image she’s haltingly copying from my phone, and when I feel the nagging pull of revisions to be made and new ideas to be jotted down, I think of the delighted hours E spent composing, revising, and illustrating his “how-to” book about how to draw a Furby. We are all driven to try and capture these bits of our world that strike us, that we can’t stop talking about–whether it’s books or Pokemon or Furbies.

Maybe the problem with The Missing Piece and its ilk is the lack of common ground: the territory of the story’s big ideas is foreign to children. It’s a fable about an angsty adult concern, not a lesson that kids are trying to learn or a problem they’re discovering. Depending on your perspective, the “moral” of The Missing Piece is either a charming version of bumper stickers about how not all who wander are lost, or an ultimately sexist assertion of what a drag it is to be attached when what really matters is the sound of your own voice: at the end of it all, Circle Guy learns that he was much happier while he was searching for his piece than he was after he’d actually found her, mostly because he can no longer sing with his mouth full of his missing piece. I have to admit: the more I write and think about this book, the worse it seems. Circle Guy is like a cheery, singing version of the tortured male artist who lives for his genius alone, unable to nurture anything but his own creative spark. But he still wants a piece.

The book’s other message, about what the book jacket calls “the nature of quest and fulfillment,” is far more palatable, even appealing, to me–but it’s still a message for me, not my kids.  Appreciating the present moment, valuing the quest rather than the end goal, privileging process over product: these are ideas that I consciously try and fail and try again to embrace. I struggle against these ideas when I feel the occasional, sudden urge to sign E and J up for some new activity, some new intellectual pursuit– “the one,” perhaps, that will complete them, and make them rich enough someday to let their preferences run wild in places far more expensive than the library. I struggle against them when I insist that J pry her little eyes away from the anthill she’s watching, or when I invert the tired cliche about stopping to smell the roses by insisting that she actually stop smelling a flower, so that we can arrive, at some point, at whatever destination we’re heading for. But these struggles to get there, to find it, to reach the end–these are my struggles, not my kids’. My kids don’t need to learn how to slow down and appreciate the journey, and, thankfully, they aren’t currently looking for anyone to complete them.

Stopping to sketch the flowers.

Their interests aren’t dormant, waiting to be woken up and nurtured by the perfect summer camp, and these interests are hardly docile enough to be easily corralled onto a well-marked path toward “success.” They unfold with a roving promiscuity that defies the interventions of me or any fable I might read to them. When E spends hours making cubes and cats and fortune tellers and ninja stars out of paper, intricately decorated, or when J proudly shows off her calluses from swinging herself across the monkey bars, I delight in seeing this physical evidence of time well spent, material yet poignantly ephemeral: paper cats get recycled or left out in the rain, and calluses will disappear in the face of kindergarten’s looming letters and numbers.

Reading fables to kids that warn them about adult problems feels a little like Sesame Street gone wrong: there’s something for adults and something for kids, but what really drives the story is for the adults, and none of it is very funny for anyone. J did laugh at the end of The Missing Piece, but it was the same laugh I’ve heard at other times when her relentless, sunny exuberance confronts the absurd and the puzzling. What is with this strange Circle Guy, her bubbly giggle and scrunched up eyes seemed to say. If I were to put my adult words into her  laughing little mouth to explain her puzzlement, I would have her ask: how could anyone be such a stranger to their own desire? Who would roll over the same mistaken-ridden territory again and again, only to return to where he began and begin again? I’ll tell you who, J: adults. Not you–at least, not yet.

Sunny exuberance.

Dead Bugs


Maria Sibylla Merian, Illuminated Copper Engraving from Metamorphosis insectorum Surinamensium, Plate XLVIII. 1705.

When E was a toddler, I held my breath and shielded his eyes from any hint of death that slunk into our lives. If I saw a dead bird or squirrel on the sidewalk, I crossed the street immediately, shoving the stroller onto the grassy extension and down the curb.  I glossed over it in the few books we had that mentioned it, surreptitiously gathering the pages where I knew it lived between the fingers of my right hand as I turned the page. Then one afternoon E turned his silent attention toward a motionless fly on the bathroom floor, and I thought: this is it. We stared at the fly together in the dim bathroom, just barely illuminated by the weak sunlight on the tile. E asked why it wasn’t moving, and I told him that I thought it was dead. “Dead?” he questioned–and I explained that his little fly body had stopped working and would never work again. But I was wrong: the fly buzzed suddenly and flew away, saving me from further explanation.

The first literary mention of death that I didn’t gloss over when reading to E was in William Joyce’s The Leaf Men, a book about an ailing grandmother and her beloved garden, both of whom escape death with the help of a brave troop of “doodle bugs,” better known in our house as roly-polies, bugs that delight J and that have been the first dead things that she’s ever seen. Joyce’s book is about littleness in the face of death: the doodle bugs, “tiny of body, but brave of heart,” and the Long-Lost Toy, a “little metal man,” fight against the grandmother’s demise and the murderous intentions of the Spider Queen. The doodle bugs succeed in summoning the Leaf Men, those “gardeners of a grand and elfin sort,” who restore the garden and return the Long-Lost Toy to the grandmother, who wakes, herself restored, the next morning. But just before the Leaf Men arrive, the evil Spider Queen attacks the roly-polies. She is quickly dispatched by the Leaf Men, “shot…through the heart” with an arrow made of thistle. It is a startlingly violent moment in a book that’s otherwise quite gentle–and it was the first death that E heard me read out loud.

Bugs have given my kids–and many other kids, I’d guess–their first glimpses of death. And though the insect murder in The Leaf Men is stark, its satisfying violence replaces the far more expected and terrible death that the book stops short of depicting: that of the grandmother. The Spider Queen is the worst kind of death personified: unmoved by faith, goodness, or logic, and selfishly ravenous. She “sneers” that “The Leaf Men are not real,” and she kills both for sport and satiety: just before her murder, the narrator remarks that  “doodle bug bowling was just what the Spider Queen hungered for.” No explanation is given for her hatred of the Long-Lost Toy or the doodle bugs; she kills without rhyme or reason. Reading the scene of this malevolent arachnid’s murder to E felt acceptable, even necessary. Maybe speaking the words felt like vanquishing the version of death that I feared would grow ever more monstrous in his imagination, each time he encountered a dead fly, or squirrel, or bird, or–one day–a dead person he loved. I love The Leaf Men because it saved us both from the literary experience of such a death: the grandmother’s survival at the end of the book, like our fly’s bathroom floor resurrection, was a huge relief. But I love the book more because the experience of real death isn’t wholly absent from its pages. The grandmother is old, and frail, and if E read this book now, I’m sure he would predict her death, just as I did when I first read it. The grandmother may be saved by utterly fantastic means, but the possibility of her death is nevertheless faced, and it’s faced by the smallest of the small–by those who seem, as E once did to me, as though they’d be the least likely to comprehend the awfulness of death. The doodle bugs, encouraged by the Long-Lost Toy, believe that the Leaf Men will save their beloved garden and its gardener, just as so many of us believe our beloved dead will be saved, somehow, by a being hardly less fantastic than the Leaf Men. The roly-polies have faith, and it gives them strength.

Yet the grandmother is also saved by the Long-Lost Toy: delivering him into the grandmother’s sleeping hand is the final act of the Leaf Men. “My little metal man!” she exclaims upon waking, “I’d almost forgotten you!” But she remembers him, as a gift from her father to “watch over” her, and she heals. The Long-Lost Toy is a material token of the old lady’s past, and most especially, of a person who loved her deeply and died. He carries a valuable memory when its owner loses sight of it, temporarily, and he inspires others to have faith, to act, to save.

The Long-Lost Toy is a little metal sign of all the memories that get lodged in the cracks of our lives after the people and things they signify are gone, and of how wonderfully overwhelming these memories can be when something shakes them loose. We have a dear neighbor who has known our children since we moved to this neighborhood, when I was pregnant with J, and now he is dying. A list of every whimsical trinket he’s ever given my children would fill many pages. I could never remember each one, but I count on their hidden existence in our home, ready to jog the memory in E’s mind of looking out our front window some Saturday morning and seeing a surprise batch of garage sale toys waiting for him and J on the porch, carefully chosen by our neighbor, with their distinct interests and preferences in mind.

J’s Golden Scissors: whimsical trinket extraordinaire 

I count on these objects, because E wants nothing to do with processing this real life death right now: when we told him what was going on, finally, he immediately started waving his hands and said “Stop! Stop telling me about this! I don’t want to talk about this anymore! I don’t want to think about it anymore!” J asked if we would still be able to visit his house after he was gone, her thoughts already searching, perhaps, in the most likely place for traces of the man whose rambling stories lulled her to sleep when she was an infant and who delighted in hoisting her up onto a cinder block to show her the colonies of roly-polies wriggling around in his massive compost bins.

When I read to E about the Spider Queen’s death, he was probably not much more than two. Since then he’s heard about many literary deaths, and seen countless dead bugs, birds, and squirrels. Most recently, we read together about the death of Jack, the beloved brindled bulldog who trots faithfully beneath the Ingalls family wagon across the prairies of the Little House series. In the opening chapters of the fourth book, By The Shores of Silver Lake, Jack dies, and in doing so, becomes the book’s first and saddest symbol of its pervasive motif: growing up means inevitable loss. Jack is everything the Spider Queen is not: utterly faithful, loving, and innocent, and the chapter that details his death is as detailed and anguished as the scene of the Spider Queen’s death is spare and satisfying. Wilder’s narrator dwells on the signs of physical pain and age that Laura sees in Jack’s body, and on the regrets she feels about neglecting him in the last few years of his life. The discovery of his stiff body, his burial, and the emptiness Laura feels after he is really gone–E and I were spared none of these things as we read. I marveled at each grim new detail, surprised but grateful to find such sadness frankly described: E would watch his Laura bear this sadness, and survive. We read this chapter during our usual reading time before school, after everyone is dressed, lunches are packed, and it’s only us, waiting to walk to school. On this morning, after the initial flurry of shoe-putting-on and last minute additions to his backpack, he stopped just before the door, his eyes cast down and his delicate fingers picking at the fabric of the sofa. I asked him what was wrong, though I knew, and he said, “Jack.”

“I know.” I said. “It’s really sad.” He agreed, and we walked out the door together and into the sunshine.

Bug observers.