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)? Who 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. And 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.
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.