Tag Archives: books

Children’s lit as source for intuitions about animals?

People have wildly different intuitions about what kind of lives wild animals have and whether their lives contain more enjoyment or suffering.

I suspect that opinions about this vary a lot by how you view nature. Before the Romantic era, nature/wilderness was not seen as a charming place. Nature was what made you die of exposure or starvation.

I don’t know what people in a pre-industrial society would say if you ask what kind of life a mouse has. Maybe they’d think the question too silly to answer. But I suspect they wouldn’t have the intuition I had for most of my life, that being an animal would be kind of charming and fun.

Some of this is being raised in the era of the environmentalist movement, with its emphasis on the beauty and wonder of nature and the importance of preserving habitats so that wild animals can do their thing.

But In raising kids, I keep noticing another influence: almost all the depictions of animals they see are cute anthropomorphized ones.  There are old Aesop-type animal stories with anthropomorphized animals that talk to each other, but the genre really expanded in the 20th century, starting with Beatrix Potter’s 1902 The Tale of Peter Rabbit. The illustrations make the depictions especially salient.

(There’s a whole other topic of how farms and farm animals are depicted  which is only on old-fashioned non-industrial farms run by the like of Old MacDonald — but I’ll stick to wild animals here.)

In many books the animals are just stand-ins for humans: think Goodnight Moon or The Berenstain Bears where the characters live in houses and go to school. But even the ones where animals do animal activities leave out most of the things that might be unpleasant for actual animals, like starvation or being eaten. The Very Hungry Caterpillar‘s only problem is a stomachache after eating too many pickles and cupcakes.

Another factor is that children’s books are designed to be read at bedtime, so a large portion of them end with the characters going happily to sleep. My favorite cozification of animals is Ashley Wolf’s illustration of the Raffi song “Baby Beluga”, where the (fish-eating) whales snuggle fish as we read

When it’s dark, you’re home and fed
Curl up snug in your water bed.

So naturally kids conclude that wild animals have charming, pleasant lives.

These animals aren’t living in a dirty hole getting rained on without enough to eat; they’re nice middle-class animals. And we definitely don’t talk about r-selection.

Beatrix Potter, The Tale of Two Bad Mice


Lightsabers and cinder-maids

I’ve been enjoying Peggy Orenstein’s book Cinderella Ate My Daughter.  But she does get alarmist at times, as in this take on 1980s television:

In surveys of parents and teachers across the country, Levin found that, rather than engaging in creative play, children began imitating what they saw onscreen, reenacting rote scripts with licensed products. Whether in Portland, Maine, or Portland, Oregon, their play became homogenized. Nor was there evidence that their stories were evolving, that they were making the kind of inner meaning out of their dramas that would provide psychological resolution, as they once had. . . . As for guns that are not “really” guns, Levin told me, “We’re fooling ourselves if we think those are better. When you give kids a light saber, you know exactly what they are going to do with it, and every kid who has one will do the exact same thing. There is no creativity there.”


I remember playing with a friend after he got seriously into Nintendo games. Around age nine, I saw him and feared he had become boring, gotten sucked into a screen. But when we ran around on the playground, his games were both imaginative and Nintendo-themed. He assigned us all different colors of Yoshis to be, and we ran around dodging imaginary mushrooms and jets of flame. I was relieved that he was still the same person.

And lightsabers? At the peak of our Star Wars stage, my best friend and I staged lightsaber battles with yardsticks. We were doing what children have done for centuries: playing with toy swords. The fact that Lucasfilm got us interested in it doesn’t change that.

I don’t think my children will become more violent people for playing with “war toys.” (Once again, I like Teacher Tom’s take on this.)  And I don’t think getting interested in a setting, whether it’s Greek myth or Mario Brothers, is likely to make them less imaginative.

I guess I do see an argument for non-specific toys. A yardstick can be lots of things, but a plastic lightsaber is pretty much always a lightsaber.

Orenstein also gets into the quagmire of whether to expose children to fairy tales, and if so, which ones.  I was raised loving Grimms’ and Andersen’s tales, which my parents read to us nightly, and the Disney movies, which we mostly watched at the neighbor’s house. My Cinderella play involved both carrying tea sets like the Disney one, and sitting in the fireplace, like the German one.  (I was deeply upset when my parents varnished our slate hearth, since the shiny new surface didn’t give me the feeling of sitting among the cinders.)  I was as familiar with Ariel’s happy ending as with the little sea-maid who “looked towards the east for the first blush of morning, for that first ray of dawn that would bring her death.”

And I’m pretty sure I came out okay.

Book recommendations in jail

Most of the inmates at the jail can visit the library occasionally, but the ones on certain units can’t go.  So they rely on staff, including me, to supply them with books.  Everything I do as a mental health clinician is supposed to have a clinical purpose – any reading material is supposed to be chosen to help clients cope with stress, etc., and not just for entertainment. But I do it more because I can’t help myself, because I can’t imagine being locked up and having nothing to read.

Currently there’s a something of a racket in Hunger Games books going on. One of my clients has read the first book and got the third from the library, and now he’s holding the third one captive until he can read the second book. Another client told me she read the second book, so I found out who she lent it to and got the second woman to promise to give it to me when she’s done. (She’s likely to help me out because I’ve been keeping her supplied with Twilight novels for a month now.)  Then my first guy can read the second book and the third, and when he’s done I can get the third book to the two women. I will feel so accomplished if this plan works.

I have a client who asks for classics, saying she doesn’t want her brain to rot when she’s in solitary confinement.    Recently I got her Edith Wharton’s 1905 House of Mirth, telling her it’s about a woman who realizes she needs money, so she decides to marry a rich man but has all kinds of problems with relationships and money and ends up with a bad reputation and a drug problem. My client laughed and said she looked forward to reading it, because it sounded exactly like her.

I once came onto a unit bearing a few copies from the Chicken Soup for the Soul series to add to the unit bookshelf. A woman spotted them from across the room and exclaimed, “Oooh, those books are like crack!”  And she would know.

My selections aren’t always so successful.  I brought some Edith Wharton to a man who had begged me for novels and poetry.  He slid it back under the door of his solitary cell with disdain, saying he was only willing to read British literature because he finds American authors have “a dearth of poetic language.”   Never mind that it meant another week with no new books until my next visit.  His standards were firm.

We have a copy of Les Misérables in the mental health office that nobody is brave enough to bring to a client. In its favor, it has lots of characters the clients would love – a good-hearted prostitute who’s down on her luck, an ex-con who tries to do the right thing but keeps getting caught up by a vindictive cop. But it gets passed over due to the huge size and intimidating prose.

Not all the inmates are put off by big books, though. One of my clients is currently enthused about a history book (I suspect it’s Howard Zinn’s People’s History of the United States) that he found being used as a doorstop on his unit.

Another man told me he’d never had time to read much Dickens before.  “I can’t believe how funny it is!”

There’s a lot of demand for dictionaries. Some people use them to check, when they’re using big words in their raps and love letters, that they’re using them correctly. But it took me a year to realize that much of the demand is because some of the illiterate inmates believe they can learn to read and write from a dictionary. There are a few books intended for speakers of other languages, but not much for native English speakers who never actually became literate.

Parenting books are also in high demand. Most parents learn as they go and see their child develop, but a lot of the clients haven’t had custody of their children in a while – it’s hard to jump to parenting a 4-year-old when you basically haven’t seen her since she was 2.

One of my coworkers had a client ask her for a copy of “Men’s Health” magazine. She couldn’t find one, but brought him “Positive” magazine instead, which had some healthy-looking men on the cover. Afterwards he told her kindly that he was able to get the magazine into the trash without anyone noticing, and to please not bring him no AIDS magazines next time. Another coworker had a similar experience with a randomly-chosen novel that turned out to be about gay men. Now we’re careful to evaluate books for gayness, lest we endanger our clients.

For more on the life of books in prison, see librarian Avi Steinberg’s Running the Books.

What needs to be done

I was struck by the descriptions of nursing in Louisa May Alcott’s Work: A Story of Experience  (not the greatest novel, but a fascinating take on women’s careers in 1860s Boston). The last of the professions our heroine turns her hand to is wartime nursing, just as the author did in the Civil War.

A senior nurse commends the heroine:

“You are a treasure, my dear, for you can turn your hand to any thing and do well whatever you undertake. So many come with plenty of good-will, but not a particle of practical ability, and are offended because I decline their help. The boys don’t want to be cried over, or have their brows ‘everlastingly swabbed,’ as old Watkins calls it: they want to be well fed and nursed, and cheered up with creature comforts. Your nice beef-tea and cheery ways are worth oceans of tears and cart-loads of tracts.”

. . . . Mrs. Sterling, Jr., certainly did look like an efficient nurse, who thought more of “the boys” than of herself; for one hand bore a pitcher of gruel, the other a bag of oranges, clean shirts hung over the right arm, a rubber cushion under the left, and every pocket in the big apron was full of bottles and bandages, papers and letters.

The 1860s were a pivotal time in the development of nursing – in England, Florence Nightingale was just founding the first secular nursing school. Clara Barton, “the angel of the battlefield”, was gaining the experience that she would use to professionalize American nursing. But at the time Alcott trained, nursing involved no formal education, no study of biology. Both nursing and medicine in general were at such a basic stage that nurses were basically trying to keep the patients from bleeding to death, and if possible to keep them comfortable and in good spirits.

Given how much actual medical care nurses are now responsible for, I’d much rather have a nurse who can put the right drug in the IV line than one with “cheery ways.” But some combination of both would be nice.

Currently, medical and social services are segmented enough that I’m a little envious of 19th-century nurses’ ability to actually do tasks that they saw needed doing. Help a client call his mother? No, that’s the caseworker’s job. Get a client in solitary confinement the Danielle Steel novel she’s asking for to pass the time? That’s the librarian’s job, except he never seems to make it up to the tenth floor. Helping a bulimic client brainstorm about how to drink more fluids – that would probably be the nutritionist’s job if he hadn’t been laid off.

At its best, I think social work includes things beyond talk therapy. Getting a cup of coffee for a woman who just arrived at the domestic violence shelter with two children and a trash bag of belongings. Spending a therapy session helping a client write a resume. Getting a pair of reading glasses for the hospital patient who lost hers. Getting a Spanish-language Koran for the prisoner who wants to read his holy book in his own language. No, it doesn’t take a master’s degree to do any of these things, and when they need to be done en masse it’s worth having someone whose job that is. But when random needs come up, sometimes it’s better to just get the job done.

Some favorites


March, Geraldine Brooks.  The world of Little Women seen through less rosy glasses, complete with Marmee’s unhappy marriage and what Mr. March was doing during the Civil War.

The Last Unicorn, Peter S. Beagle.  Dreamy, comic, odd.  Molly Grue might be my favorite character in literature.

St. George and the Dragon, Margaret Hodges, ill. Trina Schart Hyman

Gaudy Night, Dorothy L. Sayers.  My favorite of the Peter Wimsey detective novels – but it’s more about 1930s feminism and about the love story than about the mystery.

Ella Minnow Pea, Mark Dunn.  A dystopia in which letters of the alphabet are successively banned.

Father Fox’s Pennyrhymes, Wendy and Clyde Watson.  Very Vermont.

Fingersmith, Sarah Waters.  The underclass of Victorian London, an insane asylum, a plot twist, and a love story.

Work, Louisa May Alcott.  A virtually unknown novel by the author of Little Women.  A young woman’s career in 1850s Boston, complete with socialites, prostitutes, escaped slaves, Quakers, and a Henry David Thoreau stand-in.


Miss Manners’ Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior, Judith Martin.

The DSM-IV-TR, American Psychiatric Association.  I know it’s unpopular to actually like the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, but it’s fascinating.  I haven’t read the new one yet.


All Souls, Michael Patrick McDonald.  South Boston.

Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi.  Iran.

Angela’s Ashes, Frank McCourt.  Ireland.

Fun Home, Alison Bechdel.  By the author of the comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For.


The Philadelphia Story.  Katharine Hepburn, Jimmy Stewart, Cary Grant.

Tootsie.  Still one of the best takes on gender I’ve ever seen.

Victor/Victoria.  Julie Andrews gets a little less wholesome.


William Butler Yeats.  Dreamy.  Unrequited.

John Donne.  Runs the gamut from romantic to sexy to religious.  I’m glad I discovered him early enough that I wasn’t put off by the 17th-century gender stuff.

Hafiz/Daniel Ladinsky.  Apparently the poems “translated” by Ladinsky are Ladinsky’s riffs on themes by the 14th-century Persian mystic and poet Hafiz, not an actual translation.  I still like the poems, though.

Literary criticism

I found this review written inside the cover of a library copy of A Midsummer Night’s Dream:

You’d have to have 6 personalities to get jiggy with this shit.  Playin the role of everybody like a creep Just to understand it.  Tell me that aint some Bullshit.  

To Be? Or Not to Be? Definatly – NOT TO BE

I have to say, I love the idea of this person reading the play aloud.