5 Very Troubling Messages Hiding in Popular Children's Books
The Times of England recently reported that Mary Creagh, the Shadow Transport Secretary (which is not as ominous as it sounds), blamed negative stereotypes of women in children's shows like Thomas the Tank Engine for the lack of women entering the transportation workforce.
While this may be a stretch, one has to wonder: What worrying lessons are children learning from the classics? Are boys beginning to believe they are destined to be firemen on heritage steam railways? Maybe not, but they might believe they have a higher chance of getting into heaven, if some books are anything to go by. Here are five kid's classics with some messages you may have missed:
1. 'Thomas the Tank Engine'
The fantastic Youtube video series "Trainsformers" (in which a dad re-imagines the Island of Sodor as more than meets the eye for his son), makes a good point in one of its open narrations: Thomas the Tank Engine's moral system is based on far more than ideas of Christian duty — it verges on the Soviet.
Now, nobody's going to go all McCarthy on The Railway Series author Reverend W. Awdry, but there's something worth noting about a community that seems to find frequent railway disasters completely acceptable. The engines of Sodor exist in a strict caste system — made up of narrow gauge trains, real-sized branch line trains, and the elite aristocracy of express engines — and must work only to be "really useful" contributors to society. Those that aren't? They get sealed in tunnels or turned into hen houses/generators for more efficient proletariat work elsewhere. No wonder characters so frequently faded out of the show — they probably went with Pussy Riot to Siberia.
2. 'The Chronicles Of Narnia'
Narnia is a strange one. Like many classic children's books, it comes from a very strong Christian background. Unlike many books, Narnia does not focus primarily on lessons of compassion and mercy. C.S. Lewis didn't just want to talk about how to live like a Christian; no, no — for him the deaths of Christians were just as compelling.
The final tome of the series (The Last Battle) contains a line that almost single-handedly inspired Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials, when Lewis writes that every child in the series gets to go to heaven except for Susan. According to Jill Pole, Susan is "interested in nothing now-a-days except nylons and lipstick and invitations." Which, according to Susan's own damn brother Peter, means she is "no longer a friend of Narnia."
Well, nothing like a bit of misogyny to close one of childhood's greatest book series. Damn those women choosing to like things they wish to like, damn them to Hell! Or at least to not-Heaven.
And can we also talk about the fact the other Pevensie children got to go to the magical world of heaven because they all died in a train accident? Maybe they were all having a trip to the Island of Sodor. Is Sir Topham Hatt ruining a suicide cult using out of date railway locomotives? The answer is probably.
Incidentally, Lewis wanted to write a spin-off titled Susan of Narnia, which probably would have focused on her being a PTSD-riddled cat lady due to her entire family dying in a train accident orchestrated by a world she no longer thought was real anyway. Such fun.
3. 'Babar the Elephant'
Everyone loves the stories of charming monarch Babar, the Elephant who people deem one of their own and who eventually becomes the benevolent monarch of Celesteville.
Oh, did I say monarch? Sorry, I meant dictator. Babar, the elephant who forces his own elephantine people to become suit-wearing humanoids. Because of course Western culture is the pinnacle of civilization and the right way to live.
Then there's the never-ending war with the Rhinoceros people next door — a war that seems to just keep going with no concern for money, lives, or a clear reason for fighting in the first place. (Though it's probably because the Rhinoceros people have all the oil.)
4. Paddington Bear
Paddington, the cuddliest ursine resident of 'deepest darkest Peru,' arrives on the platform of Paddington Station with nothing but a jar of marmalade in his suitcase. Stowing away to England for better prospects, he drops his Peruvian name to blend in with the perfectly English Brown family who rescue him.
Paddington, now raised in affluent Notting Hill with a housekeeper and a habit for taking his elevenses (which is a very English term for a post-breakfast, pre-lunch dinner favored also by Hobbits), becomes close friends with Hungarian immigrant Mr. Gruber. Paddington too is an illegal immigrant, who is quickly brought in and acclimatized to English culture and lovingly cajoled for his misunderstandings as to how things work.
But Paddington, unlike many of the other stories on this list, actually realized its unexpected political relevance: When English xenophobia began to flare its nostrils in the face of what was seen as increased immigration, Paddington Here and Now was released, in which the bear is taken in by the authorities in a quite searing indictment of national prejudices.
5. 'James and the Giant Peach'
Roald Dahl: a man of a thousand infamous characters, most of which are a bit reductionist. Augustus Gloop? The BFG's Sultan of Baghdad? Mike-bloody-Teevee? Not exactly fair displays of cultures foreign to the enigmatic Norwegian.
But if there's one thing Roald Dahl knows how to do, it's how to teach children to ignore seemingly impossible circumstances and malign social labels. Charlie never gives in to the hopelessness of his family's finances and Matilda leads a rebellion against a fascist institution, but it's Dahl's first classic that sneakily shows us that reputation and reality are not the same.
In James and the Giant Peach, the titular fruit's arrival in Manhattan is presumed a nuclear threat, and the insects that accompany it accused of being evil aliens. But James and his friends are soon proved benign, and are quickly accepted into the fold. They even manage to feed thousands of children delicious fruit.
Ignoring the strange voodoo genetic engineering that started the tale, Dahl teaches us the valuable — if unexpected — lesson to stop fearing the unknown.