The world's scariest bedtime stories
I am working on a children’s book. Without a doubt it’s the hardest thing I’ve ever tried to write.
It’s harder than the newspaper story I wrote about an intricate and boring public-sewer-system payment plan. And it makes a 20-page essay I wrote in college, which explained the shift from Linear A to Linear B during the Minoan palace period, look really simple. Like the recipe for toast. That’s saying something, because 10 years later, I still have no idea what that paper was about.
I’m not sure why writing children’s books is so hard.
It could be because the audience for them is ruthless. If Lucy doesn’t like something I’m reading to her, she walks away and doesn’t look back. She’s let me know that the cat’s rear end is more interesting than some of the books in her library.
It could also be that there are so many great children’s books out there, that the effort of trying to ooze out a new one feels as valuable as trying to reinvent something classic, like the Twinkie. The Twinkie is done, and everybody knows it. No one asked for the Zinger. It doesn’t even matter if the Zinger is better. There’s already a Twinkie.
It could also be that so much is known today about the children’s book market that writing one is like moonwalking through a minefield. Be simple. But use vivid words. Be cute. But not sweet. Be classic. But don’t rhyme. It’s impossible to be all these things and get beyond Once Upon a Time there was a Fungus.
The good news is I’m not the only one who has been bruised by the effort of writing a children’s book.
Even the best authors clearly struggled. This hit me the other day when I was reading The Velveteen Rabbit. I didn’t notice this when I was a kid reading it. But today, it’s clear to me The Velveteen Rabbit is a horror story. It’s just pretending to be sweet literature for children.
Consider the evidence: The book’s defining calamity occurs when the boy gets Scarlet Fever. That’s an awful disease. It can kill. It can blind. It cost Helen Keller her sight and hearing.
And that’s not all. The boy is ruthless about loving and rejecting his toys. Woe to those who aren’t shiny. What’s more, the Velveteen Rabbit only gets redeemed when his body is ruined, then burned.
This is a clear metaphor of the writer’s life. Deadly disease lurks just around the corner, waiting to turn you mute -- unable to tell stories. In all likelihood, your work will be rejected for something more sparkly, fashionable and Oprah-esque. Also, if you spend a long time working on your craft, you’ll develop a hideous crook in your back -– all the better to accentuate your pasty skin. And one more thing: the world probably won’t appreciate you until you’re dead.
And it’s not just The Velveteen Rabbit. Goodnight Moon is similarly scary. The little bunny says goodnight to everything in the room: his comb, his brush, some kittens, his mush. And then he says goodnight to someone named “nobody.” Clearly, the room is haunted. No wonder he doesn’t want to go to sleep.
And even that’s not all. If you want something really scary, read The Runaway Bunny. The mother rabbit follows the baby everywhere. She morphs into things that look benign and then WHAM! She catches him. It’s the same plot as The Terminator. The only difference is the bunny gets carrots at the end, while the Terminator gets crushed and melted. That’s a pretty picky little detail, though, when you get down to it.
Even Guess How Much I Love You is miserable when you peel away the layers. It’s about two rabbits, one large, one small. (What is it with rabbits and literature, by the way? They do nothing but struggle and die. Watership Down, one of my favorite books, has more than 500 heart-rending pages of struggle and death, and maybe a paragraph of the life-affirming copulation rabbits are better known for.)
The Guess How Much I Love You hares come from two generations. They compete over which one feels more love. The young one loses. Again, pure fantasy on the author’s part –- fantasy masking his fear of the hideous, real world where youth is everything. And it is, you know. Britney Spears’ album is kicking Michael Jackson’s where it counts. Right in the cash register. It’s a young world. It’s young, and it’s restless. The TV told me so.
We parents might love Guess How Much I Love You, but only because it plays into our fantasy that we’re the ones in charge. Our kids have us beaten, I promise you. Whose bottom is getting wiped, and who’s doing the wiping?
Even children’s rhymes are hideous and terrifying. Rock-a-bye baby? The cradle falls out of the tree. Ghastly. Ring around the Rosy? It’s about the red face you get when you’re first afflicted with bubonic plague.
Why do we tell kids this stuff and make it all sound like so much fun?
Maybe because that’s the ultimate truth of children’s literature. That life, especially when you have kids, is often difficult and frightening. Terrible things beyond our control can happen, even to the tiny people we love most. But somehow, even if it requires cartoon physics and fairy dust, everything’s going to turn out all right in the end.Meanwhile, I’ll keep writing my book. There’s one thing I can take comfort in: writing it will probably be far less scary than finding out the cat’s rump has more interesting things to say.