Scarred for life by children’s books

I loved to read even when I was young – I remember when I was seven I sat and read two Secret Seven books in an afternoon.  I read fast and voraciously, and anything I could find.  So even with the library available, I would often reread books, several times over.

I had a particular box-set of short story books, Uncle Arthur’s Bedtime Stories.  This was a set of around five books of short stories, all with a heavily religious (Christian or Jewish) theme.  All had some sort of heavy moral theme, and the combined effect was to scar me for life.

In these stories, disobeying your parent would lead to disaster.  Any kind of wrong behaviour would lead to serious permanent consequences. What’s more, you would always, without fail, get caught.  Ninth time around – when riding her bike round the top of the hill where she lived, she insisted on one more go around, despite mummy telling her to go in – the bike swerved and she bounced down the hill and was seriously injured.  Donny and the Door Handle, where little Donny would always play with the door handle in the car, and it swung open and he fell out of the car while it was moving.   The boy who longed for an air pistol, and promised not to touch it when unsupervised, but sneaked out to look at it and managed to shoot himself in the face.  The little girl who was nosing around in her aunt’s drawers to see what exciting thing was in there was caught because it was full of feathers and they all came floating out.  The girl who forgot to take her watch off in the bath and then didn’t own up until her parents noticed it was rusty and wet inside, then had her parents’ disappointment and no watch.  The girl who told lies dreamt of lies running all over her as she lay on the grass, and woke up to find ants all over her.  And yet when the little boy who was ill still struggled into the church for Christmas mass everyone heard the bells ring for the first time in years as he got to the altar.

Some of them were worthwhile – the story of minimising Milton, who would always run down what other people did while magnifying his own achievements.  The stories of children who would keep trying and eventually succeed because of their own determination.  Some of them were downright bizarre, like the story of the boy who helped push home a disabled man whose battery had gone flat on his wheelchair, and then got into trouble because he hadn’t told anyone where he was going.  But most have left me with a paralysing sense of fear, that any time I set a foot wrong the universe will crash down on me and make me pay, like the girl who liked her mum’s sun lamp and set the house on fire.

Not that doing wrong is something good, but if fear of doing wrong leaves you terrified of trying anything, or sticking to the rules because you’re afraid of the consequences rather than because you believe in the rules, then yes, I feel that’s bad.

And it’s not just my generation with strange children’s stories – my son had a set of Alphapet books, which went through the alphabet with animals and character traits. Most were obvious, like Sylvester the Stubborn Squirrel who learnt not to be so stubborn, but the positive traits were seen as negatives too:  Perry the Polite Porcupine was shown as being far too helpful to others and should say no more often, while Tina the Truthful Tiger was too truthful and should learn little white lies to get on with people better.

But there’s only been one book I’ve downright refused to read to children – it was a book that belonged to the young children I was babysitting, and featured some children and some elves or similar.  The elves had something the children wanted, and when they wouldn’t hand it over the children used brute strength to destroy the elf house and get it for themselves.  That one I refused to touch as soon as I understood where the storyline was headed.


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