As we have already established, I have a somewhat unorthodox idea of what is appropriate children’s literature. I prefer not to expose my kids to violence in its many forms – whether war or droids. However, I don’t think sexuality – when explained in a healthy way – ought to be taboo. My strange sense of propriety extends beyond books to life; I want to maintain their innocence about things like video games and Spongebob, but I have no problem explaining things like homelessness and bigotry.
As Zachary graduated to chapter books, I decided to start reading him the Little House series. There were two things I did not realize. One, Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote a fuckload of books. Two, my child would become completely engrossed.
We have been at this for about four months. We have read eight-and-a-half Little House books, all the way from the Little House in the Big Woods of Wisconsin to the First Four Years of Laura’s marriage to Almanzo. We are a year-and-a-half into those four years, after which we will be finished with the series. I fear he may ask me to start reading other books about Wilder.
For awhile, he would get the picture book versions of the books on his weekly trips to the school library. I am pretty sure he is the first kindergarten boy the librarian has ever seen who knows exactly where the Little House section is. But, he soon tired of those watered-down versions. He decided the writing was not up to his standards.
Apparently, my kid is a literary snob.
The books bring up some tough questions, and I do not censor Ma’s bigotry. Instead, I discuss with him that her hatred of “Indians” is prejudice, and we talk about why that is so bad. When we hit the minstrel show, it got a little more complicated. Ever try explaining to a five-year-old why blackface is so offensive…?
I don’t mind these conversations. He is learning history, and a part of that is coming to understand that attitudes are in many ways socially constructed. He may not grasp all of this, but raising a child with any set of values is an ongoing process. Frankly, it’s one of my favorite parts of parenting.
Not that the Little House mania has been all positive. There have been a few unforeseen complications. When he and his friends get together, they tend to play games themed around their obsessions – one friend loves dinosaurs, another Star Wars. Lately it has been How to Train Your Dragon. But, it’s hard to propose to a group of six-year-old boys, “Guys, I have an idea. Instead of playing dinosaurs, let’s play Little House. I’ll be Almanzo. Who wants to play Carrie?”
And then there was the trip to the local living historical farm, which starts with a display of nineteenth-century farming implements. As we walked in, Zachary walked up to the first display case. “Oh, look! A yoke!” Turning to the next case, he exclaimed, “It’s a plow! And a pitchfork!”
You don’t even want to know how excited he was to churn butter.
Of course, he was even more excited for Laura and Almanzo to get together. You see, I had explained during Farmer Boy that the book was about Almanzo, who would grow to be the man Laura marries. So, for all of The Long Winter, Little Town on the Prairie, and These Happy Golden Years, the kid would writhe with happy anticipation whenever Almanzo showed up. Clearly, my child is a romantic.
Zach has gotten some queer notions about the way the world works from these books, however. It took some time to explain exactly why Laura and her Ma both had to stop teaching once they got married. And he hasn’t quite grasped that people don’t get married anymore straight out of their parents’ houses. I had to explain that his teenaged babysitter is going to college, rather than finding a beau.
The books have taught him about engagement rings, a necessary education for all five-year-olds. “Mommy, why do you have two rings?”
“One is my wedding ring, the other is my engagement ring.”
“Why did you marry Daddy and leave your parents’ house?” he asked, missing about ten years in the middle. “I bet you were glad to get away from your stepmother because she was mean, even though Daddy is sometimes stinky.”
“I didn’t marry Daddy right after I left. I went to college.”
“Did you go to college right after you left your stepmother?”
This was not a conversation I wanted to have in front of the sponge that is his three-year-old brother. “Honey, can you come into the kitchen and I will be happy to explain it?”
He followed me in, and I bent down to his level. I think my kids know when I am imparting important information, because I stop washing dishes and actually look at them. “I didn’t leave when I went to college. I left when I was about John’s age,” I explained, referring to our ten-year-old neighbor.
“Who did you live with?”
“My grandparents and then my aunt.”
“But you were happy to leave your stepmother,” he repeated.
“That’s true. I was happy to get away from my stepmother.”
“Because stepmothers are mean.”
“No,” I said. “My stepmother was mean. But not all of them are.”
“Why was she mean?” he asked, a question I dreaded only slightly less than the other possibility: how was she mean?
“I don’t know.”
“Maybe she didn’t like you?”
“Well, that’s true. She didn’t like me.”
Never one to be deterred, he pressed on. “Why didn’t she like you?”
“I don’t know. I don’t know why a grown-up wouldn’t like a child. Why do you think?” At this point, I was hoping to get a sense of what he thought the issues were, so that I was not giving more information than he was actually asking for. However, he had no idea why a grown-up would dislike a child, and the conversation stopped there.
But I am left with it, this knowledge that the conversations are rapidly creeping up on me. He is asking more and more, wanting to process my life, to fit it into the world that he knows. And, unlike the middle child – whose pleas of “tell me about when you were a little girl” can be assuaged with “I liked to climb trees” – this one is old enough to handle parts of the truth.
I just wish I could maintain his innocence a little bit longer.