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Grotesque Stories for Children
Poem: The Fate of Jenny, Who Liked to Steal


his afternoon marked my last performance as a singing cowboy, at least for a while, and today's show did little to distract from the growing ambivalence I feel about performing before children. It was a good sized group -- maybe 30 total -- and, despite the fact that, with my still sore throat, I felt as though I had to shout just to make myself heard, they seemed to enjoy themselves. I brought two children and an adult onstage and showed them how to spin pistols, which they enjoyed, and led everybody in singalongs of "Home on the Range" and "The Girl I Left Behind Me." I read a poem, as I have for the past four weeks, and, despite the fact that the poems I read are ghastly little Victorian-style morality tales in which children misbehave and are punished, the reaction has always been terrific. Here is this week's poem, by the way:

The Fate of Jenny, Who Liked to Steal

What has come up missing?
What lately has been taken?
You've lost something, haven't you?
It's true, or am I mistaken?
What happened to that pudding
That mother sent along to school?
What happened to that blanket
That was left out by the pool?
Where happened to Lacy's dolly
With her dress of pink and teal?
Well, Jenny took them, don't you know?
Because Jenny likes to steal.

Don't leave anything by her
Or it will end up in her pocket
And then into her top drawer
With your lipstick and your locket
And the book that mother gave you
And a postcard from last year
If it something that Jenny wants
She'll take it if its near
She grabs apples out of lunches
And eats all except the peel
And then she'll take money for dessert
Because Jenny likes to steal

If it's missing from a garage
It has wound up under her bed
There's three bicycles and a baseball
And a wagon, fire engine red,
and marbles and horseshoes
And a complete badminton kit
Which Jenny has never played with
She just likes to stare at it
And there is stuff that makes no sense
An old retainer? A flat wheel?
But don't ask her why she wanted it
Because Jenny likes to steal

One awful day last autumn
Jenny was reaching for a purse
When she felt two hands upon her
And then she felt something much worse
She felt a sack around her
As she was carried away that day
Nobody knows just what happened
Nobody knows just what to say
All we do is stare at her room
Crammed full of ill-got things
All we do is wonder about her
As we dig through the rings
And the necklaces and the lipstick
And the compacts that she took
We read stories of children kidnapped
We read such stories in a book
It tells they are put to work
In groups of child thieves
We ask is this what has happened to her?
And then we cry out and we grieve
And bitter tears fall from us
From eyes tearful and swollen
Because Jenny, who liked to steal
herself, at last, was stolen

Besides the poem, I read a story, as I have for the past two weekends. These are stories I wrote three years ago, when I was publishing the online zine Doggerel, and they are inspited by Don Marquis' Archy and Mehitabel stories. My tales deal with a stray black cat named Tom Hopper, who lives at the New York public library. As the result of a childhood accident, Tom Hopper is missing one of his forepaws, which makes typing rather a problem for him. As a result, his stories are written sans capitalization and with only the most rudimentary of punctuation. Tom Hopper is constantly tormented by a tiny grasshopper by the name of Seamus, who stole over to the Unites States, as he puts it, in the pocket of "the great irish actor liam neeson." The grasshopper carries with him a little, ornately carved matchstick, and uses it on Tom Hopper's nose whenever the cat tries to catch mice or insects to eat. The story I read this morning is a parable about religious fundamentalism, and it is a story I am fond of, but I have no idea about its appropriateness for children. It can be read here.

In fact, my concern in telling the story wasn't so much about its appropriateness for children, but instead its appropriateness for families. I think children do very well with literature such as this -- after all, as a child I read Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Alice in Wonderland, Grimm's Fairy Tales and other such books that are filled with beastly little episodes and malevolent characters. I was sometimes upset by what I read, but, then, I enjoyed being upset. When I was nine years old and living in England I first read Strewwelpeter, and was quite horrified by the book's graphic depictions of thumbless children and burning girls. I brooded about the book for days, frightened to open it again, and, in the end, decided that I really liked the book after all. Indeed, I spent years trying to track down the book -- it used to be rare to find the book in the United States, and its title is strange enough that I couldn't remember it. It wasn't until a few years ago, when I stumbled across the traveling production of Shockheaded Peter while working on one of my own plays in New York, that I was able to once again obtain a copy of the book. This time, as an adult, I read the book with sheer pleasure. This was true of another of childhood experiences in England, when I chanced across a Punch and Judy show at during some seaside weekend retreat. Puppetry in the United States had long been dominated by educators, and, wonderful and people like Jim Henson and Fred Rogers might have been, they could not possibly have prepared me for the anarchic malice that is afoot in a Punch and Judy show.

For those unfamiliar with the shows, Punch carries with him a stick, which he uses to beat all that oppose him -- his child, his wife, a dragon, a policeman, a hangman, and eventually the devil himself. The puppeteer voices Punch with the use of a swazzle, a sort of primitive reed device that perches on the puppeteers tongue. As a result, when the puppeteer speaks as Punch, his voice takes on the quality of a high, occasionally incomprehensible squeak. Punch is a grotesque figure with a hunched back and ruddy, oversized features, and he represents both criminal chaos (his nickname is "The Lord of Misrule") and a fascinating fantasy of violent liberation. As a result, in modern times Punch is almost as famous for unhappy parents demanding the show be closed as for the show itself.

But I know how I responded to the show as a child: I adored it, and still adore it. Punch serves no obvious educational purpose, and if your understanding of children's entertainment uses an educational model, his grotesque narrative, which details spousal abuse, infanticide, violence against authority figures, and blasphemy, hardly seems to be the sort of thing you would want to teach your children.

But Punch offers something else, something grander and, for my tastes, more important than the simplistic educational entertainment offered to children nowadays. Along with Alice's journeys in the grotesque Wonderland and the brooding fantasies of both the Brothers Grimm and Raold Dahl, Punch offers the liberation of the imagination. Punch's violent world is not intended to be seen as the real one, and I don't think there is a child alive who makes that mistake for long. Instead, he exists in a fantastical universe, in which ordinary rules are suspended. When children laugh at Punch and Judy shows, it is because they recognize Punch's onstage reversals of the ordinary order of things, and recognize the ridiculousness of it. When I initially saw a Punch show, I found it to be both frightening and exhilarating, a show that inspired me both to panic and to laugh. Ultimately, once I got used to the ugly spectacle of Punch (which I did very quickly), the whole of it was enormously entertaining to me.

Now, child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim has written an entire book on the subject of the importance of grotesque children's literature titled The Uses of Enchantment, and those who wish to explore this subject further would do well to pick up Bettelheim's book. There are many arguments that can be made about why hideous little stories are quite healthy for children, even if they, at first, seem to be lesson plans to teach a child how to misbehave. Bettelheim makes many of these arguments, and does so well, but I would like, briefly, to make an argument of mine.

Childhood is a time of fear. Like most children, I suffered an array of terrors, some rooted in the real world (such as my fear of getting lost) and some rooted in the sort of supernatural environment that children seem to constantly inhabit. I was, for example, afraid of the moon -- in a feverish dream as a little boy I had seen it twirl down from the sky and perch next to me window, making grotesque faces at me. It is easy to understand why children might be frightened all the time -- they are, after all, tiny and fragile creatures who are hopelessly dependent on the goodwill around them for the very basic necessities of life. Children often do not precisely know what they are frightened of -- some of their nervousness just floats around freely, settling on whatever is convenient or nearby, such as an aunt with a moustache or a too-noisy vacuum cleaner.

Punch and Judy frightened me, yes. Alice in wonderland frightened me. Strewwelpeter made me shake in terror. But I was already frightened, and these works of children's literature gave my fears form. Beyond that, they put my fears in a safe environment, because although I might have at first feared Punch, I never for a moment believed him to be real. So my fear was given a safe place to reside, and then it was put into a narrative structure -- fear was turned into a story. There is a great deal of variation from one Punch tale to the next, but they all follow an unexpectedly strict set of conventions, so that two different seaside Punch shows at two different resorts will, nonetheless, tell basically the same story. When you know how the story goes, even as a child, you have control over it, because while it might frighten you for the moment, it will, in the end, resolve the same, and you need not fear that it won't. And as I child, I learned that all fiction could be counted on in this way -- Grimm's fairy tales groped, often in unexpected ways, toward a clear resolution, in which the weak triumphed and the wicked were vanquished. Further, I knew that because this took place in an unreal world, I was free to create my own unreal worlds, and grope toward my own resolutions, and that I would always be safe doing so.

So today I told a group of children a story about a group of book lice and their death by poisoning, and I did not worry that the children would be bothered by this story. Indeed, they did not seem to be bothered at all -- they listened in rapt attention, caught up in the tale, eyes wide and round like saucers. At the end of the story, they cheerfully filed off the stage, taking with them wooden tops, a gift for participating.

No, it was not the children I worried about. It was the parents, some of whom might have heard the tale of the fundamentalist boom lice and saw themselves parodied in the story, and were angered by it. Or, worse, well-meaning liberal parents who do not believe that I should be telling their children stories about murderous cats and poisoned insects. What am I supposed to say to such parents? Do I just hand them a copy of Bettelheim's book and tell them to go off and read it?

No. My preference is to address myself to an adult audience, in which I can be as free as I wish with my more adventurous, and more adult, fantasies, and the only criticism I need worry about is that my poetry is terrible. And this is a criticism I can weather happily, as my poetry is terrible.


© Max Sparber. Click for republication information.

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Posted by UkuleleKing at 10:30 p.m.

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