Perils of Kid-Lit

By Ashleigh Brilliant   |   May 3, 2018

Here’s a quiz question for you: What one famous piece of literature celebrates (1) a musical feline? (2) an athletic bovine? (3) an amused canine? (4) some amorous tableware?

Stumped? Then I’ll have to remind you:

Hey diddle diddle, the Cat and the Fiddle,
The Cow jumped over the Moon.
The little Dog laughed to see such fun,
And the Dish ran away with the Spoon.

I hope you don’t feel I’ve taken liberties of interpretation here. I’m assuming the Cat is playing the fiddle, and that no allusion is intended to the use of cat-gut for violin strings. I’m also assuming that the Dish and the Spoon were in some sort of romantic relationship. But that whole situation is relatively innocuous, compared with some of the grievous occurrences I’m about to dredge up.

First, there’s the bizarre case of two persons known to us only as “Jack” and “Jill.” Here there is much mystery. We are told that they went up a hill to get some water. But wouldn’t any source of water more likely be located at the bottom of a hill, not the top? Doesn’t this suggest that the couple had some other purpose – perhaps a lovers’ tryst? 

In any case, it was presumably when coming back down that Jack fell, and suffered a severe head injury. Then, compounding the tragedy, his partner also had a fall. We don’t know how badly she was hurt, nor have we any clue to what happened next. But how has such an unhappy story, with no apparent moral, (other than, possibly, to be careful on hills), enshrined itself in our canon of literature for entertaining young children?

Along the same lines, there is the ghastly puzzle of the baby in the tree-top. Of course, we know there are many different ways of interpreting this and other ostensibly innocent ditties. But just taking the words at face value, as they’ve been sung for centuries – a supposedly soothing lullaby – may one dare ask, who put the baby in such an unlikely and precarious position, and why should we feel anything but horror when a strong wind causes a tree-limb to break, and the poor infant, still in its cradle, comes plunging down? No hint is given of the inevitably dreadful aftermath. At the very least, one can only imagine a prosecution for reckless child endangerment. But, as with Jack and Jill, the greatest mystery is why this song, with these lyrics, has been, and remains, as popular as if it told a tale of kindness and happiness.

Kid-Lit also rejoices in disasters, like great bridges falling down, and serious mishaps involving neglected duty, particularly in tending animals. Little Boy Blue, instead of blowing his alarm-horn, is asleep in a haystack while his sheep and cattle damage the crops. And a certain Bo Peep, who has somehow lost her sheep (no doubt through some misconduct of her own), is offered the doubtful reassurance that they’ll probably come home anyway.

But even worse is the strain of callousness and cruelty – especially toward animals – which runs through many of these tales. For example, there is the harrowing drama concerning “Three Blind Mice”. We are not told how they were blinded, but can there be any doubt that it was a deliberate human act? Then, when they are stumbling about in their blind distress, the Farmer’s Wife imagines that the poor defenseless creatures are running after her, and vents her fear and rage by chopping off their tails.

And there is the almost incredible narrative that begins: “Sing a song of sixpence, a pocketful of rye.” It goes on to tell us of the baking of two dozen, apparently live, blackbirds in some kind of “pie.” Miraculously, at least some of the birds survive, and are actually heard to “sing.” All of this is set against a background of royal wealth and luxury. 

The King and Queen, for whom the pie was presumably baked, are engaged in their own favorite pursuits, counting money, and eating sweets. But meanwhile, it is a lowly housemaid, innocently hanging out clothing to dry, who has to suffer a consequence of the royal culinary cruelty. One blackbird, presumably seeking revenge upon any human for the fate of his baked brothers, attacks the Maid, and viciously bites her nose off!

If our culture has nothing more edifying and uplifting to inspire its youngest members, I fear they may grow up to be people like you and me.


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