Her Bad Mother

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Here Be Post-Modern Muppets

Thanks to all for the tremendously supportive comments to my last post. They were, each and every one of them, so appreciated.

*Edited below. Because you've come to expect it.

The Feminist Smackdown is up next, but I need a breather from Heavy Blogging. And in any case, the Smackdown needs a little work. At the moment, my engagement with the lady-tardage that is (in this corner!) Caitlin Flanagan and (in this corner!) Linda Hirshman is not so much critical analysis as it is expletive-ridden rant. (WTF Flanagan? WTF Hirshman? WT-effing-F?)

Also, I have mood swings. And I do not feel like being angry today.

So today we will reflect upon happy things. (Flipping through the Happy Files... what to choose, what to choose... Babies - already on it - Barcelona, Books, Chocolate, Dalwhinnie Single-Malt, Ella Fitzgerald, Elephants, ... wait... go back to the Bs... BOOKS.)

Books. Today we shall reflect on books.

Before you click away - yes, I saw that - thinking that this is going to be a dreary Bad Mother lecture on what fiction you should be reading (although, since you asked: Tolstoy, Austen and Stendhal.), give me just a second. This is not about what you should read. It's not about what I read. It's about what I read, past tense.

It's about one of my very first books. One of the first that I can remember holding in my own hands. No, this book was not Herodotus' Histories (although I do recommend this as a source for great bedtime stories). It was not Alice in Wonderland or Peter Pan or Ivanhoe or any of the tales told by the Brothers Grimm or Hans Christian Anderson (all of which were read aloud to me many times before I ever got my hands on them.)

It was this:

It was a Little Golden Book. Starring Grover. The plot (such as it is) hinges upon the promise made in the title: that there is a monster at the end of the book. Every time you turn a page - against Grover's exhortations that you not, for the love of all that is blue and holy, turn the page - you get closer to that monster.

Every time that I opened this book, I thrilled at the suspense. When either of my parents read it with me, I would squeal and grab their hands: Careful! Turn the pages slowly! Slowly!

Every page was turned carefully, slowly, one corner at time, so that I could peek around the printed corner. I knew well what was coming, but I still squirmed with anticipation and the teeniest, tiniest flicker of fear...

... and a delicious sense of naughtiness. Grover - lovable old Grover - says please don't turn the page. Mom or Dad would say, are you sure you want to turn the page? Grover says don't turn the page. But still, always, I turned the page.

And I would, always, shriek with delight when I reached the end, where, as promised, the monster was revealed.

That the monster was Grover was never a surprise, not after the first reading. What thrilled and delighted me, I think, was the reminder - the ever unexpected reminder - of Grover's monsterness. I knew that Grover was a monster, of course. But I never reflected upon his monsterness. I never - that is, when I was not turning the pages of this particular book - gave any thought to the fact that Grover was a monster, or to the fact that his monsterness put him in the same category as Boogeymen and werewolves and all other manner of frightening creatures that lived under my bed or in my closet. Grover was familiar and safe and comforting (in a way that the Cookie Monster, for example, was not. I always suspected that the Cookie Monster could turn on a kid at any time, revert to his monster-ish, Mr-Muppet-Hyde dark side while in the grip of a bad cookie trip.) Grover was not monster in the sense of being Other: he was a sweet old furry blue uncle, very possibly with bad breath, but certainly generous with the hugs.

The book gripped me with the revelatory reminder that he was, indeed, a monster. It also, of course, gripped me with its narrative suspense. I think that this book was a wonderful introduction, for a very young reader, to the thrill of the page, to the incomparable magic carpet ride - destination unknown or anticipated or delightfully feared - that is a good story. And it demonstrated amply that a good story can boil down to just a few simple, well-directed lines.

It was all of these things. But it was mostly the thrill of being reminded that Grover's a monster I'm supposed to be afraid of monsters but I'm not afraid of Grover the monster that kept me pestering my parents to sit down and read this book with me.

Roland Barthes argued that there is pleasure in narrative suspense - the "gradual unveiling" of a story - but that this pleasure is not the true pleasure of the text. The text of pleasure, he says, submits to and offers comfortable reading; the text of bliss, on the other hand, discomfits. It unsettles the reader's assumptions, "brings to a crisis his relation with language."

The thrill of There's a Monster at the End of this Book was, for me, exactly this. It exploded my childish understanding of 'monster.' And, more to the point, it broke the comfort of my readerly relationship with Grover; it unsettled my assumption that Grover was just like me (because do we not assume that those whom we love are always and ever just like us?) and forced me to confront dear Grover as the alien being that he is. If I love Grover, I love monsters. The book was thrilling because it was sort of dangerous. It provoked a little bit of fear and then asked me to reconsider that fear. It asked me questions. It made me ask questions. Why was I - am I - afraid of monsters? Who else is a monster? WHAT is a monster?

That book (and others like it) turned me on to the thrill of having my assumptions challenged. It fuelled my love of questions. And, it made me love books. It made me love the adventure of opening books to see what surprises they held.

It was good stuff. Still is. I nearly wept when I found There's a Monster at the End of This Book at a second-hand store the other day, and when I sat down with WonderBaby to flip through the pages (and found myself doing a strange, Yoda-ish impression of Grover that completely failed to impress) it provoked the same old thrill. Well look at that! This is the end of the book and the only one here is ME! Grover!

Well, Grover, and some good old-fashioned structuralist/post-structuralist literary analysis. Here be monsters.

What were your favourite books as a child? What's the earliest reading experience that you can remember?

WonderBaby, in case you're wondering, currently prefers Anna Wintour to Grover. (The Devil, clearly, wears onesies...)

(And? WonderBaby's current editorial layout is here. She is also featured, alongside the incomparably fierce Bumper, in a photo-essay presented by Mother Bumper, here.)

*(The Dan Brown joke that previously appeared in this space will no longer be seen. It has been re-scheduled so that the following announcement can be made: there's a new visitor in the Basement, talking about a very difficult subject. Go chat.)


Blogger motherbumper said...

oh oh oh oh! Mine was "The very hungry caterpiller" by Eric Carle and everytime I went to the library that would be the first book I would run to get off the shelf in the children's section. I still remember the thrill of finding it on the shelf and reading it very slowly (to savour all the tastes I think, oh, and to make it last) while sitting on one of the mushroom-like naugahyde stools near the library basement window. It was one of the first books in Bumper's collection, along with Where the Wild Things Are (another fav) and Bump Daddy's favorite, the uplifting (ha!) Velveteen Rabbit. Thanks for the trip down memory lane (and the linky love).

Bump likes the IKEA catalogue and ripping through US Weekly (literally).

3:23 PM  
Blogger Chicky Chicky Baby said...

Holy Shit!

Yes, swearing is in order here.

That was one of my very favorite, favorite-ist books ever! I bought it for Chicky at Christmas and though she is not impressed with it yet (gotta work on that Yoda voice) she's starting to come around. I bought the book for her someday to love, but I really bought it for me to love all over again.

Have I told you lately that I love you? :)

3:40 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Books, oh how I love books. Especially children's books.

In particular, I love the book Sarah's Room, about a little girl named Jenny and her older sister Sarah. Sarah's room is neat and tidy, and Jenny's is a mess. It always gave me hope that someday my room would become neat and tidy like Sarah's, as Jenny's did in the book.

And I had the Nutshell Library, also illustrated by Maurice Sendak, with the book Pierre about the little boy who doesn't care and gets eaten by a lion. Wonderful cautionary tale that frightened me in a great way.

3:42 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oh, and Eloise. Anything about Eloise, but particularly the original book. Eloise was the first person - fictional or otherwise - who made me want to live in New York.

3:43 PM  
Blogger macboudica said...

I *loved* that book! That was my favorite. I liked other Sesame Street, Dr. Suess (the one about the scary pants in the dark-thrillingly creepy!), and Bearenstein Bears were good, too.

4:17 PM  
Blogger Andrea said...

Not only do I wholeheartedly agree about that book, and am ashamed that I didn't think of it for Gabe, I think this was one very well written post.

I think my very first favorite book was The Jungle Book. Aw, look! Mowgli found himself a girlie with a big pot on her head to love! I think truly that I love that book because it was my sister's favorite book, and my mother read it to her constantly while she was pregnant with me and I learned to love it in utero. Bet Disney would love THAT story.

4:24 PM  
Blogger DD said...

I don't know of any Mom (or Dad) than can read Monster and NOT do their best at mimicking Grover's voice. My son always ends the book by smacking a hand over his face and saying the last line, "Oh, I am so embarrassed!"

My favorite non-classical children's story book is "The Story of The Little Mole Who Went In Search of Whodunit". I swear, anyone who has a 2-5 year old should have this book.

4:37 PM  
Blogger Major Bedhead said...

Oh, oh, oh!! I LOVE that book!! I loved Grover and am sad that he's not featured as much on Sesame Street any more. I can be reduced to helpless giggles by singing "Around and around. Around and around. Over. And under. And through."

My favourites as a kid? Where The Wild Things Are, of course, and this weird book about Theodore And The Talking Mushroom. There was another odd book like that - the illustrations looked like crepe paper collages - that I have to hunt down. It's here, I just have to find it. I loved those books because they were odd and a little unnerving.

I also, believe it or not, loved (and still love) the Gashly Crumb Tinies.

5:10 PM  
Blogger Melissa said...

Mine was this exact book. I love it even more now because my kids love it as much as I did.

I had a stuffed Grover. Elmo can not compete with my Grover.

5:29 PM  
Blogger metro mama said...

Wonderful post.

I can't remember what I liked when I was really little but when I was a little older I loved the Anne of Green Gables series.

Cakes' favorites now are Guess How Much I Love You and, an LM Montgomery called The Way to Slumbertown (beautiful book).

I'm with you on Austen, Stendhal and Tolstoy and will add Flaubert to that list.

6:02 PM  
Blogger Papa Bradstein said...

Some of my first memories are frustration at not being able to read for myself and resolving to learn how to read as soon as possible. When I finally could read, I tore into anything in the house that had words inside it. Often, I would get lost while following See and See Also references in the encyclopedia and end up with 10 or 12 volumes open around me, often with several bookmarks in each one.

So I've been waiting for tabbed browsing for awhile.

What did I particularly like? I don't remember specific books from earlier, but The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil P. Frankweiler, which my sister read to me while I was recovering from a concussion, was a hit. I was reading general preteen trash until my doctor said, "Oh, that's trash. You should read The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe." I can't thank her enough for putting me on the right track.

7:06 PM  
Blogger kittenpie said...

I ADORE that book and also remember it well from my childhood. Found it in board book format for pumpkinpie and did the same goofy not-quite-accurate Grover impression that you describe.

WE are just branching into non-board books now as she is into longer stories and loves the thrill of a new title. So into my vast collection ... We just read this week her first Madeline, her first Munsch, and a few others, and we have started reading the longer Thomas tales this past month, which she is totally into.

Can't wait till she gets to Ramona Quimby - one of my faves!

7:31 PM  
Blogger Her Bad Mother said...

Eloise! Yes yes yes! I never did get over wanting to live in a hotel.

And Suess, and Where the Wild Things Are, of course. Ramona Quimby and Harriet (the spy) were later. And Papa Bradstein - Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler? One of my all-time faves. Made me want to run away and live in the Met, too.

I very quickly adopted Peter Pan and Alice as my bedside mainstays - those were the books that I dreamed about - but there was so much attachment to these other books.

Does anyone else remember Suess's Hooper Humperdink Not Him? Or the story of Lafcadio the Lion...?

7:45 PM  
Blogger Cristina said...

I loved that book, and I had forgotten all about it until I read your post. Now I will need to search my parents house to see if they still have it. My guess is that they don't and I will be searching second hand stores for it.

Re. my favorite book: my earliest memory is reading Pat the Bunny. I loved the touch and feel part of that book, especially daddy's scratchy face and the hole you put your finger through. Was that a ring? I can't remember now...

8:09 PM  
Blogger chichimama said...

Monster at the end was my all time favorite. Both my kids love it now too, it makes me so happy to see them giggle when we read it.

Some of my other favorites in the younger reader books were the Frances books, Katie the Snowplow, Mike Mulligan and his Steam Shovel and the Bernstein Bears. Although my mother was a very smart woman and never let me buy the Nernstien bears, I could only read them in the waiting room of the pediatrician's office, so I LOVED going to see him so I could read all the Bernstein bears books...

8:34 PM  
Blogger nonlineargirl said...

As a kid I loved a book called The Hat, about a down on his luck veteran who finds a beautiful top hat that helps him save a baby, which gets him a reward, which... until his life is completely different and the hat moves on to help someone else. I have not been able to find it and my mom refuses to give it up.

9:59 PM  
Blogger karengreeners said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

10:16 PM  
Blogger motherbumper said...

mommy off the record - re: Pat the Bunny. It was a diamond ring that you could slip your finger through. And I loved daddy's scratchy face too! I just had to shout that one out because that was another fav of mine. Oh to be four again.

10:26 PM  
Blogger metro mama said...

Kittenpie, you just brought back memories of Ramona. Loved her.

10:44 PM  
Blogger Jaelithe said...

I must have read The Monster at the End of This Book like at least a billion times when I was little. Really.

At that time I also loved, Paul Goble's Buffalo Woman, The Story of Ferdinand by Munro Leaf, and the entire Dorrie the Little Witch series by Patricia Coombs.

All books about outcasts, misfits and monsters, come to think of it . . .

11:10 PM  
Blogger Sharon L. Holland said...

I loved that book. My toddler does too. Thanks for the analysis. Now it's even more fun.

11:26 PM  
Blogger MrsFortune said...

Barthes meets Grover. Is that a university course you taught? I would love to hear how Focault, or perhaps Lacan, might weigh in on Snuffalupagus.

But seriously, someone just gifted me that book yesterday and I read it to Jacob last night. I felt the same way, taken aback by the reminder that Grover was a monster. Cool post.

11:33 PM  
Blogger Awesome Mom said...

That was one of my favorites too! I was thrilled to find it again for my kids.

12:07 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I loved the Grover book too. I also loved "Hand Hand Fingers Thumb" as do my girls.

As a former English teacher, I cringe to say this publicly but. . . have you read "Goodnight Nobody" by Jennifer Weiner? Great Desperate Housewives-ish beach book.

12:14 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Go Dog Go....OMG I loved that book..."Do You like my hat?!?! No I do not like your Hat!!" Ahhh good stuff!! I read it to Becca all the time!

Great post!!

1:13 AM  
Blogger Nichole said...

My husband and I knew it was meant to be upon realizing we both had owned and loved "There's a Monster at the End of This Book!" For some reason we cannot find our old copies (and probably are better off for that) but I finally found a copy for Baby E at the store, in board book form rather than golden book. Which is better when you think about it because it takes her 6 hours to fully eat and digest a board book as opposed to the standard 1 hour it takes her to devour anything else.

I was and forever will be a Shel Silverstein fan. I own the three volumes of poetry (as did my hubby as a child) and read them to E from time to time.

Can you believe I have yet to actually read Peter Pan? Maybe I'll add that to my summer reading list.

4:32 AM  
Blogger susan said...

Gotta be Al Perkins' "Hand, Hand, Fingers, Thumb" for me... I still feel a rush of excitement when we get to the "Millions of monkeys, Millions of drums..."! Fortunately Little Guy finds it amusing, too. I'd look pretty silly sitting there on the floor reading it over and over to myself (but I'd probably still do it)!

7:22 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It was all about Where the Wild Things Are for me. Now my son can repeat almost the whole book line by line. I'm also a huge fan of Mercer Mayer books. Those little furry critters are the best!

8:42 AM  
Blogger Jezer said...

My brother had that book, and I'm pretty sure I lifted it from him at some point.

I have a new goal for today: Find the box of my childhood books and let them take me back. Thanks for the inspiration.

8:53 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I loved that book too. Loved it. When I saw it at Chapters a few weeks back I had to pick one up for Frances. Who WILL adore it, because Mummy said so.

I can't really remember other picture books I enjoyed when I was young, other than the ever-popular Dr. Seuss, pretty much because I was reading chapter books by five ... and I just can't remember things reliably younger than that. But Monster at the End of This Book is a classic, for sure.

(If chapter books count, then the one that ruled my childhood was a book about a little girl with a dollhouse, adn the family of dolls all come to life.)

9:09 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

We have "The Monster At the End of This Book" and I love reading it to Julia. It takes me right back.

I just loved books in general when I was a kid. I know I had a favourite that I insisted on taking everywhere with me, that I wore into shreds and my mom pasted in my baby scrapbook, but I can't remember what it was called.

My earliest memories of reading are sitting on my grandfather's lap listening to him read me Richard Scarry books.

9:26 AM  
Blogger Piece of Work said...

You are killing me! Just yesterday someone, I can't remember who, posted about books, and mentioned this one. I had forgotten ALL about it, but we had it when my little brother was small, and I used to LOVE reading it to him (although I would pretend that it was a giant pain in the ass). Anyway, I just loved getting that memory back, and now you've reinforced it!

12:09 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You've so sold me on that Grover book. I am going to find it and get it.

My parents didn't read to me. In fact we never had books around. I am still in awe when I go to their place there are no books anywhere to be seen.

1:08 PM  
Blogger Christina said...

I had that book as a child, and it was one of my favorites, too!

We also have a small board book version of the book for Cordy. I found it at Borders about a year ago, and snatched it up so fast it made Aaron's head spin. Although her favorite right now is still That's Not My Tractor (long story there), she does like The Monster at the End of This Book also.

1:17 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

I loved "The Little Prince" and I also had this book about a dog who got dirty- but I can't remember what the name was!!! Man!

3:26 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Curious George was my all time fav book as a little girl... (ahh who said i ever grew up) hes still my all time fav!!! I even went so far as to buy the entire collection of curious George stories so I could read them to my girls:)

3:58 PM  
Blogger karengreeners said...

we started collecting books for bumblebee's library before we even got engaged. our love of books dictated that we get copies of the ones we loved as kids (dr. seuss, robert munsch, and many others, as well as ones we would have loved if they had been written back then (tale of slug, mooses go walking - by arlo guthrie!). Metro Mama later helped to orchestrate an amazing book-themed baby shower for me and bee, and thanks to that, her library now includes the favorites of all of our friends.
so far, bee just rips up anything thinner than a board book, but grover is on her shelf, just waiting for her to get to the end.

10:23 PM  
Blogger Sandra said...

Toooooo many books to mention for both my son and myself. Thank god I birthed a reader :)

I wanted to stop by to say a big congratulations on not one but TWO perfect posts for this month. So well deserved. Sincerely.

6:12 AM  
Blogger Her Bad Mother said...

Arlo Guthrie did kids books! DID NOT KNOW!

And - the dirty dog? Wasn't that Harry the Dirty Dog?

9:23 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

you have brought a smile to my face this evening. I also LOVED the Grover book, but had forgotten all about it until just this very moment.

happy blogging indeed.

9:27 PM  
Blogger mrjumbo said...

Earliest reading experience was definitely sitting on Dad's lap going through Dr. Seuss's ABCs, learning to read: Big S, little s--what begins with S?

Back in the day we had "The Silly Book," which is long out of print (I want to see my mommy a minute, my minny a mommet, my monny a mimmit. I want to see my nommy a nimmit, to sing her a little song. To sit her a lingle, to lit her a single . . . ).

When I was sick, Papa Bradstein's sister read me James Thurber's "13 Clocks," probably also out of print, which is littered with fabulous onomatopoeia and high-concept physics. ("If we can't get the clocks started by putting our hands on them, we must have to not touch them to start them." They end up finding that putting your hands about a foot away warms the clocks enough to start them.) Tough call, but I probably like his "Many Moons" even a little better, both because it includes the word "surfeit" (the Princess falls ill from a surfeit of blueberry tarts) and because it covers astrophysics (all the King's royal advisers tell him it's impossible to have the moon on a chain because it's way too big, but the Jester figures out a way).

But one of my favorite children's books hadn't even been written when I was learning to read it: "The Stinky Cheese Man (and other fairly stupid tales)" by Jon Scieska and Lane Smith. It's for kids who already know stories like The Princess and the Pea and The Little Red Hen, and one of the most important lessons it teaches is that children's books should all be built around wittier graphics as well as good words. In a multimedia world, we cheat our kids if we don't whet their appetites for rich input on all levels.

For one thing, it would have made "Camera Lucida" a longer book.

8:01 AM  
Blogger Karen said...

This is the first book of which I have memories. My dad used to read it to me, using his best approximation of Grover's voice. I have photos of him reading it to my daughter. He died before he had a chance to read it to my son.

I brought my copy to college.

4:47 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I loved "Monster" too, and had the same duality of feeling about Grover -- I knew he was a monster, so loved and feared him just a teeny, tiny bit every time I read the book. I knew after the first time that he would be the monster at the end of the book, but there was still that element of suspense there...

Did you know they make a board book version of "Monster" too?

My favorite books as a little kid were my dad's old books -- one about a little Scottie dog, a very old Disney book, and one about a very little boy who started to grow. My other favorite was a Richard Scarry book that had all the little cartoons labeled with words. I think I still have all those books (quite dilapidated) in my collection today.

10:41 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

this is an old post and i feel a little silyl commenting now, but it made my entire day. i *love* the Grover book, and lkove reading to my 1 yr old, and I am currently using the Barthes text in one of my diss chapters. the deep pleasure of narrative is such a fascinating concept and Barthes is clearly right in that it isn't all about cliffhangers. what the Grover book so neatly illustrates is the role of reading in the construction of the identity of the reader - as you nicely put it in this case, it can involve thinking about mosnter-ness, how we encounter it and expect it. i love it.

10:37 AM  
Blogger Amy Jo said...

I took my little boy to the Children's Musuem today here in Atlanta, where they are running a Sesame Street exhibit. During story time, they read 'The Monster at the End of this Book' and it reminded me of this post.

4:16 PM  
Blogger Dan Morelle said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

3:27 PM  
Blogger Dan Morelle said...

Mine were Mr Egbert Nosh, about a nice English gentleman that was followed to work by his house! And Sendak's masterpiece Where The Wild Things Are. But I've ordered this one from Amazon today - it looks like it will be a lot of fun for my little ones.

3:28 PM  

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