Recently, my family rented a cabin for a week. Now, most cabins have a collection of books that the owners leave around, and it's usually along the lines of a swap shelf with a bunch of thrillers, romance novels, and the lesser known works of 70s scifi authors. This cabin was notable in the quality and quantity of its books. There was an OED (the older edition with the magnifying glass), various field guides, Virginia Woolf, Greek myths, someone's dissertation in hardcover, historical mysteries, some cheesy stuff about getting in touch with your Inner Spirit hidden back in the bedroom, and a collection of those teeny hardcover children's books stacked in the bathroom. So the kids and I read through them, starting with the stuff I knew: Peter Rabbit and Harold on their adventures. Then I hit Babar.
I hadn't read Babar as a child. I kind of remember being semi-terrified by a production at the local children's theater, but I was pretty young, and it didn't really stick. So, I'm reading along, slowly getting more worried by the colonial fable: the leering hunter and casual death, the clothes-horsery of Babar, the abrupt marriage of cousins, the sartorial metaphors. Do the kids see how paternalistic and odd this whole enterprise is? Did they notice Babar just married his cousin after seeing her running naked in the streets?
Turns out I needn't have worried my pretty little head. Know what the kids turned out be be obsessed by? The old king eating a bad mushroom, turning green, and dying. That's it. I'm pretty sure they are completely unaware that there is a larger narrative. They would fetch the book after I'd put it away, and my older child, who is on the cusp of reading himself and kind of a know-it-all, would find the page with the green corpse, and “read” it to his sister. He would also add helpful admonishments about never eating mushrooms in the forest, especially the red ones. The girl would then giggle and ask, “Is he funny? The elephant's funny.”
When on walks during the week I would point out mushrooms growing out of the downed trees and stumps. Some look like fairy awnings, some like blobs of melting butter. They now held the glamor and fascination of green, dead elephants and poison, and the boy was intent. Grandma, in her wisdom, took down a field guide to wild mushrooms, (this cabin really did have an astonishing variety of books) and the boy carefully paged through it to find the species of mushroom we'd seen together.
There's so much anxiety surrounding children's books. They're often explicitly instructive, and as such end up being a very unrestrained expression of cultural expectations and anxiety. You can hang a neon sign above Babar today about French colonialism and France's role as the rich benefactor of those poor, pantsless, mushroom-eating Africans. But my kids, not growing up under French colonialism, don't care about that at all. It simply doesn't exist. They have other anxieties, often the ones I would never expect. Once, one of the boy's school friends told him about the movie “Jeepers Creepers” and I spent a week talking him down at bedtime, making up all manner of stories to keep the monster at bay. I don't like dealing with anxieties about things that don't exist. But mushrooms do, and can be looked up, and his anxiety about poison can be talked about, and can I have a fruit snack? No you can't, because we're having dinner soon.