When kids books go bad: how Mr. Men and Little Miss teach kids to hate themselves

October 29 2018 | Guest post by Charlotte Fielding
When kids books go bad: how Mr. Men and Little Miss teach kids to hate themselves
Hands off, Mr. Tickle
Image by Roger Hargreaves

There are a lot of books that I enjoyed as a child that dismay me as an adult. But I try not to be a loud feminist killjoy too often, so I usually just quietly burn them along with my bras while having lesbian orgies and making art with my menstrual blood. You know, a typical day for a feminist. (We save man hating for special occasions like presidential inaugurations.) But occasionally I come out of hiding from my lair — I mean, lounge — like when I read this outdated series of books that somehow ended up in my house and has been taken up by my son with great enthusiasm.

Don't be fooled by the colorful happy pictures. These books are all about how consent is unnecessary, and being true to yourself is a bad thing, unless you are eternally cheerful, and we all know that's impossible (fuck off, Olaf). So if you're not Mr. Cheerful or an anthropomorphic snowman, what is in store for you and the assorted limb-y blobs around you?

If you're Mr. Tickle, you can just go around anonymously tickling people with your long arms even though they are shouting "stop, stop" and you're delaying trains, making the postie drop the letters in a puddle, knocking over the greengrocer and his apples, and causing traffic jams. And then you go and sit in your armchair at home and evilly reminisce about all the fun you had tickling people who were just trying to get on with their day and didn't know what the fuck was going on and why this asshole was touching them uncomfortably. Dude… consent?! And if that wasn't bad enough, there's a "fun" warning for all the children at the end that Mr Tickle might come and get them with his long arms at any moment.

If you're Mr. Greedy then you'd better get ready for a hell of a diet because the moral lesson here is that fat is bad, folks. If you're fat you're going to be taught a lesson by having a giant force-feed you until you're ill, at which point you'll never be greedy again, and there's a picture at the end of the book showing a slimmer Mr. Greedy who explicitly says, "He now looks like this, which I think suits him a lot better, don't you?" Forget body positivity! Teach your children that fat is bad.

If you're Mr. Greedy then you'd better get ready for a hell of a diet because the moral lesson here is that fat is bad, folks.

I'd better not forget to mention a Little Miss. I don't know why all the Misses are Little. Perhaps so that men are more justified in saving the day, which is what happens in Little Miss Giggles' case. Poor Little Miss Giggles loses her giggles and because she is a one-dimensional character, this is a serious issue. She doesn't go on a journey of self-discovery or take up a hobby or even just smile now and then. No, she cries and is miserable, until a Mr. Man (Happy, to be specific) comes up with a genius idea (because only the men can fix things) and she gets her giggles back. Thanks Mr. Happy! Where would we Misses be if it weren't for your benefaction?

Alright, that's enough about women, back to the men. There's Mr. Grumble who isn't allowed to express his feelings like Eeyore is — instead he gets turned into a pig by a wizard every time he grumbles. What a way to learn a lesson, huh? Forget self-improvement or authenticity. Can that wizard come and help me to pay all my bills by their due date, not sabotage relationships, always be patient with my child, and go to bed at a reasonable time?

Then there's Mr. Messy who is super happy with his life, until random strangers called Mr. Neat and Mr. Tidy butt in, and won't take no for an answer. They take over his house and garden against his will and even clean Mr. Messy up, until he doesn't even resemble his former self. Goodbye, happy Mr. Messy! Now you're like everyone else and fit into the narrow standards society sets for you. If you want to teach your children that they aren't good enough the way they are, this is the book for you.

Mr. Clever was also pretty happy with his life in Cleverland, until he went for a walk and everyone, even random worms, did their best to prove that he wasn't, in fact, clever. Even at the end of the book he doesn't get to be clever, so I think the lesson we can take from this is to not have self-esteem because people will knock you down. They will suck out your self-identity if you dare to be anything more than modest and mediocre.

Mr. Clever was also pretty happy with his life in Cleverland, until he went for a walk and everyone did their best to prove that he wasn't.

Although I could critique every single book in the series, I'll finish with Little Miss Hug. Little Miss Hug gives everyone hugs (in case there was any confusion). She hugs them when they hurt themselves, feel sick, or at birthday parties. Everyone likes hugs at birthday parties, right? Except people who are there under duress, don't like physical affection from pink people with daisies in their hair, people who are shy, or the many other reasons they might not want hugs. The main issue is, at the end of the book she meets Mr. Grumpy, and is so confused by him not wanting a hug that she… keeps hugging him. She won't let go! Oh, how… sweet?

These books teach badly dated "moral" lessons and I need to figure out how to get them away from my seven-year-old. I've run out of bras to burn so our next family bonfire won't be for a while. I appreciate opportunities for teaching moments, but there are only so many times I can explain why I don't think Mr. Tickle should tickle the schoolteacher from a distance while all the children mock him, before I feel like I'm losing the battle for basic human decency against tiny colorful despots.

Do you have a better series that the author could swap in for her son's current one? Help a Homie out!

  1. Suggestion: photocopy the images in books without the text, and make a project of rewriting the books together with your child to create narratives that offer better messages. This way, he can still enjoy the goofy, classic imagery without the super problematic stuff. Bonus, it's a creative activity. Double bonus, you can do it together. Triple bonus, it's an opportunity to have conversations about what you don't like about the original stories. Quad bonus, you can do away with the "Little" in the Miss ones, and you can even toss in a Mx to break out of the gender binary!
    PS, I totally have to remember this idea for when/if I reproduce.

    32 agree
  2. I have no useful suggestions but just wanted to say that the first four sentences of this post are fucking gold.

    No ideas for seven year olds but for the toddler crowd, I adore the Best Behavior Series with books like "Voices Are Not For Yelling" and "Hands Are Not For Hitting" and "Teeth Are Not For Biting". Lots of diversity, good pictures, and helpful parent tools at the end of the book.

    5 agree
    • OMG I'm having flashbacks to reading the "Teeth are Not For Biting" book (which I had forgotten existed until just now) to my nanny kids three times a day way back when. They were biters. The book did not help them stop biting each other, but they sure loved to hear it read to them. :/

      1 agrees
      • Toddlers often do not cognitively process the "not" in the statements. They hear an overarching message of "teeth are for biting". I think it's an interesting miss in the publishing industry from developmental specialists. I hear the same comment at the daycares I see children at- we read the book at it doesn't work. No surprise there. Better for older children, but they are usually not biting at that age.

  3. Ooo, oooo! Classic books I hate but my kids love – babes and curious George. Stealing a monkey is not acceptable behavior.

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    • I’ve always found Curious George way beyond curious. Who goes into the jungle and kidnaps a monkey (aka a BAME baby), then leaves them alone in various circumstances?
      The one where George is punished by being sent up to space in an experiment is perhaps the most incredible for all the wrong reasons.

      As an aside, Mrs Needleman scares the bejebus out of me.

      • I haven't read those books, but sadly people do kidnap monkeys, especially babies, from jungles (pet trade, zoo trade, entertainment, animal testing), and monkeys were sent into space to die, so it sounds like the author's just drawing on real life! Perhaps a teachable moment to show children that's not a good way to behave?

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  4. I also read this books as a kid, too. I also view them with a different lense as an adult. I like the idea of re-writing the text with your child to teach the moral lessons in today's language!

    Nursery rhymes are things I am currently having issues with. For example, The Farmer in the Dell… "the farmer takes a wife"… um, you can't just take a wife! It's 2018… you have to date her for a while, the ASK her to marry you, then plan a wedding, etc! I point that out every time my white, male, 2.5 year old child sings that stupid song! There is a version on youtube where the farmer is a girl and she only does stuff with the animals and crops (milks the cows, plants the corn, etc.): https://www.bing.com/videos/search?q=youtube+farmer+in+the+dell&view=detail&mid=F03A2580B60CFB73341DF03A2580B60CFB73341D&FORM=VIRE

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    • this morning on facebook i saw a rewrite of sleeping beauty. it was amazing. sleeping princess. prince comes along and is about to kiss her, but wait! can't do that. no consent and also quite creepy. let's leave her to sleep. happily ever after. the end.

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    • I always sang it in my youth as "the farmer wants a wife". Nearly the same, but a loss let iffy on the consent front – it's alright to want things!

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      • Same here. And then, the wife wants a child, the child wants a dog etc. Just a silly song to develop memory and logical association between things. "Takes a wife" was a common way of speaking back when songs like that were made up, but just a small change in phrasing makes it better 🙂

  5. This one's a classic "WTF kid book", but Rainbow Fish. I can see the message it's going for, but it unfortunately doesn't distinguish terribly well between "this is an innate trait that makes you noticeably different" and "this is an innate trait that you're being a jerk about" in the text. Which ends with "if you have an innate trait that makes you different, and you can't just distribute it around, you're a jerk" as a reasonably common/plausible interpretation.

    So, potential ways to improve it.

    1) rewrite so it ends with Rainbow Fish helping all the other fish see that they have unique and special traits of their own.

    2) rewrite to make it clear that the problem isn't that Rainbow Fish is all shiny, it's that he's being obnoxious about it, and have him learn to be nicer about special things that he has but other people don't. (Could also combine well with the above. "Yes, Rainbow Fish, you have very shiny scales, but Triangle Fish has very nice fins, and Long Fish has very sharp eyesight – everyone has things that make them special, and none of them is better than the others.")

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  6. This was hilarious and yet also very distressing!
    Kids' books seem to give a unique window into the time when they were written – there is some subtle (and NOT subtle programming going on!). They take the dominant messages of the day and just spell them out so clearly.
    We have a pile of secondhand Golden Books from the 60's and I am so glad that many of them are now out of print. Unfortunately, my son loves them and gets very frowny when I try and pull a "2 page turn".
    I try and take deep breaths and take some comfort that at least the culture has changed sufficiently in the last 30-40 years that these books are now obviously not appropriate.
    Though it is still very distressing to read a book that seems like it MUST be a parody/satire and discovering that, yet again, NOPE, IT'S NOT.

  7. Ah! I’m glad I’m not the only one who couldn’t deal with the messages from those books. I put the Mr. and Little Miss books we were given in the recycling. I felt guilty because “books are for cherishing!” but got over it because every single page 1) had too many words for my tiny people and 2) I kept adding more words to tell my kids – this is not acceptable behaviour.

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  8. One of my favorite picture books that I remember was "Berenstein Bears and Too Much Junk Food" (I liked looking at the pictures of all the candy!) But yeah it was very judgmental, like who decides which food is good and which is bad? And when exactly does Mama Bear notice that her two kids and her husband are all getting chubby at the same time? And why is the dad always lumped in with the kids in those, anyway? He's usually ashamed after Mama Bear gave him & the kids a good dressing-down. Maybe that is accurate enough… ha ha. Now I know why my mom hated that series. Thanks for the reminder on context etc.

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  9. I think some of these books need to be put into context. Those sending problematic messages probably never intended that, so if your children want to read them then, as other people have suggested, the message can be updated.

    A couple of examples mentioned are to do with telling characters off for eating too much and getting fat, and everyone's immediate reaction is that it's not good for body positivity. But I don't think even the original stories meant that as a message. We (hopefully) all know that we need to eat a healthy diet and do appropriate exercise for our health, and that's important information to be passed on to children to help them take care of themselves as they grow up.

    When I was in my twenties I knew a 17-year-old who complained that he had a tummy ache. When I asked what he'd eaten he said "Lots of ice cream". When I said that was probably why his tummy was hurting he was genuinely shocked – he had absolutely no idea that eating too much of an unhealthy food like ice cream could make you feel ill! And that's probably the sort of message books about "greedy" people are trying to convey – it's not about having the wrong sort of appearance, it's about eating the wrong foods and it not being good for your health. Or even just that eating too much of anything isn't good for you – too many apples can also cause a tummy ache!

    Other examples, like Mr Messy (encouraging children to tidy their room or not smear jam all over the walls?) or Mr Clever (don't be arrogant and belittling to those you perceive as less clever than you?) might have messages that are helpful even if the way they're written is problematic. Those sorts of stories can be read in a light-hearted way and then provide an opportunity to talk to children about what's wrong with them and why, for example, you shouldn't tickle everyone especially if they don't want you to, or how it's fine that some people are messy and some are neat as long as it's not hurting anyone, or how it's OK not to be happy all the time. Many fairy stories are pretty dark but children love them anyway and know they shouldn't be taken literally.

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  10. I LOVED those books as a kid and was on a personal quest to collect all of them (I failed but I had a LOT). I was pretty excited to read them to my kid. Some, like my personal favorite Little Miss Twins, are perfectly harmless nonsense. But it was reading Mr. Happy that I noticed the problematic nature you're talking about. As someone who is chronically depressed I hate the idea that being sad all the time can just be … fixed.

    That said, I kind of appreciate these books showing problematic behaviors in simple ways. Because with out something like that, I don't really know how to trigger the conversations about consent, the line between messy and unhealthy, the line between helpful and meddling, etc. You can read those books and then as, Socratic Method style, what was okay about what happened? What would upset you if you were a character in the book? What should the characters do differently? So on and so forth.

    2 agree

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