The Complete Adventures of Curious George – Margret and H.A. Rey, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016 (75th anniversary edition; reprint of 1941, 1947, 1952, 1957, 1958, 1963, and 1966 editions)
Good Night, Little Bear – Richard Scarry, Golden Books of Random House Children’s Books, 2014, Big Golden Book reprint of 1961 edition)
I am philosophically, as well as practically, against bowdlerizing children’s books to conform to modern values. In case you have forgotten, the process of “updating” literary works for this purpose is name for Thomas Bowdler (1754-1825), who famously expurgated Shakespeare’s plays to avoid damaging the delicate sensibilities of women and children. While recently reading Curious George to my three-year old grandson, I was forced to think a bit about my opposition to this process. I’m still convinced that sanitizing problematic parts of children’s books is a terrible idea for many reasons, one of which is the “slippery slope” argument, of how far we can go once we decide to make an exception for particularly objectionable material. I would just like to raise the issue here so that caregivers can think about the implications of smoking in children’s picture books.
The man with the yellow hat smokes a pipe, and why wouldn’t he? Smoking, whether cigarettes, pipes, or cigars, was both popular and accepted, at least among men, when the book was first published in 1941. In fact, looking through several children’s illustrated books from the post-World War II era, it strikes me how relatively few characters smoke, considering the habit’s prevalence in the general population. (Cigarettes seem to be less common than pipes, although a quantitative study would be necessary to confirm that impression.) Curious George’s guardian has a rather paternal air as he sits on the boat from Africa with the little monkey, explaining that he is going to take George to live in a big-city zoo, and cautioning him with raised finger not to get into trouble. The man is smoking a pipe during this talk. My grandson asked me what it was; at first I hesitated…
…then I told him that this was something grown- ups used to do very often, before doctors knew that it wasn’t good for you. Apparently, my son-in-law had given him a similar explanation. I began to question how unconscionable it would really be to get rid of the pipe. Would it change the character? Would it alter Rey’s artwork? Curious George being, essentially, a toddler, in another picture he tries to imitate the man with the yellow hat, whose yellow hat he already borrowed.
First, he sits at a table with a napkin tied around his neck, using a dictionary as a booster seat, and drinks soup with a spoon. He wears the man’s oversized pajamas. In the middle of the page he sits on the man’s armchair with a satisfied expression on his face, with the pipe in his mouth and toxic curls of smoke swirling into the air. This illustration underscores the problem.
While it’s relatively easy to explain to older children, even those as young as five or six, the concept of something having been bad before we knew it was bad, I have been reading Curious George to my grandson since he was a young toddler. Probably this component of the story and pictures is minimal enough to leave a light impression, but it would not be unrealistic to assume that my explanation can really stick at this age. Later in the series, a cigar chomping movie director watches George sign a contract in Curious George Takes a Job. The man with yellow hat, holding George on his lap as any parent would on this momentous occasion, also smokes. In Curious George Gets a Medal, Professor Wiseman, the museum director, smokes a pipe, not only in his laboratory but on a rocket launch pad!
Apparently, animals smoke pipes, too. In Richard Scarry’s Good Night, Little Bear the father bear is first pictured smoking a corncob pipe while watching, ironically, Smoky the Bear on t.v. I guess there is no danger of starting a fire in his living room. The rest of the book is smoke-free, as the father carries the little bear on his shoulders, plays with him, and puts him to bed. This transition seems to imply that smoking, unlike for the man with the yellow hat, is something o.k. for dad to do in his spare time, but not when caring for his child.
There is an obvious parallel to this dilemma in the issue of diversity in children’s books. Richard Scarry’s busy world stories, such as What Do People Do All Day or Busy, Busy World, show male and female animals in segregated gender roles. Then there is the pervasive fact of older books simply failing to present any people of color. One difference between the issues is that we can explain absence and supplement it. Our children now have access to many books where women are police officers and where members of all races and ethnicities are represented. We can even point this out while reading to them. In the case of smoking, we can only say that this was a bad habit, without even going into convincing and terrifying detail about how bad it was, when reading to very young kids. In this sense, books that normalize smoking would be more like ones with toxic and offensive racial stereotypes. It isn’t even worth presenting and contextualizing those books for toddlers, yet few of us would put the works of H.A. Rey and Richard Scarry into that disposable category.
At the end of the day, I am going to allow the man with the yellow hat to keep his pipe and try to explain it to my grandson, since I am still afraid of the Orwellian universe where we change uncomfortable images of reality. Still, a three-year-old pre-reader is not an adult watching a 1940s screwball comedy where people happily puff away. He has learned that the kindly bear playing with his little son is a smoker; later he will learn how human knowledge helps us to make better choices. We can only be aware of the imperfect realities of our busy, busy world.