Abandon Text!

W. H. Auden once said: "Poems are not finished; they are abandoned." I have been abandoning writing projects for many years, since only the pressure of deadline and high expectations ever got me to finish, or even start, anything of merit. This blog is an attempt to create a more consistent, self-directed writing habit. Hopefully a direction and voice will emerge.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

The Subversive Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle

I remember, when I was in elementary school, we had some regular story-reading. Or, at least, I assume it was regular, but I don't remember enough of it to know for sure. Either I don't remember much, or it didn't happen much, because the only two books I ever remember us reading was E.B. White's The Trumpet of the Swan and Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle.

I remember that Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle must have been unusual and rare, because none of the other kids had ever heard of it, and the old teacher who was reading it to us was reading it with a fondness that could only have come from many long years of use. The stories were funny, moralistic in a peculiar way, and always memorable. They almost always involved a child with some bad habit or character flaw -- lying, forgetfulness, bad table manners, etc. -- and Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle's unusual cure for the condition. I remembered a story where a little girl hated to take baths . . . and so Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle let her go without a bath for so long that dirt caked to her skin and her parents planted radish plants in her.

I never gave those old stories much thought until I had kids of my own, and suddenly they were putting me on the spot to "tell a story." Now, telling a story to a five-year-old is a especially challenging feat, because finding something of appropriate theme and length is extremely hard. I never much cared for the classic fairy-tales and couldn't bring myself to tell them; besides, Disney had already ruined them. But my other stocks of fantastic stories had thematic limitations: mythology has some initial promise, except that adult themes of violence, treachery, adultery, and more violence was woven into almost all of them. And so, after telling a much-doctored version of the Illiad and snippets of Tolkein, I found myself telling a few Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle stories from memory.

Oh, they were a hit. Something about them had stopping power for the five-year-old set. We sent off for a few of the books, and they became instant favorites. But what struck me most was how much I was enjoying them. They mixed in some subtle jokes for the parents, the way "The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show" used to do.

But, even more interestingly, they were quite subversive for their time. They were written in the late 1940's, in a time when conformity and discipline were highly prized and not even a whiff of the 1960's freedom was anywhere to be found. And yet, here was Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle in her upside-down house, with a chandalier on the floor (how trippy is that?). Her relationship to children is based on (gasp) genuine respect and gentleness, and her cures are largely (can it be?) letting children discover the natural consequences of their actions. Her style is so much in the realm of Attachment Parenting and Non-Violent Communication that I can think of no better portrayal . . . and yet she was conceived sixty years ago.

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