Cisgendered Bears and Other Horrible Things That Have Happened to My Mommy Brain

Cisgendered Bears and Other Horrible Things That Have Happened to My Mommy Brain March 18, 2014

A few weeks ago, a mom of my acquaintance got The Three Little Bears from the library, but was irritated to discover that the story had been bowdlerized for 21st century sensitivities.  Gone were the heteronormative Papa Bear, Mama Bear and Baby Bear. Instead, we just had three genderinoffensive bears, one big, one medium, and one small. What. A. Crock.

PIC three bears Galdone


But when she posted a picture, I thought, Wait, that’s got to be Paul Galdone, who has been illustrating for a lo-o-o-ong time. I looked it up, and sure enough, this version of The Three Bears came out in 1972. Definitely post sexual revolution, but hardly an era when devious children’s illustrators were stretching the definition of family — at least not in mainstream children’s books.

Following a hunch, I did some quick research, and discovered that the “Three Bears” story was first written down by Robert Southey in 1837, and — lo and behold, the original version was about three male bears. I don’t think they were some kind of transgressive, tradition-flouting bears shacking up in the woodsy version of Castro Street. They were just three bears trying to deal with porridge in the way that they thought best.

PIC three bears Southey


Now, I don’t blame the original mom for thinking there was something hinky going on. We really do have to be on constant alert for hidden and not-so-hidden agendas driven by people we wouldn’t trust to boil an egg for us, much less teach our kids what is normal and what is not.  At the same time, being on constant alert can make us a little nutty, and we begin to see bogeymen in every corner,

PIC Francis afraid


when sometimes it’s really just your chair with a robe hanging on it in a sinister way.

When I read books that are 25 years old or more, I play a little game:  I scan the illustrations and text to see if anything would jump out at the typical concerned mom if it were written today. Look for it, and you’ll find quite a lot! I’m not even talking about deliberate naughty easter eggs that they’re assuming most people will miss, like what the obviously drunk animators snuck into the backgrounds of ancient Bugs Bunny cartoons

PIC Looney Tunes with porno poster


I’m just talking about things that people didn’t used to flip out about, because there wasn’t any real threat of a concerted, deliberate effort to change children’s ideas of what is normal (or the threat was in its earliest stages). Lots of topless people, bottomless people, guys who may or may not be super gay, and so on. These things pepper old kid’s books for decades, and no one batted an eye.  People simply didn’t used to be on high alert at all times.

All that being said, I’m not sure what to make of a strange and hilarious book we just found:  Monsters by Russell Hoban (who, speaking of a chair with a robe on it, did the wonderful Frances books) and illustrated by Quentin Blake.

It’s a funny little story about a boy — maybe eight years old — who likes to draw monsters (and oh my gosh, the illustrations are perfect-o):

His mother asks him whether he wouldn’t like to draw other things — “houses, trees, birds, and animals” — but he is only interested in drawing monsters.

All of John’s monsters were violent.  They fought with passing strangers and random spacecraft and they fought with one another, and if they found themselves alone they made threatening noises to themselves while waiting for somebody ugly to turn up.
‘GNGGHHHHH!’ they said, “NNARRRGH!” and “XURRRVVV!”

He reassures his worried parents that he is fine, getting along with his teachers fine, getting along with the other kids fine.  One day he begins to draw a monster that is really big — in fact, he can only get parts of its huge, bristly monstrous tail on a sheet of paper. This one “somehow seems more serious than the others.”  The parents are worried, but the art teacher reassures them that “Boys are naturally a little monstrous.” They go to the doctor, who prescribes a pill, and tells them to come back if the drawings keep coming. Which they do.

I won’t give away the end, but the doctor gets what he’s got coming, and the boy ends up feeling much better.

Now, if this book had come out in 2014, Russell Hoban would be served with a lawsuit from Gloria Allred, his cause would irritably championed by Camille Paglia, and Tony Esolen would be offering him a home cooked meal drenched in a gravy of tears of rage and sorrow, and Matt Walsh would be saying something that is sorta kinda true, but making it sound so baboonishly false that you want to disown yourself for even halfway agreeing with him.

It would have been a thing, you see, a big thing about how boys are treated, how their natural masculinity is medicated into oblivion, and what monstrous things will eventually happen when boys are not allowed to be boys, or what it is that we are saying to girls by not saying that they are naturally a little monstrous, and so on. But the book is from 1991, when we were still teetering on the brink of Always Being Hysterical All the Time About Everything Especially, ESPECIALLY, What We Are Teaching Our Children.

Uphhh, I’m just so tired. So tired of having to figure out what’s appropriate, what’s inappropriate, what’s sending the wrong message, what’s playing into the whole “sending the wrong message” nonsense, and so on. It’s almost a relief to know that kids tend to remember things you weren’t even aware of telling them, and they forget the things you all but tattooed into the inside of their eyelids.

Anyway, I really like Paul Galdone, because he always draws pictures of what is actually going on in the story; and I really like Russell Hoban, because he really remembers what it’s like to be a kid. Thus endeth my analysis. I’m gonna go draw some monsters.

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  • “Matt Walsh would be saying something that is sorta kinda true, but making it sound so baboonishly false that you want to disown yourself for even halfway agreeing with him”


    Shopping carts.

    In other news, my 5 year old (with global delays/ impairments) drew a person with only one eye today. When I asked where the other eye was she said, “Monster’s Inc!”

    She’s pretty cute like that.

  • Nan

    When I was a kid, my grandma gave us some Bobbsey Twins books. My mom read one of them and was horrified about the racist stuff in it and let us read them anyway. I don’t remember any of the racist stuff at all just that it was a child’s adventure series. Like other series, they were updated in later editions. I had a revised version of the Nancy Drew books and at one point was also given an older version of one of the books; same title and characters but completely different story line.

  • Kelly Biehl Seppy

    Loved the Frances books! They were the ones I never got tired of reading to the kids. I would laugh at the same places in them over and over. (Whack and smack made Frances think of a spanking) And the illustrations were a-dorable.

  • anna lisa

    I can’t even believe what an idiot I was about the bogeyman behind every corner. Now I realize that the bogeymen were the people who insisted that I resist the bogeyman.

  • anna lisa

    I just got over/survived St. Pat’s day. It involved several child-men, a posse of their child-men/child-women friends, and I would imagine a bang up drunken good time at Dargan’s. Nobody made it home, but someone did manage to butt-dial us at 4:30 a.m.
    Give me the old days of teething, dyslexia, questionable bishops, presidents that deny fooling around with interns and children’s books where somebody is inappropriately eaten by a dinosaur.

    • Anna

      Since I can reply here directly and not at the Register, I just had to say that your private revelation story about your son in the ocean gave me chills to read and still does whenever I think about it. But I like knowing it’s not solely up to me with raising these kids; I mean, I know that, but your story writes it in big huge capital letters.

      • anna lisa

        Anna, I have to fight myself to keep trusting, despite so many obvious blessings. I think a lot about how the vocation of a mother is a constant, Monica-like prayer without allowing it to become neurotic. It’s kind of interesting how God actually had to take Monica to task for needing to rein all of her tears in. Oh my gosh. You just reminded me of another miracle. When my oldest son was in high school, he did this summer service project through Opus Dei, called Cratona (I think that’s how it’s spelled) in the Bronx. He had an entire class of disadvantaged kids (mostly single Moms that needed to work) On one of the weekends, they took all the volunteers on a road trip to Boston in one of those big church vans. Nobody had seatbelts. If I recall correctly, the driver of the van had to swerve to avoid a car. He went up an embankment and the car ended up flipping, I think twice. It was a huge deal with a bunch of emergency vehicles, and a helicopter to airlift the injured. My son told me that he felt like he was on the inside of a washing machine, with all of them tumbling around. One kid was propelled through the front window and fell to the pavement. He sustained a minor head wound and some cuts from the glass. NOBODY else was injured at all! The police and emergency people were utterly floored because the van was completely smashed up, and every single person walked away. When my husband and I were called, everything was over, so we never had to suffer that horror of waiting. The Numerary that called us was so moved as he described for us the scene on the freeway. He could hardly contain his emotions when he told us that a bunch of prayer cards of St Josemaria Escriva had fallen in a pattern on the freeway, and at the center of them was a single, very old prayer card of Our Lady of Guadalupe.
        I can’t believe I had semi-forgotten that that happened. I should remember the blessing rather than cringe from the reality that our lives hang from a delicate thread.
        That was one of the first times I had ever let my son go for an extended period of time too.

        • anna lisa

          I’m going to cut and paste this to send to my son who experienced this. I bet he hasn’t thought about it in a while either…

  • Valerie Finnigan

    I always appreciate a level-headed response to this kind of craziness.

  • echarles1

    The Monsters book reminds me of my friend Judy when her son was in preschool. The teacher was worried that Judy’s son did not want to participate in any art projects. He only wanted to play with toy cars. Judy, being bluntly Australian, told the teacher “Let him play with the cars if he wants to.” Judy did not truck with unnecessary worry!

  • Sarah Pierzchala

    My family loves the Carl Barks’ Donald Duck and Scrooge McDuck comics—and boy, are they chock full of PC no-nos! The mildest is probably the way Huey, Louie and Dewy bounce along in the back of Donald’s open convertible without seatbelts…

  • Peggy Bowes

    I too love the Frances books and am glad that my daughter loves them as much as I do. Maybe I’d better run out and buy copies for my future granddaughter before they are made gender-neutral and non-offensive…