When my son was still an infant, I purchased a version of Peter Rabbit that turned out to have been edited down for the “youngest audience.” I was horrified. If I had wanted Beatrix Potter Lite, I sniffed to my husband, I would have bought a Peter Rabbit tea set, not a bowdlerized version of her book.
I didn’t know it then, but I was only a few months away from betraying my deeply held belief in the sanctity of the written word. The about-face happened for a simple reason: My son had begun to understand the words I was reading to him. Reading was no longer a pure appreciation of an author’s gifts but, heaven help me, an opportunity to parent.
Picture this: You settle in with your kid to read a book you remember as a favorite from your own childhood. Let’s say the book you’ve chosen is Maurice Sendak’s classic “cautionary tale” Pierre. You gaze with nostalgia and delight at Sendak’s unmistakable illustrations. Then you notice what the words you’re about to read actually say:
There was once a boy named Pierre
Who only would say “I don’t care!”
Wait a minute, you think. Pierre would only say what?
One day his mother said
When Pierre climbed out of bed
“Good morning, darling boy, you are my only joy”
Pierre said, “I don’t care!”
“What would you like to eat?”
“I don’t care!”
“Some lovely cream of wheat?”
“I don’t care!”
You’ve read enough to recognize what’s at stake here: The child in this book doesn’t care. Are you ready to introduce your own darling boy to the phrase “I don’t care” and, with it, to ennui, to disaffection, to insubordination? On the other hand, are you really about to defang this book of its glorious mischief? Are you actually second-guessing Maurice Sendak, who is widely considered to have written the best children’s book of all time?
Suddenly you, a humble parent, are forced into fighter pilot mode: You have a split second to make a decision on which the fate of nations may hang. You come to the conclusion that Maurice Sendak may have been a master of his form but he wasn’t tasked with raising your son to be joyful, sweet, and always respectful of his mother. Before you know it, your voice rings out loud and clear:
There was once a boy named Pierre
Who only would say, “I …care!”
And, just like that, the die has been cast. For the rest of the book, not to mention all subsequent readings, young Pierre exclusively responds to his parents’ questions and entreaties with a hearty, “I care!”
I know, I know: It makes zero sense when I read the book like that, both line by line (“What would you like to eat?” “I care!”) and as a narrative arc (spoiler alert: in Sendak’s version, Pierre eventually learns to care). But at least another day has passed without my child learning that some people simply do not care.
I take a certain comfort in the fact that I am not alone in sacrificing literary ideals for parental ones. A number of friends have reported to me that they, too, engage in what I have begun to think of as Reading While Parenting. Quite a few fellow parents, for example, find themselves picking up a childhood favorite only to end up flipping past outrageously racist illustrations (If you haven’t read If I Ran the Zoo since you were a kid, you’re in for a nasty surprise.)
Parents also regularly improvise when faced with bad words. In the context of children’s books, of course, this doesn’t mean profanity, but rather words parents may discourage their children from saying, like stupid, hate, sissy, or fat. One father I heard from avoided the word fat at all costs, turning even the Very Hungry Caterpillar from a “big fat” insect to a “great big” one. Another parent said she left the word alone when it was used to describe an animal but would replace it when it was used about a person. Another specifically sought out books where fat was used descriptively and without judgment since she didn’t want her child to think that the word should carry negative connotations.
I was heartened by the number of strategies parents shared for working around gender stereotypes—a bête noire of mine. Sometimes it’s a matter of adding female characters (“All the trucks in Goodnight, Goodnight, Construction Site are male, so we just change the pronouns for half of them”) or substituting gender-neutral nouns (e.g., firefighter for fireman). And sometimes a parent has to go a little farther, making an executive decision that the creatures of the forest loved Snow White not because she was “beautiful and gentle” but because “she worked hard and tried new things.”
Then there are the elisions made because parents know how children model their own behavior after characters they read about, and we have no desire for our children to behave like … well, like brats. “I remember loving Eloise,” one mother shared, “but when I read it to my kid, I’m sort of horrified by it.” Eloise is cringeworthily rude to pretty much everyone she comes across (her tutor, her nanny, guests in the Plaza elevator), so my friend had to be on high alert as she proceeded through the book. “I end up editing out the weirdest things,” she told me, “like ‘My mother knows the owner,’ because I don’t want my daughter to think it’s OK to name-drop.”
Speaking of behavior to be sort of horrified by, I’ll admit to some dark post-bedtimes of the soul spent wondering whether my textual revisionism is doing more harm than good. After all, the world doesn’t always conform to my values, and it won’t always conform to my son’s, whatever those may turn out to be. By editing text to suit my own ideals, or to pander to my own fears, am I doing him a disservice?
Maybe, but I still stand firmly behind the practice. For one thing, I’m proud that my son takes for granted that he’s just as likely to read about a girl as he is about a boy. (So sue me if some pronouns got switched along the way.) But beyond that, even without any excisions or modifications, reading with my son is always an improvisation of sorts. I can read the same book in one minute or 20, depending on how tired of the story—or just plain tired—I am. I can read the same book with or without silly voices for different characters, or questions about what my son thinks will happen next, or something new we’ve noticed in an illustration.
Reading out loud, especially to a child, is an act infused with the personality of reader and listener. I delight in discovering through reading what makes my child laugh, what upsets him, and how he interprets a seemingly straightforward narrative. And it is through reading that I’ve discovered more about what I value as a parent. It turns out that I will happily talk to a 3-year-old about bodily functions, criminal justice, and sexuality, but I stutter and stammer when confronted with the word stupid or with a character who declares vegetables to be yucky.
In any case, this stage where I can pretend a text says something it doesn’t is not, of course, going to last forever. In the meantime, the world will interfere, as it is wont to do, with my best-laid plans. One day a friend was visiting our house, and I walked into my living room to find her reading Pierre to my son. That is, she was reading the words on the page to him as they had been written.
I believe I managed to keep a smile plastered to my face as I watched this putatively touching scene unfurl. Meanwhile, each jaunty reading of the “I don’t care!” line was plunging me into abject terror. Would my son turn instantly into an intemperate strop? More worryingly, would he accuse me of having lied to him for years? And wouldn’t he be justified in doing so?
At story’s end, my son resolved the issue for himself. “I have another book that’s just like this,” he told my friend, “except that Pierre cares.”