Tuesday, January 10, 2012

An Open Letter to the Mother Who Thinks One of My Monster Poems is Inappropriate for Children

(I received an email from the mother in question a few days ago.  She was kind enough to tell me she and her 8-year-old liked my book Frankenstein Makes a Sandwich, but that the whole family was shocked and disappointed by the opening line from the mummy poem.  The opening lines are: "There's a place in France where the naked ladies dance./ But when King Tut died, he wore bandages for pants."  What follows is my response to her email.)

Letters like yours are always distressing.  It's never been my intention to offend parents or introduce children to any material I believe is inappropriate to their age.  Of course there will always be spirited disagreement about just what is appropriate for children and what is not, and so here we are.

Why did I include the bit about the naked ladies in my poem?  It was my intent with the mummy poem to craft something that would be understood to be read to a particular tune, in much the same way as the Phantom poems are in the same volume.  When we take a cartoonish view of ancient Egypt we often think of a song that's familiar to nearly all Americans, even if most of us are unfamiliar with its actual title and history: "The Streets of Cairo, or The Poor Little Country Maid."

Of course, children everywhere have been singing this song to one another for decades with the schoolyard lyrics, "There's a place in France where the naked ladies dance, there's a hole in the wall where the boys can see it all," etc.  I can't know if your son was familiar with this, of course.  Maybe you weren't either, though I certainly knew it thirty years ago, when I was eight.  My wife tells me that she sang it as a little girl as well.

Regardless, my early drafts of the mummy poem didn't contain that line about the naked ladies.  But I discovered that readers were not intuitively realizing that they should be reading it to the "Streets of Cairo" tune, so I rewrote it with that first line from the playground standard.

I respectfully disagree that the line is inappropriate for school-aged kids, but I don't expect to change your mind.  I take no pleasure, anyway, from learning that it bothered your son.  But I hope you understand that I had an editor on this book, and that editor had a boss, and that boss had a boss.  Likewise the publisher had a sales and marketing team that shared the book with hundreds of teachers and librarians before its publication.  The poem was published as is because none of these people voiced any objections.  Indeed, the book has been available for over five years, and this is the first objection to it I've received.

None of this means you're wrong, of course.  You're certainly not wrong about the care and raising of your own son.  But I want you to understand that there was nothing careless or cavalier about the years-long process of writing and producing Frankenstein Makes a Sandwich.  I hope you'll continue to enjoy it with your son, and to paperclip together the pages of the mummy poem until you return it to your library.

Best Wishes,



Holly said...

Yeah, that line did not go unnoticed over here, either.

Back in MY DAY, we sang schoolyard songs like, "Hey Johnny Johnny from the coconut grove, he was a mean motherf#cker, you could tell by his clothes," and decisions were arbitrated with a rhyme about nickels shooting up uncomfortable places.

So, librarian hi-5. The storytime kids loved the poem.

Laura K. Deal said...

I appreciate your thoughtful response to the mother who wrote you. When my daughters were little we read all sorts of books together and when something bothered us, we talked about why. It is hard to know what's overprotective and what's just good parenting, but it helps to have thoughtful discussions about it all rather than rants. Thanks for that, Adam.

Marieka said...

As an illustrator and maker of art for all ages, I also appreciate your post. I hope parents DO discuss lines that strike them as controversial in poetry, and otherwise. I would also hope this same mom addresses the context of naked ladies on billboards, movies, magazines, and tv that surrounds us every day.. AND I also hope I can eventually get that tune out of my head, so thanks for that. ;)

dawn said...

I think the mother was right to politely question something that she was uncomfortable with, how many parents would even bother these days? However, I think it is important to realise that in the grand scheme of things, that one objection is nothing compared to how many this man must have had, in the words of Roald Dahl...

'I made a grab. I caught the mouse,
Now right inside my knickers.
A mouse my foot! It was a HAND!
Great Scott! It was the vicar's!'

I read this when I was about 8, and thought it hilarious, and I am in no way scarred by it in my adult life. I agree with Marieka, advertising, TV and film, are likely to be far more damaging and controversial to children, than a line in a poem, and if parents can't sit down and talk about these things with their child, then the child has no hope :) My niece is 8, and she came home and told her mum, that she (her mum) was wrong, and she didn't have to marry a man, she could marry a woman. My point here is, you can try and keep things from your child, until an age where you see fit to explain, but that just means they will probably hear about it at school first anyway.

Jose Pardo said...

Very well handled Adam. People dont realize how many "editorial" eyes a project like this has to go in front of before actually seeing the light of day.

Kaethe said...

I would never have gotten the tune of the poem if you hadn't included that line. So, as the designated reader, thank you.

It's funny, but I didn't even think about that line, none of the times I've read it. Far from being shocked or disappointed, I was happy to discover a different version (when I was seven it was "there's a place in France where the ladies where no pants").

Looking forward to Cold Cereal and pandas, by the way.

Anonymous said...

Nice letter. You've adequately defended yourself and justified the mother too. Very diplomatic.

As I child, I was taught; "there's a place in France where the women do a dance." It left the naked out, but was still degrading. lol! But how else were people supposed to get the tune in their heads? FMAS made me laugh a lot, I really enjoyed it.

Angela Fox

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