The other day, my daughter told me about a book she and Grandma heard during story time at the local library.
She said it was called Charlie Anderson, a title I’d never run across before. My interest was piqued when she told me it was about a cat named Charlie, who leaves his people and goes into the woods every night. On the other side of the woods lives a family with a cat named Anderson, who goes off into the woods every morning. I started laughing.
“Honey, that’s awesome!” I said.
“So they call him Charlie Anderson,” she told me.
“We’ll check it out the next time we go to the library,” I promised.
Charlie lives with Sarah and Elizabeth and their mother. Anderson lives nearby with a man and woman who’ve owned him for seven years. It’s still an idea that tickles my brain. But when I got the book and read it, I found an undertone that completely escaped my daughter. There was this blurb on page fifteen.
On weekends the girls stayed with their father and stepmother in the city. They wanted to bring Charlie with them, but their mother said he’d miss the woods. “Charlie’s a country cat,” she told them.
Okay? That was free—presumably a way to explain why Charlie’s double life went unsuspected for so long. But when I got to the last page, I saw it was more than that.
Sometimes, in bed at night, Elizabeth asks him, “Who do you love best, Charlie Anderson?” And she can hear him purring in the dark. Just like Elizabeth and Sarah, Charlie has two houses, two beds, two families who love him.
He’s a lucky cat.
Well, I totally did not see that coming. A social agenda in a children’s story about a cat.
It’s not the literature trend that bothers me most (that would be our current obsession with the grotesque and the occult), but it is a trend, and it bothers me. It’s simpler for this mommy—committed to daddy until death do us part, and committed to raising children who view lifelong marriage as normal—when books with those undertones have a big clue in their titles. Living with Mom and Living with Dad. Heather Has Two Mommies. Let’s Talk about Living with a Grandparent. Standing on My Own Two Feet: A Child’s Affirmation of Love in the Midst of Divorce. When I think from the perspective of the authors and publishers and whoever else is driving this wagon, I feel upset.
But when I start to think about the many kids I know by name in my town, I feel less certain. I think of Nevaeh and Leon and Brandy, who will grow up in one-parent homes. Does it help if all of our children’s books are variations of Dick and Jane, with a daddy who goes to work every morning and comes home at dinnertime—with a mommy who stays home and cleans the windows and toilets and cooks three scheduled meals a day—with a Spot and a Puff who play in the backyard? To some of the kids I know, this life is as foreign as Little Wang Fu of China.
I am not sure that the writers are pushing an agenda so much as trying to help children make sense of what is reality for many.
But will we call Charlie Anderson lucky for his split identity?
Is there a positive way to help children think through the brokenness of their worlds without trying to convince them it’s a net gain?
Are we healing them or soothing ourselves?
What do you think?
Charlie Anderson, Barbara Abercrombie, 1990.
I connect with this and hope to hear more from your readers, since I wrote and spoke about divorce and fatherlessness in the recent past, emphasizing the crucial role of marriage and dads. . . and the divorced or abandoned people in the audience found it hideously painful. So I was tempted to throw on a cheerful band-aid of, “Oh, but God has promised to be your husband/Father!!”
We have to warn of consequences and we have to teach God’s ideal and we have to care for the hurting, and I frankly don’t know how to do all three.
But I do know that I laughed at your reference to Little Wang Fu of China.
So I’m not the only one who doesn’t just read a child’s book n let it go? I’ve been bugged by all the political correctness… females in all the traditionally masculine roles, to open another issue, making a point of making things fit the ‘new’ agenda… I think a generation was, in general, soothing itself but now there’s a generation that sees this as reality and doesn’t know another way. It’s sad. It’s not OK.
I was glad it “completely escaped your daughter”. I have bumped into other themes recently at the library with a grandchild. I’ve been naive enough to assume ‘story time at the library’ is safe……but???
It’s really ok. If story time ever does raise questions for her, it’s a good launch pad for talking about the issues!
Interesting that I had a similar conversation with Renita recently, and we both realize that our children and grands are going to face some of these issues at some point in time and when it raises questions, we will be the ones to help them understand the truth of life and the hurts that many children face in life. They will understand that they are the fortunate ones to have a mommie and daddy committed until death!
I was troubled by the same questions in Charlie Anderson, but I’d never considered it from this angle. When I read it to my kids, I subtly adjust it to leave out those bits. I still think it’s unnecessary to portray him as “lucky” with that agenda, but there is definitely something to be said for making good literature available to help children in these circumstances bridge the gap. We’re so often too insulated from these situations personally to really comprehend the reality.
Very stirring discussion Shari!! Does a child ever FEEL LUCKY to get shuttled back and forth. Wow, what a painful subject!!
Did the story also address the cat’s missing one family or the other when it was separated? Acknowledge any of the fragmentation? Just curious. Then it would’ve felt better to read that he was also “lucky to be loved by two families.”
No, nothing! Fed and loved and purring in both homes, he was described as “very happy and very fat…”
Broken, dysfunctional, homes, I thought of Ishmael .
His mom called out to God, You-Are-The God Who Sees…
For me, each child’s situation is somewhat unique & somewhat the same.
But if I feel led to read “Charlie Anderson” or ” Isaac & Ishmael” to the child, so be it. The God Who Sees is in control. He will direct our ways.
Thanks for addressing this subject.
I reacted, and I am a counselor for kiddos like this. And I would never call these kids lucky, and they don’t call themselves lucky! The way this book handles this angers me. I teach them how to live with the reality of a broken world, but calling them lucky is not what helps. I love the books that help them process their reality but I never want the books to do that in a way that avoids that pain and confusion that the child constantly feels.
I agree with what several others have said. The book should also acknowledge the child’s confusion and pain while affirming to them that they’re loved by both families. A complete lack of that feels like an adult effort to manipulate the child’s emotions into a response that’s more convenient for the adults.
I’ve noticed bothersome themes in children’s books, too. I bought the sweetest book on babies and read it many times before I noticed how lovingly two men’s knees were angled together at a playground or two moms draped over each other in bed while baby slept nearby. I’m guessing some are written to promote an agenda and others are written to help children make sense of their broken world. Sometimes maybe the two of these are mixed whether its done consciously or not. I do think to help children understand brokenness the communication needs to be honest and express the loss as well as the good.