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.