“I could eat you up!”
It’s what adults sometimes say to particularly cute children. And considering some youngsters' plump cheeks and sugary smiles, who could blame a person for wanting to gobble them up?
Not literally, of course. You and I know that “I could eat you up” is a figure of speech. The problem is, no one explained that to the witch in Hansel and Gretel.
As you may recall, in the Grimm’s fairy tale, two siblings stumble upon a cottage made of candy. Ecstatic, they eat pieces of the house until its owner, a witch, discovers them. After one glance at Hansel’s adorable face, the witch doesn’t just think “I could eat you up” – she makes an attempt to do so. Fortunately, Gretel saves her brother by pushing the witch into an oven.
The candy house is the only sweet part of the tale. Yet next year, Grimm’s version of Hansel & Gretel will turn 200 years old. In spite of belonging to a culture obsessed with the politically correct, modern parents continue to recite this cannibalistic classic. What’s more, characters with a taste for toddlers appear in contemporary juvenile literature, too.
For example, in Sylviane Donnio’s 2004 picture book I’d Really Like to Eat a Child, a baby crocodile decides that he would like to – you guessed it – eat a child. No matter how hard his parents try to convince him to eat bananas or sausage or cake, the crocodile refuses to change his mind.
When I read I’d Really Like to Eat a Child during last week’s storytimes, it was met with delighted giggles. But I wasn’t sure if I had simply been lucky. Is it a good idea to read children stories about characters who try to eat their peers?
Storytime grandmother Rosemary Slie cautioned me about preschoolers. “They’re literal,” she said. “You take [a story] one way. They take it another.”
In other words, although adults may see the humor in, say, Bruce Eric Kaplan’s Monsters Eat Whiny Children, the title alone may inspire fear in young listeners.
When it comes to determining what’s on the storytime menu, parents (and librarians) need to consider carefully what’s on a book character’s menu. Some stories about eating children may truly be traumatic. For example, library patron Liza Whitehead has read Hansel & Gretel to her three children without problems. But she said she would give a second look to Audrey Wood’s Heckedy Peg, another story about a witch hungry for children, because of its realistic illustrations.
In contrast, Whitehead pointed out, children might be better able to grasp the humor in a book with cartoon-like illustrations. Indeed, some stories, such as the aforementioned I’d Really Like To Eat a Child, may make young listeners laugh, especially if it turns out that human “meals” escape.
The key is to read a book before sharing it with a child. Parents who are familiar with both a story and what their children can handle are likely to find that it isn’t just luck - some children-as-food stories are genuinely entertaining. They can even teach valuable lessons.
After reading aloud Monsters Eat Whiny Children, Natalie Bycenski noticed that her 4-year-old daughter Erica stopped whining for a week. (Not necessarily a bad thing.)
“We still have to remind her every once in a while,” Bycenski said cheerfully.
To test the connection between the story and her behavior, I asked Erica if monsters really do eat whiny children. She nodded. Yet she didn’t seem bothered by that “fact.” Rather, the book, in which no children are actually consumed, seems to have achieved the perfect balance between moralizing and humor.
Bycenski sees books as “teachable moments.” When sharing a story with children, she explained, “You’re not going to just read a book. You have to discuss it on their level – the meaning and how it applies.”
So when viewed as teaching tools, monsters who eat whiny children may not be all that bad. The witch who eats children may not be either. After all, she teaches about the danger of taking candy from strangers (or strangers’ cottage walls).
Besides, in the end, the witch is shut securely in an oven, which is then shut securely between the closed covers of a storybook. In the world outside of that book, snuggled in the safety of a parent’s embrace, the threat of becoming someone’s supper often seems minimal.
That is, until the parent squeezes a little tighter and sighs, “I could eat you up.”