Bad Book # 3: Sam Is Not a Loser

For the bookish among us, introducing children to literature is undoubtedly one of parenthood’s great treasures. For the pretentious, the aspirational, and the Europhiles, sharing European literature with children is doubly delightful.

Of course, much of the European-derived children’s literature is beautifully rendered, with lovely illustrations and buoyant text. Much of this literature is nothing short of gloriously gorgeous with or without translation.

Yet. Occasionally in the search for high-quality foreign-derived children’s literature, we lay our hands on something…different. Some books are delightful in the original, but don’t fly cross-culturally. Some are subject to the hackings of third-rate translators who lack the chops to do this type of work justice.

Poor translation is a tricky thing. It’s almost wrong to say that the book itself is bad, because the original text may have been quite something. And it’s not the fault of the author, really; anyone–even my beloved Mr. Sendak–would suffer at the hands of a poor translator. But to quote the great fictional character Cosmo Castorini, that don’t excuse nothin’.

The book I’m lambasting today is the horribly titled Sam Is Not a Loser, a book composed by Thierry Robberecht and Philippe Goossens, a Belgian author-and-illustrator duo. Published in English by Clarion Books in 2006, this is one book that is unreadable on the basis of its title alone. You don’t even have to have a child named Sam to find it patently objectionable.

Maybe I came of age in an era of good feelings and overwrought political correctness, under the heavy hand of Tipper Gore’s influence, but I’m fairly certain that “loser” is not a word we want to introduce to a population of early readers.

I suppose that the editorial staff at Clarion didn’t get the memo:  we don’t *say* “loser”, even to say that a child (or in the case of this book, an anthropomorphic animal of unknown derivation) is not a loser.

I have no idea what Sam Is Not a Loser is about, or even what sort of animal he is (Cat? Dog? Coyote? Honestly, you’d have to be an animal biologist who moonlights as a psychic to determine this cartoon’s species, but that’s an entirely different conversation.) From my standpoint, this book is unreadable on its face.

Sam may not be a loser, but he is certainly lost in translation.

Bad Book # 2: The Very Best Place for a Penny

Lest you think I have some sort of problem with Jewish authors, you should know that I am a Jew, and not the self-loathing kind, either. And some of my best friends the greatest authors are Jewish. Including my beloved Mr. Sendak.

But.

As my old friend Brett’s father used to tell him, Jews are no better and no worse than anyone else. So I make no apologies for the fact that Bad Book # 2 is not only written by a Jewish author, but printed by a Jewish press and concerned with Jewish themes.

Written by Dina Herman Rosenfeld, The Very Best Place for a Penny is an exploration of the Jewish principle of tzedakah, or involuntary charitable giving.

There’s nothing wrong with that, of course. I am all in favor of books which elucidate cultural or religious themes, and my little home library is stocked with a broad range of books of this sort.

Yet.

This volume is a train wreck.

The text is boring, the font is ugly, and the illustrations are a nightmare. It’s bad, and not in a good way. And unlike The Giving Tree, The Very Best Place for a Penny has nothing to redeem it.

I could say quite a bit more about how bad-in-a-bad way it is, but one look at the cover and surely you’ll agree, it’s not only tasteless and terribly conceived, it commits the cardinal sin: it’s a shanda fur die goyim. In other words, it shames Jews by reinforcing anti-Semitic stereotypes.

See for yourself:

The cover illustration raises a host of questions — questions for which there will never be satisfactory answers. Why does that g-ddamn penny have to be nineteen times bigger than anything else in the frame? Why are these six children essentially fighting over for space in the scene?

And for the love of AIPAC (or not), why a PENNY? Why not a nickel or a dime or even a quarter? Why the newsboy cap? And perhaps most importantly, why is this anthropomorphic penny being ushered down a slide?

I’m not saying that Jews should tiptoe around themes of money. It’s just that by writing a book about THE BEST PLACE FOR A PENNY, you’re perilously close to trafficking in anti-Semitic stereotypes. Since bigots can’t read, and no one has except me has read this book since 1984 anyway, the damage done by Ms. Rosenfeld is likely rather minimal. That said, this volume is simply atrocious.

Bad Book # 1: The Giving Tree

You know what I hate about The Giving Tree?

Everything.

Shel Silverstein is an odd target to kick off a blog on crappy children’s literature, I’ll be the first to admit. He’s hilarious, his line drawings are pretty great, and he has made poetry accessible to several generations of American children.

There’s a lot to like about Silverstein, and much of his oeuvre.  I’d never deny that.

But The Giving Tree is a major exception.

The problem I have with The Giving Tree is not its lack of literary merit, the quality of its illustrations, or its use meter.

(Okay, that was a trick. The Giving Tree doesn’t have meter, but that’s irrelevant.)

The terrible thing about The Giving Tree is that its message is fundamentally problematic.

For those of you who didn’t have the book shoved down your throats throughout your childhood, the plot is fairly straightforward.

Boy meets tree. Boy befriends tree. Boy spends the rest of his life sucking the life and vigor and vitality out of the tree….and the tree was a sucker happy.

Everyone loves this book. You probably love this book. You probably think it’s a beautiful example of selflessness and unconditional love and if you do, you’re an idiot.

The book is like a metaphor for failed and emotionally abusive relationships the world over. It should be called The Taking Boy.

It teaches children that you can take and take and take and never give anything in return, and that’s okay. Bleed your loved ones dry, folks. It’s all good! Shel Silverstein told us so.

The boy is an utter ingrate, or as my mother called me for years, a little shit.

The tree? The tree needs to read Co-Dependent No More.

I categorically refuse to read it to children under any circumstance.

Since this book is deeply ingrained in the popular imagination, I am going to hold it accountable for probably ninety percent of relationship troubles. If you’re in couples therapy, Shel Silverstein’s estate should probably be paying for it.

That said, The Giving Tree isn’t all bad. The illustrations are pretty good, I’ll grant it that.