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Spank me. I Dare you.

March 31, 2010

(Oh, I’m getting fucking lazy. Another from the tart-chives, & it’s not even bio-sexual. Well, hardly. But there are bears. And lipstick.)

When you have a kid, & you think reading is useful for more than just identifying the titles of porn films at at the video store, you cannot avoid the insane world of children’s literature. Go on. Have a kid & you’ll find I’m not wrong. I’ll wait.

See?

Some of the books are good. Some of them are even fabulous. But most are just added effluent to the septic tank of kid lit. Genuinely horrible. Written by people suffering Mad Cow Disease, obviously, or by people who hate children. Or by people who think they love children but will find out much too late that children hate them. Or worst of all: celebrities.

What to do about this book, however? The Lonely Doll by Dare Wright.

(Dare Wright is a blog-post-and-a-half herself. Not to mention a radio piece. She was the subject of a story in 2000 on This American Life that is a must-listen.)

Have you ever seen lonelier?

Published in 1957, the book tells the story of an oppressively lonely doll named Edith who lives by herself in a large house (apartment? condo?) within an unnamed city. The house is not a doll house, it is human sized, fully furnished, accessorized. Where are the humans? Dunno. Eaten by the zombies, maybe.

She prays each night to be given a friend, and then one day — joy! At the door are two teddy bears, one large, one small, luggage in tow. The large one introduces himself as Mr. Bear and the small one as Little Bear. And yes, Edith, be careful what you pray for, because they have come to stay.

The Lonely Doll is an exploration of their relationship dynamics, ending in a . . . well, I’m getting ahead of myself.

Now I must describe the illustrations, because this is central. Each scene is a posed black & white photograph, starring a felt doll with a molded, sweet face, strangely tempered by her painted blue (one can only assume) eyes that always point left. She has long blond hair, tied back in a pony tail, and hoop earrings.

The bears are, well . . . they’re teddy bears: cute and furry.

The scenes are meticulously blocked, the characters in evocative poses. The environment is rife with detail and props.

Comparatively, the writing is stiff & formal. Spare. Non-sentimental.

All this adds up to a book with a strong & emotional, yet deeply unsettling vibe. There is something dissonant in the dynamic of these three characters.

Note the appearance by Crasher Squirrel

Edith and Little Bear are obvious children. Mr. Bear is an adult — see the neck tie? Is he Little Bear’s father? That is unclear. But he certainly plays the father figure to both youngsters. He is distant, firm, but kind. Proper, and with mysterious unexplained adult habits. The three friends have fun, but Mr. Bear makes sure to set limits, and he must scold them when they act foolhardy.

The book reaches it’s fevered climax when Mr. Bear announces that he must go out for some time — where the hell does a teddy bear go in a city by himself? And what errand is he running? We never know.

So Little Bear & Edith find their way into a room they had never before visited (really? never?) filled with formal clothing, jewelry boxes. They have an orgy of dress-up. But when Little Bear finds a tube of lipstick and tries to convince Edith to use it, she is wary, sensing that Mr. Bear wouldn’t approve.

Suddenly Little Bear gets sassy! Grabbing the tube, he scrawls across the mirror Mr. Bear is just a silly old thing! Oh my, Little Bear!

This convinces Edith, and she begins to lipstick her mouth. Suddenly, in the mirror’s reflection she sees an open door and the figure of Mr. Bear watching.

“I may be a silly,” Mr. Bear answered, “but I know when a naughty little girl needs a spanking.”

I see you peeking, Little Bear.

And he does. & we get to watch. Edith is across his lap, her dress pulled up revealing her frilly undies, her head turned to the side facing us, yet her strangely aimed eyes seem to be looking back at her abuser. Mr. Bear’s arm is raised high, about to inflict the punishment. Little Bear sits in the background, his fuzzy paws held over his eyes, though not quite enough to miss the action.

And accompanying the illustration is perhaps the most chilling text I hope to ever read to a small child.

Little Bear couldn’t watch. He was afraid his turn was next. He was right.

That last sentence: He was right.

Get out of there while you can, Edith!

She doesn’t, alas, and in true codependent form Edith is terrified that her transgression will make Mr. & Little Bear leave forever. She begs his forgiveness. He grants it, and assures her that they WILL NEVER LEAVE!

& they lived happily ever after. As documented in the 9 subsequent Lonely Doll books.

Good fucking gawd.

Here’s my back-cover quote: “A transgressive tale, with a between-the-lines dark caution for any young child unlucky enough to sit on your lap during story-time.”

6 Comments leave one →
  1. Colleen permalink
    May 7, 2010 9:47 pm

    Great post!

    Good fucking gawd is right. My husband and I have often discussed the perverseness of children’s stories—especially vintage ones and nursery rhymes in particular. Some obvious creepy examples (all the more creepy imagining a bunch of cherub faced kids chanting them happily):

    – Humpty Dumpty gets totally FUBAR
    – Rockabye Baby (was this to teach people of the time not to put their kids in cradles in the trees? do you need a song for that? was that a practice?)
    – Jack “breaks his crown” fetching water
    – Three Blind Mice (chopping of heads and all that)
    – Cinderella, Snow White, Hansel & Gretal, Pinocchio etc. – all pretty much have sicko scenerios dressed up as “lessons.” I am pretty happy not to have been a child back in the day. And the whole spanking thing with it’s obvious, uh, overtones… CREEPY.

    I HAVE to somehow find this book you described! My husband has a terror of dolls, and it would be fun to freak him out. As a kid I had a doll that was my “best friend” for a few years…until she seriously started to scare the shit out of me (a future blog post.) I recently purchased her on e-bay… Not her her, but same model (mine met a dreadful demise.) She was a Mattel doll that was popular in 1970 when I was three. Here is a picture of her hanging out with my kids stuffed animals, in case you would like to see:

    http://twitpic.com/1lwr6k

    (this was long enough to be an actual blog post… thanks for hosting it… muahahahahhaa)

    p.s. I strongly suspect Mr. Bear was out meeting another Mr. Bear for… well, I’ll bet he was “naughty” also. Just a guess.

    • May 7, 2010 10:44 pm

      Doll fight! My money’s *not* on the yeti. (& I look forward to reading your 1970′s version of Chuckie. (Wait, you’re hiding a blog somewhere? You had better reveal…))

      The Lonely Doll is still in print! Get thee to Amazon, STAT!

      • May 7, 2010 11:33 pm

        The blog is currently hiding on my hard-drive, as I have been having issues with choosing a host and also am having difficulty “branding” the thing (i.e. personal blog? psychology/science focus?) and then I keep freaking around with the design over and over and over…

        Stay tuned…

        I may indeed get a copy of The Lonely Doll…

  2. May 25, 2010 11:08 am

    Oh. My. That is fantastically fucked up. I worked in a book shop for years as the children’s room manager, and I always loved when something inappropriate (whether intentional or not) snuck its way into the juvenile lit. catalog.

    Speaking of which, have you read Love You Forever by Robert Munsch? Creeeepy.

    • May 25, 2010 10:38 pm

      There’s a fine line between loving your kid & Oedipal co-dependance… *shivers*

      Funny (not really) how many kid’s books tip mighty close to inappropriate. The Runaway Bunny is another. To some, a deeply comforting tale of immutable parental love; to others, a deeply unsettling tale of how escape is impossible, no matter how far you run.

      • May 26, 2010 10:42 am

        I feel the same way about The Giving Tree. Give and give until you’re just a sad tree stump that feels guilty because you can’t give more.

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