When I was about 5 years old, my favorite book was Captain Kitty. And by favorite, I mean I had my mother read it to me so many times that 35 years later I was still able to recite the first several pages even though my copy of the book was long gone, probably in some church donation bag from the 1970s. Indeed, the book had such a lasting impression on me that I sought out another copy a few years back, searching for it on eBay so I could share it with my daughter while she was still little enough to appreciate such things.
It’s a simple enough story: Captain Kitty, with his first mate Tabby and crew members Pearly and Mew, set sail “for over a week” and find themselves on a South Sea island “where the warm winds blow and the palm trees grow and the natives wear sweet smiles.” Of course, the natives along with their king and queen are all cats. Tabby admires the queen’s pearls, and so the queen sends her divers into the sea to fetch more. The king takes the crew on a tour of the jungle where “ten little parrots the color of carrots were having a spelling bee.” In the end, there’s a feast, and then Captain Kitty and his crew go home. The final rhyme: “And now at last we’re back again in Catville-By-The-Sea. We’ve been away, but I must say that home looks good to me.”
In retrospect, I think it was the illustrations more than the story itself that captured my imagination. That, and my mother’s enthusiasm for all things feline.
I put this in contrast with an essay I have my students read every semester–Alison Lurie’s “Folktale Liberation” in which the author argues that traditional folktales (Brothers Grimm stuff, for instance) is subversive literature that celebrates the rebellion and strength found in the traditionally disadvantaged–the poor, children, women and girls. Lurie’s point is that since such people were the original audiences for these stories in their oral forms, it only made sense that such characters would be the heroes, and that the villains (giants, ogres, evil kings and queens) would be thinly disguised versions of the real people (landowners, overseers, the nobility) who tormented and troubled the poor folk in their real lives.
Lurie goes on to argue that when children’s stories evolved from the oral tradition and into print, they changed radically. No longer were such stories meant for the children of the poor, but rather for the lettered and moneyed children of the rich–that is, children of the landowners, overseers, and nobility who were the thinly disguised villains of the older subversive stories. This, of course, would not do. So in their place, characters in printed children’s stories made no waves, challenged no authorities, and did not seek to rise above their stations, and those in authority were not so monstrous. Lurie’s criticism is that such stories are boring and do not prepare children for the real world–a world in which monstrous things do happen and where people behave like ogres. Children, she claims, who are not exposed to stories featuring class and gender conflicts are not well prepared for a future in which such conflicts occur.
In my heart, I feel that Lurie is right.
But damn it if Captain Kitty isn’t a perfect example of the kind of story Lurie decries. There is no conflict to be solved, no villain to be defeated or outsmarted. Captain Kitty is a benevolent leader, as are the king and queen. The natives and crew members are all quite happy to remain in their stations in life and do as they’re told with smiles on their feline faces.
So was I ruined by Captain Kitty? I don’t think so. Would I have been better prepared to deal with giants and ogres, bullies and tyrannical bosses if I’d grown up with Harry Potter and Stanley Yelnats and the Beaudelaire orphans instead of Captain Kitty? Maybe. It’s tough to say. It takes more than books to shape a kid’s sense of the world, but they’re bound to be a part of one’s worldview. How much were you shaped by the books you read as a kid?