So, I was delighted to find this book in the box that [Unknown site tag] very kindly sent to Fox. I remembered loving it as a kid, and thought it would be great to read it to my own kid.
And then I read it. And... um.
The Monster at the End of This Book is a Sesame Street book starring "your lovable, furry old pal Grover," who is horrified to read the title and realize that there is, indeed, a monster (!) at the end of the book. Being terrified of monsters, Grover begs you not to turn any pages, to avoid getting to the end of the book. When you insist on turning page after page, he tries new and more elaborate ways to stop you-- asking, pleading, building bigger and bigger walls, eventually just begging. You turn the penultimate page anyway, and it turns out that the monster at the end of the book is-- Grover himself! Not scary at all! "And you were so frightened," Grover mocks you. And then, on the very last page, he mutters quietly, "Oh, I am so embarrassed."
So, on the one hand, this book is so fun. You, the parent, get to read the Grover voice, which is expressive as only a Muppet can be. For a kid, it's your very first meta-- the character on the page is aware of you, looking right at you, talking to you! You get to affect what happens to them! And you are very strong-- strong enough to knock down a brick wall, strong enough to overcome everything the character is trying to do to stop you.
On the other hand, I've spent the past decade or so thinking a lot about consent. And rape culture. And gaslighting. And... wow, this book sure does have all those things in them, and not in the way I'd like.
I feel a little ridiculous bringing this up. It's just a kid's book, there's nothing sexual about it. I had it read to me (many, many times), and I don't go around raping people.
And yet, I know that for all my conscious political convictions, my unconscious is soaking in the background radiation of sexism, racism, and everything else that I've been absorbing from the culture around me for decades. Fox will get a big dose of that from the real world no matter what we do (their doctor and nurse both love them, but: their doctor is male, and White; their nurse is female, and Black, and guess who's in charge?), but we could try to minimize it.
The toughest part is that I actually think the boundary-smashing is a big part of what makes the book so fun for kids. Kids spend their whole lives with powerful adults telling them "no," putting boundaries around what they can do. Kids rarely have their own "no" listened to. And in many ways, this is a good thing-- no, they really should not get to run in the street. Yes, they do need to go to bed when they're tired. And a good parent will try not to say "no" excessively, and will try to compromise with kids in the details surrounding what the kid has to do for their (and our) health and wellbeing. But still: kids run into a lot of boundaries they can't get around. It's liberating, awesome fun to, for once, get to tear those boundaries into a million pieces-- and have it turn out to be okay in the end. A more collaborative kind of meta might be amusing, but it wouldn't have the kind of visceral delight that you get from making Grover (who is, let's not forget, voiced by your parent, the person who usually has such firm no's) wail about you overcoming his every obstacle.
I'm not sure what to do about this. I want to teach Fox to enjoy problematic media, because everything is problematic. It's just-- that enjoyment will involve conversations about the thing-- why it's fun, what the problems are. I've got a while to figure it out with this book, because Fox doesn't speak in words yet.* What they're getting from the book now is probably "colors! Maybe those are images of real things (?) And Mom's voice is doing funny things. Also, I can whack this thing and make a noise, and I can 'turn' the 'pages,' whoa."
But I'm not sure what to say when I do. "Wow, I'm glad that this book is just pretend?" That sort of messes up the meta. I don't want to reinforce the moral the book seems to have-- "See, he turned out to like it in the end! That makes it okay that you did what he didn't want!"
...except that that is also something that happens to kids a lot. I mean, a famous story in my family is "Gaudior and the French Toast." As a child, I utterly refused to eat French Toast. I insisted that it was Disgusting! and Terrible! and I would Never, Ever, Ever do it! My mother, noting that I had never tasted French Toast, suggested I try a bite. I tried a bite. It was delicious. I loved French Toast.
A major difference here, of course, is that issues with consent for adults revolve around person A forcing person B into something for the benefit of A. With kids, at least in theory, person A is forcing person B into something for the benefit of B. Kids, we figure, don't know what's good for them. That's why kids can't consent to sex: their consent or lack thereof is based on insufficient knowledge of the world, so it's meaningless.
But you can't raise someone for eighteen years with the message that their consent or the lack thereof is meaningless, and then expect them to understand that consent is very important the instant we consider them legally old enough to have sex. "Kids' consent doesn't matter" segues neatly into "my consent never matters" for girls, and "being an adult means you can force other people instead of them forcing you" for boys. Neither of which is a reasonable message, but you see where they get it from.
I don't have good answers for this one, and Fox is now up from their nap. To be continued, I suppose.
*They have one word: "hey!" or "hi!" meaning "pay attention to me!" I don't think that's so much understanding that words have meaning as knowing that people react to them making that sound, and they like when people react.