Clair McFarland: Classic Children’s Books Help Me Not Bite Anyone’s Head Off  

Clair McFarland writes: "The best children’s books proclaim a grand and benevolent order that most grown-ups are too cowardly to believe in."

Clair McFarland

October 20, 20235 min read

Clair new column shot
(Cowboy State Daily Staff)

Don’t just read big fancy books if you’ve never read “The Cat in the Hat” to some outraged children. 

The nerve of this cat, really.  

To waltz into the children’s house while their mother is out and unleash a rhyming cacophony. He’s like an IRS agent who thinks he’s a neighbor kid off his meds who thinks he’s your best friend. 

But he’s none of these things. He’s a cat in a… hat. If he didn’t come back and vacuum up the whole mess with his mutant gerbils, we’d be pressing charges.  

But a spark of vindication glimmers throughout the book and in the eyes of any little ones hearing it. The children (like all children in the grandeur of their daydreams) did nothing wrong. They can sleep at night knowing they didn’t wreck the house and mock the fish. It was that cat’s fault.  

Victor Hugo’s masterpiece “Les Miserables” has a similar theme when it follows the Thénardier family.  

The novel is about people down on their luck, or who never had luck. But the Thénardiers are snakes pretending to be needy, to exploit those who actually are. Cheats. Thieves.  

Not to smear the magnificent Hugo, but Dr. Seuss got it across even better, that some people are just entitled.  

That’s not the only example of a book for littles outdoing a classic.  

Shel Silverstein’s “The Giving Tree” is so sad, I’ve made toddlers cry just by opening it.  

It tells of a tree who loved a boy. The boy grew to manhood and took everything from the tree for his own uses. He took her apples, her branches. He sawed her down to a stump to build himself a boat.  

The tree keeps on giving. The man, elderly and complacent in the end, comes at last to rest on her stump. And she’s fulfilled.  

She’s the inverse of Tolstoy’s lead character in “Anna Karenina,” who lived only for herself and one day (spoiler alert!) decided to throw herself under a moving train.  

I guess self-sacrifice is only noble if it’s for others’ sake.  

The best children’s books proclaim a grand and benevolent order that most grown-ups are too cowardly to believe in.  

Like in “The Bear Snores On.”

Winter revels and a crackling cave fire merge in its sonorous verse. A host of animals (mouse, gopher, hare, raven, badger, wren) clutter in a hibernating bear’s den to escape the night’s winter storm.  

It turns into a party.  

Their careless frolic wakes the bear. He’s furious enough to eat them all.  

Sitting around the book on a quilt with their tea mugs in hand, my children’s eyes widen.  

But the mouse, whose heart is bigger than his brain, invites the bear to join in the party and eat popcorn, and drink tea. So the bear decides not to eat them.  

“That’s nice,” I say, closing the book and placing it on its stack. “I haven’t read any grown-up book that sweet in 10 years.”  

(It was 10 years ago that I switched from Jane Austen to Emily Brontë.) 

The big, sweet twin raises his eyebrow peaks in a question.  

I try to explain: “Most classic books for grownups end with the character learning that he’s the bear, or society is the bear and doesn’t suit him.”  

Big-Sweet nudges my mug toward me. “You should have some more tea. Relax, maybe.”  

The little, feisty twin sets his own mug down with a dull thud.  

“Well, I want to read CHAPTER books now,” Little-Feisty whines.  

My spine hardens. “Noooo. Not ‘til we’re done with every last children’s book that you’re getting too big for.”  

“Aaaare you SERIOUS right now?” protests Little-Feisty.  

“YES.” I answer. “You might be too cool for them now. But someday you’ll miss their warmth and cadence. And someday you’ll wonder why the heck you ever started reading big, important books instead.”  

Little-Feisty nods, quieted by my roar.  

I pick up another cartoon hardback, “This Is Not My Hat,” and start to read.  

Fyodor Dostoevsky would be so jealous.  

And spinning away an afternoon on that quilt, I let Thing 1 and Thing 2 vacuum up my worries, and I ate popcorn instead of biting people’s heads off.  

Clair McFarland can be reached at

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Clair McFarland

Crime and Courts Reporter