Thursday, May 6, 2010

Oliver Button is a Sissy

Oliver Button Is a Sissy
Tomi dePaola ~ Harcourt, 1979

The first year after I moved from NYC to Texas, my husband and I went to the county fair a few towns over. It had been years since I'd spent any real time in small town America, and a lifetime since I'd grown up in it back in South Carolina. When I was little, it was common to hear someone called hurtful names, but my mother was an active human rights advocate and always taught us to do right by people and stand up to our friends when their words were out of line. I'll never forget the cheerleader my mother made walk a mile beside the car after the girl used a racial slur on the way home from an out-of-town game. My mother is an artist, and from the time I was wee all my role models seemed to come from different walks of life and our door was always open to anyone and everyone. But still... I remember what school was like for kids who were different. (Including myself.)

So, on that day a few years back when my husband and I stood on the sidewalk of mainstreet USA, we were surprised to see a rather extravagant and fabulous-looking young man leading the ladies on the high school drill squad. He wore a brightly colored rainbow necklace, and twirled his flag with abandon right along side the good-old-boys in the FFA driving their vintage tractors. I was floored, and later that night at the country fair dance was happy to see that boy not shunned and standing alone, but encircled with a ton of friends, dancing and having the time of his life... as it should be. Though I know this sort of openmindedness doesn't exist everywhere, it is certainly a brave new world we live in... and though in my heart of hearts I hope a book such as this is no longer needed and necessary, I still think it might bring some comfort to at least one little boy or girl out there who feels as if they don't quite fit in.

Oliver Button was called a sissy. He didn't like to do things that boys are supposed to do. Instead, he liked to walk in the woods and play jump rope. He liked to read and draw pictures. He even liked to play with paper dolls. And Oliver Button liked to play dress-up. He would go into the attic and put on costumes. Then he would sing and dance and make believe he was a movie star. "Oliver," said his papa. "Don't be such a sissy!" Go out and play baseball or football or basketball. Any kind of ball!"

Ahhh, now there's the rub. Oliver isn't what everyone expects him to be. His parents, the other kids at school. It's not until the community puts on a talent show that his star really begins to shine. Though he doesn't take home first prize, he gets something even better, acceptance. And to be accepted for who we really are, it's that what everyone wants in the end? A dear, sweet book from a dear, sweet man. Ten thumbs up Tomie.

Also by:
The Wuggie Norple Story
Pancakes for Breakfast


Mozi Esme said...

I love Tomie's books, and this looks like it's got an important message!

Just wanted to let you know about our new Bulletin Board feature at Winning Readings. Mondays are Winning Kids days, and we'd love to have you link up with any kids' book-related post!

Antmusic said...

I like this book... but, to be honest, I just hate to introduce the word "sissy" into my children's vocabulary. Otherwise, it has a great message.

Burgin Streetman said...

you know, i often find that same problem in "self-help" kids books... if read at the wrong time they actually teach bad behavior... this one and titles like it are probably better left for reading when the child has the problem, rather than before.

Burgin Streetman said...

oh and Antmusic.... how have I forgotten about BOB Books!?! They are exactly what I have been looking for. He is way into sight reading cards, but Bob books take it to the next level. Thanks for the reminder!

Karl Folkes said...

rmsentertyacreWilhelm Grimm's tale of 'Liebe Mili' ('Dear Mili' in English translation), illustrated by Maurice Sendak, will forever leave an indelible imprint on my psyche. First brought to my attention in 1988 (the year of its publication by Farrar, Straus & Giroux), when the illustrated book was on display at the Morgan-Pierpont Library in New York, I eventually wrote a dissertation (in 1991) on this classical fairy tale book from a literary, Mariological, and Jungian depth-psychological perspective in which I argued that Wilhelm Grimm's perplexing yet highly intriguing 'newly-discovered' 19th Century German tale could be interpreted as a tale of human individuation -- the growth and development of the human persona and psyche to experience its fullest potentialities; and the corresponding archetypal numinous experiences encountered during that prolonged (and often 'painful') process (symbolized in one instance in the 'Dear Mili' story as the precipitous outbreak of 'war')-- yet, at the same time, the intangible fulfillment experienced from that long process of individuation symbolized toward the end of the tale by the blooming of the metaphysical rosebud; seemingly a suggestive poetic imagery of the culmination of the individuation process. At the story's ending, the tale's protagonist (the little girl) and her mother fall peacefully 'asleep' (in death) and in betweem them is the rose in full bloom.

My doctoral dissertation was entitled: "An Analysis of Wilhelm Grimm's 'Dear Mili' Employing von Franzian Methodological Processes." In writing the dissertation, I worked diligently at ignoring the magnificent illustrations employed by Maurice Sendak (not an easy task), since I considered his incomparable illustrations, undoubtedly influenced by the intertextual and intervisual imageries of Romantic art and literarure, interspersed with pictorial themes of the Jewish holocaust, to be, in their own right, a personal interpretation of Wilhelm Grimm's tale; and I wanted to discover for myself what the story could reveal to me.

Is this a 'Children's Tale'? I argue that it is a tale with a psychological, social, religious, historical, and cultural perspective that may be subjected to several layers of interpretation -- all valid when they can be viewed as powerfully transformative in nature. In this light, Wilhelm Grimm's 'Dear Mili' can certainly be of humanistic benefit to individuals of all ages, genders, and cultures (and certainly for children, including those in war-torn countries; or otherwise subjected to all kinds of atrocities). At some level, this tale may even have a 'Feminist' appeal of 'self-development' especially when we regard the hero/ine as a child (the 'Other') who is at the center of the Individuation process; and who depicts in a persuasive manner what the individuation process can be like for all individuals.

Sendak's powerful evocative illustrations could be viewed as reflective of his own ethnic and cultural heritage and experiences (personal family associations with the holocaust) -- an example of how a tale can be interwoven with any reader's human experience; and the struggle to achieve transformative growth and development.

This is a tale that has a clear, if unsteady or 'unsettling' beginning, but whose 'true' ending is ultimately left for the reader to contemplate and to complete.

Karl Folkes, Ph.D.
November 20, 2012

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