With her mother and I being the readers we are, it is no surprise that our second grader is already reading at a 6th grade level. Gone are the days of the Disney cartoon books and Dora the Explorers; now she is full-on with the chapter books, over a hundred pages, few pictures and even some morals. In fact, she is even taking some suggestions from dear old Dad and it gives me an opportunity to relive some of my own childhood.
Case in point: “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” by Roald Dahl. After some kicking and screaming and a bit of whining (forgive me for being upset, but I wanted to read it too), she finished the book in a matter of hours and was on to the sequel with excitement. But when we started discussing the book, it occurred to me how many of its lessons I failed to grasp when I read it for the first time as a kid.
You see, not to pat myself on the back, but I was a pretty darn good kid. I didn’t act spoiled, I was well behaved and I was incredibly appreciative of everything that I had and was given, wasn’t I? So the life lessons in “Charlie” were somewhat lost on me at the time. However, they are glaringly obvious now that I have kids of my own. Because when I asked Brooklyn what character she believes she is most like, she pulled out traits of all of them—except Charlie. She talked about how she loves candy (like Augustus Gloop); how she loves to chew gum (like Violet Beauregard); how she is always asking if she can have this, this, and this at the store (like Veruca Salt); and how she loves to watch TV (like Mike Teevee). Yet nowhere in her answer does she indicate that she is anything like Charlie.
When I was first exposed to the characters, it was inconceivable to me that kids like that actually existed. Wasn’t everybody like Charlie? Didn’t everyone appreciate all that they had? Didn’t everyone respect their parents?? Yet as I have matured and become a parent of my own, I am much more attuned to the fact that not all kids are created equal. In fact, there are a whole lot less Charlies out there then there should be.
I used to think that Veruca and Violet and Augustus and Mike were just caricatures of excess, exaggerated simply to highlight their cartoonish qualities to make the book (and movie) that much more of a fantasy. Look how bad each of these kids are; and look at how angelic Charlie is—and who gets it all in the end? The cherubic Charlie; while each of the bad eggs gets their comeuppance. (I never get to use that word!) It seems so obvious… now.
So as I was discussing with Brooklyn the lessons of the book, it was clear that there was much that was lost to her. She saw the book the same way I did when I was child; it was just another cartoon, another fable, another fairy tale. Except for the fact that all of the main characters were kids—and isn’t it safe to assume that all kids are good? Brooklyn has no reason to think that kids can be naughty!
Ahh, but the perspective that comes with age. “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” is more than just a kids’ book. It’s a criticism of parents; it’s a morality tale for children; it’s as much an educator as our math and science books, because its lessons are as applicable to life as any of the primary subjects: Anything to excess can be damaging to you. Too much candy, too much gum, too much television, too much getting what you want; in the end each of the kids was felled by that which they consumed to excess.
And in the end, with all of the deaths and tragedies that we have witnessed from drugs and alcohol, driving too fast and living too hard, it is all too apparent to us how excess can lead to demise. Maybe that’s something that Brooklyn and other kids her age don’t need to learn about just yet. Maybe it’s ok that she sees it just as a story and not as a warning. Perhaps all that she needs to learn from the book is that Charlie respected his parents and grandparents and, of course, Mr. Willy Wonka (and I mean the Gene Wilder not Johnny Depp one).
Have a great week.