Metamorphosis—changing into something you’re not—used to be seen as a damaging ordeal, but it is now depicted in many children’s books as an achievement to be celebrated. To guide children away from such destructive messages, parents can turn to the wisdom of old books that promote traditional accounts of selfhood.
by Rebekah Curtis
Originally published in Public Discourse
Few would dispute that Franz Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis” is the exemplar of modern metamorphosis stories. Even the most reluctant high school English student has his attention grabbed by Gregor Samsa, who awakens one morning to find that he has become a “monstrous verminous bug.” The degree of open-mindedness metamorphosis demands is probably more common among children, though it’s doubtful that those who have encountered Kafka would voluntarily seek out additional stories of outlandish transformation.
In recent years, the idea of metamorphosis has itself been changing in disturbing ways, reflecting shifts in our politics and culture. Once envisioned as a damaging ordeal, metamorphosis now appears in many children’s books as an achievement to be welcomed and celebrated. This development, which is given its fullest contemporary expression in transgender ideology, threatens to deny children a healthy understanding of the self. It calls for a retrieval of the wisdom found in older works of literature, as well as a proper understanding of how such literature came to lose its way.
The Sorrows of Metamorphosis
Children’s stories that share Kafka’s transformation concept have historically agreed with his broader premise: changing into something that you aren’t is bad news. The idea is epitomized in the 1931 children’s book The Little Rabbit Who Wanted Red Wings. In Carolyn Sherwin Bailey’s story, beautifully illustrated by Dorothy Grider, a young rabbit is beset with envy. Every animal he sees has some trait he wants. Given the opportunity, he wishes for a pair of red wings like those on a passing cardinal. But on returning home, his mother does not recognize him, his neighbors also fear and shun him, and he spends a painful night with a questionable stranger. When he tries to use his new wings, he crashes, and no one answers his calls for help. The rabbit reverses his wish and is restored to his natural form, appreciating it for the first time.
In 1942, young readers met another unsatisfied rabbit. The title character of Margaret Wise Brown’s The Runaway Bunny wants to leave his mother, and describes to her a number of transformations that will allow his escape. The mother patiently neutralizes each radical proposal with a transformation of her own. Clement Hurd’s engaging illustrations show the bunny as a rock, a sailboat, a little boy, a flower, and other forms. In each, the mother also appears transformed in such a way as to find and care for him. Her willingness to hear out his ideas and engage with them shows that nothing will change the fact that she is his mother and is unwilling to abdicate her duties to him. Moreover, it is obvious that some old lady rabbit couldn’t become a mountain climber or the wind, any more than a little bunny could become a rock or a sailboat.
In 1958, the sorrows of metamorphosis were highlighted again in the Dr. Seuss story “Gertrude McFuzz,” included in Yertle the Turtle. Gertrude, endowed with a single tail feather, covets the beauty of a more generously feathered bird. She magics her way into a tail so resplendent as to be physiologically dysfunctional. Like the red-winged rabbit, Gertrude must surrender her ill-gotten feathers to regain her body’s proper function and her place in society, and to gain for the first time a sense of satisfaction with her natural self.
Then, in 1989, Disney had its way with The Little Mermaid. Adapting literature for film is always a challenge, and Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale has a number of esoteric features that are difficult to translate into visual storytelling. A great deal of narrative world remodeling was needed to demonstrate that a sixteen-year-old is better positioned than her dad to make permanent decisions about the form of her body. Andersen drew an evil witch who cut out the mermaid’s tongue and enabled her to walk as a human only with severe pain. The mermaid’s ill-conceived dream was never fulfilled. Disney’s mermaid brings her father to groveling remorse for opposing her wish to change her form, and has her fantasy realized in a surgery that he himself executes. Thirty years later, the reconfigured story looks troublingly prophetic. However, unlike either the original mermaid or real people who try to change their bodies, the changed girl of the Disney version feels no pain.
One thing has changed since 1989: we are now told that sixteen-year-olds are geriatric when it comes to declaring whether their anatomy matches their ontology. To be fair, we are getting a little ahead of ourselves. Regardless of new revelations concerning Disney’s apparent support of sex and gender ideology in elementary education, The Little Mermaid was not widely seen as a parable for transgender children back in the 1990s. But even then, storytellers’ approach to addressing childhood insecurity was shifting. Rather than seeing goodness in any child, narrators began questioning the goodness of any standard. A mermaid with legs! What’s next, a lovely princess who decides she’d rather be an ogre? A middle schooler who moonlights as a red panda?
The traditional message of “you’re good the way you are” has given way to the new and corrupting message of “you’re perfect the way you are.” This development is consistent with other cultural changes in the mid-to-late twentieth century. For example, the philosopher and education reformer John Dewey advocated a “child-centered” approach to education, which encourages children to direct their own learning, rather than following direction from a teacher. This theory was splendidly realized when, in 1990, the California State Department published a study prescribing self-esteem as the remedy for social ills, and designating schools as the hospitals for psyches. Although it was criticized at its inauguration and after its effects were analyzed, the curriculum changes set in motion in many states were contemporaneous with the new self-centered messaging in children’s stories.
While a focus on self-esteem seems recently to have fallen out of favor, with resilience and grit emerging as the new catchwords of children’s character development, it has proven hard to shake the idea that, as characterized by Michael Knox Beran, “the undeveloped self, however callow, should be praised as it is.” The truth is that camels can’t dance, and neither can giraffes or elephants if dance exists as a real art form. Regrettably, narcissistic “you’re perfect the way you are” narratives continue to be prevalent in stories aimed at children. Bodies and desires are praised without qualification lest anyone’s feelings be hurt. This idea may seem to exist uneasily alongside the novel embrace of therapeutic metamorphosis: why change something that’s already perfect?
The Wisdom of Old Books
Helping children through a barrage of rhetoric, verbal and visual, whose purpose is to destabilize a healthy understanding of the self, is a headache no parents need. But one big treatment is simple: read old books. Ignore the local library’s new acquisitions curated by blue-haired staff. Instead, invest in the dangerous ideas available in piles of elderly books at junk shops, thrift stores, and the library’s retired book sale. They contain guidance toward an understanding of the self that is secure, humble, and pro-social.
Conventional wisdom has shifted so precipitously that a home library need not be entirely built on antiquities. Even The Little Rabbit Who Wanted Red Wings was reprinted as recently as 1996. Other books for young children that occasion discussion of personal station are Scuffy the Tugboat and Tootle, in which characters recover from dissatisfaction with their natural places and vocations. The Little Red Caboose, Katy No-Pocket and The Story of Ferdinand study characters who stand out from their cohorts: a train car whose job is simply to be last, a mother kangaroo with no pouch, and a young bull who doesn’t like fighting. Each shows readers that the world has plenty of purpose and room for outliers.
Older children also have good options for studying metamorphosis through literature. Mail-Order Wings and Best Friend Insurance feature tween girls who try to solve their social problems with magical transformations. These two quirky reads illustrate the problem of unintended consequences for modified bodies. In Edith Nesbit’s Five Children and It, a group of siblings punish themselves hilariously with poorly considered metamorphic wishes. More abstract ideas regarding form and identity appear in Eleanor Farjeon’s heady Martin Pippin In the Apple Orchard, recommended as a read-aloud with children ages seven to twelve (and older if they don’t have phones). Numerous characters in this collection of stories struggle to reconcile their own natures with mismatched desires, sometimes dealing with related problems of personal appearance along the way.
An extraordinary metamorphosis story to seek out is the second volume of L. Frank Baum’s Land of Oz series. The Marvelous Land of Oz (1904) pits the good witch Glinda against an evil sorceress, Mombi, who specializes in transformations, and is found to have executed a ghastly one on a child. The work must be undone, but Glinda explains to the victim, “I never deal in transformations, for they are not honest, and no respectable sorceress likes to make things appear to be what they are not. Only unscrupulous witches use the art.” Glinda then forces Mombi to reverse the spell. The previously spellbound child is not only healed, but also enabled to fulfill a destiny the transformation had made impossible. Parents seeking to protect their children from immoral and destructive ideas regarding sex and gender may find Baum’s story a useful approach to the question.
No respectable sorceress likes to make things appear to be what they are not. When reality seems to conflict with believability, we can turn to fiction to provide a framework for recovering clear thinking. The times require us to equip children with positive ideas about selfhood and identity, so that they will be prepared for challenges to these concepts. A child who knows that rabbits aren’t made for wings, and that not all birds can be equitably feathered, has a frame of reference for managing the advantages and limitations of his or her own body. Stories anchored in better times and ideas are one weapon in the arsenal of the truth. Owning them, reading them to our children, and generating new ones will help ensure that we all wake up in good shape tomorrow.