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The True Meaning of Popular Children’s Storybooks

2019-05-10     Heather Mactivity    

The real meaning of children's stories

Spoiler alert- this may affect your enjoyment of children's books forever.

If you're anything like me, you'll have read story books either as a parent and teacher until you pretty much know them off by heart. Year after year, children seem to really engage with and relate to the same well loved storybooks, and they never seem to lose their appeal - even when they've been around for many years. As adults, it's sometimes quite gratifying to understand the deeper meaning of stories - for example when you first realise that the book Animal Farm isn't actually about animals at all - it has a far  more complex meaning.

But what if the same could be said for all those children's books you've read over and over again - how surprised would you be to see them in a completely different light, with a much deeper - and more interesting - meaning? Well now you can!

We've compiled a list of children's storybooks that we think COULD have an alternative meaning - and once you start thinking about it, you realise that there are other books too - what was the author's true intent? Interesting...

True meaning of kids story books

The truth behind we're going on a Bear hunt

This one's pretty obvious, but just in case you've missed it - it's clearly about grief. Ever noticed there's no mum in the book - just an older sister? The thing about grief is, well, you can't go over it OR under it, you simply have to go through it. It's messy, and squelchy and just plain URRGH. And the bear at the end? Is that a hidden fear? Something we just can't face into no matter how brave we actually are? Is it the end of grief? Letting go? Or a childhood trauma. Or an adult trauma that always has one over on you.

I'll leave you to figure that part out.

the real meaning of a tiger who came to tea

This book is amazing - an annoying tiger who arrives at the house and just won't go - and eats everything! Could it be a metaphor for the German soldiers occupying French households during WW2? Someone to be fearful of, watchful of, and who ate all their rations? Something you desperately want rid of, but feel powerless to stop?

Judith Kerr has always denied that there is a deeper meaning to her book - though she DID spend her formative years in Berlin. Draw your own conclusions...

Interestingly there was a suggestion that The Tiger who Came to Tea is really about a mum struggling with the pressures of motherhood and invents the story as a way of getting out of making tea - possibly she wanted a take out that evening instead of cooking? OR maybe there was no money for food. OR is mummy struggling with depression and when mummy goes to the shops the next day to get tiger food, is she really going to the doctors to get anti depressants? (thanks to Ella from Typical Mummy for that suggestion).

The Moomins

Sinead from Sinead Latham suggests, "The Moomins was Tove Janssen's creation from the Winter War of 1939. She created a world full of colour and imagination to show that even in a world of fear that there is always hope. The character of the Groak is often seen as a scary figure, as when she is near the weather becomes thunderous. She is in fact looking for her lost children. A reflection of those families who were never reunited from the war." Amazing.

What's going on in not now bernard?

Is it just me or is this kid seriously neglected? Every time he tries to ask his parents for help they completely ignore him, and then eventually he is eaten by a monster. Even then they don't even notice. Is it saying that children's needs and pleas often go ignored and overlooked? That they are seen as secondary to adults?  Maybe it's a cautionary tale aimed at parents. Ignore your children's pleas at your peril!

Harry Potter - who knew?

Ella from Typical Mummy suggests, "There are SO many references to Christ and Christianity in Harry Potter, especially the final book. Throughout his life, Harry (like Jesus) is known to be special - he has a job to do on earth, to save mankind from evil. Like Jesus, Harry accepts and faces death and sacrifices himself for others. He then returns from the dead (after meeting Dumbledore in a heaven-like place) to conquer Voldemort (The Devil). There are lots of other less obvious references throughout the series too. JK Rowling herself has acknowledged these references. She is quoted as saying at the Open Book Conference that the 2 biblical quotations that appear on Harry’s parents’ gravestone and Dumbledore’s family tomb “almost epitomise the whole series.” The quotes are, “The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death” and “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

It’s funny because when the books were first released a lot of Catholics (including the Pope) thought that they were anti-Christian because they were about witches, wizards and magic but they have since changed their minds!

what's the real meaning of elmer?

I mean this one's pretty obvious - Elmer is different from the other elephants, and he wants to be the same as them, but eventually he comes to accept his differences and even celebrate them. Thing is, that leaves the other elephants in a bit of a pickle as the inference is that he is somehow superior to them as he's different - hence a truck load of follow up books explaining that actually it's ok to be the same as everyone else as well. Someone didn't think the whole thing through...or maybe they did? Wilber however, well, I've never been able to figure out what HE is about, but somehow, he's my favourite character!

not so Curious George

Amy from All About Mummy suggests, "Curious George is about a monkey always on the run and narrowly escaping danger. It’s actually autobiographical as the character was conceived when the German Jewish authors were on the run from the Nazis." Wow. Just wow.

Poor Old Paddington Bear

I must be one of the few people in the world NOT to have seen the Paddington films yet, but I know I must, as I've heard they are ultra awesome. But what of the book itself - what is the REAL meaning there? Well, Paddington is an immigrant, and the whole book is about seeing what it's like to enter a new country (England in Paddington's case) and settle there through the eyes of a bear. The ups, the downs, the prejudices,  the successes and failures. Albeit in a light hearted way

What did the sea see in The Sea Saw

The Sea Saw by Tom Percival is about a girl who loses her teddy bear but he sea, and only the sea saw it.  The sea eventually brings the bear back to her when she is a Grandmother. Could this book be about the idea that things are never lost to you if you keep them close to your heart? Or that if you have a belief in something then eventually all will come good for you?

The Railway Children - Whole New meaning

Jo from A Rose Tinted World says, "The Railway Children is about some children who have to move to Yorkshire when their father goes to prison accused of spying. They befriend a regular old gentleman passenger on a train who turns out to be someone who can help prove that their father was falsely imprisoned. When E Nesbit wrote the story in the early 1900s, there was a lot of anti-Russian feeling in this country, and a lot of talk of spying for the Tsar, who was at war with Japan at the time."

Wordless book - The Arrival

This wordless book by Shaun Tan shows the arrival of an immigrant and his experiences of loss and ultimately joy. The reference to immigration is clear, but are these are times when we are all lost and alone even in our daily lives?  Could the lesson be that if we persevere, have courage and face our fears then better days are ahead of us?

lesson for us all in The Smartest Giant in Town

Another classic by Julia Donaldson and a firm favourite in our house. The story goes that the giant gets some new clothes and bit by bit gives them away to help others in a pickle.

Could the moral be that friends and being supportive of others are more important than material possessions? And if we do our bit for others then eventually, or even immediately, we reap the rewards?

Giraffes Can't Dance - Deep

In this book, Gerald the giraffe feels humiliated by the other animals even before he starts dancing. They don't give him the chance to show what he can do because they assume that with his long gangly legs and huge body, he won't be a good dancer.

Could this book be about making assumptions about others even before you've had the chance to get to know them - having prejudices based on inaccurate information or assumptions?

The Chronicles of Narnia

Erica from The Incidental Parent suggests that this book is actually about Christianity, with Aslan being a representation of Jesus and his sacrifice for Christians.

The Snowman

Erica from Christmas Magic and Markets has a different take on this book/film by Raymond Briggs that you might not have thought of. Could the message be that nothing lives forever, including us, and the story is a clever way of introducing children to the concept of mortality in a way they can relate to? Woah.

If you know of any more - please leave a comment below!

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2 thoughts on “The True Meaning of Popular Children’s Storybooks”

  1. Naomi

    I’m very interested in this. Could your blog have a space for comments under each text?

  2. Heather Mactivity Post author

    Ah unfortunately not! But I’d be happy to add extra details or info if you have anything you think would be useful/interesting?

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