Friday, October 06, 2006

A Glutton for Punishment

While visiting my parents a couple of weeks ago, I came across a picture book my sister ordered twenty years ago from the Scholastic catalogue (the one that was distributed at school when we were kids). Based on a Danish folktale and entitled Fat Cat, this book does not have a modern sensibility: it features a little orange cat with a wonderfully cross expression who eats everything and everyone he sees, starting with his mistress’s gruel and culminating in seven girls dancing and a lady with a pink parasol. The rhythm of the story is addictive, and since sharing the book with Bub, I constantly find myself muttering under my breath,

I ate the gruel
and the pot
and the old woman too
and Skohottentot
and Skolinkenlot
and five birds in a flock…
… and now I am going to also eat YOU!

(There is nothing more enchanting, by the way, than the innocent treble tones of a toddler declaring "I ate Sko – [pause] – tot, and Skowinkenwot, and five birds in a fwock … and now I am going to also eat YOU!" And I only wish I could reproduce for you the crispness of the letter ‘t,’ the rising and falling inflection he infuses into the word "fat," as in "What have you been eating, my little cat? You are so fa-at!")

This story belongs to the robust tradition of early folk tales: the engaging little cat gets bigger and bigger until finally he meets up with an ax-wielding woodcutter who chops him open and sets all his victims free (including the old woman, who grabs her pot of gruel and heads home with it). The illustrations do their best to counteract the violence of the tale: the only time Fat Cat is depicted eating is on the very first page, where he lifts a spoonful of gruel to his mouth with evident satisfaction. And on the last page, the cat, now much reduced in size, gets a nice pat on the shoulder from the woodcutter as he sits there with an X-shaped bandage on his tummy and a rather startled expression.

Such window-dressing aside, this story is violent and rather frightening: not only does it address the basic fear of being devoured by a predator, but it locates that menace in the innocent-seeming family pet (who turns on his doting owner long before he ever devours the hapless Skohottentot). Observing Bub’s evident enjoyment of the story, though, I doubt that this tale is addressing his deep anxieties and fears; he loves the story because he identifies with Fat Cat and thoroughly enjoys his daring defiance of authority figures ranging from the old woman to the parson with the crooked staff (whom the Fat Cat eats just prior to his unfortunate altercation with the woodcutter). Many stories for children indulge their gluttonous fantasies in this way; what most modern stories shy away from, though, is chopping open the protagonist at the end.

Modern retellings of fairy-tales also tend to downplay the violence directed at the protagonist. The versions of "Little Red Riding Hood" that I read as a child, for instance, strayed in various ways from Charles Perrault’s original ending (which, in case you were similarly deprived, goes like this: the little girl gets eaten by the wolf, nobody comes to rescue her, and it serves her right because you should never talk to strangers). Cautionary tales of this kind are no longer in vogue (though you can still occasionally find copies of Hilaire Belloc’s uproarious parodies, poems with titles like "Matilda, Who told Lies, and was Burned to Death" or "Henry King, Who chewed bits of String, and was early cut off in Dreadful Agonies"). The narrative arc of many children’s literature courses goes like this: in the old days, parents used books to manipulate and torment their children into good behaviour, but now we know better.

I’m not so sure about that, though. I think the chopping open of Fat Cat is part of the story’s appeal, not a flaw that needs to be corrected by a clever illustrator (he didn’t die! – look! he just had a C-section!). No matter how much a child identifies with the daring miscreant, there is still a pleasure in the restoration of order. The punishment reassures the reader that Fat Cat’s subversion of the animal-human hierarchy will not continue unchecked (nor, by extrapolation, would the child’s subversion of adult authority).

’Cause the thing is – Bub loves punishment. Much of his (limited) pretend play involves him catching his toys in the midst of their wrongdoing and administering the appropriate consequences. "Get down! Do not play up there!" he’ll bellow at his Weebles, and down they go. Even more fun, of course, is inciting the Pie to break the rules. Jumping up and down with glee, Bub shouts, "No, Pie, no!" and looks eagerly to me to provide retribution. This plan can go awry, however, if Bub and I do not agree on the rules of engagement. Yesterday, for instance, he was playing with the magnetic letters on the refrigerator when the Pie came along and stole one. She ran off with that look of fierce, joyful concentration on her face, and he followed with howls of dismay, pulling me by the hand to ensure my intervention. I did my best to convince him that fridge letters were a sharing toy, and when it became clear that I was not going to restore the moral order, he did the only thing left to do: turned to the television and pushed the power button (a well-known no-no). He looked me in the eye and ground out the words, "No, Bub, no!"

Um, okay. I pulled his hand away and repeated, "No, Bub, no!" A grin started to crinkle the corners of his eyes and mouth, but he tried again for good measure: forefinger extended towards the TV until I cautioned, "No, Bub, no!"

His relief was palpable. If I couldn’t be prevailed upon to punish the Pie, at least with his own transgression he could get me to step up and be the mom. Being punished himself, apparently, was vastly preferable to no punishment at all – was reassurance, I guess, that I was going to do my job of keeping the world spinning on its axis, so he could get on with his job of fighting me every step of the way.


penelopeto said...

It's true about the crime and punishment thing - their way of working out the natural order of evolved society?

As a child, my favourite Grimms Fairy Tale was 'Prudent Hans.' Hans followed his mother's instructions perfectly literally - casting sheep's eyes at a girl he liked, for example, and then incurred the appropriate wrath for doing so. I can't tell you the great amount of joy it brought me.
If that kind of thing made me a bit strange, I believe I was in good company!

mad_hatter said...

After you mentioned Fat Cat in a comment on my blog last week, I looked for it in my collection. Sadly, we don't have it. We do have Struwwelpeter, though. The academic librarian in me is so anxious to introduce my daughter to this key text from her paternal culture of origin. The mother in me is horrified that I would even consider it.

BTW, have you seen this great contemporary adaptation of Struwwelpeter? I haven't ordered it but the website for it is deliciously compelling.

And yes, my mother licence should be revoked. Fear not, it will be a good long while before my daughter ever encouters the shock-headed German wonder.

Mary-LUE said...

I think that a lot of stories that would not be considered good for children today are still okay. Especially something like Fat Cat. It has an absurd premise and I think kids recognize that and understand their childhood pet isn't going to chow down on them.

When my son was little, I came across a copy of Five Chinese Brothers. This was another childhood favorite of mine. When I got it home to read it to him, it gave me pause for thought. Not because it bothered me but I knew not very many of his friends would be hearing it! I ended up reading it to him and now to my daughter. It doesn't really seem to phase them.

I know that I read stories as a child that would not be considered appropriate today. There was a collection of Grimm fairy tales in my elementary school library that were very dark. I loved them.

Kristen said...

The Bub cracks me up. The points about the old school children's stories reminds me of when I ordered some Babar books to read to my kids. I had forgotten how bluntly the story goes - Babar's mom is killed by the hunter on the second page, later the king of the elephants eats a bad mushroom and dies of poisoning, etc. - not to mention the accompanying illustrations. Woops. I still read them to the kids, and actually, the parts I was concerned about haven't seemed to attract any extra interest from them (although in the beginning, the hunter part did).

Oh, The Joys said...

I can't decide where I stand on the Scholastic order form-y books. (We go to a school based daycare and get them already.) Though I do like the sound of the Fat Cat - especially the chopping open part - JUSTICE!

Jennifer (ponderosa) said...

How interesting. I don't think either of my children are like Bub. They just want to get their way. My 4-year-old in particular will follow the letter of the law while ignoring the essence, always! Maybe my punishments are not strict enough? I should start reading tales like these!

Heather said...

I had the fat cat book as a kid, and also thoroughly enjoyed "Little red riding hood: the wolf's story" which tells it from the wolf's perspective. I also remember another book filled with subverted fairy tales from the library as a kid (blue hard cover! thick! cartoonish letters on the front in red and yellow!) that I loved.

Even nursery rhymes are often quite violent ("there I met an old man who wouldn't say his prayers, so I took him by the left leg and threw him down the stairs!")

edj said...

Have you read "The Great Cat Massacre"? I read it aeons ago now and have forgotten much of it, but it dealt with original forms of fairy tales, and how they were originally intended for adults and then the Victorians carefully watered them down and made them fit for tender ears. (Tolkein addresses this too, from a slightly different angle, in his essay "On Faery"--I think that's the title but it's too late to go and check) The original versions were wonderful--I remember one about a farting stepmother. But even our watered down versions have startling elements--Snow White's murderous stepmother, or Cinderella's abusive one, as a basic example.
Honestly, I think kids in healthy homes aren't phased by this sort of thing. It appeals to a certain level--like Bub liking to see that the boundaries remain intact, "God's in his heaven, all's right with the world." My oldest was like Bub as a toddler, and even now (at 11) he really prefers it when the other kids behave, and is bothered when they don't.

crazymumma said...

oh Bub...I think our children, well, my little one anyway, and I have heard of many who experiment with pretend violence. It is totally alarming, but I have been assured fairly normal. (Lord of the Flies anyone?)

Anonymous said...

I loved that Fat Cat book as a child... and I'd completely forgetten it until now.

I wonder if you'll find that Bub will start to assert authority over Pie? My 7 year old has no qualms issuing orders/punishments to his little sister. We have to keep reminding him that WE are the parents and he need not take on the role. However, I think he thinks I fall a little short on the discipline with G, so he likes to step in (in a typical law abiding, first born kind of way).

nomotherearth said...

I can't believe that I don't know Fat Cat! You keep adding to my list of books to read to get the Boy for Christmas...this is getting expensive!

Lady M said...

I have mixed feelings about the "cleaning-up" of traditional tales. One one hand, I like to see stories available that are more diverse and supportive of female characters. On the other hand, things kind of get ridiculous when the source material is just not good for kids in the first place. I can't believe that Disney made a musical cartoon about the Hunchback of Notre Dame. That's just a weird adaptation

Girl con Queso said...

So is he an ISTP? An INTJ? Either way, rules are rules are rules. Wow. He's hard core!

And I love Scholastic Book Orders. My one-year-old just got one and I ordered silly amounts for old time's sake. Nothing says Fall like a SBO.

Eric said...

I don't believe my children have the same thirst for punishment Bub displays. In fact, they desperately seek to avoid it. And far from seeking to have moral order restored, my kids would prefer that no moral order existed in the first place. Count your blessings.

Anyway, do you happen to know where I could my hands on a copy of "Matilda, Who told Lies, and was Burned to Death"?

mad_hatter said...

Librarian to the rescue:
"Matilda who told lies as was burned to death" is one of Hilaire Belloc's _Cautionary Tales for Children_. I have a great 2002 edition that was illustrated by Edward Gorey and put out by his estate (published by Harcourt). I'm not sure if this or other editions are in print but you will find lots of used copies on sites like,, and sites bring together antiquarian and used book dealers.

I hope this helps.

lildb said...


okay. I am no longer into my role as parent.

(I never really was, but I, like Bub, have acquiesced to the order of things.)

sigh. not like I have an actual choice. which is exactly what defines the mothering role. we don't have the choice. as the child, we can choose to be good or bad, but as the mom - well, okay, I suppose one could argue that the mom could choose to punish or not punish, or to react or not - even to mother or not -- but the mother voice in *my* brain says, not so much. do or -- do. keep doin'.

it is, without doubt, the most exhausting, unceasing toil of a role in our social set of roles that I can possibly imagine.

(unless I'm way off, and there are more taxing roles, in which case, please set me straight. be my mom for a second. I want to be the learner and not the teacher for a little bit.)

bubandpie said...

Em - Absolutely, Bub relishes the role of authority figure and loves to boss the Pie around (the only saving grace is that he's introverted enough to be primarily preoccupied with his own projects rather than the important work of policing his sister).

Eric - Belloc is very much worth tracking down (thanks for your help, MH!).

GCQ - He's definitely an I?TJ - I suppose the jury is still out on N/S, but I'm betting N (on the one hand, he seems very focused on the concrete, especially in his language use, BUT he also has a preternatural ability to tune out the world around him in order to focus on his own inner logic, which seems very INTJ to me - like his dad). Can you tell that I've been analyzing my children's MBTI type since their birth?

Nomo - I've never seen or heard of this book anywhere else, so I was amazed that Heather and Em recognized it. The words "Skohottentot and Skolinkenlot" create this very strange nostalgia for me, maybe because I never actually read the book myself - I was just around when my sister would read it aloud (with my nose buried in Wuthering Heights, probably).

Beck said...

My kids are huge fans of Scholastic books, and so we now have a large library of somewhat dry educational books ("Apples: Their Uses", "Fall Leaves Fall", "Starting Pre-K Is Not That Hard, So Stop Being Such A Little Suck.").
I think that kids aren't ghoulish, so much as unfeeling beyond their own skins. Compassion is a learned virtue, and I think that slightly scary books have an important roll in helping to figure out the difference between right and wrong, good and evil. The Gingerbread Man gets eaten because that's what happens to hubris and also because he's a cookie. This is the way the world works and kids need to figure that out.
And I remember that book from our school library! Crazy!

ali said...

love fat cat :)

and i won't say anything about scholastic...since i work there and all...

fatcatfan said...

I love Fat Cat. My sister had the book for her two little daughters (they are 18 and 20 now) I was single then, but working at a daycare so I borrowed the book often and read it at work, and over and over for my nieces. I also made a felt story out of it and told it so much I could tell it in my sleep. My own daughter, now 13 came across one of the little pictures of Fat Cat - the others have gone missing over the years. I told her about the story and after a search on our library website, finally got ahold of a copy and read it to her. The words slid off my tongue like I'd read it just yesterday (and not in 1989 when I read it almost daily) What fun Skolinkenlot and Skohottentot are to say!

Anonymous said...

We have the Fat Cat over here to. You may find the danish original with the following link:
its FUN to read it! (in Danish that is LOL)

Anonymous said...

You could intellectualize the fun out of circus