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“The boring stuff”: Old married love in stories for kids

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Simcha Fisher - published on 05/09/16

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For as long as I can remember, I’ve been a sucker for a good story about old married couples. The older I get, the less likely I am to get over this predilection!

As Joanne McPortland cannily pointed out, such books for children are “not common, on purpose, since the original roots of children’s tales are teaching how to survive in a world without the stabilities of home and family.” She’s right, but boy, have things changed. Maybe stories of couples who are stable and still in love are likely to become more common, as the idea of old married love becomes more of a fascinating fantasy, something that has to be learned and striven after, rather than something that is inevitable.

In Caleb and Kate, written and illustrated by William Steig,

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Caleb storms out of the house after a fight, and is turned into a dog. He realizes that the only way he can stay with his wife is to be her pet, so that’s what he does. She grows to love him, but does not realize who he is. His fidelity is rewarded one night when robbers invade the house, and everything is restored, better than before.

A common theme in books about old couples is that they love each other and have a pretty good life, but they certainly wish they had children. It’s a very old story indeed, hearkening back to Abraham and Sarah. Thumbelina, Snow White, The Gingerbread Man, and other traditional fairy tales pick up this theme, where a loving but barren couple finally get the child they longed for — but there’s a catch.

Various children’s books salve the sorrow of childlessness in various ways:

In Millions of Cats, written and illustrated by Wanda Gag,

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the old husband sets off to remedy his wife’s loneliness by searching for a pet cat. He stumbles upon a valley of millions of cats     (My smart-alec kids insist that the one, small, homely cat was not so much a survivor as an all-devourer.)

In The Rainbabies, written by Laura Krauss Melmed and illustrated by Jim LaMarche,

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a sudden rain brings an unexpected gift: a shower of tiny, perfect rainbabies, each small enough to be cradled inside a drop of water. The devoted foster parents care for them and protect them from a dangerous world, but eventually get some unwelcome news — and then a reward. I always found this story a little unsettling, but the outstandingly lovely illustrations make up for a lot!

In One Potato, Two Potato, written by Cynthia DeFelice and illustrated by Andrea U’Ren, 

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the couple has had their children, but they are all grown and moved away. The poverty-stricken husband and wife are entirely devoted to each other, out of affection and necessity, sharing a coat, a blanket, and even a chair because they’re too poor to have enough for both of them. But they long for friendship, beyond what the spouse can provide. In their direst day, digging up the very last potato in the garden, the husband finds a magic pot which gives them everything they need.

My kids think they should have kept the pot, but I think they buried it again for future generations to find, when their need is so strong that they dig deep enough to find it.

Yonder, written by Tony Johnston and illustrated by Lloyd Bloom,

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is less a story about a specific couple and more a narrative poem about the seasons of the year and the cycles of family life.  Gentle and moving, with plain language and illustrations that glow.

Not a book, but the movie Up is probably my favorite story of an old couple. As internet wags have noted, the first eight minutes of it — which almost wordlessly tell the story of how the couple met as children, how they fell in love, married, built a life together, suffered together and found joy together, and were finally separated at death — is “still a better love story than Twilight.” Heh.

But it’s just the introduction! What blows me away is that the rest of the love story — the rest of the work of the marriage — happens to Carl after his beloved Ellie is dead.

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Carl thinks he is honoring his wife’s memory by pulling off one final, spectacular adventure and bodily dragging their home to the mythical Paradise Falls. In tribute to her, he rejects the old folks’ home and moves his entire house to the land of their dreams, meeting their childhood hero in the process. But in the end, what she really inspired him to do was to allow himself to be carried up and away — away from the static, nostalgic, scrapbook-bound story of his life, even giving up all the last physical reminders he had of their love together.

Because of the kind of person she has helped him become, he can ultimately respond to the people (and creatures) who actually have need of him. The wonderful thing is, in order to be a hero, he does not need to become a new kind of person. His lifelong old-mannish ways are exactly what is called for in the end. As a child, his wife likes his stolid ways (“You’re weird. I like you!”). And because he loves her, he undertakes adventure, which is how he comes to be thrown together with Russell. And finally, as an old man, he finds himself back home again — and how delighted Ellie would have been to see him fathering the boy in his stolid, old-mannish way. As Russell says, “That might sound boring, but I think the boring stuff is the stuff I remember the most.”

It’s an extraordinary book that can make “the boring stuff,” which is the bedrock of married love, into a good story. I heartily recommend all the books (and of course the movie. If you haven’t seen it yet, you must!). Which are your favorites?


Movie still from Up (2000) via Pixar Studios

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