It seemed a simple enough task.
My daughter currently loves pointing out the differences between what’s hers and what’s mama’s*. Between, for instance, her perfectly proportioned babyccino and my gargantuan vat of sugary warm milk (it’s a decaf latte, okay, and if I sound a little defensive that’s because yes, I am too embarrassed to meet the barista’s eye when I order it).
It’s all been putting me in mind of Goldilocks and the Three Bears, a book that I once adored with an intensity that drove my mum nuts and presumably left the book itself in tatters, since it’s nowhere to be found among the stacks that she’s kept from mine and my sister’s childhood.
Curiously, none of my local bookshops had a copy so I headed online to find a boggling array of Goldilocks. But even having weeded out the spoofs and foreign language editions, the choice was confounding. Its very size also suggested that perfection was possible, and I was soon feeling picky as the story’s protagonist.
Initially, I prioritised the illustrations. Particular though I am about words, I also used to be an art critic and some predilections die hard. And anyway, text-wise, Goldilocks was Goldilocks, right?
Wrong. Dip into some of the online reviews, and you’ll find grumbles about inconsistencies galore, right down to which bowl/chair/bed is the right size for our pint-sized tea leaf.
Writer-illustrator Ruth Sanderson’s Goldilocks looked charming but turns out to have a new, happy ending, that allows the protagonist to atone for her breaking-and-entering ways with, of all things, a recipe for blueberry muffins. Enough of this tweeness already!
Another one-man band, James Marshall, has produced a retelling in which the heroine is a harridan. It’s tirelessly snarky in the perkiest way possible – a uniquely exhausting combination, especially for parents already running low on sleep.
Gennady Spirin’s retelling apparently follows faithfully the story we all remember, and the pictures are gloriously detailed (lots of kids’ illustrations tend to be crisp and uncluttered, but in my experience, small children delight in unpicking busy pages). Unfortunately, Goldilocks herself resembles a contestant in one of those creepy child beauty pageants.
All this ‘Goldilocks-ing’ (yes, it’s become a verb apparently**) got me thinking more closely about the text, and the more I thought, the more problematic it became. Maybe some of the less subtle illustrators had it right, and Goldilocks really is just another entitled brat.
Soon, even the bears’ domestic set-up began to rankle with me. The whole daddy-mummy-baby refrain suddenly felt stultifyingly conformist to this single mother by choice***. (Intriguingly, the story is rooted in a 19th-century fairy tale in which it’s an old woman who has no boundaries, strolling into a wood cabin that’s home to three bachelor bears…)
It’s definitely possible to overthink children’s literature. Remember all that fuss about consent and the kiss sleeping beauty receives from her prince? But perhaps that kind of overthinking is in fact just the opposite – a literal-minded sort of under-thinking. Because I’m beginning to find that in general, kids are altogether smarter than us. They instinctively know to separate fact from fiction, and understand that the page is a place where we try things out that wouldn’t happen in real life.
But maybe the real reason I couldn’t seem to find the perfect Goldilocks is this: when it comes to books from our own childhoods, we’re dealing with tales that have lived, albeit unexamined, in our minds – and hearts – since we were tiny. To track them down is an impossible task, simply because the story has become another, richly embellished with memory and lived experience.
For now, I’m going to basics via the reissued Ladybird edition. It might not be perfect but here’s hoping it’s just right.
* Who am I kidding? It’s all hers!
** That’s just the beginning… There’s a Papa Bear-sized slew of academic texts out there in which the ‘Goldilocks principle’ is applied to everything from marketing to psychology.
*** Stand by for a whole other blog post coming up on this gnarly topic…