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The sarcastic side of children’s literature

By Stephanie Reister 

Rowan Public Library

Having worked with children’s literature for many years, a lot of my favorite authors are geared toward that audience. Three children’s book authors I enjoy use a sarcastic sense of humor and clever morals and also appeal to adults.

Shel Silverstein, Roald Dahl and Theodor Geisel were interesting characters. They were not known for being cuddly or overly cheerful. They all had military backgrounds. They started their careers writing for adult audiences and then, in a rare move decades ago, crossed over to children’s literature.

I love the accessible poetry and stories of Shel Silverstein, even though he did not give happy endings. Reading his poem “Sarah Sylvia Cynthia Stout Would Not Take the Garbage Out” from “Where the Sidewalk Ends” gave me pause as a kid. What happens when you keep refusing to take out the garbage? It’s eventually too late!

Silverstein’s sentimental story “The Giving Tree” even has an edge. The boy starts out adoring the tree, and then as time goes on takes advantage of the tree’s unconditional love. “And the tree was happy,” it seems, every time she gives something of herself to the boy. As an old man, the tree apologetically can only offer him a stump to sit on. The “boy” sits on the stump, but never thanks the tree, even in old age. This melancholy book is a spark for conversation between adults and children about gratitude.

Dahl is another timeless author. His “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” is a classic and cautionary tale about raising children without manners. Willy Wonka and the Oompa-Loompas impart their wisdom in a way that is straightforward and clever. The morals are for both the children and their parents. Charlie and his grandpa have the virtue of patience, so their whole family is rewarded. The ending is pretty cheerful given the dark tone of the book, but is still satisfying.

I really can’t leave out Geisel, the immortal Dr. Seuss. In many of his books, it is the children who are the voice of reason. Adults and even a cat are the ones doing illogical things that need to be corrected.

“The Butter Battle Book” offers a warning about the makings of war. The Yooks and the Zooks start with the frivolous difference in how they butter their bread. The competition/threat between the groups escalates until each side has a Big-Boy Boomeroo they are willing to drop. Geisel leaves readers wondering whether they will.

“The Sneetches” is about the prejudice Star-Belly Sneetches show against the Plain-Belly ones. Along comes Sylvester McMonkey McBean with a sly money-making scheme. He has one machine to put stars on bellies and one to take them off. The Sneetches spend all their money going back and forth, until none of them know which kind of Sneetch they really are. They figure out “that Sneetches are Sneetches.”

Silverstein, Dahl and Geisel use humor that delivers messages about the consequences of our actions. These authors, on the surface, seem cynical and abrasive, but they offer the optimism of being able to change one’s ways. It’s their unusual approach to storytelling that has made them much-loved mainstays in children’s literature for generations.

Traveling exhibit: The Story of BBQ in North Carolina by the N.C. Department of Natural & Cultural Resources, headquarters; open Oct. 26-Nov. 30. The exhibit teaches how growing and cultivating hogs emerged in the state and examines the East versus West debate about the best recipes for sauces and condiments. View the exhibit in headquarters’ lobby during business hours.

Holiday closing: All branches will be closed Monday, Nov. 12 for Veterans Day. Regular hours resume Tuesday.

Mystery Machine: East, through Nov. 30. A monster scared away Scooby’s best friends. Find them all and be entered into a contest for a literary-themed prize. Scavenger hunt runs through Nov. 30. For more information, contact Tammie at 704-216-7842.

Cards for a Cause: All branches. Now-Dec. 18. Create holiday cards that will be delivered to active members in the U.S. armed forces and to veterans at Hefner VAMC in Salisbury. Patrons can specify their card is delivered to a certain branch of the armed forces or to the VA. Cards submitted for a branch do have specific deadlines: Dec. 10 for cards distributed stateside. Cards submitted Dec. 11-18 will only be delivered to the VA. Questions? Call Tammie at 704-216-7842.

Lego Day: East, Nov. 17, 10 a.m.-1 p.m. Legos are available for creative free play. For children of all ages. For more details, call 704-216-7842.

Uno Tournament: Headquarters, Nov. 17, 11 a.m. Join this special tournament, with free play afterwards. Ages 7 to 17 are eligible to compete in age categories. All ages welcome to attend, cheer on the competitors and participate in free play afterwards. For more details, call 704-216-8234.

Chapter Chats: East, Nov. 13, 5:15-6 p.m. Weekly book club for teens 14-17, intended primarily for participants with developmental or intellectual disabilities, though all are welcome. For more details, contact Tammie at 704-216-7842.

Harry Potter Escape Room: Headquarters, Nov. 13, 4-5:30 p.m. As a new member of the Order of the Phoenix, your first mission is to search Azkaban for clues about the Death Eaters — except you’ve activated a curse and the room has locked with you stuck inside. Can you solve the clues and puzzles and escape the prison before Voldemort finds you? For more information, contact Hope at 704-216-8258 or Hope.Loman@rowancountync.gov.

Teen Art Hour: East, Nov. 15, 4-5 p.m. Try stencil art, or just spend some time coloring. For more information, contact Hope at 704-216-8258 or Hope.Loman@rowancountync.gov.

Bullet Journaling: East, Nov. 13, 6-7:30 p.m. Bullet journaling is a fun and simple organizational system to turn any blank book into your ideal planner, journal, tracker and diary. Bring a blank book to our free event and we’ll share the tools and tricks to help you stay on top of all the things going on in your life — your job, family, health, finances and more. Part of RPL’s Learn.Act.Grow. series. For more details, call 704-216-7840.

Lunch at the library: East, Nov. 16, 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m. Enjoy a clean, Wi-Fi-accessible and peaceful place to enjoy your lunch. The East Branch meeting room will be open to all 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m. Lunch not provided, but tables, chairs and ambiance supplied. Check out upcoming programs and free resources. For more details, call 704-216-7841.

Displays: Headquarters, Anime by Robert Clyde Allen and stained glass artwork by Sandy Collins; East, World War I memorabilia by Gleen Hinson; South, Patterson Farm Photowalk exhibit, by Paul Birkhead.

Literacy: Call the Rowan County Literacy Council at 704-216-8266 for more information on teaching or receiving literacy tutoring for English speakers or for those for whom English is a second language.

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