Friday, September 25

Owen


by Kevin Henkes
Greenwillow Books 1993

Here we have another one of those picture books that on its surface appears to be about one thing but has a truly odd undertone running through it.

The issue at hand appears to be another version of childhood separation anxiety, this time with a baby blanket. Owen is on the eve of entering school and it is time for him to put away the blanket he has loved since he was born. But how to separate Owen from his Fuzzy is a delicate issue, and no matter how much they try nothing seems to convince Owen that it's time to give up his friend. In the end his mother comes up with a solution where Owen can have his fuzzy with him at all times... by converting his blanket into a dozen smaller handkerchiefs.

Well, that's all very nice, but there's an odd catalyst in this book in the form of a nosy neighbor named Mrs. Tweezers. She's there on page one looking over the fence at a happy Owen playing with Fuzzy, with a glance that can be viewed as either concerned or disapproving. A few pages later when she reappears we know which look it was when she says "Isn't he a little old to be carrying that thing around?" And with this illustration the faces of Owen's parents register concern. A concern they never had before. A concern that suggests perhaps they might be bad parents for not addressing the issue sooner.

Mrs. Tweezers suggests the Blanket Fairy, a ruse designed to help separate Owen from his blanket through trickery. But Owen's attachment to his blanket allows him to unwittingly outwit his parents by hiding the blanket. When he tells his parents the fairy didn't come they attempt to shame him for it by suggesting that Fuzzy's torn, dirty, rattiness are the cause.

Fuzzy continues to accompany Owen until Mrs. Tweezers once again leans over the fence and meddle in her neighbors affairs. "Haven't you heard of the vinegar trick?" And once again Owen's worried, concerned parents feel neglectful for not having heard how to properly raise their son. When dipping Fuzzy into vinegar doesn't work Mrs. Tweezers once again meddles, this time making it personal.

"Haven't you heard of saying no?"

Saying no, without an explanation or any attempt to reason with Owen, has the expected outcome of creating a greater anxiety in Owen. This is when Owen's mother suddenly has the brilliant idea to turn the blanket into handkerchiefs. And in the end, Mrs. Tweezers approves with a wave of her own hankie.

What a horrible message. Listen to your meddling neighbors tell you how to raise your child? Get your child to conform to someone else's expectations? If you can't separate your child from their security blanket through trickery simply say "because I say so" and leave it at that? What really irks me about the Caldecott Honor book is that it seems to send the subtle message that conformity begins in the home, and only bad parents don't know or realize this.

I think we all want to raise children right, however we define "right," but not at the suggestion of a neighbor (who, despite being married, shows no sign of having raised any kids herself). Blanket issues are huge, and I can see the value in a book that deals with them openly, humorously, but not like this. Owen is never told why he cannot bring a blanket to school, never fully prepared for the separation, and seems too ready to accept his blanket begin cut where most kids even resist allowing it to be washed, much less cut.

And all of this is for what? Mrs. Tweezer's approval? She's there on the first and the last page, so clearly she is as important as Owen. So pay attention, children! Your nosy neighbor is a force to be reckoned with. She can manipulate your parents and get them to raise you according to her standards. And without her approval who knows what might happen. She and her chicken-legged house might carry you off to the forest and...

Sorry, got a little carried away there.
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