When it came to this year’s Back to the Classics Challenge, the one that really stumped me was the “Animal” category. My immediate thought was to include a classic children’s book in that slot, since kids and animals seem to go together. But it wasn’t as easy as you’d think. I didn’t want to do a re-read, so Charlotte’s Web and Call of the Wild were out. And I didn’t want to read something that was going to make me cry, so forget Old Yeller or Black Beauty. In desperation, I turned to goodreads.com and found an unlikely list: “Best Anthropomorphic Animal Books." (Random, don’t you think? I am beginning to think there’s a goodreads list for everything!) And that’s why I whittled away (sorry I couldn’t resist) a couple of hours with this children’s classic last month.
Those who like me haven’t read Carlo Collodi’s original story of the marionette who comes to life might be surprised at how closely the folks at Disney actually followed the original Pinocchio. There are differences, of course, but the bulk of the plot was the same. As you might expect, the original is way more violent than the Disney version -- Pinocchio manages to kill the conscientious cricket who was later renamed Jiminy by folks at Disney during their first meeting, for example. Strangely, the original is also way preachier than the Disney version, with constant lessons about young boys’ behavior.
I guess the biggest surprise for me was that Pinocchio is a lot less likeable as a character in the original version of the story. He’s no sooner sentient than he’s jeering and rude to poor Gepetto. The innocent quality of the Disney version was entirely lacking. Pinocchio isn’t led off the straight and narrow because of bad company in Collodi’s story; his flaws appear to be innate. I found that such an interesting take on the nature of children. Are they inherently innocent and needing to be protected, or are they inherently bad and needing to be brought to heel?
For example, toward the end of the book, Pinocchio’s bad behavior causes him “donkey fever,” and his kind friend the Marmot has to tell him the sad truth about what has happened to him:
”My dear boy,” said the Marmot, by way of consoling him, “you can do nothing. It is destiny. It is written in the decrees of wisdom that all boys who are lazy, and who take a dislike to books, to schools, and to masters, and who pass their time in amusement, games, and diversions, must end sooner or later by becoming transformed into so many little donkeys.” Kindle location 1265 of 1637
I actually enjoyed reading Collodi’s Pinocchio, but here’s the thing: I’m not sure that the average 21st Century parent would relish reading the original version of this classic to their children. Yes, there is ultimately a happy ending, but that comes through Pinocchio learning the difficult lessons of self-denial and obedience -- and those things seem somehow woefully out of fashion today. Cleverness and individuality and most other values that contemporary children’s book authors focus on are entirely absent in Collodi’s tale. But that may be too bad, because thrift and selflessness are still powerful values for children to emulate. In fact, they may be increasingly important values for the generation of kids who need to deal with problems like global warming and the knowledge gap. Maybe there’s a place for another interpretation of the tale, minus the corporal punishment and violence, but more in keeping with the redemptive nature of work, from Collodi’s perspective?
So that’s the fifth book for the Back to the Classics Challenge, and number 5 on my Classics Club list. And the good news is that I have the last book read, so that review will be coming tomorrow, meaning I will at least finish the one Challenge I joined this year! Pinocchio: The Tale of a Puppet (translated by Alice Carsey) was available as a free Kindle title, so the cost of the challenge after 5 books remains $12.29 -- or about $2.46 per title. Thanks to Sarah Reads Too Much and the Classics Club crew for hosting the 2013 challenge! I'm looking forward to participating in 2014 when it will be hosted by Karen at Books and Chocolate.