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Maligned Mothers from Children’s Literature: Mayzie the Lazy Bird

May Blossom reads Dear Zoo

In Dr Seuss’s Horton Hatches the Egg, a bird called Mayzie grows tired of sitting on her egg. She wants a break, a vacation, to fly away free. She has kinks in her legs from sitting on the egg, day after day. I defy any parent to tell me they haven’t felt that that at some point during their child’s gestation or babyhood. As wonderful and amazing as May Blossom is, and as much as I adore staying home to look after her and raise her, I’ve had more than a few metaphorical kinks in my legs in the past year.

Being a responsible bird, Mayzie doesn’t just abandon her egg, but waits until a suitable babysitter fetches up. It’s Horton the Elephant. He’s reluctant, on account of being a massive elephant and having low self-esteem, but Mayzie convinces him he’s up to the task. Only then does she shout ‘Toodle-oo’ and flutter away to Palm Beach, where she can drink cocktails and flirt with cabana boys and read thick paperbacks with young women’s faces in three-quarter profile on the covers. What a bad mother. That’s what Seuss implies, anyway. But how does he know what Mayzie has to go do? Sure, maybe she’s off to have fun, but maybe she is working. Maybe it is her job to travel the world and review resorts in Palm Beach. It probably isn’t, but you never know. No need to wear such high-waisted judgypants, Seuss.

Admittedly, Mayzie does decide not to come back. Or she forgets to. But she probably doesn’t mean it. And I’m sure if she had known that men with rifles were stalking her nest she would have been back like a shot (ouch, awful pun, sorry. What can I say? My third cousin is married to Kathy Lette so I clearly have a hereditary high level of tolerance for shocking puns. I hope you do too). So yes, back to the MEN WITH RIFLES (caps mine)! Three of them. Pointing their thundersticks ‘right straight at his heart!’ (italics Seuss’s). But Horton, being one hundred percent faithful, stands his ground and no one gets hurt.

But then the hunters abduct Horton, the tree he is sitting in and Mayzie’s egg, holus bolus, and carry them all off over the seas to New York, where they sell him to a circus on arrival. Horton’s getting sadder and sadder, because gee, it turns out looking after an egg is hard work after all, and he’s tired and bored and has no status and he feels fat and people laugh at him and probably ask him all the time when he’s going back to work, as if keeping another creature alive counts for nothing at all. Feeling any sympathy for Mayzie now, Horton? Seuss isn’t.

Because then who should reappear but ‘that old good-for-nothing bird, Mayzie.’ Yeah, good for nothing except laying a great big egg in the first place, and giving a poor old elephant with  no self-confidence and no skills the opportunity to work as a babysitter/incubator when no-one else would give him a chance. Anyway, back comes Mayzie just in time to see the egg hatch. Of course she decides she wants it back then, because it is hers after all. But Horton’s all ‘No, it’s mine, you went off and left it for a bit, you bad mother’, and Mayzie’s all ‘That’s my right as a bird, to work or look after my baby myself and I was just exercising that right, and haven’t you heard of feminism?’

They bicker for a bit, but then out pops Mayzie’s offspring, who has — get this — morphed into a bird/elephant hybrid. People are amazed. ‘Good gracious! My gracious!’ they shout. ‘It’s something brand new. IT’S AN ELEPHANT-BIRD.’

Here Seuss dispenses with any vague sense of impartiality and practically shrieks, in a combination of all caps and italics:

And it should be, it should be, it SHOULD be like that! Because Horton was faithful! He sat and he sat! He meant what he said and he said what he meant … And they sent him home happy, one hundred percent.

Just like that, Horton gets custody? WTF? What about the ‘bird’ part of ‘elephant-bird’? Poor Mayzie. On the last page, Horton arrives home, trunk held aloft, with the little elephant-bird riding proudly upon it. Mayzie is nowhere to be seen.

This is, in my opinion, a bad ending to a book. I’ve run out of time now to tell you about other maligned mothers in children’s literature, but believe me there are plenty more. The next book I’ll tell you about has both a maligned mother (though she is treated more sympathetically) and a terrible ending. It’s The Tiger Who Came to Tea by Judith Kerr. But that will have to wait for another day because May Blossom is waking up.

In the meantime, leave me a comment, if you like, and tell me which other children’s books you find problematic. Often it’s only once you read a book several hundred times that the little niggles become incredibly annoying (Spot Bakes A Cake, I’m looking at you.)

P.S. In the above photo, May Blossom is looking at one of her favourite books, Rod Campbell’s  classic Dear Zoo. It’s a great book, but can give the children the mistaken impression that the zoo is like a mail order animal shop with an unlimited returns policy. You have been warned.

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