Monday, April 21, 2003

Bumpy's Trip to the Woods: A Critical Overview
Last night, I was playing with my two-year-old son Charlie and he was pretending to put his enormous yellow rabbit, Bumpy, to bed. I should mention that it was by no means a "bed" that we were putting Bumpy in. It was a blanket on the floor. But whatever. After tucking Bumpy in, Charlie decided to tell Bumpy a story, the first one he's ever made up. It goes like this:

"Bumpy and a bear went to the woods. They met another bear. They heard a noise. It wasn't the other bear. It went 'baa baa baa baa'. It was a sheep. The sheep said 'Hello Bumpy. Time to wake up.'"

I don't know where to begin in dissecting this travesty.

To begin with, let's talk characters (although to be honest, that word is perhaps overly flattering to the portraits Charlie created). Bumpy is a strong protagonist: large, yellow, friendly-looking, and huggable. But then we get to the bears. Early in the story, I enjoyed the inclusion of the first bear, the "companion" character as it provided some tension to our protagonist's, Bumpy's, story. While rabbits and bears are not natural enemies, they are not exactly friends either. So why are they in the woods together? What is their agenda? The bear's existence has dramatic potential but the promise is never fulfilled. When it's revealed to be nothing but a silent do-nothing figure, well, that insults the reader and that makes me furious at my son, the author.

But while the first bear at least has squandered potential, the second bear has no place at all. Is it meant to be a red herring, trying to lure the listener into thinking that there is a major ursine twist to come? Is it merely a stalling technique by an inexperienced author who can't bring himself to set down the pen and think a situation through? No one knows, especially not the author.

If you can call him an author.

Some elements of the storyare promising. "Animals going into the woods" is a solid premise. Keep in mind, both rabbits and bears are supposed to live in the woods. Are Bumpy and his nameless companion returning to their ancestral home? Rejecting their lives in the world of humans and beginning a potentially problematic reassimilation into the wild? Or are they simply visiting? Going back to all the same old rustic haunts and reminiscing in that patronizing way that big city folk do when they go back to their old middle-American high school towns? Will they come to realize that their rustic cousins are not so dumb after all? Could this, with heavy workshopping, be a zoological Doc Hollywood? If that's the case, perhaps the second bear has a role after all. Is there a prodigal bear narrative that merits exploration? There might be a story there.

But the operative word is might. Charlie doesn't pursue it. Is that because he's lazy? Or because he's two? The reader doesn't care, the reader wants to be captivated, and Charlie fails to deliver.

Whatever my son has tried to construct in terms of an arc falls apart when we arrive at this ridiculous sheep character. It's all so facile: the rabbit and the bear, forest creatures, enter the woods and discover the sheep a meadow animal. Forgetting for a moment Charlie's clumsy and obvious introduction of the animal (do we need four full "baa"s to realize it's a sheep?), this habitat switcheroo is just another hamfisted attempt to arrive at the already tired "fish out of water" scenario. Maybe that premise is fresh when you're two.

Speaking of things that aren't fresh, let's talk about the ending. "Hello Bumpy. Time to wake up." Some Charlie enthusiasts will claim that he's deconstructing the very idea of the bedtime story. Not only is Bumpy the story's hero, he is also the one being read the story and by telling him, through the sheep, to wake up, some would argue that Charlie is attacking bedtime story convention and even making a political statement against the tyranny of bedtime. A sort of updated "Being John Malkovich". "Being Bumpy". And while "Bumpy's Trip to the Woods" is sure to score points among fellow anti-sleep toddlers, it's pandering. It's like making Ashcroft jokes at an ACLU meeting. And it does nothing to mitigate the hackneyed "all a dream" conclusion. It's not novel, it's not shocking, and it's not even innovative. It's "Dorothy wakes up" for the sippy-cup generation and it's an insult to all the readers who have invested themselves in these characters' struggles.

Does Charlie have the potential to be a great story teller? To produce the next Hamlet or Ulysses or Goodnight Moon? Well, he's still young. But I'm done working with him until he starts taking this a little more seriously.

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