Monday, April 23, 2012

Robert Munsch Munschworks

Munsch's twisted tales are an acquired taste

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He's subversive, raucous, and unexpected. Canadian children's author Robert Munsch is not for everyone. Although I'm a big fan, I don't recommend him to all my friends because I worry that some may not appreciate the fact that none of the children in his stories make very good role models.

A friend once told me that she doesn't let her son watch Elmo's World because Mr Noodle, one of its characters, always does the wrong thing (like putting his legs through a jacket's sleeves), and she doesn't want her son to imitate that. The name "Munsch" does not come up in any conversations with this girlfriend.

Ironically, Munsch's best-selling story is a marked departure from the rest of his repertoire of more than 60 loud and funny stories that feature mischievous children who don't necessarily learn any lesson at the end of the story. Love You Forever has sold more than 15 million copies since its publication in 1986, and that doesn't include translated editions. I discovered this book to be a baby shower favourite after I received three copies when my elder daughter was born.

It's about a mother's enduring love for her child and that child loving his mother back when she is old and sick. Few can read this story without shedding a tear or two.

Smelly Socks and Stephanie's Ponytail were the first two Munsch stories that I shared with my daughter. They both feature little girls who go to great lengths to be different from other children. Tina insists on wearing the same pair of new striped socks day after day in the first story, and the second follows Stephanie's attempts to wear her ponytail in different ways so as not to look like all the other kids.

We enjoyed the stories so much that I bought a four-volume collection of Munsch's stories, Munschworks, colourfully illustrated by Michael Martchenko. This collection held pride of place on my bookshelf for two years.

But it was untouched while my daughter and I discovered other storybooks. It wasn't until a few weeks ago that my daughter and I started to read the collection.

Munsch's stories are perfect for reading aloud because they speak so well to his audience. They contain onomatopoeic words, and plenty of exclamation marks and upper-cased words, perfectly imitating the voice of a wide-eyed, excited child.

It's no surprise to learn that Munsch is a gifted and busy storyteller, and many of his tales started out as oral stories that evolved into their illustrated print versions. My daughter loves firefighters and was mesmerised by the two children who play in a real fire engine even after being told that it was strictly off-limits in The Fire Station. My own favourite is The Paper Bag Princess, in which it's the prince who is captured by a dragon and saved by his princess who uses her brains to outwit the dragon. When the ungrateful prince comments on how dirty the princess has become from her ordeal to rescue him, she decides she doesn't want to marry him and skips happily off into the sunset by herself. While there is a growing number of "modern princess" stories in children's literature today, this ending was a minor revolution for when The Paper Bag Princess was first published more than 30 years ago.

Two years ago, Munsch went public about his mental health and addiction problems, sharing that he had been diagnosed as obsessive-compulsive and manic-depressive. It's sad that his output had been fuelled by substance abuse. Let's hope that he can be clean and still continue to create wonderful stories.

Annie Ho is a board governor of Bring Me A Book Hong Kong, a non-profit organisation devoted to improving children's literacy

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