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If you read the reviews of Shy Charles on Amazon, you will see that they fall into two categories. Some adore this story, and some find it awful. "Shockingly horrible," were some reviewers' exact words. I do understand the criticism, but I actually think this book is quite special, and I will explain why.
A General Note:
When it comes to reading books, for the young, the old, and everyone in between, you will sometimes encounter characters who do and say things with which you disagree. There are those, who feel that makes books inappropriate. Especially for children and teens.
This is not a new story.
When this happens, the responses usually fall into two categories. To condemn and/or remove the offending material, or to welcome it, and the challenges that it brings.
I am not terribly afraid of reading things aloud to children that are inherently different than my own beliefs. Sometimes, I hesitate before I have to read certain words, and on occasion, I will even do a bit of editing. But, I can live with some offensive ideas when the overall tone and message of a story are authentic and good. Sometimes, it makes the experience of reading a story even richer, because now you have something to discuss.
Back to our story:
Shy Charles is a story about a young bunny, who is, you guessed it, shy. Shy, but happy.
Shy Charles' mother and father are loving and well meaning, but they are often dismayed and embarrassed by his behavior. And that is where some of the trouble begins. Charles' parents want him to be polite, and to fit in. After the encounter pictured below, his mother says, "Lucky for you that I'm so nice, another mother would spank you."
His dad says this:
Ballet doesn't go well, and neither does football.
His father becomes so frustrated at Charles' failed attempts at group activities that he calls him a "cowardly custard."
And this is where some people cannot stand this story. They feel they are witnessing parents belittling their shy child, and threatening him with physical violence. I will admit, that I cringe a little when I read it to a group of students, because of the parental behavior in this story. But, when I first read this book many years ago, I remember thinking, "Yes! That is what it feels like to be shy. And that is what it can feel like when your child won't talk to others. Rosemary Wells gets my whole life!"
I am shy. I have always been so. Not the kind of shy where people say, "You're shy?! I would never have guessed!" I don't think either of my children would now describe themselves as shy, but they spent plenty of time hiding behind me in their much earlier years. And there were some uncomfortable moments when their behavior was viewed as rude.
And so, even though I can parts of the book are cringe worthy, I still love it. Because, it perfectly captures Charles' agony at being pressed into speaking. "Please" and "thank you," are pretty much required in polite company. It is part of our social contract. But this simple act can be so hard for some. And it is hard to be the parent of such a child. Not because he or she is not loved for who she is, but because people might think your child is rude and unfriendly, and question your parenting skills. Charles' parents simply feel embarrassed by his behavior. They re worried about whether he will ever be able to function in the world. And who has not felt that way at some point or another?
I know I have.
And I have gotten mad at my kids. I have said mean things to them in anger.
It happens. So do apologies.
Rosemary Wells, who is no slouch in the children's author category, captured so much child and parental emotion in her simple rhyming text and her sweet cartoon bunny illustrations. And that is what good stories do. Capture and communicate real human experience and emotion. Not just the good ones.
But wait! I haven't even gotten to the main action of the story yet!
One night, Charles' parents go out, and a babysitter stays with Charles. Upon her arrival, Charles runs away and hides out playing in his room. (Once again, my kids have been there and done that.)
But, when the babysitter falls down the stairs, Charles is ready. He takes care of her; He talks to her; He calls 911. Or, the Bunny Universe equivalent of 911.
And so, Shy Charles at the end of the story is exactly the same as Shy Charles in the beginning of the story. He is shy. But, this little bunny boy knows right from wrong quite well. He knows when talking is truly needed, and he will find his voice when that time comes.
And if that is not a simple truth, a celebration, and encouragement for shy people everywhere, then I don’t know what is.
But you can pick up your own copy and decide for yourself.
Let me know what you think in the comments below.