Most are familiar with Dr. Seuss’s Green Eggs and Ham. Having read it as a child, without remembering the details, I’ve gone through life taking from it what I believe to be the intended message: it’s good to try new things. The story involves Sam, aka Sam-I-Am, trying to make an unnamed character, who I’ll call Joey, eat green eggs and ham. Joey refuses to do so, so Sam asks him again and again in slightly different ways (“Would you eat them in a box? Would you eat them with a fox?”) until Joey finally caves and tries it out.
I recently came across, for the first time in about two decades, a copy of Green Eggs and Ham. It’s in our storytime reading pile at Unicorn School, the homeschool cooperative for the kids of Twin Oaks. Our storytime pile is made up of some combination of books owned by the community (45 years of collection has led to an annoyingly vast collection), books currently borrowed from the library, and books loaned from kids’ personal collections. It’s been read a few times in storytime as of late, and while it has silly illustrations and fun rhymes, I became quite disappointed with the content of the story.
Working towards a healthy culture of consent is something that is generally important to me, and something to which I pay particular attention when working with the children. The mainstream sucks at teaching consent to children. Kids are forced to hug their peers, kiss their grandmas, and put up with tickles even when they’re screaming “NO!” (they’re laughing, so it’s ok, right?). If they don’t give up their toy or let someone spend time with them, they’re told they’re being a “bad friend” to this peer that they may not even identify as such. Ettiquite is drilled into their minds with little explanation of its social goods or buy-in from the kids, and politeness is taught as a value above all else. It becomes rude to say ‘no’. And they soon learn that they can treat others in the same forceful, consent-free fashion.
Insidiously, this wildly popular picture book perpetuates this sort of socialization. Joey makes it clear from the start that he does not like green eggs and ham and will not eat them. Sam bugs him incessantly, literally diving into the ocean after him to force him to try this dish. Why doesn’t Joey want to eat green eggs and ham? We never get a clear answer, but guess what: it doesn’t matter. Joey doesn’t need a reason, and Sam has no justification whatsoever for acting like such an asshole and pushing the issue so hard. Children need to learn that ‘no’ means ‘no’. A full tenth of the word count is the word ‘not’ as in “I will not eat them anywhere,” and “I do not like green eggs and ham.” Joey refuses 84 times, and Sam decides not to take any of those refusals seriously. Eventually, Joey gives up and says “If you let me be, I will try them.” He doesn’t try them because of a change of heart, but because he’s so damn fed up. What the hell is this trying to teach kids? If you keep bugging people, you’ll get what you want, if only because they need you off their backs“?
The worst part of all? After Joey caves, Sam is rewarded for his pestering with a “Thank you! Thank you, Sam-I-am!”
Well, the kids really like the book and there are parts of it that are fun, so I think I’ll keep reading it for now. Every time I’ve seen it read to them, the reader has always been quick to point out how much of a pest Sam is being and that he’s ignoring the “no” he receives. Did this happen when I was a kid? I don’t think so. I don’t know if it’s the culture of the community or a sign of the times, but I’m glad that those around me are quick to point out some more valuable messages in the stories we read.