The idea for this post was suggested to me by my friend Alice in early October. She had noticed that in many books she was reading to her daughter, the word NO, or the denial of permission, was used as a plot device. Alice mentioned Robert Munsch’s use of “No,” NNNNno,” and “Nononononono” as a device in many of his stories.
I didn’t know what to do with this idea when she proposed it to me. I suggested that she write a guest post, but I suppose that, given that she was working full-time, AND in her third trimester with her second child, AND the mother of a busy a one-year old, she just didn’t have the time.
Anyway, I’ve been mulling over this idea ever since, and these are the musings I have come up with.
This is what one Robert Munsch story (Thomas’ Snowsuit) would look like without the word “No.”
One day, Thomas’ mother got him a nice, new, brown snowsuit. And when Thomas saw that snowsuit, he said, “That is the ugliest thing I have seen in my life.” But he put it on anyway. THE END.
See? No story at all. This is the story of my life, by the way. “Oh no! – Not the lavender store-brand running shoes with velcro fastenings from Kmart! But I have no others… so I will wear them.” THE END.
What is no, and why do toddlers make such copious use of it? No is an assertion of selfhood, right? When you’re a baby, you do whatever is done to you. You eat the food that comes at you, you wear the itchy sweater that your Auntie Matilda made for you. But when you get a bit older, you realize that there is this powerful word that makes grown-ups stop. No.
It doesn’t mean that you don’t have to wear the sweater, but it means that (if you’re lucky) the grown-ups will give you reasons to wear it. “Put this sweater on. It’s cold outside” or “Put this sweater on and smile for the camera so we can send Aunt Matilda a picture. You can take it off as soon as you’ve taken this picture. I promise.”
“NO” doesn’t mean that you don’t have to eat your broccoli, but it does mean that grown-ups may find creative ways to encourage you to eat it. They might tell you that you can be a giraffe. They might start telling you how delicious it tastes with cheese sauce. Or, if you live in my house, you might be told that it’s OK not to eat the broccoli, but if you don’t, you MIGHT get scurvy. And that would really be too bad. Because then your teeth would fall out…
What I am saying, I guess, is that the word “No” becomes the basis for an explanation, and also for a story. “No” inspires persuasion, tall tales, narratives.
Obedient children make boring characters, too. Here, for example, is the story of Peter Rabbit‘s sisters.
Flopsy, Mopsy, and Cottontail lived with their mother under the root of a very large fir tree. One day, their mother said “I’m going out. You may play in the meadow or down the lane, but don’t go into Mr McGregor’s garden. Your father had an accident there. He was made into a pie by Mrs McGregor.”* Their mother took her basket and went to do her shopping. Flopsy, Mopsy, and Cottontail went down the lane and gathered blackberries. When their mother returned, they had bread, and milk, and blackberries for supper. THE END.
*Now there’s a story…
Peter Rabbit doesn’t say “No” to his mother, but his disobedience is a willful negation of his mother’s wishes. His disobedience is the story. Flopsy, Mopsy, and Cottontail’s story might be the moral, but it isn’t interesting. Readers might want to be the good sisters, eating their delicious meal at the end of the day, but they don’t want to read about them.
Many parents (including myself) would doubtless like to shut down the “No” emerging from their children’s mouths. We’d love to have angelic faces beaming, with “Yes” emerging from cherubic lips. But that wouldn’t be very interesting, would it? And there would be precious few stories to share.