Wednesday, January 25, 2012

The Second-Born

When my son was five, the kid was on a highly age-appropriate television regimen of Sesame Street and Backyardigans or, if we were feeling really liberal with his viewing habits, maybe a flick like Cars. The wildest material we read was Charlotte's Web. His diet of literature and television was wholesome through and through, the equivalent of kale chips and seven grain bread for snack time.

Seconda is now almost five and yesterday she walked into her PreK classroom donning a white lace high-necked gown with purple tulle underneath, very Madonna circa 1983, wearing lipstick and clutching an Easy Reader copy of The Phantom of the Opera. In my defense, I'd convinced her to slip on a gray wool cardigan over the dress which brought it down a few notches of crazy, and I tried to wipe the lipstick off but it had already stained her lips, being a bright red Brucci.

She was super-excited to show her teachers and friends her outfit - she was dressed up as the Phantom's beloved, Christine -- and the book.

"This is my favorite part!" she exclaimed to her teacher, pointing to the illustrations, "Christine rips off Phantom's mask and then he becomes furious and makes her dig her nails into his skin and screams, 'Try to tear my face off!!!!'"

I laughed nervously and directed her to the reading nook where we could peruse the inappropriate reading material privately.

"Read it to me Mommy!" Sec demanded.

And so, as softly as I could, I did. I hadn't read the book before -- had bought it for Primo for his birthday since he loves all things spooky and hey, it is classic literature and promotes a love of literature. Plus, I'm familiar with the story and its not that racy or violent, as I recall. A fallen chandelier. A deformed face. But that passes for tame with kids these days. No sex, drugs or rock n' roll or anything.

I should have given the book a quick read though before I handed it over to the kids because as I turned out, I wasn't all that familiar with the original story.

Recently, Primo read the book at bedtime and the next day I asked him about it and he gave me a quick summary:

"Well, the Phantom, whose real name is Erik, joins a freak show when he is a kid and there's this guy who makes friends with the Phantom and saves his life by pretending another person's corpse is the Phantom's corpse so he can sneak him out of the freak show. And then Erik makes a house under the opera and he builds a torture chamber where he puts his enemies and then he falls in love with Christine and tries to murder her boyfriend Raoul and then he kills himself."

I was pretty sure the kid was getting some of those details wrong, had gotten confused along the way. His reading's not perfect and who knows? He probably made up half that stuff. Torture chambers? Freak shows? Sounded a little . . . far-fetched.

But I learned the truth as I read a chapter to Seconda at PreK drop off, to a growing audience of four year-olds. I tried to keep a low profile but somehow the kids knew we were reading a banned book and they flocked over.

"Behold my death-face!' cried Erik," I read, ""I am very handsome, am I not? The hole for my nose! The dark rings around my tiny yellow eyes! The sunken maw of my mouth!' He grabbed Christine's hands and dug her nails into his flesh. 'Maybe this skeleton face is a mask too! Why don't you try to tear it off!!!'"

That's some bleak shit.

By the time we got up to the Phantom giving Christine a tour of his underground lair, complete with the coffin he sleeps in and the - yes, Primo was right - torture chamber, I decided we'd read just about enough to persuade the teachers and other parents that I was a completely unfit mother. Great, just great. Here I won't let the kids watch Sponge Bob or ICarly and I am reading to them about people committing suicide and faking their own death to escape being circus slaves.

Sometimes I'm blinded by the title "classics of literature." We all make errors in judgement. But it wouldn't hurt for these ""Easy" Readers to have a parent advisory label on them.