In Part Five of the Toddler Lessons series, we are studying English Literature.
Toddlers are typically accomplished storytellers, and enthusiastic poets. Here are toddler takes on six literary mediums, styles and devices.
(As an added bonus with this lesson, I think we can all agree no one need actually read Romeo and Juliet ever again. You are welcome.)
Early toddler poetry is characterised by the seminal work ‘Duck’:
Bizarrely, this piece of poetry, word for word, is attributable to every young toddler ever.
As toddlers progress, their poetry moves on – often to the style of the epic poem. The epic poem ‘Mummy I Have A Complaint About Everything That Has Happened Today’ is approximately two years long. (Of course, that’s just ‘Part One: The Toddler Years’. ‘Part Two: The Teenage Years’ resumes at the age of thirteen, and is roughly five years long.) Put that in your pipe and smoke it, Homer. Twenty-four books for the Odyssey? Is that the best you could manage?
If anyone is ever in need of a quick summary of Romeo and Juliet, they could do worse than watch toddlers interacting for a few minutes. In ‘Todleo and Todliet’, two toddlers meet at a playgroup. Despite not knowing each other at all, they instantly love each other. If one of them had previously been in love with another toddler (let’s call her Rosaline, that way, if anyone actually is foolish enough to attempt to use this as a Romeo and Juliet study guide, they will at least get one mark), this is immediately forgotten. Rosaline now smells. Somehow, with no real explanation as to exactly why everyone has decided to so epically overreact, war breaks out among all of the toddlers in the room, resulting in great bloodshed on all sides. Todliet decides to play dead, though no one can quite work out why she thinks this is helpful. Todleo runs away, before deciding that he also wants to play dead because Todliet is. The entire relationship lasts about five minutes, and ends in chaos, panic and disorder for everyone in the room.
3. Literary Quotes
Toddlers are fans of a good literary quote, and have found each of these popular examples to be frequently applicable to their own lives.
The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Samuel Taylor Coleridge
Anyone who is foolhardy enough to give a toddler a free flow cup will be aware that toddlers are Coleridge fans:
‘Water, water everywhere,
Nor any drop to drink.’
(‘Yoghurt, yoghurt everywhere, and not so much as a bloody spoonful in a mouth’ is also a popular toddler variation on the quote.)
A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens
‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times’ pretty much sums up the toddler age. It is usually a fairly accurate description of the elation, heartbreak, giggling and sobbing that formed the emotional rollercoaster that was the preceding five minutes in a toddler’s life.
The Road Not Taken, Robert Frost
‘Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by…’
…And that is why I got lost. And covered in mud. And Mummy shouted.
King Lear, William Shakespeare
When they have been told off, toddlers often like to adopt King Lear’s self-pitying stance: ‘I am a [toddler] more sinned against than sinning.’ This is illustrated by anguished sobbing about how awful Mummy was to suggest that a banana was not to be inserted into the DVD player, no matter how convinced one may be that said banana is the blu-ray edition of Tangled.
4. Symbolism, Suggestion, Themes and Motifs
Toddler words are laden with symbolism and deeper meaning. In the famous soliloquy ‘I want raisins NOW’, for example, the evaporation of the water from the grape to make the raisin symbolises the evaporation of the toddler’s dreams of getting chocolate instead of raisins. Of course, there are those who believe the soliloquy is not symbolic of anything, and simply demonstrates that toddlers like raisins. Such disagreements, however, merely serve to confirm that toddlers are worthy of their places in the world of literature, which is rife with this type of debate. Hamlet: a tragic hero whose struggles and actions represent the mystery of death, the state of the nation, incestuous desire, and the nature of revenge…or just a bit of an arse? (If you are due to sit an exam on Hamlet any time soon, I would say that the former option is the one traditionally preferred by the exam boards. You can believe the latter on your own time, like the rest of us.)
Toddler storytellers laugh in the face of the traditional idea that a story should have a beginning, a middle and an end. Middles, in the opinion of toddlers, take rather a lot of effort – all that formulating of plots – and waste everyone’s time. This is why the complete and unabridged version of many famous toddler works is: ‘Once upon a time…The End!’ Furthermore, many toddlers view the middles certain authors insist on putting into their books with disdain, and will refuse to allow anyone to see any pages other than the first or last. These two pages contain all the information a toddler needs, and they will not have well meaning parents assaulting their ears with an actual story.
6. Literary/Narrative Devices
Toddlers employ a number of important narrative devices to great effect in both their storytelling and their lives.
Toddlers actually devote much of their lives to MacGuffins, dedicating themselves to the pursuit of some goal (getting their feet into two small plastic cups) or object (anything belonging to Mummy and unsuitable for a toddler) for reasons that are entirely inexplicable even to themselves.
This is the main style of toddler storytelling. Toddlers don’t like understatement, it’s just so boring. Extensive use of hyperbole as a narrative style is how, after an uneventful day featuring a simple trip to the shops, Daddy, upon his return to from work, will come to believe the day was spent meeting Grandma. And Peppa Pig. In Austria. To go swimming. At the circus. Where we got milk (we did get milk – there has to be a little bit of truth). Whilst dressed as Snow White (everyone, including imaginary Grandma).
Toddlers are unrivaled among storytellers for their ability to create a plot twist no one could see coming. Indeed, many toddler stories take such a twist that they actually become an entirely different story, bearing little (no) relation to the original: ‘We went to the shops, and I wore my shoes, and I had some raisins, and then…can you show me tiger? Cos my bedroom is an apple.’
Toddlers like a backstory. Particularly if it is rambling, apparently interminable, and utterly irrelevant to what they are actually talking about.
The use of cliffhangers is a popular feature in toddler storytelling, usually occurring when the toddler in question gets distracted by something shiny and wanders off, leaving their audience forever mystified as to the ending of the tale.
Stream of Consciousness
Like James Joyce, toddlers are fans of the stream of consciousness, narrating exactly what is in their heads, with little editing, censorship or logic. Many critics have suggested the toddler stream of consciousness to be infinitely more entertaining and mildly more coherent than Ulysses, though this makes hardcore Joyce fans very angry.
You can see other posts in my Toddler Lessons series here