Vigna seems convinced that a few watercolor washes can make the world a better place, but her idealism is misguided; stories of the horrible undercurrent of the real world are more likely to scare children.
Although the following review is not positive, I empathize with what Judith Vigna tried to accomplish. In the late 1980’s, she took on a topic that few writers of children’s books would choose to address: how to explain family difficulties brought on by alcoholism and addiction. Beyond the intimate connection of a parent or trusted family member talking directly to a child, raising this issue on a public platform is like walking through a minefield. It’s so easy to make a single misstep that blows the project straight to heck. Not to hell, mind you, we’re talking about children’s books.
I Wish Daddy Didn’t Drink So Much (1988) and My Big Sister Takes Drugs (1990) were published by Albert Whitman & Company as fictional self-help stories to educate kids about alcoholism and substance use disorder. With these books, Vigna invents a kind of misguided bibliotherapy designed for children in preschool to grade 3. The books do a belly flop, and it’s hard to imagine that either would successfully educate or console a young child, although that is their goal. Moreover, both books are culturally biased since they focus on white characters in either suburban America or a strange rural environment where isolated houses exist in the middle of nowhere for no good reason.
Is such grim reality needed in children’s picture books? In the context of both of these efforts, there is a sense that something precious has been hijacked to accomplish a worthy educational goal. Children’s storybooks and picture books are a beloved part of childhood, combining the visual imagination with language. The innocence of the genre is a key element to the lasting success of so many outstanding children’s books from Maurice Sendak’s Where The Wild Things Are and Dr. Seuss’s The Cat In The Hat to Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree and Margaret Wise’s Goodnight Moon.
Although each of these stories teaches a life lesson about good behavior and decency, they don’t cross the line by subverting the fantasy to morality. Indeed, the fantasy bolsters the moral message, taking it to the next level by presenting the ideas in an artistic context that provides access for a child. When I recall first reading books as a little boy, I remember the fun I experienced and the thrill of turning the pages. In Judith Vigna’s stories, the fun is replaced by a dull melancholy ruptured here and there by a disturbing undercurrent of anxiety and fear. Even when hope is presented in the end and partial solutions proffered, the ugliness remains, like the father’s undeterred alcoholism in I Wish Daddy Didn’t Drink So Much.
The best example of this replacement happens in I Wish Daddy Didn’t Drink So Much, aimed at kids in pre-school to grade 2. The night before Christmas is disturbed when young Lisa’s drunken father stumbles into her bedroom dressed as Santa Claus. On the very first page of text in the book, Lisa explains that the costume did not fool her for a second. She says, “I knew it was only Daddy in a Santa Claus suit because he bumped into my bed twice and spilled beer on the rug. I didn’t like that. When Daddy drinks a lot of beer, he acts funny.”
In other words, even a child knows that Santa Claus doesn’t show up drunk. Still, Lisa is excited because her father is going to take her sledding the next day. Santa even leaves a note taped to her new sled that says her daddy promised him that they would go sledding and try out the present after breakfast. Unfortunately, Daddy is too hungover to go sledding. Lisa asks later in the day if they can go, but Dad is drinking beer while watching television, focused solely on the hair of the dog that bit him the night before.
Lisa’s father ignores her request, and she gets mad, telling him that he promised. The face of the little girl is drawn with such sadness and disappointment. Reacting to her feelings, her father lashes out and yells at Lisa. She ends up playing with her sled in the house, imagining that she’s in the clouds but feeling sad and scared.
Although there is no direct physical violence in the book, beyond loud fights between the mother and father, the threat looms. The bad times continue and culminate with an intoxicated failed attempt to go sledding. Later, Lisa mopes outside as her mother and father have a big screaming match inside the house with sounds of breaking glass.
The story ends when Lisa and her mother escape her father’s drunken anger by going over to Mrs. Field’s house. They have a nice Christmas dinner with this old lady, and Lisa opens up about how her father’s drinking destroyed Christmas. Mrs. Field tells Lisa that she used to drink too much before she got help. One day, her father might be ready to get help as well. Until then, she advises this little girl, “you can learn to be happier. You can try to do one of your favorite things every day.”
And that’s about it. There’s a closing bit where Lisa returns home and her father promises to take her sledding on Sunday. But nothing changes, and Lisa remains in a crappy situation with little learned and less relieved. Telling a child to do one of her favorite things every day as a response to alcoholism in the family is like telling a cancer patient to go to Disneyland every weekend. It profoundly fails to address the primary problem.
Vigna seems convinced that a few watercolor washes can make the world a better place, but her idealism is misguided; stories of the horrible undercurrent of the real world are more likely to scare children. Story time is not when the dark issues of humanity should be raised with children. Going out and doing a favorite thing is not an effective approach to dealing with an alcoholic parent.
In complex.com’s list of The 25 Most Ridiculous Holiday Children’s Books, Vigna’s book comes in at number one. It’s an impressive accomplishment because the competition is stiff, ranging from How Santa Lost His Pants and How Santa Lost His Job to Santa Cow Island and The Flying Canoe: A Christmas Story.
My Big Sister Takes Drugs is Judith Vigna’s second attempt at the bibliotherapy children’s picture book genre. Designed for Grades 2 through 3, a slightly older crowd from seven to nine years old, the book tells the story of little Paul who is dealing with the fact that his teenage sister, Tina, is using drugs. The drugs profoundly change Tina in a negative way. Rather than play games with Paul, she offers him prescription pills. Later, after being busted by the cops for smoking crack in the park with her delinquent friends, Tina is shipped off to rehab. Tina’s drug use causes Paul to lose friends because other parents don’t want their kids around his older sister. Also, once Tina goes to rehab, there is no money left to send him to soccer camp.
As part of a Vigna’s desperate drug education and awareness program, this dank children’s picture book only succeeds in stigmatizing substance use disorder. Okay, Tina has become a mean big sister and hangs out with mean kids. Paul feels threatened in his own home. However, these scare tactics of losing friends and opportunities because of drug usage are counterproductive to any real understanding of addiction as a disease in general and a family disease in particular.
The story is poorly told and not believable. For example, there is a weird section where Tina tries to get her brother high on New Year’s Eve, offering him prescription medication while she reclines on her bed. Paul declines and Tina calls him a chicken. When Paul inevitably tells his parents about the incident, Tina is grounded for a week.
Such a sequence makes little or no sense. Why would a teenage sister want to give her little brother drugs? Why would she be home on New Year’s Eve with her little brother and not out with her friends? Does Vigna understand drug culture and teens at all? Tina is way too open about what she is doing with both her parents and Paul. The generally secretive nature of adolescent drug use is replaced with typical adolescent rebellion, a replacement which does not do justice to the truly insidious nature of drug abuse and addiction. I wondered why Judith Vigna did not do more first-hand research before writing a book designed to educate children on such a crucial issue.
At the same time, at this very moment, I feel a bit guilty about being so hard on Judith Vigna. Although her idealism might be misdirected, it comes from a loving instinct to do good in the world and help other people. At the end of I Wish Daddy Didn’t Drink So Much, she includes A Note to Grown-ups. In this note, Vigna writes about the challenge of alcoholism as a family disease: “The children tend to blame themselves, and without adequate support, may feel ashamed, confused, and alone… Parents and other caring adults can help by reassuring children that they are not responsible for the drinking.”