When I was a kid I was given a picture book that used to belong to one of my uncles when my uncle was a kid. That takes us back to the 1940s – the era of my uncle’s childhood.
The book was written by an American children’s author – a guy called Munro Leaf. While doing my spring cleaning I rediscovered a couple of the Munro Leaf books I’d inherited from my uncle. Pausing to read, I decided that one of them – Let’s Do Better – warranted a blog post. So here it is!
On the surface, ‘Let’s Do Better’ (1945) is a simple morality tale for young children – encouraging them to reject selfishness and greed whilst embracing such values as sharing, empathy and thoughtfulness. Seen in context – the book was written as the world was emerging from the smouldering ruins of World War Two – it could be concluded that it was an admirable response to the failings of a generation driven by murderous hatreds and divisive political ideologies. In other words, you could (superficially) view it as merely a book of its times; a quaint period piece cataloguing humanity’s latest embryonic emergence from the all-too-recent intellectual and spiritual dark ages.
However, as I read (and pondered) further, it struck me how timeless the book’s central message really is – and how relevant it remains to the troubled world of today. In addition, it occurred to me how succinctly this particular book summarises the main concept behind my novel LOVE, GUDRUN ENSSLIN – the idea that a recognition of our common humanity is the first step towards building a true civilisation offering hope and opportunity for all (and not just for a cynical and controlling financial and political elite). Of course, my book is a novel (a work of art) and is not intended to be as overtly didactic as the children’s book, Let’s Do Better. But there is a bizarre synchronicity of purpose between these two books – hence this blog post.
Let’s Do Better tells the story of humanity – describing how “our ancestors” lived in caves and treated each other violently and competitively. The result of this was death, suffering and misery – short violent lives and traumatised orphaned children. Some “thinkers” soon realised this was a stupid and unsatisfactory way to live and advanced the notion of cooperation between peoples – each person contributing to the common good according to his or her individual skills set (bakers, farmers, builders, doctors etc – all chipping in). For a time, this worked – and led to social and industrial advancement; little by little humanity was becoming civilised.
Until…the “selfish cheaters” took charge. The “selfish cheaters” are, of course, a thinly disguised reference to politicians (and in our present era you can surely add bankers and commodity traders to the same category!). These are people who act only in their own selfish interest, motivated solely by greed and vanity. They set one group of people against another, stir up animosity and then seek to profit from the chaos, division and inequality they have created/encouraged.
The book ends with the recognition that the “selfish cheaters” were once themselves innocent children – with the opportunity to be taught (by both parents and schools) such values as integrity, tolerance and a desire to help/cooperate rather than to profit, exploit and control. If only, Leaf reflected, we could all finally reject greed and its mean-spirited mindset, then – together – we could at last begin building a better world for everybody. He ends the book with the rallying cry of “Let’s Do Better.”
Munro Leaf is perhaps best known for his earlier book, ‘The Story Of Ferdinand’ (1936), the tale of a gentle bull in rural Spain who preferred smelling flowers to bullfighting. Predictably, General Franco’s Fascists in Spain regarded the book as ‘subversive pacifist propaganda’ and banned it – while the Nazis in Germany consigned it to their obscene and obtuse book-burning bonfires for the same reason. Happily, however, the book was translated into over 60 languages, has never gone out of print and the 1938 Disney film version won an Academy award.
I have no idea if Leaf suffered in his home nation of America during the paranoid McCarthy-led anti-Communist witch hunts – although the vaguely anti-capitalist and pro-community-spirited sub-text of ‘Let’s Do Better’ and the fact that Leaf was at his peak during the 1940s/50s (during the height of ‘McCarthyism’) suggests that the ‘House Committee on Un-American Activities’ may well have taken more than a passing interest in Munro’s writing. That it should be politicians who fail to recognise a children’s book – aimed at creating a better world for those self same children – for what it is and end up re-branding and caricaturing it as ‘subversive propaganda’ would be a delicious irony (not least given the central message of ‘Let’s Do Better’) were it not so damningly indicative of the sheer mean-spirited stupidity of most politicians!
Authors often live in fear of misinterpretation and misrepresentation – at times I have felt the same way in connection with LOVE, GUDRUN ENSSLIN – but, as a writer, you have to write what you feel in the way that you feel it and, to some extent…publish and be damned! Munro Leaf once said: “Early on in my writing career I found that if one found some truths worth telling they should be told to the young in terms that are understandable to them.”
“Let’s Do Better” – three simple words that still have resonance and relevance almost seventy years after they were written.