Friday, July 11, 2008

In defense of Paddington

Paddington has been savaged by Writing Maternity and Hopeless but not serious for lacking a narrative arc and embodying episodic sit-com humor. How on earth did it garner children's classic status?

Well, I love Paddington because my first boyfriend loved him. When he traveled halfway around the world with just 2 suitcases, he carried a little Paddington with him. Why did Paddington so strongly resonate with him?

Paddington is a light packer. He left deepest darkest Peru for London with only one battered suitcase. My friend had two suitcases (and a backpack) and carried Paddington as a reminder that you don't need much.

Moreover, Paddington is optimistic. He tries to be helpful, and he relies on others for help. Things turn out ok for him because of the goodwill he finds in others.

I also appreciate that Paddington has found a look that works for him and doesn't fell any need to sartorially stray. He has his yellow hat and blue duffel coat. What more does a bear need?

In that sense, Paddington is aspirational. He owns little and travels light.

True, he gets into some funny situations when he takes people literally. So do Amelia Bedelia, Ramona and Clementine. Literal meanings are sometimes silly. That's why children find the books so funny. Like sit-coms, the stories allow children to anticipate Paddington's mistakes. Children can laugh and feel smarter than Paddington. That's the whole point of the stories.

The chapters are self-contained and can be read in pretty much any order. If that makes them episodic and lacking in narrative, so be it. At the end of a chapter, you can turn out the lights and go to sleep. You won't be begged to read one more chapter to see how it will end. That's a good thing.

If you take the stories for what they are, amusing little fluff stories, you can have a pretty good time. Iris and I have shared some deep belly laughs over Paddington's first bath and other misadventures. Sometimes, we lie in bed and say things like, "Remember when Paddington tried to clean the chimney?" or "Remember when daddy tried to fix the washer and caused the great flood of 2008?". Then we both convulse with giggles.

For me, Paddington's appeal is mainly aspirational. If only my stuff diet could whittle my belongings down to one suitcase. I would settle for getting my belongings into one carry-on and one "personal item" each time I fly.


  1. I actually have a lot of appreciation for the *idea* of Paddington himself. In fact, I was pretty surprised to find myself so underwhelmed by the book this time (after more than 20 years), because he had a pretty strong hold on my memory. There's something about Paddington's own distress at his mistakes that gets me this time; there's something different in that from (say) Amelia Bedelia's mistakes-as-a-result-of-literal-interpretation.

  2. Do you find Paddington's distress any more disturbing than Lucy Ricardo's?

  3. Hmm, I liked Paddington although I haven't read him in years. I liked Amelia Bedelia. I still like Lucy Ricardo. We all get ourselves into stupid situations. As simple stories, and as an opportunity to laugh at foibles that most of us have indulged in to some extent or another over time, they are fun and remind us to laugh at ourselves rather than take ourselves too seriously.

    And yes, I always liked that Paddington had his little suitcase and his hat and coat. Paddington always reminded me that it doesn't take all that much to find happiness in life. So does the fact that Lucy Ricardo always wants more make her the anti-Paddington? (but perhaps funnier)

  4. I actually find it hard to laugh at Lucy Ricardo -- so, no, I don't find Paddington's predicaments more disturbing, but I find a lot of classic sitcom humor more painful than funny.

  5. Like dr, though I remember the books fondly from childhood, I now find them formulaic. And humourless. But I love Lucy (if I may). Because, even though she's following the same formula, she does so with such slapdash goofiness -- nothing at all like Paddington's ponderous "I was just wondering if you happened to have a little marmelade about you." Lucy had her slow moments, sure, but she was a wonderful physical comedian, and her scripts remain endearingly zany.

    On Amelia Bedelia, two points. First, these books teach children that servants are stupid. Second (and Grace, this is mainly to make you chuckle at how linguistically obsessed people can be), she does NOT take things literally! See the explanation -- a classic blog post if there ever was one -- here:

  6. Funny, I didn't get the generalization to "all servants are stupid". OTOH, kids usually haven't read Bertie and Jeeves yet, to get the counterpoint. I wonder if I should read Wodehouse to her?

  7. Thanks for the link to Literal-minded
    . He has convinced me that Amelia Bedelia is NOT literal-minded.

    And I don't think that he is obsessive. Math majors are notoriously rigorous about phrasing and word usage.

  8. So glad to hear you're a Wodehouse fan! Me too, and I agree that it's the cure.

    A lot of children's books have problematic servants. Which reminds me that Paddington, though he travels light and doesn't change his clothes, lives in a family with a housekeeper. She's a smart one. But her existence calls into question the idea that Paddington gets by with little.