Friday, October 23, 2009

Staying True to Yourself

When I first started teaching (and that was 20 years ago now), Halloween was all about the costumes and the candy and who could get the most. It’s still all about the costumes and the candy and who can get the most.

What I love about Dav Pilkey’s The Hallo-Wiener (aside from the fact that it stars a Dachshund, a breed to which I’m partial), is that he exploits these two facts to their fullest comic potential. And because he is so funny, Pilkey is able to subtly touch on two themes here that often plague childhood: acceptance for being exactly who you are, and bullying—which are often related.

The other dogs make fun of Oscar because of who he is (“Wiener Dog! Wiener Dog!”). He looks different from the other pups pictured. He’s long and low to the ground. He looks forward to Halloween because he can escape into another identity with his disguise. But his mother, who loves him for who he is, buys him a costume that accentuates the very trait for which he is ostracized (a hot dog bun with mustard). Not only that, but the costume’s unwieldiness slows his pace, and the candy’s all gone by the time he arrives at the front door of each house on his route.

When I hit my teens, my peers began teasing me about my red hair and freckles. I’ll never forget in 8th grade science class, the most popular jock telling me I had “puke-red hair.” And even worse, I remember my mother’s hairdresser, while giving me a haircut, told me, “Don’t worry, you’ll be beautiful when you’re 30.” There I was with my puke-red hair, freckles and braces, and I was miserable! Like Oscar, I wanted to escape into other disguises. So I acted in plays and literally became other characters. Later, I was glad to have had all of my theatre experiences, which I likely would not have pursued if I’d been welcomed into the popular crowd. Today I even enjoy being a redhead. But try telling that to any child or teenager. They still have to live through all of this awkwardness and discomfort.

In this humorous but gently wise tale, the very characteristic that make Oscar the butt of his peers’ jokes—his low point of gravity—gives him the perspective and the strength needed to spot the true identity of the monster and also to unveil the monster for what it is. The other pups are grateful that Oscar saved them, and appreciate his resourcefulness.

Yes, the book is most of all a sweet and satisfying humorous tale in which the underdog winds up on top. But it also has some strong points to make that, after many rereadings, your youngsters will begin to internalize, whether you ever discuss its subtle lessons or not.

So even though much of the fun of Halloween is dressing up and stepping into another identity (and eating bagfuls of chocolate), Dav Pilkey’s clever comedy tells us that, ultimately, we need to be comfortable with who we are all year long.

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