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Two Plus Two Equals Five
on June 26, 2014
Talk about bullying! This is a slice-of -life book about an earnest young boy in a typical American classroom who has done his research and is giving a REPORT! It is made clear in the story that he deserves to be bullied and humiliated because he holds to what he knows to be true. "I discovered this book today. I was shaken. I love Willem's other books, esp. the Knuffle Bunnys.
There is a lot of serious talk about the power of children's literature. If, as so often stated, we believe that impressionable young minds soak up the early messages we present to them, then we, as concerned parents or teachers, should not prejudge this book based on Willems well-earned reputation. Read it and decide for yourself.
The book is NOT ABOUT a fictional dinosaur; that would be fine. I like fantasy as much as the next person. A skilled author like Willems could have had it both ways, illustrating the distinction between science and art and thus resolving the conflict. But, in fact, the story shows the boy being intimidated and re-educated, implying that if enough wrong-headed people insist on a feel-good falsehood, it becomes the new truth.
The boy presents his "report" (not story) about dinosaurs, saying they are extinct. The rest of the class believes in Edwina, the imaginary classroom mascot, who serves imaginary cookies and "loves" the students; therefore, she is not extinct and he is wrong. Belief is mandatory and no objection is allowed. Where is the adult who helps the class perceive the "apples and oranges" aspect of the conflict?
The book is ultimately about conflicting world-views: science vs. wishful thinking. It is about the cruelty of "the many" to the odd one, the geek, the intellectual, the serious student, the idealist who stands up for what he knows to be true until he caves under pressure. It is about the disillusionment of one young scholar who discovers that it is not "safe" to be "different." It's a realistic story except for Edwina. When he finally accepts Edwina's fantasy "concern," imaginary love, imaginary food and "warm fuzzies." it signals that the group has triumphed; The boy is now part of the group and everyone lives happily ever after. He's been "rehabilitated."
This book celebrates GroupThink. The message is that if you wish to be liked, loved, part of the crowd, be popular, "get along," "play well with others," belong, and even BE SAFE! then you'd better not oppose their beliefs or fun fantasies with anything so trivial as "the truth." This is the "evil-scientist-as-geek" super-uncool-to-be-smart, better to be liked than right message. It's the 2-plus-2-equals-5 if the majority says it so. It's brainwashing. The anti-hero tries everything in the service of truth and he is mocked and reviled, becomes a pariah, ostracized.
It is young thinkers like him who will likely provide the REAL FOOD and real warmth to his fuzzy-headed classmates. Or would, if he is not entirely beaten down by his peers. Until these basic needs are met, food and some creature comforts, no higher culture of fantasy, art, will be possible.
No peer or adult intervenes for him and explains that, yes, there is "fact" and he's right, and there is "story" and it is valuable but not truth. It strikes me as very sad that he finally has to break down, give in, give up, twist his intelligent, truth-seeking mind around and actually believe in magical-thinking, voodoo reasoning. Certainly, fantasy is legitimate for children, but here it literally trumps truth, no apologies made or explanations given.