The Quarreling Book


Have you ever read a book to your children and thought: the message of this book may be going way over my children’s heads, but holy cow, this was a one-two punch to their mother? This weekend we visited my parents’ house because the cousins were around, and to calm down the three five-year-olds, three two-year-olds, and two seven-year-olds while we were waiting for the very late pizza guy to arrive, I pulled some random and dusty old books out of Nana’s collection.

This one looked kind of cute: a slim volume, originally from 1963, called The Quarreling Book, by Charlotte Zolotow. “What’s quarreling?” Seamus asked as they all clambered around me on the couch to take a look, and none of the other kids knew what it meant either, and that seemed to be a clear sign that this book would be quaint but perhaps not too relevant.

Then I began to read.

It was a rainy gray morning, and Mr. James forgot to kiss Mrs. James good-bye when he left for the office. Mrs. James felt quite cross because of this… So when Jonathan James came down for breakfast, she was sharp with him. “Oh, for goodness’ sake!” she said. “Why did you wear that shirt again today? It’s filthy!”

In other words, Jonathan James’ mommy was having a shitty morning and took it out on her kid. Wow, did that sound familiar.

The book goes on to show how our behavior towards our loved ones is all too often shaped by things that have nothing to do with them. Jonathan James, in a bad mood because his mommy wasn’t nice, is nasty to his sister, who is nasty to her friend, who teases her baby brother, who pushes the dog.

Only the dog can turn things around. Thinking the baby wants to play, he licks his master’s face until he giggles. Then he’s nice to his older sister, who apologizes to her friend… and before you know it, Mr. James is home to give Mrs. James a great warm hello kiss.

The kids liked this book just fine. I find it incredibly powerful. The next time I am being snippy or snappy or sarcastic or nasty with one of my children, I am going to try to take a moment and consider if, perhaps, there might be a reason for my reaction that actually has very little to do with my children’s behavior. I have a feeling I will be seeing a lot of my impatience with my children in a new light. It looks like this book is still available on Amazon, and even though the dad goes to work while the mom stays home and hangs out the washing, and the big sister calls her little brother a “sissy” for playing with dolls, which might merely give some kids a new avenue of teasing possibility, its overall message means I can still recommend The Quarreling Book most highly.

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Mollie November 9, 2009 at 2:44 am

"The Quarreling Book" has stayed with me all these years, since I used to read myself that very copy. I still think of it any time someone's being cranky to or near me without provocation — or I catch myself doing it to someone else.

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