Still polarizing after all these years.
I thought the controversy was over. I thought that surely by now, moms were no longer arguing over this book. I thought emotions had cooled, invectives were no longer flung about, and we were at peace with (or at perhaps had just forgotten about) this little children’s book.
But no. The debate rages on.
Love You Forever was written by Robert Munsch and first published in 1986. If you’ve ever seen it, you’re not likely to forget the image of the toddler on the cover, sitting next to an open toilet in the middle of a toddler-made mess, gleefully contemplating what to toss next into the commode. If you’ve read it to children, they’ve likely pointed out the toilet to you each time you’ve read it, while (depending on the child) giggling in embarrassment or snickering in naughty delight.
In short, it’s the story of a mom who sings her baby to sleep with a certain lullaby every night (“I’ll love you forever, I’ll like you for always, as long as I’m living my baby you’ll be”), and as that baby grows, she continues to love and sing to her son, even as he becomes a man with his own home and family. At the end of the book, when the mother is old and sick, the son sings the song back to her and then goes home and sings it to his own baby girl.
So from that brief synopsis, you can maybe see why Love You Forever is on its way to 35,000 Amazon ratings, 94% being five-star reviews. In 2001, fifteen years after it was first published, it was in its 63rd printing, and who knows how many times it’s been printed by now, 20 years later.
So people really like it. That is, except for the people who hate it. And I mean, HATE it.
I was recently a part of a lively and civil discussion (remember those?) about this book with other book-loving moms. The mom who opened the conversation had confessed her extreme distaste for the book and that she had “disappeared” it, despite her child’s love of it. And so the floodgates of discussion were opened and the hate flowed deep and wide from all sides.
I’ve been a part of these conversations many times over the past 20 or so years and I wondered if the reasons for hating on this book were still the same. They are indeed.
Why people hate this book:
1. The number one reason is that the book is “weird and creepy.” This viewpoint is 99% tied to a scene where the mom straps a ladder to her car and climbs in her grown son’s second-story window to rock him in her lap and sing to him while he sleeps. If you haven’t read Love You Forever, here’s where you’re probably agreeing with the haters and thinking, “How did a children’s book like that ever get published, anyway?” A word you hear often regarding this book is “stalking.”
2. Adult readers feel emotionally manipulated by the book. It’s gonna make you cry. Big, sobbing, nose-running tears right in front of your kids, and they’ll anxiously wonder why you’re upset, and you can’t explain that to a preschooler (I love you so much but you’re going to grow up and I’m going to get old and die and then you’ll carry on the love to a new generation), and then you have the tension of them wanting the book read aloud six times a day, always questioning your tears and helpfully bringing you the Kleenex every single time. This gets old. And for many people, feels manipulative.
3. Some people have issues with the character of the boy in the book, from his throwing things in the toilet to not wanting to take a bath and using bad words. They don’t want that as an example for their kids to follow.
So they throw the book out, “disappear” it, literally don’t allow it in their home.
Which is totally fine, of course. In my house, you won’t find a copy of The Giving Tree or The Rainbow Fish because I seriously dislike these two popular children’s books.
So what’s really going on with this book?
A good place to start with trying to understand Love You Forever is the backstory. Everyone grieves differently and writing this book was part of that grieving process for Robert Munsch. Some moms who have lost children have found comfort in knowing the origins of the book; some have not.
I never knew the backstory until recently, but I’ve always liked the book. It was easy for me to see the rocking and the ladder and the mom’s eccentric behavior as an obvious metaphor for the unconditional, unending love between a mother and child—no matter how big or how grown up that child gets. That a mother will always feel close to her baby, even if only in her mind … and that child is never far from her thoughts, even as an adult. And that far down the road, the roles (hopefully) will reverse, eventually carrying on to the next generation.
I’ll admit, though, much as I liked the book, at one point I did have to stop reading it to my kids. While I’m apparently able to read the entire book now without shedding one tear (this was a happy surprise to me when I pulled the book out to write this article), years ago, I would start crying halfway through and was in full-blown sobbing mode by the end. So I quit, and for a few years there I’d just quietly pick it up in private, cry for a while, put it away, and go back to my mom-life with a greater sense of the bigger picture and what motherhood was all about.
But of course Love You Forever is not for everyone. And it’s in very good company:
- I love Wuthering Heights, but lots of people (so many people) hate everything about it.
- I adore The Book Thief, while many people can’t get past the identity of the narrator and quickly abandon it.
- I hated Gone Girl, the 2012 mega-bestseller that seemingly everybody loved.
- I detested The Goldfinch, and then it went and won the Pulitzer prize.
Does any of this—this strong difference of opinion, these heated discussions with other readers— bother me? Nope. Just the opposite, in fact. Wouldn’t life be boring if we were all the same, liked and disliked all the same things, reacted to books or movies or art in all the same ways? Isn’t that one of the many things that keeps life interesting, to discuss and debate and listen and learn from each other’s point of view? And to sometimes just accept that someone else has a completely different way of seeing things that you will never agree with but can respect and live alongside. To me, that kind of respectful disagreement only enriches a relationship, giving it depth and texture and is a reminder of what makes us all interesting and unique.
Still, if you really hate this book, I have good news: playwright Topher Payne has cleverly rewritten the last half of it in a way that you will probably like. I personally prefer the original. However, I am pleased to report that he’s also rewritten the endings for The Giving Tree and The Rainbow Fish, which, in my opinion, are great improvements to the originals. And if you are one of the many who love those two books, we can still be friends, I promise.