When little Melody Foxglove’s mother complains that Melody cries too much, Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle prescribes “Crybaby Tonic,” which makes Melody produce enough tears that she nearly drowns. Jody Jones, who skips school to build his tree house, is treated with “Ignorance Tonic,” which makes him forget how to count and read. Whenever Wendy Hamilton tattles, Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle’s “Tattletale Pills” cause a dark-tailed cloud to emerge from her mouth.
Even more haunting are Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle’s therapeutic cures. When Hubert Prentiss refuses to pick up his toys, he is abandoned to this vice until his mess traps him in his room, forcing him to take his meals through a window off a garden rake. More unfortunate is Patsy Waters, whose refusal to take baths leads Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle to prescribe the “Radish Cure”: Poor Patsy goes unwashed for so long that her parents plant radish seeds in her dirt-encrusted face while she sleeps, so that plants sprout overnight. That story alone was curative enough to make me raise my parents’ water bill for months.
If this sounds like gothic horror, well, it is. But unlike the unalloyed sadism of Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, in which children are tortured and maimed for sins like overeating or chewing gum (while touring a candy factory), Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle’s “cures” are meant to be admired, even emulated. “Isn’t it a shame that children can’t be evened up?” she asks one distraught parent rhetorically. “Some are show-offs and some are shy and some are quiet and some are noisy … But children are wonderful and I love them all.” Parents agree, especially since her rather aggressive “love” evens up their children perfectly. As one relieved mother swoons, “There goes the most wonderful person in the whole world.”
As a child I found these books fascinating, suggesting as they did a conspiracy of adults manipulating children’s every move. Now, as a mother of four, I find them even more fascinating, because it turns out that the conspiracy is real. Parents do constantly conspire with a bevy of licensed and unlicensed advisors—relatives, friends, doctors, teachers, social-media strangers, even representatives of the state. What all these people promise is what Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle provides: conformity. It’s something so unnatural that it can only happen through magic, and yet it’s what’s expected of children, then and now.
Much of this conformity is just common courtesy; no one wants to live in a world in which people don’t pick up their toys. But the conformity parents sometimes crave goes deeper than that, and the desperation of these books’ 1950s parents hasn’t gone away. My 21st-century children laugh at Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle’s picket-fenced planet, where Mrs. Brown does the mending while Mr. Brown smokes his pipe, and little Christopher Brown putting his elbows on the table incurs an intervention involving a trained pig (don’t ask). But the reality is that today, amid a middle-class panic about their families’ and their country’s future, there is intense demand for children’s conformity. It can be hard to see just how much conformity is required until you have a child—or two, or four—who simply won’t comply.