In 1978 I started second grade at William H. Blount Elementary School on Princess Place Drive in Wilmington, N.C. I liked school. I liked books. I liked the library. I remember being in the space with lots of short stacks and paint-stirrer sticks used to mark the spot on the shelf where you removed a book. I remember going into the library for storytime. I don’t know how often we students were herded into the library and seated on the pea soup colored carpet to listen to a teacher or librarian read a story, but I remember one particular story so clearly.
Do you remember any of the stories you were read in the second grade? How about any of the stories that you never heard again? I mean, sure I remember the Dr. Suess stories. I remember the Madeline stories. I remember Eloise and Curious George. I’ve been reading those, or hearing about them, or watching them be turned into children’s programs, since I was a child. We read those at home and read them over and over. But this one time, this one story, that I would not hear again for 36 years, I remembered. And I spoke of it sometimes to friends. We would laugh about how ridiculous it was. Who tells kids a story like that? I often wondered over the years if I had made it up in my own memory. Or perhaps I just remembered it differently.
The story, as I remembered it, was about a perfect little girl and the devil. The devil was, of course, unhappy that a little girl could be so perfect and began trying to get her to be angry. If she were to get angry, he reasoned, she wouldn’t be perfect. So he gave her the chicken pox, but she didn’t scratch or complain. He had a cow step on her favorite doll, but (and I always used this exact phrase in retelling the story) she forgave the cow. He tried all sorts of other tricks that didn’t work, but in the end he did win. He let her have her perfect life, a perfect husband, and a perfect house. And a less than perfect child.
When I started thinking again about becoming a librarian, this story kept coming back to my mind. I knew that I had to find it. I had to find out if it was even real. It seemed like an excellent wannabe librarian challenge. I Googled and Googled, and eventually, I figured out that it was a real story and it appeared in The Devil’s Storybook, by Natalie Babbitt, first published in 1974. At the time, that was fine, I only needed to know that some story about a perfect little girl and the devil was real. I probably twisted it around in my head anyway. I probably didn’t remember the story just right. I’d only been seven, after all, and I have never heard the story since.
This week I happened across an article about my old elementary school. It doesn’t matter much what it was about, so I’ll spare you, but it made me remember those storytimes when I was little. I decided I needed to get hold of a copy of The Devil’s Storybook. It was time that I actually READ the story and compared it to my memory. It only took a couple days for my library’s consortium to get it delivered to my local branch. It’s a really short story, so bare with me while I share the whole thing.
There was a little girl once called Angela who always did everything right. In fact, she was perfect. She had better manners than anyone, and not only that, but she hung up her clothes and never forgot to feed the chickens. And not only that, but her hair was always combed and she never bit her fingernails. A lot of people, all of them fair-to-middling, disliked her very much because of this, but Angela didn’t care. She just went right on being perfect and let things go as they would.
Now, when the Devil heard about Angela, he was revolted. “Not,” he explained to himself, “that I give a hang about children as a rule, but this one! Imagine what shell be like when she grows up–a woman whose only fault is that she has no faults!” And the very thought of it made him cross as crabs. So he wrote up a list of things to do that he hoped would make Angela edgy and, if all went well, even make her lose her temper. “Once she loses her temper a few times,” said the Devil, “she’ll never be perfect again.”
However, this proved harder to do than the Devil had expected. He sent her chicken pox, then poison ivy, and then a lot of mosquito bites, but she never scratched and didn’t even seem to itch. He arranged for a cow to step on her favorite doll, but she never shed a tear. Instead, she forgave the cow at once, in public, and said it didn’t matter. Next the Devil fixed is that for weeks on end her cocoa was always too hot and her oatmeal too cold, but this, too, failed to make her angry. In fact, it seemed that the worse things were, the better Angela liked it, since it gave her a chance to show just how perfect she was.
Years went by. The Devil used up every idea on his list but one, and Angela still had her temper, and her manners were still better than anyone’s. “Well, anyway,” said the evil to himself, “my last idea can’t miss. That much is certain.” And he waited patiently for the proper moment.
When that moment came, the Devil’s last idea worked like anything. In fact, it was perfect. As soon as he made it happen, Angela lost her temper once a day at least, and sometimes oftener, and after a while she had lost it so often that she was never quite so perfect again.
And how did he do it? Simple. He merely saw that she got a perfect husband and a perfect house, and then–he sent her a fair-to-middling child.
I was stunned at how perfectly I’d remembered the details of the story, but at the same time, how different the story really was. It was essentially the same story I’d remembered, but in Ms. Babbitt’s words, now it was about the concept of “perfection” and the idea of perceptions, and parenthood, and life. Now, with my 42 year old, mother’s sensibilities, I read this story and cried. Not because I’d ever, EVER been perfect, or even aspired to perfection. Not because my husband, or my house, or any other aspect of my life, is perfect. Not because I have any fair-to-middling children.
My mind is still wrapping itself around this little story. I don’t suppose there are a lot of K-12 librarians reading it to school children these days. Why did I remember it so well? I wonder why it made such an impact on my seven-year-old mind. Regardless, I feel so satisfied in having tracked it down and found out that I DID remember it correctly. I feel so vindicated.