Many people during this pandemic are doing things that six months ago they never thought they would do to keep themselves engaged. For instance, Topher Payne, an Atlanta playwright and screenwriter has become a children’s book author—of sorts. Payne, who co-hosts a weekly online children’s story time, recently created alternate endings for three picture books that are widely considered to be classics, but also have been derided by some for their problematic content: The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein, The Rainbow Fish by Marcus Pfister, and Love You Forever by Robert Munsch. Payne also illustrated his revised endings in the style of each original illustrator.
The three revised books quickly went viral after Payne began posting them about a month ago, and to date they have received more than four million views total.
Payne’s version of The Giving Tree is titled The Tree Who Set Healthy Boundaries, and diverges from the original text when the character called the boy throughout wants the tree’s branches to build a house. The tree turns him down, and explains that proper boundaries must be established for a healthy relationship. The two then continue their friendship, and even go into business together, as the boy bakes apple pies with fruit picked from the tree.
In Payne’s rendition of The Rainbow Fish, entitled The Rainbow Fish Keeps His Scales, when the Octopus tells Rainbow Fish to give up his scales to other creatures if he wants to make friends with them, the Fabulous Catfish appears and tells Rainbow Fish not to diminish himself to please others, but rather to build up others with kindness if he wants to make friends.
In Love You Forever, to which Payne adds to the subtitle & I’ll Call You Before I Come Over, after the mother sneaks through her adult son’s window to rock him to sleep one too many times, he installs security bars on his bedroom window. After discussing the matter with a friend, the son finally talks to his mother about how uncomfortable her actions make him feel. They agree to spend quality time together so that she does not feel compelled to invade his personal space in inappropriate ways.
In a phone interview with PW, Payne explained that, due to the pandemic shutting down theaters and other live entertainment venues in Atlanta, he wanted to use his writing skills to do something fun and educational that would benefit local creatives. Thus, while the three booklets are available for free and PDFs can be printed out on his website, Payne requests a donation to the Atlanta Artist Relief Fund.
It’s not just artists whom Payne wants to assist during a difficult time: he also wanted to create something that might spark essential conversations between children and their parents. “Look at each story,” Payne told PW. “What is the turning point? Where did our protagonist go down the wrong path? I wanted to take books that children are familiar with and present another possibility, to inspire curiosity and conversation between children and the adults in their lives.”
Payne disclosed that he has considered The Giving Tree problematic since his childhood because the boy was such an unlikeable character. He was introduced to The Rainbow Fish as an adult teaching at a theater camp, and was repelled by the Octopus’s advice to Rainbow Fish due to his own childhood memories. “I was a queer kid growing up in Mississippi,” Payne explained. “I was told you had to make yourself more palatable to others by making yourself less, by toning it down. I don’t believe people should diminish themselves to please others. I thought The Rainbow Fish was lovely [at first], but once the Octopus showed up, I thought, what are we telling our kids?”
As for Love You Forever, adults who appreciated Payne’s penchant for revising picture books after the first two revisions were posted suggested that he might want to try his hand at revising Munsch’s 1986 bestseller. He had not read it since his childhood and was surprised at his response to it.
“Taken as metaphor,” he said, “Love You Forever is beautiful, a mother’s devotion. Taken literally, the mother is a little nuts. There’s an important message [in the alternate ending]: even at a young age, people have the right to their agency. It’s never too early to give kids the message that they have the right to set boundaries.”
Payne asked mental health experts to review his revisions to Love You Forever before he posted it to ensure that he was addressing a sensitive subject in an age-appropriate manner.
Unhappy ‘Love You Forever’ Fans Vent
Despite this precaution, Payne’s version of Love You Forever ignited a firestorm that he did not experience with the first two revised books after HuffPost Canada edition (Munsch was Canadian) published a story about it. There had been some defenders of The Giving Tree, who told him that he had missed the point of the book entirely; there were few, if any, defenders of The Rainbow Fish. For the most part, responses on social media to both of those revisions were positive.
In contrast, since the HuffPost story ran, many Love You Forever fans have expressed outrage in the article’s comments section and on social media. While some accuse him of plagiarism or of being politically correct, other have lobbed personal insults.
In addition to the public vitriol, Payne has been inundated with 40–50 emails and direct messages per day. “I’ve gotten everything but death threats,” he said of the communications from complete strangers, many of whom he suspects are reacting viscerally to his send-up of Love You Forever without having read it.
“It’s been like a rock in the pit of my stomach,” Payne said. “The language they use is not upsetting: I know who I am. But it is upsetting to know that something I created to inspire curiosity and conversation would cause distress to some. But people are upset about plenty of things right now, so I know it’s not really about me; I’ve just become the most convenient target.”
While declining to disclose specific titles, Payne promises to continue revising classic picture books. Now, however, the titles being selected for revision are books he was not previously familiar with; rather, they are suggestions made by his Twitter followers, as well as parents reaching out to him, and who have told him, he says, “ ‘I’ll send you a book just to get it out of the house.’ ”
One of the books suggested to him for revision, he noted, was Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are. “That’s a children’s book that speaks to my soul,” he said. “I have more empathy now for the people who can’t stand me for revising the books they love.”