Tolstoy’s Children’s Stories.

John Byron Kuhner’s Leo Tolstoy’s Children’s Stories Will Devastate Your Children and Make You Want to Die begins:

The Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy, also a gentleman farmer, operated an ancestral estate called Yasnaya Polyana that included a small school for the children of the peasants who labored there. Tolstoy was known to drop by from time to time and share stories that he wrote himself, which, in his typical modesty, he predicted would be read by “thousands, even millions.”

In 1988, the children’s novelist and Russia expert James Riordan translated several of these for a collection called The Lion and the Puppy: And Other Stories for Children, published first by Henry Holt and Company. The cover has a nice picture of a lion and a puppy; the illustrations by Claus Sievert are lovely throughout. My children fell in love with that picture, and they wanted me to read them the book. My first thought was: Children’s stories by the author of the inspirational The Death of Ivan Ilyich? But pestilence has closed the schools and home reading was important. Tolstoy wrote them; they couldn’t be that bad. Now I sincerely wish I had never touched them.

The first story turned out to be the only one we endured together. It’s about a hungry lion in the zoo, whose keepers comb the streets for stray cats and dogs to feed him. Tolstoy recounts the lion coming for a puppy that got lost by its master: “Poor little dog. Tail between its legs, it squeezed itself into the corner of the cage as the lion came closer and closer.”

The lion decides not to eat this puppy, and they become friends. Until we get to page two, when the puppy, now a year old, suddenly sickens and dies. So what does the lion do? “[H]e put his paws about his cold little friend and lay grieving for a full five days. And on the sixth day the lion died.” The end.

“Daddy,” my stunned four-year-old son asked, “why did the lion die?”

“Daddy Daddy,” my daughter asked, still wondering about the now-dead lion’s lifestyle, “why did the people feed the lion puppies?”

So I took the book away and hid it from the children. Later I read it through. If you do this, be sure to read something lighter afterward, like perhaps Anna Karenina’s suicide scene, or a biography of Sylvia Plath. The rest of the stories are just as dark as the first one.

He goes on to describe a bunch more, e.g.:

“The Little Bird.” A boy catches a bird in a cage. His mother says he shouldn’t do that. He leaves the door of the cage open. The bird flies out, straight into a glass window, knocking itself out. It suffers for a few days, then dies. The end.

It’s very funny, and ends with a warning about the most recent edition, whose publicists say things like “children will be able to take away important lessons, as well as laugh at silly mishaps and characters, from this timeless collection” and “sure to captivate and delight children of all ages.” Kuhner pleads: “Do not give this book to children. Anything is better than this. Jude the Obscure. Maybe some Elie Wiesel. Spengler.” (As counterpoint, a commenter says “I remember absolutely loving these stories as a fifth-grader — so much so that I tried to convince my teacher to read them to our class!”)


  1. David Eddyshaw says

    Might be worse. Might have been Dostoevsky’s children’s stories.

  2. David L says

    Speaking of Jude the Obscure — I must have read it in my early twenties, having got the impression that it was a piece of Serious Literature that one ought to know. I plodded through all the dismal stuff about loveless yearnings and hopeless ambition and so on, but when it got to the point where Jude and Sue are living in Christminster, and they come home one day to find that Little Father Time has offed their two children and hanged himself in the coat closet — well, I’m afraid I burst out laughing. Really, that was just laying it on a little too thick.

    I read somewhere that after writing Jude and getting an unhappy critical reception, Hardy swore off novels for good and devoted himself to poetry. But maybe it was because he realized he’d outdone himself in grimness and misery and despair and could go no further.

    He should definitely have written some jolly tales for children, though.

  3. David Eddyshaw says

    I was once moaning about Hardy’s novels to the mother of my then girlfriend, who (the mother, not the girlfriend) was a formidable woman who had been a student of C S Lewis’s at Oxford. She told me that he (Hardy, not Lewis) was much a better poet than novelist, and I think she was right. I imagine he came to see it that way too.

  4. I think we can all agree on that. I was forced to read a Hardy novel in high school, but couldn’t get beyond the initial long, grim description of a heath; I was shocked years later to discover how much I liked his poetry.

  5. We were force-fed these stories as children. “Broken teacup” and more drivel. Tolstoy was incredibly proud of these stories and, to make them accessible to millions, he used a potent mix of accessible vocabulary and accessible ideas of patronizing moralism. It makes me nauseous just to remember them, and kind of reflects on my appreciation of the rest of Leo (since the same ingredients are also scattered in his grownup work). But some readers genuinely love hypocritical moralizing, apparently. And others think that it tastes yucky but is good for the kids, you know, like a teaspoon of fish oil of our youth.

  6. David Eddyshaw says

    I liked cod-liver oil. Admittedly, I have never met anybody else who did.

    Never got keratomalacia though. Always a risk in Scotland.

  7. An onymous reader says

    Thank you, John Byron Kuhner, for spoiling Anna Karenina for me.

  8. David Eddyshaw says

    Talking of ill-advised forays into the education of small children by those better known for adult enterprises:

    Ludwig Wittgenstein was famously a primary-school teacher in Trattenbach, after deciding that he had solved/killed off philosophy, before it/he got better. According to Wikipedia he was a pioneer of female education:

    The first two hours of each day were devoted to mathematics, hours that Monk writes some of the pupils recalled years later with horror. They reported that he caned the boys and boxed their ears, and also that he pulled the girls’ hair; this was not unusual at the time for boys, but for the villagers he went too far in doing it to the girls too; girls were not expected to understand algebra, much less have their ears boxed over it.

    I believe his only two publications ever in his lifetime were the Tractatus and a work of some sort aimed at primary school children.

  9. David Eddyshaw says

    Thank you, John Byron Kuhner, for spoiling Anna Karenina for me.

    My daughter has never forgiven me for giving away the ending of Anna Karenina.
    Honestly, I just thought everybody knew.

    My younger son thinks Karenin is the most sympathetic character. I worry about him sometimes.

  10. I think after a century people are no longer allowed to complain about spoilers. Odysseus gets back home! Hamlet dies! Ishmael doesn’t! There, now you know.

  11. My daughter has never forgiven me for giving away the ending of Anna Karenina.

    What, that Levin comes to accept daily life?

  12. David Eddyshaw says

    That was it. Shocker.

  13. Thank you, John Byron Kuhner, for spoiling Anna Karenina for me.

    But you still don’t know whether she hanged herself or poisoned. I can assure you she didn’t use a gun, but maybe a knife? Or possibly, she drowned. Yes, that should be it, it’s a symbolism for love overwhelming her and taking her down. Only 837 pages to find out.

  14. @languagehat: I think after a century people are no longer allowed to complain about spoilers. Odysseus gets back home! Hamlet dies! Ishmael doesn’t!

    Shhh. Let the young ‘uns find out for themselves. Of course Ishmael didn’t die; we know that from Line 1. But Queequeg? Half a century later, I’m still not over it.

  15. SFReader says
  16. SFReader says

    The only Tolstoy’s children’s story I remember is a story of a farmer who participated in Russia’s version of Homestead Act.

    Only instead of 160 acres, the rules said a participant gets as much Siberian land as he can run over in a day.

    So a greedy farmer runs himself into exhaustion trying to get as much land as humanly possible.

    And dies.

    He is buried in a grave six feet long – that’s how much land you ultimately need.

    End of story.

  17. >I liked cod-liver oil … Never got keratomalacia.

    How about Covid-19?:

  18. Something chapeauesque about language change is that in his time Hardy attracted critical attention for referring to animals as “he” or “she,” as in the pig-killing scene from Jude the Obscure:

    “The dying animal’s cry assumed its third and final tone, the shriek of agony; his glazing eyes rivetting themselves on Arabella with the eloquently keen reproach of a creature recognizing at last the treachery of those who had seemed his only friends.”

    That anthropomorphism dates from 1895. For vocabulary, grammar and sensibility, contrast William Carlos Williams’s 1938 short story “The Girl with a Pimply Face,” where a pediatrician asks about a baby, “Has it diarrhoea?”

  19. I don’t know if Tolstoy considered the original story to have been for children, but when I was in elementary school, they showed us this movie at least once a year. It was another distinctly Oregon thing, watching a lot of Wil Vinton’s earliest Claymation work from the 1970s and early 1980s. The animation on “Martin the Cobbler” is not as polished as some later work, but having it narrated by Tolstoy’s daughter is remarkable.

  20. AJP Crown says

    I remember a famous children’s writer (possibly Jacqueline Wilson) saying you can write about anything as long as by the end you leave the young reader with some hope. If Tolstoy was wilfully subverting that principle I’d be very interested to know what his motive was.

    I’ve always liked all fish oil, including cod-liver oil. I could never understand the reason for cod-liver oil jokes and why it was reviled in comics and schoolboy stories. In Norway we all swallow a spoonful of Tran, preferably the one without added lemon flavour, every day. That is the oil they’re always rattling on about and why the country is so rich.

    That anthropomorphism dates from 1895
    The language might be anthropomorphic but not the sentiment, imo.

    a pediatrician asks about a baby, “Has it diarrhoea?”
    WCWilliams was himself a doctor, of course. If it’s 1938, I see a German pediatrician who recently moved to New York. Even though noun genders often aren’t logical small children are neuter in many languages that have a neuter, I’ve noticed.

  21. Stu Clayton says
  22. PlasticPaddy says

    Re Karenin, i think you have an unfair bias against cuckolds, a group which it is still permitted to express prejudice against. Like many of us men (I would include Levin here) he is congenitally less interesting than the women in his life. After hitching himself to a woman who balances his dullness, he is forced to deal with abandonment and finds inadequate solace in religion (and another woman).

  23. David Eddyshaw says

    It was pretty usual when I were a lad to call babies of unknown sex “it”, though even then it was not a good strategy for getting on the right side of the parents.

    BillBill actually was a paediatrician. Or in his case, a pediatrician.


    My son’s view, too. Mind you, he likes spreadsheets and putting things in alphabetical order. Naturally he finds it easy to empathise with Karenin.

  24. Lars Mathiesen says

    Not that many decades ago it was OK to refer to the swaddled thing in the pram as den (babyen) or even det (barnet). Now it feels vaguely immoral, and I even find myself checking the outline of dogs before hazarding a gendered pronoun. Tempora mutantur et nos in illis.

  25. David Marjanović says

    Honestly, I just thought everybody knew.

    I didn’t.

    If you’re amazed that it’s possible to keep this kind of thing secret, I have a colleague, several years younger than me, who until recently didn’t know who Luke’s father was.

    How about Covid-19?:

    The paper is here, BTW.

    small children are neuter in many languages that have a neuter

    The German words themselves – Kind and by extension Baby – are neuter, and there’s no escape from that. I’ve seen plenty of English sentences that mention “the kid” and then refer to the kid as “he”; in German, it’s either “it”, or you have to say “boy” or “girl” in the first place.

    But the question that follows from “[name] isn’t feeling well and cries so much” has to use the gender implied by the name.

    Dogs can’t be neuter. Der Hund, indeed the puppy (der Welpe), is masculine until proven feminine. Inverse for cats.

    Where pragmatics finally does enter the equation is that car drivers are masculine until shown otherwise, as was a reasonable assumption lo these twoscore years ago.

  26. David Eddyshaw says

    Olly Moss’s (movie) spoileriffic T-Shirt

    (Honestly, it’s spoileriffic. Don’t say I didn’t warn you. But I did know all of them, including those for movies I’ve never seen. Popcultural osmosis.)

  27. David Eddyshaw says

    Kusaal babies are animate. I think we can all agree that that makes sense at some level.

  28. Lars Mathiesen says

    “Why is Anakin not in the box art?”

  29. AJP Crown says

    How German Is It

    That looks pretty good, Stu. If a bit dated (and I’m ignoring the wikiword ‘postmodern’).

  30. Lars Mathiesen says

    Well, Standard Danish has masc/fem pronouns for +human (including pets) and common/neuter for everything else, these 700 years I think it was, which is why the baby thing sticks out so much. Some very stubborn dialects may still call the dog ‘he’ even when it’s whelping, or maybe it was just the article.

  31. David Eddyshaw says

    Barnilona meina þanzei aftra fita, unte gabairhtjaidau Xristus in izwis.

    There’s a searchable Gothic Bible! Who says there’s no such thing as progress?

  32. @ AJP Crown and David Eddyshaw, the pediatrician in “The Girl with a Pimply Face” who refers to the baby as “it” is the story’s first-person narrator, and he bears some resemblance to Williams. At the beginning of the story, the title character says to the narrator, “The baby’s inside. Want to see her?” and the narrator replies, “All right. Let’s see her.” But half a page later the pronouns begin switching back and forth:

    “Maybe you’d better come some time when my father’s here. He talks English. He ought to come in around five I guess.

    “But can’t you tell me something about the baby? I hear it’s been sick. Does it have a fever?

    “I dunno.

    “But has it diarrhoea, are its movements green?

    “Sure, she said, I guess so. It’s been in the hospital but it got worse so my father brought it home today.”

    And then a few lines later:

    “How old is she? It’s a girl, did you say?

    “Yeah, it’s a girl.

    “Your sister?

    “Sure. Want to examine it?”

    Incidentally, Marjorie Perloff’s essay “The Man Who Loved Women: The Medical Fictions of William Carlos Williams” is interesting about the psychodynamic relationships between Williams’s male doctors and usually female patients. And “The Girl with a Pimply Face,” which is about acne, juvenile delinquency, alcoholism, and an incurable heart condition, has a Sandburg-sentimental but nevertheless amazing happy ending. I’d recommend it.

  33. David Marjanović says

    “Your sister?

    “Sure. Want to examine it?”


  34. She was Kölsch, obviously.

  35. David Marjanović says

    (Explanation: throughout, it seems, western and southern German – including mesolects but not the standard –, personal names take articles. At least between Cologne and the Saarland, feminine names take the article of Mädchen, which happens to be neuter, and then go on to take the neuter pronoun as well.)

  36. Well, at least it’s not Makarenko-ish levels of cruelty.

  37. David Eddyshaw says

    Makes you appreciate (mutatis mutandis) the statement in Glanville Price’s French grammar:

    Although the two grammatical genders of French are referred to by the terms ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’, in the case of most (though not all) words these terms are utterly meaningless and were it not for the fact that they are so well established, we might do better to abandon them altogether and use some such terms as ‘Class A’ and ‘Class B’.

  38. John Cowan says

    The question is, I think: What German pronoun is used to refer to a baby whose sex is unknown, when it (the pronoun) gets out of the (fuzzy) proximity to its noun in which formal agreement is required and beyond which natural agreement can take over. I presume there is still no alternative to es, oder?

  39. Bathrobe says

    Actually, I seem to have noticed some Mongolians get confused over the conventional division between ‘feminine’ and ‘masculine’ in vowel harmony, equating it to European gender categories. Terminology has a lot to answer for.

  40. FWIW, when I spent a few weeks based in Köln, two years ago, most people I had to interact with in NRW, I did in either Standard German, English or Standard Bulgarian. As in I didn’t meet many speakers of non-standard Bulgarian and they insisted on using the Bulgarian standard and my German translator insisted on using standard German, not Kölsh. But I got some experience of Kölsh when I was not under her wing.

  41. David Marjanović says

    I presume there is still no alternative to es, oder?

    No. Sex unknown means you go with the grammatical gender of the nearest available word.

    This is also how gender is assigned to loanwords when formal criteria fail. And I think that strategy has been in use for a long time. Fenster n. from Latin fenestra f.? Well, if German ever had a cognate of window < wind-eye, there must have been Auge in it, and that’s neuter.

  42. PlasticPaddy says

    @david m
    I thought that the das for girls goes with a diminutive l/erl/(e)le (or chen/ke/tje in other dialects) but not with an “abbreviative” I. So das Liesl but der Hänsi or die Susi (I think I have seen Hänserl or Peterchen/Peterle but without article).

  43. David Marjanović says

    I’m talking about the (populous!) western fringe, where full-sized feminine names are neuter as well, and people readily refer to themselves as das Tanja.

    Farther east, where this does not happen but articles are used with names, it is more or less as you say: the nickname suffix -i does not change the gender, the diminutive suffix -(V)l(V) does much but not all of the time. Diminutive -chen seems to be all north of the article zone.

  44. John Cowan says

    Well, if German ever had a cognate of window < wind-eye, there must have been Auge in it, and that’s neuter.

    Indeed it did in early modern times, and it was Windauge as expected.

    Window is borrowed from ON. OE had three words for ‘window’: fenester (which survived to ME), éagduru < ‘eye’ + ‘door’, and éagþýrel, which is the most interesting. Thirl ‘hole’ is archaic and dialectal per the OED, which may mean that it’s obsolete now. But nostril < nose-thirl is very much current, and thrill is a methatesis: a thrilling experience etymologically is one that bores holes in you, it seems. Drill is the same word after passing through continental dethorning, probably < Dutch.

  45. David Marjanović says

    Oh wow, that ties up a lot of loose ends.

  46. Fenster: Old HIgh German had both neutral fenstar and (rarely) feminine finstra. According to Kluge/Seebold “Das neutrale Genus wohl nach dem älteren ougatora ‘Tür in Form eines Auges’ (Rundfenster)”.

    Reminds me of the recent change from das Virus to der Virus. I wonder when other non-masculine Latin loanwords in -us will follow suit (such as Genus “grammatical gender”, itself).

    people readily refer to themselves as das Tanja.

    I have been living on the “western fringe” all my life, and even in my childhood (1960s) this usage was limited to older people with working-class or farming background (and they would have said “dat” not “das”).

  47. It’s still done in the Kölsch they wheel out for Karneval. I can’t tell how much that usage (and Kölsch in general) is still alive in everyday life, outside of folkloric events like that. When I’m in Cologne, people immediately recognise that I am an Immi and talk something approaching the Standard with me.

  48. Reminds me of the recent change from das Virus to der Virus.

    My impression is that das Virus has taken the lead again, possibly due to Christian Drosten and the recent upswing in daily conversation about Viren.

  49. David Marjanović says

    The Tanja I’m having in mind is from just south of the dat/das line, IIRC, and passing her dialect on to her children.

    the recent change from das Virus to der Virus

    That’s not a recent change. The masculine seems obvious, so it’s long been the majority form, and many have claimed it’s the only correct form for computer viruses (though usage there has never been consistent anymore than elsewhere).

    If anything, the virologists have now joined the battle the Latin teachers have been waging for decades and tipped the scales in favor of das.

    Drosten has /oː/, BTW, as the spelling very carefully fails to rule out.

  50. Stu Clayton says

    If anything, the virologists have now joined the battle the Latin teachers have been waging for decades and tipped the scales in favor of das.

    That explains those little splashes of blood I occasionally see on the sidewalk in front of the Logologisches Institut !

    Duden gives a simple account:

    # das, außerhalb der Fachsprache auch: der #

    There’s another one: der/das Filter. Dude sez:

    # der, fachsprachlich meist: das Filter #

    One Fachsprache here is, or was, that of math.

  51. So der Filter, but das Ultrafilter.

  52. Stu Clayton says

    Small world, you can hear a name drop.

    I just found that the English WiPe on ultrafilters gives some motivations for the notion of “ultrafilter”, which never made any intuitive sense to me. I long ago lost interest in the purely formal games of math – when I can’t get a sense of the sense of something, I don’t bother with it. So I am clueless about ultrafilters.

    Anyway, here I was yesterday, thinking at random about that course I took with R.L. Moore at UT Austin, and his one-axiom (a very long axiom …) set theory book. The ultrafilter article mentions Rudin-Kreisler. Because you had recently made a mysterious reference to “Baby Rudin”, I looked to see who Rudin was in Rudin-Kreisler. Mary Ellen Rudin, did her doctorate under Moore, married to the author of the Baby Rudin!

  53. The post reminds me of a great piece by Alan Coren which riffed off someone or other saying “Every great author has one children’s book in them” and writing “The Pooh Also Rises”, “Five Go Off To Elsinore”, and “The Gollies Karamazov”…

  54. That’s great, thanks for linking it!

  55. David Eddyshaw says

    It also caused me to realise that I have in fact read The Sun Also Rises; I’d been under the impression that I’d only read Fiesta. I feel a bit like M Jourdain.

  56. SFReader says

    I haven’t read The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway, but I read The Son Also Rises by Gregory Clark.

    There has to be some non-derogatory technical term for people like me, but can’t recall at the moment.

  57. David Eddyshaw says

    Economist? Or is that too derogatory?

  58. Rodger C says

    There are at least three versions of that weekend: The Sun Also Rises, Harold Loeb’s autobiographical The Way It Was (basically “I wasn’t the idiot Hem made me out to be”), and Robert Benchley’s piece “Carnival Week in Sunny Las Los.”

  59. John Cowan says

    The Benchley is perhaps a tad too long (I wouldn’t call it Hemingway except in the broadest sense), but it’s funny nevertheless.

  60. It also caused me to realise that I have in fact read The Sun Also Rises; I’d been under the impression that I’d only read Fiesta.

    Don’t feel too bad. Hemingway probably couldn’t remember he’d written it.

  61. Alon Lischinsky says

    If you do this, be sure to read something lighter afterward, like perhaps Anna Karenina’s suicide scene, or a biography of Sylvia Plath

    No Hans Christian Andersen, then. Some well-meaning but misguided relative gave child me a translation of Nye Eventyr including “The Shadow” and “The Little Match Girl”, and almost forty years later I can still feel the crushing despair…

  62. AJP Crown says

    That Alan Coren book has in its introduction by his children, Giles & Victoria, a bit on his editorship of Punch that’s an interesting flashback:

    G: …that generation of 1950s grammar-school boys – the Alan Bennetts, the Melvyn Braggs, the Dennis Potters – that brief window between two educational Dark Ages, when a certain kind of lower-middle-class boy got a chance, went to Oxford and had a crack at the Establishment. That’s the irony of the antagonism between Punch and Private Eye later in the ’60s …

    V: Exactly. Private Eye tried to mock Punch for being fuddy-duddy and Establishment, but Punch was run by the working-class boys, the grammar-school boys, the revolutionaries, while Private Eye was a bunch of right-wing, privileged public-school boys, sons of diplomats, who looked down on the staff of Punch because they thought they were common. And, in Daddy’s case, Jewish. In public, Private Eye pilloried them for being Establishment, in private Barry Fantoni was telling everyone: ‘Alan Coren looks and sounds like a cab driver.’

    Fantoni actually came from a similar background as Coren (his comment clearly hurt the Corens) and Alan Bennett was of course slotted with Peter Cook and therefore Private Eye, but there’s nevertheless some truth.

  63. Fascinating, thanks for that!

  64. “Not really a Jew. Just Jew-ish”.

  65. An onymous reader says

    Aah I’m not listening to you!!
    *stops ears with wax*

  66. per incuriam says

    Of course Ishmael didn’t die; we know that from Line 1

    We do? Per WP: “Critical reception in Britain was largely favorable, though some reviewers noted that it seemed to be told by a narrator who perished with the ship, as the British edition lacked the Epilogue, which recounts Ishmael’s survival”.

    A dead narrator isn’t the end of the world, of course, as in this famous tale narrated by a corpse floating face-down in a swimming pool.

  67. @per incuriam: Having never seen Sunset Boulevard, I did not know what to expect with that video. I immediately recognized William Holden’s voice in the narration, so I knew from what you wrote that it was going to be him dead in the pool. Yet when he actually appeared, his appearance surprised me. I was surprised and impressed with the effects shot of his body, seen from the bottom of the pool, with the policemen craning over it—impressed not just for the technical underwater effect, but by how effectively Holden managed to look unlike his usual, suave self and… well.. dead.

  68. David Marjanović says

    A dead narrator

    Ephraim Kishon loved that. One of his tales ends in “and then I died”, another in “I stopped swimming and drowned.”

  69. SFReader says


  70. SFReader says

    Sorry, couldn’t resist.

  71. Gave me a morbid laugh!

  72. David Eddyshaw says

    The narrator of Natsume Sōseki’s 吾輩は猫である I am a cat dies at the end. (I’d apologise for spoilers if it weren’t for the fact that I would think that every single person who’s heard of the book either knows that already or has no actual plan to read it. Or both.)

    And The Lovely Bones, a book which I shall certainly never read, is apparently narrated by a murdered girl.

    Susanne Moore does manage to do this as a plot twist without egregious cheating.

  73. Lars Mathiesen says

    It’s easier with movies where the director / camera crew are the unseen narrators. That said, I only know of one movie where everybody that appears on screen for just a second is dead by the end. (It does not have any street scenes, but it does have a couple of flashbacks).

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