Sunday, November 11, 2007

On the Seriousness of Children's Literature

One of Tonya's relatives recently gave us a two-DVD set of animated Beatrix Potter stories, created by the BBC. It appears to be a very high-quality production: good animation, and purportedly very faithful to the original stories (although I can't actually speak to that, since I admit to my shame that I've never actually read the originals). The girls absolutely love the stories.

However, the Pillowfight Fairy in particular has reacted to watching these stories in a way that her mother and I did not expect. Tonya wrote about it here. She gets really involved in the stories, to the point of wailing and tears when something dangerous is happening, or when something sad happens. I don't know if it's because the Fairy is at an age where kids just don't suspend their disbelief well; or if it has something to do with the fact that we don't have a TV, so she isn't constantly exposed to scary, suspenseful videos; or whether it's just the fact that we have a kid with a very sensitive streak.

(During all this I was outside, working on our never-ending backyard project, and every few minutes I would hear wails of anguish coming from inside. Like most dads, I just assumed that the spouse would take care of it, and I ignored it and blithely went about my work. We dads are just like that, aren't we?) ;-)

But it piqued my curiosity, and made me think a little. The Peter Rabbit stories don't normally stick out in our minds as scary, suspenseful stuff. And yet, imagine what the stories look like to a five-year-old: the main characters are in constant danger for their lives. There's an offhand reference to the fact that Peter Rabbit's father got eaten: something along the lines of " accident happened to your father. He was put in a pie by Mrs. McGregor...." In one of the stories, all the Floppsy bunnies are kidnapped by the badger, who has every intention of eating them, until they are rescued by Peter and his cousin; and this rescue was only possible because the badger and the fox got in a fight. There's one story where the duck is rescued from the fox, but her eggs all get destroyed--after which she weeps uncontrollably. And on it goes. Not to sound morbid or anything, but the theme of mortality--the idea that we, or the ones we love, might not be here tomorrow--underlies these stories to an extent that seems very out-of-place in modern children's literature.

Now here's a disclaimer: I'm no expert on children's literature. It could be that these generalizations I'm making are totally wrong, and if you think so, I'd be very happy to hear from you in the comments. But it seems to me that aside from modern writers of children's literature who are intentionally pursuing the macabre and the morbid--for example, Edward Gorey ("A is for Amy who fell down the stairs, B is for Basil assaulted by bears...")--it seems that modern children's literature, especially that written for the younger readers, shies away from topics like pain and death, and shies away from unhappy endings, much more than it used to.

I think it's not hard to establish that there are plenty of classic children's stories out there that are scary, or violent; plenty of stories with cautionary morals about what can go wrong if one doesn't behave correctly. The stories of the Brothers Grimm are, in fact, pretty grim. Many of our fairy tales have some pretty scary bits: kids being put in ovens; witches being put in ovens; giants, monsters, dragons; all the princes that came to rescue the princesses prior to the appearance of Prince Charming, who got eaten by the dragon or smothered in the protective thorn bushes. Think of the giant who fell to his death when Jack cut down the beanstalk. Think of the Little Mermaid, who in the original version, was urged to kill the prince to save her own life: she refused to do it, and so suffered the consequence of losing her life, turning to foam on the waves. Think of the absolutely heartrending story of the Little Match Girl.

And even when you get into the early twentieth century, you still see a fair amount of chopping off of heads, or at least the suggestion of it. The Pillowfight Fairy has just been introduced to Dr. Seuss's prose classic, The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins. At one point, Bartholomew Cubbins is sent off to the Royal Executioner (who actually happens to be a fairly agreeable chap) with orders to have his head chopped off, because he can't get his hats off. But under the rules, the executioner can't chop off anyone's head until he takes his hat off, which Bartholomew can't do, so he heads back up to the throne room....

Let this sink in for a bit: a Dr. Seuss book that talks about beheadings. Well, it was 1938 when he wrote it; but still, doesn't that seem a bit... incongruous? Things like that don't seem to show up in children's literature much any more--at least not until the kids reach Junior High.

And we think that exposure to this older literature is having an effect on the way the Fairy views the world. Tonya talks some about it in the blog post I linked to above. The Fairy is now asking questions about existence (and non-existence), wondering about death, pretending as she plays that Daddy is Mr. McGregor, pretending as she plays that Daddy is the Grinch (who must be shot, lest he steal Christmas), and on and on.

My guess is that many moderns see a five-year-old thinking about these things, and think it's unnatural and even unhealthy--that childhood should be carefree; that by exposing children to these stories and ideas, we're making them grow up too fast; that we're stealing their innocence. But that's clearly not the way people thought at least up through the beginning of the twentieth century, as evidenced by the stories they wrote for and read to their children. Why is this?

I'm not entirely sure, but I think I have the beginnings of an answer. Sometimes it's hard for us moderns to remember just how hard life was in the past. My father- and mother-in-law both remember when they first got electricity and indoor plumbing. There was a time, not too long ago, that every child could expect to have a friend or a sibling die before reaching adulthood. It was only in the last two generations or so that we finally eliminated most infectious diseases--polio, typhus, cholera, diphtheria, scarlet fever--as major killers. And for those of our ancestors who grew up on farms, they saw the realities of life and death on a daily basis: if you wanted to eat chicken, the first step was to chase your chickens around the yard until you caught one; then, you had to get an axe.... And remember too that our nation hasn't suffered military invasion--or even suffered a credible threat of invasion--for quite some time. For most people these days, unless you choose to join the military, you are unlikely ever to see a war first-hand. And we haven't had to face famine in a long time.

I could go on, but I don't want to get too morbid. Suffice it to say that people of previous generations got to see a lot of stuff that we would consider highly unpleasant. It was simply part of life. And since it was part of their lives, it was part of their children's lives as well, and it thus showed up in the children's literature. It was simply too ubiquitous to ignore; it was not that the writers were being excessively morbid.

So what does this mean for how we should educate our kids? Again, I'm not really sure. There are two broad, contradictory approaches: the first is, we expose our kids to the literature of the past, with all the ugliness included, in the hope that it gives us the opportunity to give our children an understanding of some of the tougher issues of life that they will one day face, as a way of preparing them. On the other hand, we could count those stories as part of an older world that we don't inhabit anymore, and look for new stories that are hopefully more appropriate to our new environment.

I tend to lean toward the former of these two approaches. While our environment has changed quite a bit in the last few generations, I don't think that human nature has changed much; and because of that, the relevance of the older literature will remain. I also want my children to understand where we came from. And I see the older stuff as having a seriousness to it that is worth holding on to.

Of course, I think the die is already pretty well cast anyway, since the Fairy is already pretending to shoot the Grinch every time he comes around.

And no, I didn't teach her that. She figured that one out on her own.


Zuperbre said...

Well stated; nice to know I'm not the only one who thinks about these things...and people think "Ring Around the Rosie" is just a quaint children's rhyme...

Kathy said...

There's an interesting old article on, an author interview exploring the topic of small children and violence in their pretend play. I think it fits well with your thoughts here.

Kathy said...

A Game Called Suicide

FatcatPaulanne said...

I think you're frequently coherent. I like your blog. It makes me think.

Summer said...

Great post. I'm a fan of the classics, death and all. Wihle I feel that kids do not need to be exposed to all the horrors of the world death is just a part of life. It happens, thoough certainly not to any extent today that it did 60+ years ago.

I wonder how many kids today grow up knowing meat only comes from a store, because they've never had that experience of actually having to find and kill your dinner. With the amount of farms decreasing fwer and fewer people have that kind of a relationship with what they eat.

Timothy Power said...

Good to hear from you all!

Kathy, I checked out that link. Very interesting. I was particularly struck by the idea that we adults talk about what is interesting to us, but kids play about it--and that this is entirely normal (even when the parents freak out about it), since this is how kids gain understanding of the way the world works. I hadn't thought about it like that before, but it certainly makes sense. I'll have to give that further thought.

Summer, I think you're right in what you say, but I'm a little tickled at the way you said it. Somehow, I can't get past the imagery of having a relationship with what I eat. And then I kill it. Sounds like a rather dysfunctional relationship, if you ask me. ;-)

Remember, don't name the pig....