Some thoughts on the stories we tell children
October 19, 2014 § 6 Comments
I’ve been thinking a lot about children’s literature because I have lately found myself in the business of evaluating a large number of children’s films. Never mind the circumstances, because what’s on my mind at the moment is the meaning imparted by children’s literature, or, more generally, the art we make for children.
Two instances, not quite formed into ideas, are what I want to share with you here, in the hopes that sharing helps me to understand them better:
– I read a review online of a classic children’s book by an adult man. He looked very serious in his picture. The book is known for its chaotic, whimsical spirit of adventure and its bold, nonconformist girl hero. The reviewer did not understand why the book was so popular. He said that it did not represent the values he wanted to teach to his children. I wondered what it would be like to grow up to be the humorless adult in a children’s story, if that fate befalls many of us, and if reading the story as a child would save you from it.
– I watched a remarkable short animation, The New Species. In this film, three children discover a mysterious bone in the ground. They come up with wild fantasies of the bone’s origin, of what part of an animal could have produced it, and their disparate theories combine to make an improbable beast who hovers over their heads for the remainder of the film. They show the bone to adults but the adults are unimpressed, telling them to get on with their homework and chores. They search books and museums and eventually find themselves at the office of a paleontologist, who promptly analyzes the specimen and finds that it matches nothing he has seen before. He gives it back to the children, who, disenchanted, return it to the hole in the ground. As they walk away, the “camera” pans below the earth to reveal the vast skeleton of an unknown animal.
This film has stuck in my head since I saw it. Like so many of the best children’s stories, it’s shot through with sadness but free of sentimentality. The feeling I am left with is a sense of strangeness, of gnawing mystery. In adulthood, I experience that feeling as distant and elusive, but in childhood it was overpowering.
We teach these lessons to children again and again, in art if nowhere else: don’t lose your imagination; distrust money and authority; trust your heart. We see some variant of it so often that it becomes a cliche, found in the most corporatized and commercial of products as readily as in a grandparent’s memory. In adulthood we read those stories to our children, perhaps, repeating the phrases in hollow voices, though sometimes (like with me watching The New Species) something breaks through.
We repeat the words because we know adulthood will be a process of scrubbing those stories clean from your soul. These idealistic little stories that favor imagination are a gift to children, but not just any gift: they’re something secret and contraband, and you march into adulthood pretending you’ve unlearned them.
The safe thing to do is not to hold onto the stories but to wrap them carefully in wax layers of nostalgia and preciousness and put them up on a shelf. There is my childhood, you say with only a light touch of regret. Sometimes you feel an ache like something is missing, a tug in the direction of the shelf, but you don’t remember why.
But if you read your stories well, if the teachers and librarians did their job, you know that the safe solution is always the wrong one. All magic involves risk.
So maybe you hold onto that story, even if it’s dwindled over the years to something as small as a paperclip in the back of a junk drawer. You forget about it, mostly, and one day you sit in an office and someone talks half-sardonically of once wanting to be a dancer, of the year they spent only drawing pictures of castles, and deep inside you feel a sonar ping, so quiet that you might not have heard it at all, but you did.
You nod. “I remember that.”
It’s only a tiny thing now, like a paperclip, or a bone, but little bones lead to great dragons.