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.

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§ 6 Responses to Some thoughts on the stories we tell children

  • filmwalrus says:

    Great post! I don’t read much children’s literature, but I think that feeling of wonder (or nostalgia for wonder) and the pleasure of unfettered imagination is part of why I still consider science fiction my favorite genre. There is a certain satisfaction in seeing reality transgressed; in reading about common sense and daily routine being gleefully vandalized.

    Btw, I hope the adult man you refer to isn’t me reading and being disappointed with Pippi Longstocking! What was the book?

    • Katie says:

      The book was Pippi Longstocking, in fact, but the review definitely wasn’t yours! It was a random one I happened to find because I was looking through the author’s other reviews. Reading my comment over, I think it’s quite unfair. It’s possible (likely, even) that an adult doesn’t like one children’s book but loves another, and the hapless reviewer caught in my overgeneralization isn’t a humorless grown-up at all but someone who didn’t care for that book. And knowing that you also don’t like Pippi Longstocking but obviously still have a sense of imagination and wonder (love your comments about sf, by the way) makes me feel more foolish.

      Silly generalizations aside, I think what I’m interested in is how easy it is to lose access to that part of ourselves that remains open to possibility, especially those possibilities we haven’t already imagined. And that nostalgia is comforting but is also a trap; we don’t have to leave the door open a little when we’re always remembering fondly the time when it was open all the way.

      • Ben says:

        Not necessarily with regards to children’s literature, but works about young love, I find myself agreeing with your second paragraph. I’m still watching Honey & Clover and finding that it takes a constant effort on my part not to dismiss the insanely high stakes given for the various romances in it. I’ve forgotten enough myself that I can’t sympathize at all with how all-consuming it used to feel to love someone, so I have to use my imagination to enjoy the show at all.

        If it’s not love but wonder the work trades on, I can see someone dismissing it out of hand even easier. It’s too bad that these are things we grow out of (or at least try to).

      • filmwalrus says:

        I’ve also been thinking about the ways age and experience seems to narrow our initial childhood openness. I find something deeply upsetting about the way so many liberals grow up into conservatives, or just gradually succumb to mistrust, cynicism or complacency.

        At work I recently got to hear two sides of a likely very common story. From the point of view of a very young and eager employee I heard about how management was adverse to new ideas and cared only about maintaining the status quo. But from the older manager clearly at issue I heard what the young man’s ideas were, and in fairness the ideas weren’t very practical or very good. They weren’t even “new” ideas (they had been tried before with little success), but they were new to the young man, so he considered them more important than ideas being proposed by others. Five years ago I could only have sympathized with the young man. I often felt like I could solve most problems with the first good idea that popped into my head. But now I can see things from both sides, and can appreciate some of the complexities and responsibilities that plague established leaders.

        In childhood there is something wonderful about the fact that our imaginations are so free; that our minds are so full of emotions and ideas that don’t need to acknowledge any sort of boundary. We lose something if, as we get older, we impose too many arbitrary limits on this freedom. But we also fail to gain something if we value our own imaginations over everyone else’s, if we can’t find in other minds a vast and varied expanse of memories, dreams, thoughts and opinions.

        I wonder sometimes if the cliche of the humorless, imagination-free adult devoid of an inner life isn’t something of a myth. Does anyone self-identify as that? If we really got to know the person, would we find only a high-functioning automaton? Maybe so, but then it makes me curious what happened, or didn’t happen, that made them so.

      • filmwalrus says:

        I am getting so long-winded but also wanted to talk more about Pippi.

        So Sarah and I recently read this out loud together, partially over in person and partially over the phone. We both came away a bit disappointed. My problems fell into two categories:

        One was that the book just didn’t seem very creative. Pippi is a girl with super strength who does basically exactly what you would expect from a story about a girl with super strength: she makes a fool of cops and other authority figures, beats up robbers and rescues kids from a burning building. When I read the chapter title “Pippi Goes to the Circus,” I immediately thought, ‘I bet she will defeat the circus strongman,’ and sure enough, that is exactly where the story goes. It felt like a minimum of effort was being made. Compared to stuff like Alice in Wonderland, A Wrinkle in Time or Dr Suess, it felt pretty rote. (Though granted, I was into this as a child!)

        My other problem was that both Sarah and I just couldn’t come to like Pippi. She has wealth, has traveled the world and has superhuman strength, but uses her advantages only to bully, boss and shame others. She lies and brags compulsively, disdains education and cares little for anyone else’s opinions or feelings. I like when children’s literature is brave enough to run with flawed characters, but Pippi just rubbed us the wrong way!

      • filmwalrus says:

        But then there is also something rebellious and counter-cultural about Pippi that I can’t help admiring. She doesn’t conform to anyone’s idea of a girl. She spreads chaos wherever she goes, but she also effortlessly takes charge. She is unfazed by danger, dignity and dirty looks. At worst she is like a female cross between Dennis the Menace and Superman, but at best she is like a pre-adolescent anarcha-feminist. Maybe she grows up to be one of the teenagers in Daisies.

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