March 2007

Before it’s past, I would like to wish everyone a glorious Women’s Month! International Women’s Day was the 7th, I believe, so I hope you all enjoyed that. My suitemates had best watch out this Sunday…


Four of my secondary sources (with italics in lieu of underline, and no hanging indent):

Becket, Sandra L., ed. Reflections of Change: Children’s Literature Since 1945. Westport: Greenwood Press, 1997.

Gebel, Doris, ed. Crossing Boundaries with Children’s Books. Oxford: The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 2006.

Klein, Gillian. Reading Into Racism: Bias in Children’s Literature and Learning Materials. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1985.

Morris, Tim. You’re Only Young Twice. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2000.

In other news:
Good luck, Shirey, with completing your discertation, and with defending it. What exactly is your Master’s in?

One of my favorite songs is Jimi Hendrix’s Woodstock rendition of The Star Spangled Banner. I came to it knowing only what my dad had told me of it–that you could hear the words–so I thought it would sound like people singing. Not quite the case, eh?

It took me a while to figure out what was going on, and then a little longer to fit the words and the sound effects together. (It’s taken me an embarrassingly long time to figure out that it was a disc scratch, not the drumming, that annoyed me.) Now, though, I find that Jimi’s commentative playing carries much more meaning for me than does the original anthem.

We sing of war as a rallying point, idealizing the horrific reality of the fighting. In 1969 (as now), calling attention to the disparity between our ideals and the actuality of war was an important exercise of free speech. Although Jimi took the words from the song, he gave it reality. His flares and bombs force the listener to reconsider the context of our national anthem, its current meaning, and the parallels to other battles. It may be violent and discordonant, but it’s a necessary point. Think on it.

My girl:
Was a pillar anchoring the tumbling world of childhood
Was a tonic against the bitterness of schooling
Was understanding to the outcast
Was strength to the timid
Was healing to the sick
Was quiet to the enraged
Was never ours
But evermore

The relegation of the grandest and most artistic plates, for want of any logical position in the new display hierarchy, to the dankest reaches of the shelves, constituted an apparent breach of the extensively, if somewhat inconsistently, revised philosophy. Yet the still-innocent clerks of this noveau reich persisted, unwittingly, and with conspicuously lax forethought, to determinedly undermine the basis for their congenital success and reputation. One might spare the occasional pardon, whether on a whim or by dubious slip in policy, from exile for the pristine countenance of an early Joyce or weathered Chaucer whose publisher had had the presence of mind to endow his products with pseudo-modern binding and suitably aesthetic proportion.

That rather lengthy and pretentious excerpt was part of our style imitation exercise. I modeled it on an excerpt from Edward Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Even typing it, I can feel the fuzzy, roundabout logic making a bid for permanent residence crippling future papers. Bleagh! Gibbon’s word order is almost as convoluted as Horace’s! He has that sketchy 18th C. punctuation, to boot; commas need not separate noun phrases from the predicate.

I have another imitation to do for tonight, and am toying with the idea of doing Nikki Giovanni, since I just got her new book. That could prove difficult.

For my first secondary source, I’ve been reading Tim Morris’ You’re Only Young Twice. Mr. Morris presents very detailed analyses of a number of texts and what they stand for in the development of children’s lit and its relations to the adult world. The text is directed towards adults, primarily, and is written from the perspective of an adult professor and parent. The books and films discussed are therefore often presented through the lense of what Morris has taught and what he has discovered through reading with his young son. It makes for a very intimate take on the texts.

The first area Morris addresses, and one to which he frequently returns, is the power dynamic between adults and children. This appears in every children’s book. How could it not when the books are written by adults? There is always the undercurrent of social expectation and duty, and the adult world is either dismissed or noticeably doctored. This trend is altered slightly by the many books intended as adult or “serious” fiction that have been relegated to the children’s literature shelves (here Morris references Black Beauty, Peter Pan, Lad, and numerous other “classics”). Here the adult world becomes even more frightening, powerful, and inexplicable than ever. Even my use of the word relegated reflects this dynamic, since all things childish are assumed to be inferior to those of the adult world.

Curiously, Morris notes, there are certain issues that appear to be taboo in children’s literature. Often these issues (the most predominant being sexuality, but including racism, elitism, religion, and politics, among others) are implicit in the text, or referred to obliquely. In Black Beauty, perhaps because of its Victorian context, sexuality is conspicuously absent, although graphic violence abounds. Many relationships would naturally have at least some sexual element–such as gelding, breeding, or Beauty’s friendship with Ginger–but are either never mentioned or completely stripped of sexuality. Other children’s texts exhibit varying degrees of this omission, and when any desire or romance is present, it is presented not as a child would approach it, but as an adult imagines they should.

Violence is curiously not taboo, and Morris suggests that this is part a function of the original audiences and part the pervading power dynamic. Adult cruelty is often taken for granted as part of being in a physically superior relation to the child. However, the persuasive elements of adult-child relations (as displayed by characters such as Willy Wonka) are equally prevalent and every bit as disturbing. Inequality based on age, gender, size, race, or class is rampant, and affects even the most benign relations. Morris consistently finds the beaten becoming the beaters, even making a convincing case that children are frequently equated to animals (and here I find out about the dogs). All in all, he presents a provocative argument for the complexity of children’s literature, and it raises a number of questions that I’ll have to go explore.

For my first primary text, I looked to J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan. This story is entirely about the relationship between the worlds of child and adult, and was written primarily for adults, though reinterpreted many times for children. It approaches the child’s world from an adult perspective and places adult desires in the children (yes, even Pan). Most notable is Wendy, whose response to Peter is highly sexualized from the outset, though never fully articulated or even understood. Her desire to be a wife and mother seems more an ingrained behavioral pattern, given by Barrie to conform to Victorian conceptions about female childhood, than the natural motivation of a young girl. For Wendy, the entire adventure is a large-scale game of house, as is her adult life.

The boys and Peter, on the other hand, are shown as actively opposing their prescribed adult roles, though all but Peter eventually succumb. This does not mean that their personalities and actions escape the mediation of adult desires, however. In their innocence and lack of developed senses (whether moral or intellectual), they reflect adult idealization of childhood to the point of Pan’s becoming, in Tim Morris’ words, “the ultimate fetish of childhood.” There is no death, no age, no responsibility, and no sexuality (although the surrounding characters perceive plenty). Pan has little memory and no sense of time, and is a complete narcissist.

The Darlings serve as a foil for the inhabitants of Neverland, portraying the typical Victorian family dynamic: alpha male who doesn’t always know best, nurturing female…and dog. I have yet to figure out why dogs are so often more human than humans; that requires some more research. The same power dynamic appears with Hook. He is adult, powerful, and inexplicably cruel, portraying the most frightening and incomprehensible aspects of adulthood in the children’s world. Even Tinkerbell takes on some aspects of adult remoteness and cruelty with her attempted assassination of Wendy.

Other issues that appear in this text include extreme violence (on the part of the children as much as the adults), racial stereotyping, and gender stereotyping and segregation. To modern Western sensibilities, much of this is unacceptable, and yet Peter Pan is still considered a children’s classic. Perhaps because the adult connection with and idealization of Pan is so strong, parents wish to share the sense of a simultaneously fleeting and immortal childhood with their own children, and to give them due warning of the world to come. Then again, the book could also be a means for exercising control over children by shaping their expectations and, in modern use, urging them to conform to adult perspectives.

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