Wednesday, March 4, 2009
Children's Books: A discussion
Aimai and I started a discussion of children's literature at alicublog and agreed to move it here. The topic is: children's literature from a political perspective.
Posted by Susan of Texas at 2:08 PM
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Well, now that your are kindly hosting this discussion I'm fresh out of ideas. I guess I'll start the ball rolling by saying that I've got two girls, ten and twelve, and we are in our own lefty anarchist way leading a rather dreamy victorian life. We read out loud every evening at bedtime and though the twelve year old reads young adult and adult fantasy for herself, and the ten year old is forging her way through The Lord of the Rings, at night we read some pretty tried and true things.
Right now we are re-reading for the millionth time Elizabeth (?) Estes "The Witch Family" which is so utterly delightful, and set in Washington DC, that I'd love to send a copy to Sasha and Malia.
Right before that we finished re-reading Rumer Godden's Miss Happinness and Miss Flower. Before that it was Rosemary Sutcliffe's Eagle of the Ninth. That's a book that has some political heft in it because it is about a young roman legionaire, invalided out of the Eagles, who goes north of Hadrian's wall to recover the lost Eagle of his father's disgraced ninth legion. It takes place in the early twilight of the Roman empire in Britain and is decidedly pro-Roman. But the girls also love a marvellous book called "The Mermaid's Daughter" by Joyce Gard about a young woman who is the avatar of a pre-Christian, pre-roman mermaid cult. In that book, which takes place around the same time as the Eagle of the Ninth, Rome and its militarist cult of Mithras is the enemy. The different aesthetic styles of pre-roman britain and post roman britain serve as a kind of marker of religious and cultural and political differences. Its been fun to read those books for the second and third time, because we love them, and to hear the girls work out some of these issues for themselves as they can start to compare the two books and to read across genres and stories.
We've read the Narnia books and discussed the religious aspect of it a little; my younger daughter shrugged and my older daughter was peeved. To my surprise my older daughter had no interest in my old classics; she reads modern teen fiction, biographies, manga and is branching into books about science and religion (or the lack thereof). She likes modern language, pop culure, politics, and science, so we discuss how the world works, what drives the people in it, and where ideas come from and go to. My younger daughter likes the children's classics, biographies, and adventure novels. She read The Little Princess with me, read fairy tales to me, and likes to think about what people have done throughout different times. She's more interested in the emotional life of the characters.
We had the best time trashing Twilight. We couldn't decide which was worse, Bella's lack of spine or the book's lackluster prose.
Some of the comments on the original thread were priceless. It would seem that the possibility that Aimai's children might rebel against the humourless leftwing indoctrination imposed upon them had never occurred to her.
The Doktorling Sonja is now 13 and informed me a couple of years ago that I was no longer needed for the bedtime book-reading ritual, so I am no longer up-to-speed with the literary tastes of the young people. But Stroud and the Bartimaeus trilogy seemed to go down well -- as well as the alternative-history aspect, she liked the formal structure with the footnotes, and the gradual accumulation of evidence that Bartimaeus himself (when he is not casting doubts on other character's credibility in the footnotes) is himself an unreliable narrator.
Terry Pratchett. "Maurice and his Educated Rodents" was the gateway book for that particular addiction.
Odo Hirsch stood her in good stead for a while. He tends to be heavy-handed with his relentless secular-humanist optimism, but you could say the same thing about Pratchett.
Nisbett = double-plus-good. Not to mention Edward Eager's oeuvre. The Doktorling had no issues with adjusting to their Edwardian milieu. The main requirement, from her point-of-view, is that the world inhabited by the characters had to be consistent, and bound by rules that one can infer from the context, before it is disturbed by the irruption of phoenices and sand-fairies and whatever. And the fact that Nisbett is incapable of talking down to her readers was appreciated.
I remember liking John Christopher, especially his "The Tripods/White Mountains" trilogy. I was intrigued by the idea of a human resistance movement on an occupied Earth, and also the examination of why and how people act ruthlessly, and the effects of a long struggle.
I like that this discussion has brought up two important things, one, the concept of seeing conflict from both sides, and two, the ability to doubt the narrator.
That is a really important point. The "doubting the narrator" point. I also think that something that needs consideration, or doesn't come up for adults who are used to reading silently to themselves, is that reading a book with or two a child entails a lot of back and forth discussion. There are vocabulary questions, and "why did they do that" questions, and questions that reveal that the style or tone or grammer of the book is beyond the child's current level of understanding. I wish I'd done more writing about this when my children were younger because it was very clear, at certain moments, that a given book would be too advanced for a given child. Not because of the content or anything but because when children are very young the pictures really tell the story and the text is very straightfoward. But slowly the text takes primacy and different texts can be more or less difficult to grasp. We spent years telling my youngest daughter that she had to "wait a bit" for an explanation of a term, or an event, or a person, because it would "happen next" in a story. She had a hard time making the transition from a straightfoward childen's book style "Here is a boy named bobby" to a more chapter book style "bobby walked down the street..." She hadn't yet learned that the question of "who" bobby is and why we care about his walking down the street was going to happen farther down the paragraph, or farther into the book. She couldn't take the tension and the mystery which even that little delay imposed on her.
But to get back to my original point on the subject of unreliable narrators (and a great example of that is Wuthering Heights) I think that the people on the alicublog thread who were worried that my liberal mothering was going to make the kids go all right wing simply don't have the experience of having to account for shit in books to kids asking questions. The book offers a narrator and you are also a narrator. And sometimes you step in for the unreliable narrator that is the book's voice. Sometimes you have to step in and explain the difference, to a child, between what the book says is happenign and what is really happening. Dramatic Irony, the pathetic fallacy, and human motivations are all up for grabs and they are going to ask you--or they are going to tell you if they are smart--when they start seeing through and around the text. You can't stop them and you can't utterly draw back from that process.
aimai, yes reading to a child is a very different experience. They aren't used to the concept of waiting to find out what's going on. They don't always like the linear nature of the story, wanting to explore the situation in their own ideosyncratic way, as you said. And also, they just don't want to wait to find out, they'd rather know now.
When you read to someone, you notice things that might slip your mind otherwise. You notice the style on another level. If you read Ursula K Le Guin out loud, her prose sounds graceful, sensible in speech. Other writers, even ones that are good to read silently, often sound clunky. That has always interested me, how prose is clarified when it is spoken.
I also found the whole discussion of being politically engaged versus politically hands-off with your children to be a little odd. Some people have this idea that one should be 'politically neutral'. Even if this were possible, I'm not sure it would be a good idea. There are certainly people who are too strident & controlling with their children, but I don't see that you become one of them by talking about political matters. It seems to me, you talk about political matters, and you also let them have room to decide for themselves. Why is that so hard?
It just seems to me that people will always be thinking and talking about society, and to teach your kid not to expect that is to fail to prepare them for the adult world.
Oh and, Wuthering Heights has an unreliable narrator? I totally missed that. Is Heathcliff lying? I thought he was just bitter and kinda crazy.
Do you mean, what Heathclif tries to do to that other kid, tries to ruin his life?
Heathcliffe isn't the narrator of Wuthering Heights--he's one of the protagonists and the hero, but not the narrator. The narrator, whose name I'm blanking out, is a horrible, unreliable, twerp who insinuates himself into the story by becoming Heathcliffe's tenant. He rents a house from heathcliffe because, he says, he wants to enjoy the beauties of this rustic locale and its solitude. Immediatly bored he forces himself on Heathcliffe and various other characters and obsessively begins exploring their story. My absolute favorite moment in the book is when he goes to visit Heathcliffe and tries to deal with this farouche, raging set of bucolic persons as though they were members of his own effete society. He is about to sit on a sofa when he thinks he notices some kittens on the chair. "And these," he says to (mrs heathcliffe?) "are no doubt your favorites?" to which she says, contemptuously "hardly" and he realizes they are actually dead rabbits thrown carelessly on the seat. He keeps trying to shoe horn heathcliffe and cathy's story into something he can grasp, but their passion and their brutal undying love is simply beyond the bounds of what he can imagine. In addition, the story is told from a variety of other people's perspectives including the housekeeper and various servants all of whom are unreliable.
In re the other discussion I don't fault anyone for having a different experience of parenting, or being parented, from my own. I think some posters over at Roy's were responding to very real personal experiences of being stifled by their parents, whether conservative or liberal or something else. Its very easy to be a stifling, domineering parent and its very easy to remember being stifled. And literature is just one of the ways that kids are subjected to all kinds of folie a famille from dress to food to family vacations.
But it does make an interesting jumping off point for discussing reading and children and politics.
--I also loved those John Christopher books although I didn't love them so much that I saved them and I haven't tried to read them to the children. They don't really enjoy dystopias--maybe because dystopic feelings, images, and ideas have been all around them as children under Bush. Of course I was a child under Nixon/the vietnam war so I don't see why I would have enjoyed what they dread. But I think that as a child I felt more defenseless and frightened than they do, and some of this stuff seemed subversively to agree with me about the danger of the world. While my children have been protected and are trying to hang on to their sense of security for a little longer. And they are very explicit about that and tell me not to give them any social analysis of this or that interaction because they want to take it at face value for a little longer.
I read Wuthering Heights once and thought it overwrought, but I loved overwrought Jane Eyre. I tried to explain to the kids what an incredible thing it was for Jane to decide, on her own with no reinforcement, how she would live and what she would believe in.
My older daughter likes dystopias--she uses them to discuss her feelings about the Bush era. Maybe it's an age thing. I remember suddenly discovering science fiction in junior high, reading Brave New World, Alas, Babylon, Animal Farm.
(And the Victorian Verne novels are a welcome counterpoint, with their love of human ingenuity and creativity.)
The narrator, whose name I'm blanking out,
Lockwood! Such the perfect name it is.
I think some of the commenters at alicublog were confusing "long-winded and opinionated" with "stifling and domineering." While s&d can certainly come in that flavor, it can also come in more close-mouthed and passive-aggressive flavors as well; the mere presence of rants doesn't prove anything either way. If you're going to apply a single test, I'd say a much better one is whether there's any element of play or humor in these interactions; if the kids are allowed to roll their eyes or call bullshit ("in this house, we call it hyperbole, dear"), then you're doing a really bad job of stifling and domineering.
Hey Hogan, glad to see you here. Come on, give us some kid lit recommendations! I ended up with a hardcover copy of the "trollope with dragons" you recommended to me because I loved it so much.
I think its incredibly important for kids to read all kinds of things and in all kinds of venues--privately, in a group, to be read to and to read out loud. They are just very different ways of experiencing the imagination and they lead to such different ways of understanding. One isn't better than another--although as atheist pointed out some books lend themselves better to one form than another. The genre warrior girl stuff my older daughter is reading is very, very, trite to me and I wouldn't enjoy reading it out loud. On the other hand one of our evening read aloud favorites is--wait for it--Don Camillo which are weird little anti communist essays by an italian journalist of the post war period Giovvanni Guareschi. The huge, fat, working class priest of a little village of the Po valley is always mixing it up with the huge, strong, working class communist mayor. Occasionally they team up over their love of the village or of opera over and against the city slickers. Its just not something the girls could get behind on their own, but we love to read them out loud. And you simply can't avoid politics when the stories themselves are about politics. We particularly love "Comrade Don Camillo" where don Camillo has himself smuggled into the Soviet Union posing as a respected italian communist and ends up converting, diverting, or comforting all the other Italians on the tour.
susan of texas--did you ever read Michael Strogoff? That was my favorite of the Verne novels. I didn't like the others but I was obssessed with Michael's journey across the unforgiving Russian Steppe.
aimai, ah, I can see I don't remember Wuthering Heights that well. Mostly what I remember from it was a sense of surprise at the brutality of their love, as you put it. Somehow I had thought it wouldn't be like that.
The reason I liked John Christopher was similar to what you said: he seemed to be talking honestly about the ruthlessness that I thought I saw in the world and I liked that. As far as your children not liking dystopias, I can totally understand. Yes I would allow them to feel secure if they say they desire it. I think that's good that your kids realize what they might find threatening and state it to you so you know how to avoid it.
Maybe that is really the line between engaged and overbearing parenting-- where you respect their desires about what they want. Gives them a sense of their own will, of choosing. A good sense to cultivate. Maybe the people in the original thread were describing their memories of having their parents ignore those lines, or something.
Susan of Texas, I remember liking Jane Eyre too. I guess it was more accessible to the younger me. And I also read Jane Eyre in a good year, Wuthering Heights in a terrible year, maybe that's why I liked Jane Eyre better. But yes, Jane is quite a character, who goes through so much to get where she wants to be. I even enjoyed near the end of the book when she has that telepathic moment with Mr. Rochester and realizes they can still be together, and so doesn't marry Mr. Rivers, but goes back to find Mr. Rochester.
My older daughter likes dystopias--she uses them to discuss her feelings about the Bush era. Maybe it's an age thing.
I totally think it is. I can remember going through all these phases as a kid. In one year politics was so important to me. In another year it was nothing. Later on, it became a raison d'etre again.
What interests me is that sometimes kids learn supposedly 'advanced' lessons very early, but then learn supposely 'simple' lessons very late. We're all so random.
Aimai, no, oddly enough, since I read most of the others. I loved the idea of building new societies, new world, like in Mysterious Island. With just a metal dog collar and one kernel of corn!
We also talked about the different ways people live, what it says about them--that's where the biographies come in, and the historical novels. It makes them very unsatisfied with some popular books that they also read--the characters don't seem real in comparison to the kids. When you expose kids to so many voices, cultures, and points of view, you can't brainwash them even if you were to try.
My ex-seminarian father gave me some Don Camillo books when I was twelve or so, and I just loved them. The conversations with Christ on the cross, who would tell Don Camillo the right thing to do with no expectation that he will do it. And in Comrade Don Camillo, how he understands the role-playing aspects of being both a Communist mayor and a Catholic priest so much better than the mayor that he can appear to be a better Communist than the actual Communists. It was a much more humanistic and less sentimental version of Catholicism than anything I've seen in the States, as well as a take on Communism that would get you tarred and feathered here.
I'm not sure I have recommendations from my own experience as a child; I remember the fact of reading, the joy and discovery and liberation and sense of accomplishment, more than I remember what in particular I read. The best gift I got from my father was a deep belief that words are toys as well as tools (and, of course, weapons), that it's OK to just play with them. Having a sense of them as toys can make them better tools, but even if it doesn't--hey, look at all these toys! Did you ever see so many?
I have nothing to contribute to the pedagogical questions here, but I feel like mentioning a few other authors whose books Doktorling Sonja enjoyed. I take no credit for her openness to new experiences and alternative possibilities, or her suspicions about authority figures and received ideas -- those seem to come naturally -- but one of my parental responsibilities for a while was to find books that meshed with those inclinations.
-- Eva Ibbotson. Marked by sympathy for underdogs such as ghosts and monsters, who are generally more in peril from living humans than vice versa. She clearly hates greed for power or money or social display, with the result that her villains sometimes come across as two-dimensional -- they personify forms of greed and there is no ambiguity about their villainy.
-- I recommend Elizabeth Honey, though she's an Australian author who maybe has a low profile in the US. She seems to like the diary structure (and sometimes the epistolary / exchange-of-email form), which again allows for an unreliable narrator who can look back with greater insight on her earlier observations.
-- One of the contributers at Crooked Timber recommended the Temeraire series (Napoleanic wars, but with dragons), so I passed the recommendation on to the Doktorling, and she enthusiastically agreed. Don't know if there's any didactic value in them, but they apparently meet the "good story-telling" criterion.
-- Ursula LeGuin. Goes without saying, really.
I stick with the farting stories from 1001 Nights and the kid likes 'em okay. She got a little over-enthused when we strayed to Ali Baba and someone got chopped into six pieces.
Oh yeah, let's not forget the joke books, the Guinness World Record phase, the cheap horror novels for kids, the series of plucky little girls who Learn and Grow and have a Christmas Surprise, and the comic books.
I have a heck of a time getting them to give the comic books back to me.
I was thinking about this comment thread this morning when our snuggle in bed saturday conversation included Gregor Samsa and Ayn Rand. They seemed to want to go there, I swear.
My kids haven't read them yet but I really liked the Temeraire books (Napoleonic Dragons) although they've started to have an endless, games like feel to them which isn't surprising since their author got her start in online gaming.
I can't get them to read any of my old favorites which were kind of more in the conan the barbarian scheme of things. I was a huge Robert E. Howard fan, and also Edgar Rice Burroughs, and loved things like Henry Treece's The Children's Crusade (grim retelling of the real children's crusade when children from all over europe got caught up in the enthusiasm for retaking the holy land and end up getting sold as slaves in the muslim markets), and the Viking trilogy Viking Dawn, The Road to Miklegard, and Viking Sunset.
No fart books so far.
The best gift I got from my father was a deep belief that words are toys as well as tools (and, of course, weapons), that it's OK to just play with them.
We deserve some credit for not turning this thread into an interminable cavalcade of excruciating puns.
This weekend my kids came down with the stomach flu so I went to the bookstore to see if I could find a book that they could relate to. I found one that they just loved titled, "The Moose with Loose Poops" by Charlotte Cowan. The illustrations were cute, the story line was adorible... The kids got a huge bang out of the title and the fact that “loose poops” is part of the story. So funny!
A children's book writer came to my kids school to display her books and it turns out, somewhat to my surprise, that she had no hand in choosing the illustrator or the illustrations that were so central to her book. It was a very charming book about vampire bats with absolutely amazingly intricate and witty illustrations. Her own contribution was a few lines of text which she sent off to her publisher and the publisher found the illustrator. It was odd, looking at the end product, to imagine the words without the pictures or the pictures without the words but that's the children's illustrated book system for ya.
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