Thursday, November 11, 2010

The Challenges of Children's Literature

While living in Cincinnati, I used to walk Pip and Polly down to the library about once every two weeks or so to check out some books. It was always a treat to have a couple of new stories to mix in with our own collection of kid titles. Since moving to Lexington, we had not done the library trip quite as frequently, mostly because I didn’t have the identification paperwork necessary to get a library card.

Two weeks ago I finally finished the steps necessary to get a Kentucky driver’s license and with it, my very own library card. The first thing the kids and I did after the clerk placed the new driver’s license in my hand was to walk down the street from the county clerk’s office to the rounded, multi-story black granite building that houses the downtown library. Pip was the first one through the door, and he headed immediately up the stairs to the second floor where the children’s section is located. Polly followed close behind. Walking past the computers and their games for a moment they stood quietly looking at the long wall of shelves holding all the children’s books, trying to decide where they wanted to dig in.

For all our experience with libraries, the book selection process itself is still a real challenge. First off, there is the difficulty of physically handling the books. I usually start picking up books at a random point in the shelves and flip through a couple to see if anything catches my eye. Following my lead, Pip and Polly do the same thing. As such we can pull a pile of ten to twenty books off the shelves in a matter of seconds. Keeping this from getting completely out of control requires a good bit of juggling and redirection.

More significantly, children’s literature can be an insidious product. The idea of a ‘children’s book’ carries with it a certain expectation that the content is safe and sensitive to the impressionable nature of young children. While this assumption may be true relative to the content found in adult fiction, Ava and I have found plenty of stuff in children’s books that don’t align well with what we want to teach Polly and Pip.

So over time I have learned a few shorthand keys to help ease the process of selecting out the couple of books that will actually leave the building in our hands. I tend to look first for things we have enjoyed in the past – books that rhyme, books with animals doing silly things, books about how things work. Farm settings and counting books also tend to be reliable. I then look to see if a given book has any of the material we have idiosyncratically deemed to be hazardous for our children. This includes excessive violence, romantic love, overt nationalism/patriotism, hypermasculinized things like giant cartoon trucks or military themes, and hyperfeminized things like princesses or prissy girls. If I find any of these, I slip the book down on to a table for reshelving and grab another one.

This pick and filter process works well for most books, but there is one group that continually causes me fits. These are children’s books which take a story or idea that is familiar to parents and give it an innovative twist. In some cases this twist is a flip of the protagonist-antagonist binary such as turning the three little pigs and the big bad wolf into the three little wolves and the big bad pig. In other cases the hook is that the story begins from the point where a familiar fairy tale like the Frog Prince ends. I’ve also read another particularly clever book where familiar songs, ranging from Old Susannah to the Battle Hymn of the Republic, were used as the foundation for poems about science.

I find these kinds of books to be very entertaining. In many respects they remind me of the old Warner Brothers cartoons with Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Yosemite Sam, etc. Those cartoons were great because they contained such a diverse range of possible amusements. You could get slap-stick comedy, sophisticated cultural critiques, and self-reflective experiments in artistic creation all within a five minute segment. As an adult this sort of subversive playfulness feels like being let in on an inside joke, one that pokes fun not so much at my children but at what I remember as the overly serious adults of my own childhood.

At the same time, as a family our experience with these books has been largely unpleasant. Either they are pitched too far towards adults for Pip (and very soon Polly) to enjoy them or I end up trying to explain the parental focused references that Pip picks up on but doesn’t have the context or background to understand. In both cases, sitting down with these books usually resulted in a mixture of confusion and frustration that did little to help Polly and Pip enjoy our time reading together.

Despite these problems, I kept bringing these books home with us, always hoping that the next one would not suffer from the same deficiencies as the others. It took Ava’s intervention and some tears from Pip to bring home to me the reality of what was going on. The production, marketing, and selling of children’s books is an industry like any other. To sell books, publishers target the people who actually purchase the books: adults. Sometimes this means creating something that kids want and subtly encouraging them to beg their parents for it. Other times this means creating something that parents think they kids would or should want. And sometimes, it means creating a product in the kid genre whose real audience is intended to be adults (e.g. Toy Story 3). I apparently have a soft spot for that third category and was making choices accordingly. In the process my own interests were overwhelming my evaluations of what Pip and Polly would find enjoyable.

I have since gotten much better at recognizing when such a breakdown in the selection process is taking place. All the same, the temptation is still there. This past visit I came across a book entitled “The Secret Life of Walter Kitty.” I picked it up and flipped through it because of the Walter Mitty reference. The book was about a cat who, like Walter Mitty, imagines himself taking part in a whole range of adventures while barely straying from his house. It was clever and amusing so I put it into our take home pile. Then I caught myself and took another look. The pictures were complicated. The text was disjointed and scattered around all over the page. I guess Pip and Polly will get used to this kind of presentation as they get older but for now it was definitely too much. I reluctantly put the book down on another table for the librarians to reshelve.

We came home from the library that morning with a book by Dr. Seuss, one called ‘Me and Robot,’ one about a big dog on a farm, and one where a boy imagines seeing a dragon floating in the clouds. Pip spent all afternoon with this last one. He is in the process of learning what it means to imagine things and was determined to work out what in the book was supposed to be real and what was supposed to be a product of the boy’s imagination. It’s a challenge, and we worked it through page by page. I still don’t know if it really makes sense to him, but at least it’s a project that he chose and one that he is learning from.

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