Sunday, November 14, 2010

Thoughts on Children's Lit

It's been a while since my last post hasn't it been? Well, not to get too personal, but I've been having a rough semester and a very busy one at that. My film production class has left me wondering how I managed to even make it into the film department, my screenwriting class is kicking my butt at this exact moment with too much homework, and even my hundred-level religion class resulted in a shittily graded paper.

But do you want to know what is going pretty freakin' well this semester? My Children's Lit class.

I was just rereading my earlier blog post about The Girl Who Owned a City and thought that I would like to revisit my thoughts from that post about children's literature. I know, this is more of a movies and television blog and I certainly could rant about how this season of Dexter has been so slow or say how I've given up on House for now or commend Community on doing what it does best. I could rave about The Social Network or get unnecessarily excited over going to the new Harry Potter movie midnight release on Thursday night, but I'd much rather discuss the real shining beacon in my life right now, which is, surprisingly, this lit class.

Not that it's perfect. My first paper wasn't great, I haven't had time to do more than a general outline for the paper due this Wednesday, and I'm close but not quite at A level. I've finished some of the reading a bit after it was technically due and I've still yet to cover Twilight in the class, but there are so many interesting things to take away from this class, none of which I can do justice in a blog post at 1:30am, but I can give you a quick survey of the genius that is this class and this subject and my own personal relationship with children's texts.

We kicked off the semester with an excerpt from Alice in Wonderland, but not the whole text (originally on the syllabus, but, amongst a few others such as The Giver, Alice in Wonderland was cut in the end). The Wind in the Willows was next in all its episodic glory (my favorite being Rat's interactions with the traveling Rat he meets). The Secret Garden introduced me to Dickon and re-introducing me to creepy crushes on children (this would continue with Will Parry as I was inspired to reread The Subtle Knife during my "free time"). I even ventured into the world of fan fiction veer so briefly before realizing that writing Dickon's manner of speech accurately removed any sexiness. My desires for attractiveness and accuracy conflicted. Peter and Wendy told me that I really just didn't like the story of Peter Pan very much after all. The Twins at St. Clare's reminded me of my childhood addiction to series like The Boxcar Children and The Babysitter's Club: basic children's books that nobody really takes seriously after a certain age. The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe told me that, no, I don't like Narnia and The Last Battle that The Amber Spyglass did religion better. Also, we approached The Problem of Susan, and I started to get my ideas for my coming paper, wanting to approach my gender's role in all of this. What's so wrong with wanting invitations and nylons? On the flipside, we went over to The Golden Compass, one of my favorite books ever, and I was reminded how great the characters were and how one of my future cats should be named Iorek. The Ear, the Eye, and the Arm showed me another female character, though not the main protagonist, that I had originally written off but embraced by the end. Howl's Moving Castle was brilliant and I wonder how I'd never read it as a child. Officially decided another future cat shall be named Howl. I was also reminded that I am a sucker for a good literary romance - what's so wrong with Sophie and Howl having a happily ever after? Many of my classmates contested. Perhaps it's best we only read The Golden Compass and didn't introduce my beloved Will Parry. The Devil's Arithmetic brought me back to my middle school reading habits: American Revolution or Holocaust children's literature. How depressing! Magic made a comeback and time travel and another female protagonist, how fantastic! Finally, most recently, we've come to a collection of picture books and Roald Dahl's Revolting Rhymes. I don't remember ever reading any of the books: Where the Wild Things Are, Pat the Bunny, Goodnight Moon, Harold and the Purple Crayon, William's Doll, or Princess Smartypants.

Just take a glimpse through my notes from class sometime and you'll see a crazy amalgamation of ideas and concepts because in examining children's literature, it's not unlike examining adult's literature - there's quite a bit of everything. Adults have serialized literature that may not be brilliantly written, adults have historical drama and stories steeped in gender roles and fantasy and religion and science fiction. But when examining a whole group of literature, I never want to stop reading. I realized that today as I sat in the library, reading from our Oxford companion, filled with interesting essays on different topics in children's literature, we'd only read seven chapters of sixteen. I wanted to read them all! In fact, I want to read the gender roles chapter in time for my paper. I want to read the other dozens of books referenced.

Literature feels like a much more endless supply than movies or television. Not that one could watch the entirety of cinematic or televised history in a lifetime, but those mediums are so different from novels and poetry and essays and everything in-between. Children's movies are interesting and all, but there's something so much narrower about that library than the library of children's books. For exampls, film versions of these stories. Howl's Moving Castle was completely redefined and centered around a tale Miyazaki wanted to tell rather than the actual book's plot. The Narnia movies were even more ridiculous than the books, in my opinion. The Golden Compass, while well-cast, was watered down. I still have yet to see The Secret Garden. Peter Pan, the animated version, tries to simplify a simple story. Peter Pan, the live-action 2003 film, takes a completely different approach to the material, one which I might even like more than the book. And while Where the Wild Things is a good movie, in my opinion, it is an elongated version of the picture book from which the title hails. And that movie wasn't really made for kids so much as nostalgic adults.

There's a much more stream-lined narrative and style for "children's movies" than for children's books. Some of the worries centered around children's literature are much more apparent in movies for kids. Whereas some books are overly instructive or didactic, most movies for children are built around some life lesson moral that is hammered into the audience. Even in well-made features, such as Howl's Moving Castle, there is no escaping something so very clear. And gender roles are even worse in film, generally speaking.

I've always thought to myself which movies I would want to show my non-existent kids, being mostly a movie person. But I'm more interested now in understanding what books I also want them to read. The television I want them to watch. The games and toys I want them to enjoy. There is so much to learn, but even more to simply observe, to enjoy conflicting narratives that teach different lessons, allowing my kids their own agency of decision-making. It's easy to forget that kids aren't people too, but I'm still somewhat young enough to remember how intensely I thought about certain things and how not-intensely I thought about others.

Now is different. Now I see anything and I'm almost afraid I might over-analyze it. Everyday conversations involve some semblance of intellectualism. Ahh, college students, how they converse and interact. How they drag in the challenging of the concept of canon based on their children's lit reading from a couple weeks ago. But it feels so good to talk about those things, to have that perspective. Some might call it snobbery or elitism or silly to waste time learning about children's lit but there are so many ways to understand children, a huge part of this world, and one of which is to observe what goes into these texts and what comes out, whether it be in a college classroom or a child's bedroom.

My apologies for making this blog post so inherently steeped in my personal life. Unfortunately, I really don't have strong opinions about any movies or television I've watched lately (well, maybe except that the last few episodes of Glee have been a huge step up since the back nine, which were sometimes essentially unwatchable). Oh, well, I guess there's one big announcement: amidst my personal ~drama, I've started watching The Wire, which I am understanding to be one of the best television shows ever? Well, I'm certainly liking it. Liking it enough to start the second season rather than read the screenplays I need to for Tuesday.

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