Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Kid Stuff?

Even a few chapters into Huck Finn, huge issues like race and class surface. Not exactly the stuff of kid's literature, or is it?

Earlier in the year we looked at a Puritan primer that taught little Bible lessons while teaching the alphabet (A is for Adam). And, as we discussed in class today, I've been thinking about the secret messages I remember in books I read when I was quite young, and books I read to my children before they could read.

Here, for example, is one of my favorite nursery rhymes:

Baby, baby, naughty baby,
Hush, you squalling thing, I say.
Peace this moment, peace, or maybe
Bonaparte will pass this way.

Baby, baby, he's a giant,
Tall and black as Rouen steeple,
And he breakfasts, dines, rely on't,
Every day on naughty people.

Baby, baby, if he hears you,
As he gallops past the house,
Limb from limb at once he'll tear you,
Just as pussy tears a mouse.

And he'll beat you, beat you, beat you,
And he'll beat you all to pap,
And he'll eat you, eat you, eat you,
Every morsel snap, snap, snap.

Not exactly a ditty to sing at the ACLU! The message is not so secret: being good equals being quiet.

The book Mrs. Piggle Wiggle also came to mind. She (and note her title suggests she's married) is a sort of Super parent who is called in to handle recalcitrant children. In "The Never-Want-To-Go-To--Schooler," she takes a boy who pretends to be sick by speaking as though he had a cold and gives him IGNORANCE TONIC (caps, hers). The medicine makes him unable to talk in his regular voice, so the neighborhood kids say things like "Gosh, what a dummy." He learns his lesson and -- within a day -- becomes not only polite but literate. The unmistakable message: Go to school or you'll be ignorant. This is a message we all might agree with, though the methods seems rather out-of-date now.

Many books have been revised of late because the books convey values our society no longer holds. Sometimes these changes are hugely important.

Take The Story of Little Black Sambo, a very popular and very racist picture book from the turn of the 20th century. The word "sambo" is a racial slur and the book and subsequent cartoons depicted the black title character in rather unflattering terms. Recently the book was recast as Sam and the Tigers: A Retelling of "Little Black Sambo", by Julius Lester and Jerry Pinckney, who set out to reinvent (reconstruct?) the story with beautiful and flattering illustrations and the witty change of the title character to Sam, who lives in Sam-Sam-Sa-mara, a land where everyone is named Sam.

Other reinventions of different books have met with more resistance. Some, for example, find wolves in Grimm's Brothers stories too be too violent for our tamer, more domesticated world. Yet, others complain about these revisions. Think of the lines from Andrew Bird's Measuring Cups: "Just another children's story that's been declawed/When the tales of brothers, grim and gory have been outlawed." I recently learned that one of the most banned kids' books in the past 30 years has been In the Night Kitchen by the brilliant Maurice Sendak. Why was it banned? Because in one frame Mickey, a little baby, is naked. Full, frontal, infant nudity. Interestingly, according to Sendak, the United States is the only Western country to object to that scene.

What secret messages can you find in books you read or that were read to you? What else were you learning to read when you were learning to read letters?

12 comments:

Max Rice said...

Sup juniors, have fun with all of the wretched things this year has to offer, excluding junior theme of course. But anyways, what atleast I have observed, is somewhat of a switch in censorship. Meaning that while children stories and fables remained un-soiled, adult works of fiction were far more censored and apt for public disapproval. Just think if Uncle Tom's Cabin was harsh enough to literally cause a civil war, think of what would've happened if pulp fiction was released in the 1840's. Imagine if Eminem was put in charge of our national anthem. Even Thoreau wouldn't drop an f-bomb in any of his works.Though past works have explored brave themes such as Huckleberry Finn, in this age the status quo has been radically moved which has allowed for works to be more raw, without the fear of the authors being lynched.

Sam H said...

I think that we are lucky in the US because, for the most part people aren't threatened because of their works. One western example is in Denmark when cartoons were published portraying Mohamed in a less than favorable way. Long story short, the authors were in fear of "being lynched."

It is a little scary what we show our children. If you look at play groups and the way that toddlers will play with each other regardless of race is interesting. Of course, child books and other media outlets are not all to blame for this; children see the example of their parents and start to mimic what they see.

Looking back on my childhood, though, I can't remember any children's book that was multiracial. They all consisted of a white family, or a black family or a Jewish family or a pig family.

When babysitting, I was watching "The Backyardigans" with the kids and the characters are all animals, so race is irrelevant. It seemed, though, that the director was keen to show a multiracial show and two of the characters had commonly black names and spoke in light Ebonics.

I wonder how this sort of racial outreach along with more censorship will effect the generations of the future.

Sam H said...

Oh, and as for the napoleon poem,
"[Napoleon]'s a giant,
Tall and black as Rouen steeple"

It is a little funny that portayed famously short Napoleon as "a giant." This phrasing may be in reference to the way that he saw himself as a giant and therefore greater than he was. There is, of course, the famous portrait depicting Napoleon blazing through a storm, atop a mountain, on horseback. the picture was actually painted while Napoleon was on a donkey. I think that Napoleon's stature was brought, then referred to (ironically) in order to calm the frightened children to an extent.

Lizzy said...

One thing that I have noticed in books for young girls is that they often demonstrate how to be princess-like. Almost every fairytale has the archetypal damsel in distress who has to be rescued by a prince or knight in shining armor. I think that this can send the message to young girls that it is okay to be helpless and wait around for a man to change your life.
This also adds on the what we were discussing in class today. The princess is only important to the story as a means of ending the man's quest. She never really has any power and does not usually have any lines.
Despite all of these fairytales, there is a book about a princess that I enjoyed immensely while growing up, which has a slightly different type of princess. It is called "The Paper Bag Princess" and the plot line is basically a parody of the usual damsel in distress story. The princess rejects her jewels, saves the prince from a dragon, rejects the prince, then runs off wearing only a paper bag, happier than ever. Quite an amusing tale. I think that this book sends a better message, or at least made my younger self realize that not all princesses had to act like Snow White.

Morgan L said...

In psychology we talked about how certain parenting styles and certain personality traits are some reasons why kids either hide behind a parents leg when meeting a new person or are comfortable enough to say hello. When reading the first poem you posted, which teaches kids to stay quiet it made me think of this. I wonder if such parenting and conditioning would actual teach a child to be shy and timid and how long would that last. Just as a child? or older?

Shirley said...

I have a tentative answer to Morgan's question. I believe that genetics and parenting play approximately equal roles. Only if a child is, to some extent, predisposed to shyness will the the timidity-teachings work. Often, as a child grows older, there are more different inputs influencing their behavior - probably with less individual effect. Therefore, the timidty (or any other behavioral trait) may remain or disappear.

To change subjects, the poem reminded me of something I found rather interesting. Some of the most frightening stories I have ever heard or read were children's stories. I do not like being scared.

Maeli G. said...

One of my favorite childhood stories was The Little Red Hairy Man. No joke. That was the name. It's an English fairytale about a group of three brothers, two of whom refuse to show generosity to a little stranger (the red hairy man) on the road, and the third of whom does decide to share what he has. The little man takes that third brother to a magical land below the ground, where he must rescue three princesses who have all been captured by three evil ogres (this goes back to Lizzy's observation about the reoccurring princess character in children's literature). The third princess is the most beautiful and the most rich, and the young man, whose name is Robin, decides to take her back to his home with him and marry her. Of course, he doesn't forget to take some of her riches along with him. Anyway, Robin goes on to live happily ever after, the other two brothers get what's coming to them, and the little red hairy man disappears forever. There are so many hidden messages in that silly kid's story! The underlying moral is that generosity leads to rewards that exceed the initial cost, but more than that, stinginess leads to DEATH! Dark? You bet! Oh, and don't forget about the objectifying of women. These young ladies are all versions of the stereotypical damsels in distress! They are completely helpless without the dashing Robin to come to their rescue, and naturally, the last of them falls immediately in love with her savior. She is unable to resist his charms. Now that I look back on that tale, it's hard not to feel as if I was taken advantage of in a way. Think about all of these ideas that were spoonfed to me in the disguise of harmless entertainment. It's interesting that society chooses to hide its messages instead of coming right out with them.

StoneA said...

This topic reminds me alot of a fairy tale unit from my German class last year. Alot of the friendly fairytales considered as classics in American households came from very dark, gruesome German stories. They were designed as cautionary tales. In the german version of Hansel and Gretel the children suffer a horrible death, in the American, tweaked version Gretel pushes the witch in the oven and saves her brother. These fairy tales, like alot of older childrens books, served a point. The cautionary, prude censory, like in the case of the infant frontal nudity, has in my opinion deprived modern childrens writers the ability to imbed useful, lifelong lessons in their stories.

Katie O. said...

I think it is interesting to see how many children's stories come from darker more violent meanings, as Andy said. I remember when I was told that Ring Around the Rosy was about a deadly plague and the line, "we all fall down" was actually when everyone died from the diseases. And the line "ring around the rosy" was derived from the red bumps that would appear as a symptom. Yet the song is sung by young children skipping around in a circle innocently. I think that as a society, we protect children from the underlying messages in the stories they read. I can't think of one book i was read to or read when i was little that had a secret message in it. But I'm sure i did read some that had them, but i was never aware of it, even now.

I also think it is interesting how horror movies use children's rhymes to give a creepy effect. When i think about it, it seems so stupid to get scared from a movie that eerily plays a young child singing "itsy bitsy spider" however, it does have a weird effect when inserted into a scary movie. I wonder who was the first to think of putting children in horror films to add the the creepiness.

J.D. M. said...

I think that Katie's last point about was especially interesting. It is strange how in a scary movie, the director will choose to use a young child, (someone with a distinct childish voice, not an adolescent), to sing a song, usually a nursery rhyme, to create an eery, spooky background music to partner a scene that promises to be spooky and evil.

One particular horror flick, "Nightmare On Elm Street", starring Johnny Depp, utilizes this technique to leave the audience with nightmares of their own for days to come. In the movie, Freddy Krueger kills those that are asleep. When the children on Elm Street do fall asleep, Krueger puts on his razor gloves and finds those that have fallen asleep- everyone has to sleep eventually, nobody can stay awake forever to avoid him. Krueger goes on a killing frenzy on the children, who sing the following version of in hopes of protecting themselves from the killer. "One, two, Freddy's coming for you. Three, four, better lock your door. Five, six, grab your crucifix. Seven, eight, better stay up late. Nine, ten, never sleep again. "

The unusual mixture of children and their singing voices, which suggest innocence, and peace, is juxtaposed by the lyrics in which they sing. These lyrics convey a theme of death, and evil. Its especially effective as the children's song is an altered version of the famous nursery rhyme "1, 2, Buckle My Shoe". This is why directors choose to use the children singing their nursery rhymes songs, because when paralleled with a theme of death and lyrics explaining how to avoid a killer, its comes across to the audience as a peculiar, spooky introduction preluding horror.

Another thing that tends to creep an audience out in movies is doll of a young girl's eyes move suggesting she is possessed. This is sort of tangential since the doll isn't actually a girl, but its a toy that every girl in America played with at some point, so symbolically represents a young girl. Why is a doll's eyes moving such an effective way of scaring an audience?

The Batman said...

Is it bad that I read "Sam and the Tigers" as "Sam and the n-words?"

MMarin said...

One book series I'd read when I was younger was 'Amelia Bedelia,' about a female maid/house servant who is completely incompetent because she takes everything literally (i.e. using a nail file to file papers). I reread one of the Amelia books and thought it was pretty funny. She starts out making cream puffs in her employing family's kitchen, gets fired for doing something silly, and then explores the town for new work. The first sign she reads says "Lady Wanted" and lo and behold she enters and it is a beauty shop run and used exclusively by women. She starts working, but is quickly fired for her incompetence, and the same happens at a dress shop later in the story.

Amelia then goes in to more 'masculine jobs' where she tries to be accepted-- one as a file clerk working for a businessman (the only other woman in the office is a secretary) and a doctor (the only women in the doctor's office are women taking their children in for appts--there are no men doing that task). Both fire her for her usual silliness and lack of understanding of their types of jobs, and so she returns home to finish the cream puffs she was making, only to be rehired to the family who regretted firing her in the first place. What I found interesting about the book as a whole was that Amelia starts out and ends the book in the kitchen. Upon rereading the book, the message I got from it was that women and men each have very specific job roles (with men leading intellectual jobs and women either assisting those men or engaging in superficial tasks), and in order to not be an absurd/ignorant person, one has to have understanding of those roles (or face widespread social rejection, shown in the illustrations of her various employers). And if that fails, there's always the kitchen.