RIP Maurice Sendak

Sometimes my class in Children’s Literature goes really well, and sometimes not so well. When it works, it’s because the students are interested in the philosophical issues raised by the texts, and willing to push my analyses in new directions. When it doesn’t it’s because the students resist philosophy. It’s hard to believe you could have a group of kids at an elite college signing up for a course in ChL and then taking an it’s-just-a-kids-book-so-stop-reading-fancy-ideas-into-it attitude, but if even a couple of them do, it damages the whole class. One time I remember I gave a complex analysis of something and looked up at blank hostility — and then one of them put up her hand and said, “it was really sad when the dog died.” This became my watchword for a bad class experience. It was really sad when the dog died.

Now I’m watching out-takes of Stephen Colbert’s conversation with Maurice Sendak, and Sendak is saying that when Jenny, the dog in Higgledy Piggledy Pop, joins the World Mother Goose Theatre Company she’s actually dead. And I ‘m thinking: Jenny dies? My adult reading of this text was coloured by my childhood reading, and I never knew. This is devastating. In short, I am really really sad that the dog died.


The Hunger Games

I don’t really think the HG series is worth blogging about, so I’m going to keep it short.  I’m writing because the discussions of the books I’ve read miss what seem to me the most obvious things about them.  This mystifies me.  It might actually be because they are too obvious for people to mention, but I can’t be sure.  So here I go, with some simple stuff.

First, I have heard a number of people speculating that Cinna joins the conspiracy because he is gay and the Capitol is not gay-friendly.  The claim that he’s gay is based on his being artistic, into clothes, and very cool — and that’s okay I guess.  But the other part of the claim can’t be right, as it is just not plausible that the Capitol insists on any kind of sexual normativity.  The Capitol is a portrayal of Roman enormity, and must treat sex the way it treats food:  the more the better, the kinkier the better, throw up and do it again.  Its grotesque morality is premised on excess, not limitation, and if it can be said in any way to represent our society in order to criticize it, it’s not our homophobia that’s being criticized, but our vapid, imperialist capitalism, and commodity fetishism.

Second, there is in the plot of HG a hint of Greek mythology laid over the Roman background insofar as the arena, as well as being a gladiatorial colosseum, should also remind us of the labyrinth.  It is the labyrinth into which, each year, an equal number of young men and young women were sent to be killed, sent as tribute and as a reminder of conquest.  Each of the three books highlights a different aspect of the parallel.  The labyrinth of the myth is escaped, as in the first HG volume, by a young man and a young woman working together.  And the labyrinth of the myth is mastered, as in the second HG volume, by a thread.  And the labyrinth of myth is defeated, as in the third volume of HG, by a joining of forces from the city (in the case of the myth, Ariadne) and from the party representing tribute (in the case of the myth, Theseus).

Actually I don’t think people are commonly aware of the Theseus roots, and especially not of the thread, Ariadne’s and Beetee’s, stretching from the centre of the maze or the heart of darkness out to the extremity, and facilitating its defeat.  But surely this third point is known to everyone:  that HG is not really about the colosseum or Greek mythology.  It is about reality TV, in particular the show that set the tone for the rest:  Survivor.  The kids are dropped off in a desolate place and must fight to survive, rewards are sporadically given to them from outside, each evening a few of them are, albeit rather drastically, voted off the island, there are arbitrary rule changes, and the rest of society, forced to watch the whole damn thing on TV, find themselves presented with more soap than contest.

Presumably this is critique of our society on a different level, but it’s pretty weak critique.  It’s like one of those documentaries condemning porn where the real interest is that you get to watch all that porn.  And this, of course, is the real problem with HG.  The games are fun.

Dystopian politics

I’ve spent the past two days reading a book my students have been trying to get me into for years:  Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game.  It holds interest for me mainly because it provides another entry in the short list of novels that follow what I call the Lawrence of Arabia Pattern.

In the Lawrence pattern, a group of rival nations come together to fight off a common threat, an imperial power that is much more powerful and technologically sophisticated.  Beating the threat takes just about the whole text to accomplish:  the war is the pretty much the whole story.  Except that to fit into the pattern there has to be a twist at the end:  a denouement, in which politics resumes its natural course and the rival nations, no longer facing a common enemy, begin to squabble.

The idea is probably simply that humankind naturally tends toward war.  It gains philosophical depth, though, by the fact that the tendency is always presented under an ambiguity.  Either hostility is the necessary human condition or it’s marginally preventable;  war is either inevitable or almost inevitable.  The general idea gives the books a cast of tragic realism; the narrow ambiguity gives them a cast of political profundity.  Together they make readers feel wised-up, and smart.

I first met the pattern in John Christopher’s Tripods series.  More recently, it became the political backbone of Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy.  Orson Scott Card does it all in one book, and it feels a little rushed.  The real problem with Ender’s Game, though, is something else.  Both Card and Collins present the pattern in plots that hang on a game — yes, Ender’s game is a game, and yes, the hunger games are games.  But Ender’s game is nothing more or less than a video game.  Seriously:  this whole book is a matter of reading about someone playing video games.  In comparison the Hunger Games’ game, which is gladiatorial, seems like real life.

And there’s more.  Following Christopher, Collins uses her game as a feature of dystopia:  it’s the bad guys who force you (Collins) or encourage you (Christopher) to spend your life playing games.  In other words, for Christopher and Collins, games are a distraction and prevent you from accomplishing anything.  In Card, they are the only thing to do, and they win wars.

Recent reading

Eva Ibbotson’s The Secret of Platform Thirteen features a passageway, concealed in King’s Cross Station, between our world and a magical realm;  a boy with a glorious heritage adopted as a baby and for the next decade mistreated by his parents, forced to live below stairs, and tormented by their natural son — a boy around his own age, fat, whiny, spoiled, and fond of eating knickerbocker glories;  and assorted ghosts and giants.  Other notable characters include a group of frightening creatures who are hired, despite misgivings, by the good magical people when ruthlessness is called for;  the misgivings are proved reasonable when they bungle their jobs from over-use of violence.  The story follows the boy as he learns of his true parentage and destiny.

Ibbotson’s book was published in 1994, a few years before the Philosopher’s Stone.  One can speculate that she decided not to sue Rowling after Nancy Stouffer — who, in the ‘80s, wrote a book about “Muggles” and another about “Larry Potter” — lost her suit so spectacularly, finishing with a fine of $50,000 for her temerity.  Wikipedia, however, quotes Ibbotson saying that not only has she no hard feelings, she would “like to shake [Rowling] by the hand.”  I see no reason not to believe her.  Rowling had many sources, ranging from the New Testament to Enid Blyton, and her series is nevertheless its own creation.  Besides, one imagines that Ibbotson’s sales rose considerably after the success of HP.

The Secret of Platform Thirteen is a good book but not a great book.  The pacing is too fast;  it moves along without much development, and mostly lacks the ability to make you feel you’re in a new place or someone else’s mind.  Two much better books we’ve read lately are Noel Langley’s The Land of Green Ginger and Barbara Sleigh’s Carbonel. The Land of Green Ginger is probably thought of now as orientalist and bordering on racist, but really it’s not.  The wicked princes Tintac Ping Foo and Rubdub Ben Thud are thwarted by the good prince Abu Ali, and this is as it should be.  Carbonel, a very different book, is equally fine.  The plot involves magic, but also provides a leisurely picture of mid-20th century England.  The details of Rosemary Brown’s life in a tiny furnished flat with her seamstress mother and those of her friend John’s life in the mansion of Tussocks are just as compelling to me and my six-year-old as the business of gathering together broom, cauldron, hat, and spell to release the Cat Prince from his enslavement.

Mio My Son/ Brothers Lionheart

Of all the chapter books we read this summer, the strangest two were by Astrid Lindgren.

Lindgren wrote Mio My Son in 1955.  It involves what Freudians call a “family romance,” which means a child’s fantasy that his parents are imposters and that he has real (and likely royal) parents elsewhere, who will eventually come for him.  Apparently lots of children fantasize along these lines from time to time, but there are two ways to put it into a story.  One is to tell a story in which the hero leaves home and finds his real family, or his proper place in the world – a buildungsroman would be a loose example of a family romance especially if, as in Oliver Twist and many other novels, the hero does eventually find a rich relative.  The other is to tell a story in which the hero has the fantasy.  This is what Lindgren does in Mio My Son.  Except that we don’t actually find out until the last page.  We have hints of it, yes.  But it’s not until the final paragraph that we know for certain that the boy has been sitting the whole time on a bench in the park, unwilling to go home to his truly awful life.

“Perhaps that’s where [Aunt Hulda] thinks I am, watching the houses where there are lights in the windows and children are having supper with their mummies and daddies.  And I suppose she’s cross because I’m so long coming home with those buns.  But Aunt Hulda is wrong!  She’s absolutely wrong!  There’s no Andy on any seat in the park.  He’s in Farawayland, you see.  He is in Farawayland, I tell you. He’s in a place where the silver poplars rustle… where the fires glow warm at night… where there is Bread that Satisfies Hunger… and where he has his father the King who loves him and whom he loves.  That’s how it is.  Karl Anders Nilsson is in Farawayland with his father the King, and all is well with Mio.

It was heartbreaking, for me, though Eila didn’t notice;  she was still caught up in the real story, which is excellent though also a wee bit sappy and the-stars-are-god’s-daisy-chain-ish.

Then, twenty years later, in 1975, Lindgren decided to do it over again and produced The Brothers Lionheart.  In many ways it’s a better book.  The adventure, though pretty much exactly the same, is more exciting, and all the sappiness is expunged for a hard-hitting, forthright tale of danger and honour.  But here’s the thing.  The new book is the other kind of family romance.  The boys (there are two this time) really are there, really having the adventure.  And why?  Because they are dead!  They have died in our world, and gone to Nangiyala, which is a lot like Farawayland only real.  It still works for readers as a family romance, only now it has a religious overtone:  Nangiyala is some sort of heaven.

For all I liked Brothers Lionheart, I can’t help thinking that Lindgren got mixed up somehow.  I don’t think you can fight evil tyrants after you die.  I don’t think you can die after you die.  I think she’s been misled by a religious allegiance to pretend to a concreteness that can only serve to confuse.

Evil doers should read more children’s books

There’s a sweet little line somewhere in Harry VII when Dumbledore, instead of telling us once again that Voldemort never saw the importance of love, tells us that he never saw the importance of children’s stories.  Dumbledore explains:  had Voldemort read the Tales of Beedle the Bard, he would have sought immortality through the Hallows, a much healthier route than Horcruxes.  The underlying message is that children’s books teach us how to live well, and I agree, even if I’m a little dubious of JKR’s conviction that teaching us how to live well involves making us think a lot about eternal life or life after death.  In any case, her little plug for the genre in which she herself writes is charming.

I’ve just finished the much touted Mysterious Benedict Society, by Trenton Lee Stewart.  It was also sweet in its way, and I’ll admit I found it hard to put down, but I’m afraid it was awfully formulaic.  Like Jenny Nimmo’s Charlie Bone series, it aims to appeal to Potter fans with fast-paced action set in a school for children of exceptional abilities, the difference being that in Benedict and in Bone, unlike in Harry, the schools (the Learning Institute for the Very Enlightened and Bloor’s Academy, respectively) are brainwashing prison-camps fronting for Evil, and the children have to subvert or destroy the schools to beat the bad.  In Bone the bad is magical;  in Benedict it is technological – the villain, Ledroptha Curtain (Iron Curtain maybe?), is trying to take over the world using subliminal messages delivered in children’s voices filtered through a machine called ‘the Whisperer.’

Which leads me to back to Dumbledore’s advice to super-villains:  do your reading!  Had Ledroptha Curtain read Charlie Bone he would know that a school for children with exceptional abilities is a bad front for evil because the children Have Exceptional Abilities (duh!) and therefore three or four of them can put their heads together and defeat you.  And only slightly more cultural awareness – say, of Spy Kids, or Pinky and the Brain – would have told him that the old subliminal message gag fails every time.  Sweet, like I said.  But also boring.

Favourite characters

I talked about favourite books, so now it’s time for favourite characters. What does it mean: a favourite character? More specifically, is your favourite the character you identify with, or is it the character you’re in love with? Obviously J.M. Barrie is sympathetic to Peter Pan. But does that mean he sees himself as Peter Pan? That’s what lots of scholars say. Or is he in love with Peter Pan? That’s what I think.

My guess is that most people reading the Harry Potter books identify with Hermione. Girls, boys, it doesn’t matter: she is the voice of common sense, as well the one who understands the muggle perspective, our perspective. I’d go so far as to say it doesn’t really make sense to read the books without identifying with Hermione. What she thinks is always, in the broadest sense, true; it’s what we’re meant to think, what we’re being drawn to think. But does this make her the universal favourite? I do not think so. Nor, for that matter, does it make Ron the universal favourite. But I’m thinking more and more that “favourite” implies a loosely erotic connection.

One of my students came into my class with a favourite character: Bellatrix Lestrange. I have put gentle effort into questioning this choice, and believe I have successfully steered him in the direction of his next love, who turns out to be Narcissa Malfoy. In turn, he has convinced me that Cissy is one of the great behind-the-scenes manipulators of the books. I look forward to future character studies.

Point and Wish, or When is a Tree-House Wikipedia?

Eila and her friends are devouring the Magic Tree-House series: 50 or so books in which American kids named Jack and Annie travel to distant times and exotic places. Before chatting with Z I’d thought that the only things wrong with the series were (a) condescension for any culture or historical period not our own, and (b) writing so wooden it’s hard to imagine it’s not being done deliberately.

But Z adds that the whole scenario has a computer-like feel. The kids get to where they need to go by pointing to a picture in a book and saying, “I wish we could go there.” This is the fantasy of the internet: that pointing and clicking opens for you the riches of the world. And, of course, these riches are defined pragmatically: once they’ve arrived at their destination, the kids receive little bits of information from their book each one of which answers a practical need of the moment. Oh yes, a few life-lessons are larded in as well (Thomas Edison tells them that “genius is 99% perspiration”) as is some generalized feminism (Annie is annoyed when they visit locales where girls can’t do the same things as boys). But the general idea is the presentation of a short series of uncontextualized, momentarily useful facts. There is absolutely no character development, nor is there even really a plot. Or maybe it’s just that every book has the same plot: point and wish, find out a couple of things, encounter a threat, run away, come home.

Z’s analysis provides the context and rationale for my previous criticisms. Of course the books are condescending, as nowhere Jack and Annie visit has the magic they have, the magic of the computer. Of course they’re badly written, with no development or plot, as the medium in question is conducive only to the presentation of info-bites.

Parents who say, “at least they’re reading,” have already bitten the apple.

The clique

The Clique is the latest in a line of children’s series that try to duplicate, for girls, the attraction that Bridget Jones knock-offs hold for women: frivolous, irreverent, with lots of catty remarks and shopping. Thirteen year-old girls buy Clique books as fast as the author can churn them out, and their presence on the New York Times Bestseller list suggests that they’re also selling outside that demographic. Indeed, the series was recommended to me by my brother, and though his age must not be mentioned I can tell you he is not thirteen — nor a girl.

We Clique readers get lots of vicarious pleasures. We get to be members of the most admired set at a prestigious private school. We get to shun others who aren’t as rich or witty as us – or really, anyone who’s different, anyone with a soul. We also get to shop. In one memorable scene the girls chip in to buy their leader, Massie Block, a little present for no special occasion, and an outsider sees the price tag with astonishment and shame: 750$ for a halter top. Brand names are dropped as often as possible.

What fascinates me about these books is their almost complete lack of moral fibre. These girls are mean – I mean mean – and, far from getting any kind of come-uppance, they’re rewarded for it. If there’s any lesson here at all, it’s: claw your way up the social heap, do anything it takes and never look back. For instance, in one book, the Clique does horrible things to humiliate Claire, a new girl into whose company they’ve been forced by circumstances and their parents. But rather than erupting into fits of traumatized tears (which is what I would do if the in-girls placed their sleeping bags in a circle and forced me to sleep in the corner while they insulted me) or mustering her dignity and finding other friends, Claire fights them with their own methods; in short she turns their sneaky, lying, mean ways back on them – and, as a reward, they let her in the group. How about that as moral training for thirteen year olds! And it seems to be the basic formula: in all the books the girls experience set-backs, but nothing that can’t be dealt with by the liberal application of massively bitchy behaviour. My favourite book so far shows us Massie temporarily deprived of credit cards and forced to find a job by her parents. She manages to make a ton of money by insulting people, and then garner a ton of prestige by stealing. That’d be the stripped down version of the form. Only usually the girls don’t actually have to steal, being rich beyond the dreams of avarice, but what the hell, it adds some spice.

But what’s really interesting is the tiniest note of class critique that pops up once in every book. It goes by quickly, but it’s just enough to make a thirteen year old uncomfortable. Check out this scene:

The Blocks’ Southampton Estate
Monday, June 15th
10:47 A.M.

When life gave Massie lemons, she made lemon-mint spritzers. Or at least, she sipped them.
After a long, brain-numbing swig, she set the tall glass in the cup holder of the portable pedicure chair, powered off her white iPod, and wiggled her toes. It was a subtle “hurry up” hint, aimed at Rita, the famed “poolside polisher,” who, after an hour, was just starting to apply the first coat of Chanel’s Black Satin. With exactly five hours left to find a jobby before her mom forced her work at the beach club, Massie was starting to panic.
Rita quickly lifted the tiny black brush off Massie’s big toe. “Stop squirming!”
Massie rolled her eyes at the drugstore blonde’s dark roots and then sighed.
“Gawd, you’re so lucky.”
Rita lifted her blue-colored-contact eyes. “How am I lucky?”
“You have a job you love.” Massie adjusted her white Tom Ford wrap sunglasses. “Did you always dream of doing peoples nails?”
“Oh yeah, sure. It’s a real dream job.” The chubby older woman clipped a stray cuticle from Massie’s toe, then snickered, revealing an uneven row of top teeth.
“Well, I need to find mine.” Massie checked the time on her iPhone.


The chapter goes on. Massie has an inspiration and decides to switch polish colours. Rita sighs and reaches for the cotton balls. Finally, after Massie’s done some stuff with the phone:


Massie jumped off the chair and pulled the blue foam wedges out from between her toes. “Rita, I gotta go find Isaac. I have a meeting in Manhattan. Can you come back tonight after dinner and finish up?
Rita rubbed her tired eyes. “How about tomorrow?”
“I can’t tomorrow. I have a jobby!” She beamed, and then waddled away on her heels. “See you at seven!”

From Massie, by Lisi Harrison, Little Brown and Company, 2008.

Subversive childrens literature

Ever since Alison Lurie published her famous argument to the effect that all great children’s literature was “subversive,” it’s been the rage to claim the status for one’s favourites. I’ve heard Harry Potter called subversive, and Tomi Ungerer’s books, and Junie B. Jones, and heaven knows what else. Now I’m writing a paper on the question. I have some strong sources and some good ideas, but because it’s on my mind I thought I’d throw it out there and see if you all had some thoughts too.

Lurie uses the term subversive to mean books where the characters challenge authority. She loves Tom Sawyer and Alice in Wonderland because they mock pompous adults and encourage an independence of mind in their readers. But – here’s the first question — is that really subversive? Isn’t it the case that our society admires those who challenge authority? It seems to me that we do. And for that matter, so did the Victorians; at any rate both books were widely embraced on publication, and critics do not seem to have felt they threatened the fabric of society.

So the first question is just about this overused word. But the second question is much trickier, namely: does children’s literature ever actually encourage anyone to think for herself? The heroes Lurie mentions all break rules, yes, but they do so in the service of a broader conception of virtue. Tom is courageous and loyal; Alice is intelligent, kind, and polite. It seems to me that what is happening here, and in most children’s novels of the type, is a kind of trick: naughtiness is offered to the reader for the taking, but only if she conforms to more important social norms.

“Books for adolescents,” writes Roberta Seelinger Trites, “are subversive—but sometimes only superficially so. In fact, they are quite often didactic; the denouements of many Young Adult novels contain a direct message about what the narrator has learned. Moreover, books for adolescents have lots of sex. And many dreadful parents. Many photographers. Many schools. Many dead bodies…. Books for adolescents have many ideologies. And they spend much time manipulating the adolescent reader.”

I think that something similar could be said about the less formulaic, more organic great books of children’s literature. Even without a direct message at the end or heavy-handed ideological manipulation, these books are teaching virtues. This is because children’s literature is fundamentally about personal growth. I have a big theory on this, but for now it’ll be enough to say that the crux of a piece of children’s literature always involves the protagonist learning something that will help her mature as a human being. That is why the books are so satisfying to read.

From this point I have two thoughts. The first is: and so what’s wrong with that? What’s wrong with books offering a satisfying moment of responsible realization and resolution? What’s wrong with basic social norms? Why do we seek so hard to find something “subversive” in our children’s reading material? And the second is: if the didactic quality of children’s literature arises from the fact that these books treat the subject of personal growth then maybe, if we do want to find some subversive novels, we should look to the small sub-genre which is about refusing to grow up. On this I also have some strong sources and secondary sources.

Anyone want a footnote? What have I missed?