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One Coin, Two Sides: Children’s Literature and Censorship

So, I’ve been working with a Korean writer who is trying to branch out into writing kid’s books in English, and to writing fiction. So far, she’s mainly written nonfiction stuff–educational books–but now that she’s in Saigon, she feels like she has the time and freedom to branch out into fiction. It’s been pretty interesting to go through the basics with her, week after week, because so much of what’s true of kid’s fiction is true of all fiction. Characters, motivations, story problems… they’re all there. Kidlit is sometimes a little more directly allegorical, and sometimes is a little more overt in some of what it does, but it’s still fiction.

And like with all writing, if you want to do it right, you need to get into the mindset of your audience. This is an interesting challenge when you’re writing for four- and five- and six-year-olds, in part because of how casual most adults are in their dismissal of kids’ minds. Case in point: we were reading her daughter’s favorite book in an effort to figure out just what might be the big attraction of Winnie the Witch. Here’s a (low-res, sorry) Youtube video of the whole book being read, with the illustrations:

The woman I’m working with understandably read Winnie as being a child-like figure, since she’s given to impulsively reacting to annoyances. She figured that Winnie had learned, by the end of the book, to control her impulsiveness and “grown up” a little.

I had a different view.

I, in contrast, suggested that this book is really about what it’s like to be a kid… from the cat’s point of view. Wilbur is small–child-sized, really, in most of the illustrations–and like most kids, he doesn’t really get much say in Winnie’s decisions. Every kid must know what it’s like to be teased by others, the way Wilbur is laughed at by the birds–and for the way his “mother” dressed him. But if Wilbur the black cat is the “child” figure, then who is Winnie? Obviously, his “mom”… and the behaviour that the woman I’m working with thought was childish, becomes parental behaviour: a love for the “child,” that is sometimes eclipsed by temporary annoyance, and ill-considered “solutions” to the problem.

The woman I’m working with was surprised at this reading, but when I asked, “Don’t mothers sometimes made bad decisions? Don’t moms sometimes act impulsively, and selfishly, even though they love their children?” She agreed that this was true… and I pointed out that the people who are likeliest to notice this are children, though they may not be able to frame it that way. They would tend to frame it as “unfair” rather than thinking of their moms as preoccupied, or just making a mistake. So this book kind of subtly sketches the idea that moms act like this because, like kids–and really any people–they’re flawed, but more importantly, the book seems to argue that even when a parent behaves this way, it doesn’t mean they don’t love their kids… but at the same time, that it’s not always the kid’s fault. That sometimes, the only resolution possible is when the parent realizes he or she has been messing up, and tries to fix things.

Adults often fail to realize this, and to read sensibly literature and entertainment created for children, because of the massive biases we still have against children, and the way we routinely and causally dismiss them, in part as a way to valorize adulthood… even though we’ve all met adult who (and we say this pejoratively) “behave like children.” (People who would be mortified if someone swapped in the word “women” or “blacks” or “Chinese” or “gays” for “children” in that phrase, say such things of kids all the time, as I discussed earlier this year, and this unrecognized bigotry cripples their critical reading ability when it comes to fiction and entertainment designed for children.)

Justin Howe recently posted a pertinent quotation from a novel by Russell Hoban that makes this point–one that suggests people who write for kids aren’t really “writing for kids” so much as for themselves, their own anxiety about the stability or instability of the world they live in, as it shifts and changes when it is passed on to those who come after them.  

What jumps out at me from all of this is that writing for kids is, in some bizarre way, something inextricably linked to those anxious, crazed parental efforts to ban certain books, ostensibly to protect children from them. As with a number of issues that I’ve been thinking about lately, a scene from Donnie Darko comes to mind. There doesn’t seem to be a video online of this particular scene, but it’s the PTA meeting when crazed self-help loon Kitty Farmer (ha! played by Beth Grant) crusades against Ms. Pomeroy (Drew Barrymore’s teacher character), in trying to get Graham Greene’s short story “The Destructors” banned from high school English classes:

The thing is: this is not a battle between a crazed loon, and someone who is neutral. Ms. Pomeroy–though we sympathize with her–is just as much laying a claim to what kids ought to read, what ought to shape them. We can argue that she just wants kids to be thoughtful and literate, but Graham Greene’s text is more than that: it is explicitly, openly subversive.

Ms. Pomeroy’s and Kitty Farmer’s clash is easy to take sides on: we smart, critical-minded folks immediately side with the more attractive, younger, and more liberal Ms. Pomeroy, and shun the older, more neurotic, histrionic and less attractive Kitty Farmer, who is amply mocked throughout the film. And, after all, book-banners so often come across as histrionic assholes, that it’s easy to mock and revile them. (See this pertinent comic on Tor.com.)

But this is not a clash beween a neutral party and an oppressor: it is a clash between two people who just stake radically different claims on children’s minds, and on the future: one, through the inclusion of texts with messages she wants to propagate (like the Graham Greene) and the other, through the forced exclusion of texts the messages of which she clearly fears and wants to suppress.

Kids, on the other hand, can come up with their own, sometimes confounding interpretations, as Donnie does:

Here, Darko’s reading seems closer to that what I imagine Thomas Ligotti’s would be, than anything else. Compare with this passage from his The Conspiracy Against the Human Race:

For the rest of the earth’s organisms, existence is relatively uncomplicated. Their lives are about three things: survival, reproduction, death–and nothing else. But we know too much to content ourselves with surviving, reproducing, dying—and nothing else. We know we are alive and know we will die. We also know we will suffer during our lives before suffering—slowly or quickly—as we draw near to death. This is the knowledge we “enjoy” as the most intelligent organisms to gush from the womb of nature. And being so, we feel shortchanged if there is nothing else for us than to survive, reproduce, and die. We want there to be more to it than that, or to think there is. This is the tragedy: Consciousness has forced us into the paradoxical position of striving to be unself-conscious of what we are—hunks of spoiling flesh on disintegrating bones.

Which is probably pertinent: Ligotti’s candidly combative arguments about why people have children in the first place–not for rational or selfless reasons, if we are honest about it, though very few of us are willing to be– probably apply just as well to why people seek to regulate and control what ideas children encounter in fiction, whether in the positive sense of presenting chosen literature or writing it, versus banning or forbidding it. In both cases, there’s a large degree–and one people on both sides seem unwilling to admit–to which the whole process is about presenting and preserving and promulgating one’s own values in the minds of the young… presumably, a form of memetic propagation that will preserve one’s values and ideology in perpetuity. And this is true no matter how conservative or liberal the parent or writer or book-burner is: the “concern” for the future–the instinctive grasping for control of our own posterity, really–is what drives the whole conflict on both sides. 

Come to think of it, that’s probably why anyone writes, and why anyone seeks to ban any sort of literature, not just children’s lit. (In other words, I’m as guilty of this weird memetic-replication instinct as anyone, even if I don’t have kids myself.)  It just reaches a point of extremity in kids’ books and entertainment, not just because we have an instinct to protect children, but also because we have a belief–erroneous, to some degree–that kids’ minds, more than our own, is a blank slate, one upon which our own beliefs and values can be painted easiest in childhood, for long-term preservation.

By the way, the above is the primary use I find for Ligotti’s ideas: he sounds like he’s probably more right about the human condition than any other writer I know, when it comes to cold hard facts… but I’m not sure that accepting that view of the world as one’s operating assumptions really helps one get through life any better, or, more likely, I’m just not temperamentally inclined to entertain this reality too long. I can’t help but think of Eliot here, in Four Quartets:

Go, said the bird, for the leaves were full of children,
Hidden excitedly, containing laughter.
Go, go, go, said the bird: human kind
Cannot bear very much reality…

I suspect Ligotti’s on the money in a lot of ways, but I’m not really sure I can board his particular rowboat on my own trip into eventual oblivion… and yet, his lack of willingness to take people at their word reveals interesting and, to me useful, insights into how we work as social animals, as thinking beasts.

As for me, I’ll be returning to Donnie Darko soon, though this time, I’ll be taking a side in the argument, as I cannot help myself from doing… because I think Kitty Farmer, as a figure, can be taken to represent more than we might first imagine.

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