Monday, 10 October 2011

STILL EXPLORING WONDERLAND

Today, I had a blog post about grammar planned. It was going to be thrilling, controversial and epic. But then I woke up and saw something. Something that enraged me so much that it was either post, or explode.

This article. This. It's called No More Adventures in Wonderland and it basically mourns the loss of childlike adventure and enchantment in children's stories, and says that children's and young people's fantasies are being edged out by adult anxieties which writers are apparently projecting into reader's brains.

There's so much I'd like to say about the blatant wrong-headedness of this article.

I'd like to ponder how, in one paragraph, the writer can admit that more children and adults are reading today's YA books together than ever before, and then, in her closing paragraph, state that modern children's and YA novels lack the ability to '[bridge] generational divides'.

I'd like to marvel at how can she can praise J.M. Barry's famously twisted, melancholic Peter Pan, apparently without ever noticing its sinister undertones, and then criticise Harry Potter for its darkness and completely miss the colourful, funny, disgusting, WONDERFUL world that J.K. Rowling created and which fills children (and adults!) the world over with smiles and glee ('Alas! Earwax!').

But mostly, I'm just brain-boggled by the fact that she is apparently seriously suggesting that in a world where Suzanne Collins draws her inspiration to write a book about child warriors from news footage about real life child warriors, today's children's writers should try to find out 'what children [want]' by spending lazy afternoons in boats or public parks with the privileged offspring of the wealthiest five or ten percent of the population.

Because, you see, the privileged offspring of the wealthiest five or ten percent of the population are the children we all ought to be writing for. They're the default setting. They're the 'normal' kids. The kids who've seen darkness - death, poverty, abuse, bullying, illness - in their own lives? Well, they're not anything like the writer of the article, are they? They're not like the kids of anyone she knows. They are outside her experience, just a hazy and troubling smudge on the edges of her awareness which it is so much more comforting to ignore.

So they don't count.

What a shame we can't all go back to that halycon Golden Age of civilisation where J.M Barry and Lewis Carroll cavorted in the warm summer sunlight with pink-cheeked infants - real children - while thousands of other children - you know, the ones who didn't count - languished in poorhouses, orphanages and on the streets and probably never learned to read at all, let alone survived to be adults.

Clearly life held so much more:'...redemptive beauty, cathartic humor and healing magic' back then.

Right.

20 comments:

Essjay said...

The author of this article has clearly missed the point of what reading offers. Children and young adults don't want to always read about the safe and sane. I used books to experience things and worlds that I didn't know about or understand. I mean, you might enjoy the excitement of the Hunger Games but that doesn't mean that you actually want to fight for your life anytime soon does it? I was never interested in the books aimed at my age group when I was a teen so read Stephen King instead and he taught me a great deal, lol, amongst other things a love of reading and writing.

What about Jacqueline Wilson? She offers an insight into a reality that many children understand but others merely want to. Also, what about Dickens? You can't get more traditional than that but the horrors of the workhouse, abandonment of children etc is anything but comforting. Just as an aside, "performing tricks with a St. Bernard," in parks is not something to be advised nowadays. Unfortunately those days are gone and we live in a different world now but that doesn't mean that our new "wonderlands" are any less magical for it.

Lauren said...

Well said.

I read the No More Adventures In Wonderland article first thing this morning and was really irked by how contrived the argument was. Yes, both Peter Pan and The Hunger Games have crossover appeal, but their respective target audiences aren't the same. While I can understand why Peter Pan would draw on the 'imaginative play' of the target age group, THG is not just written in a different time, but clearly for an older readership. Labelling them both as 'children's' books seems like a lazy attempt to justify their comparison, in my opinion. It's just weak.

But anyway, YES. Stories about privileged children, written for a target audience of similar children? Aaargh. I already wonder how many potential young readers feel alienated from the world of reading because they don't see themselves reflected in the majority of books on the shelf. We already have people seeking to ban YA books from libraries if they think they contain too much reality for teenage readers. Seems to me this article is part of the problem.

Zoë Marriott said...

Essjay: You're completely right. In the past, readers like us used to skip straight from children's books to adult, searching for something that felt darker and more real. Now we have wonderful YA books that fill the gap, written by authors who understand and care about young people's search for truth. That's got to be a better thing!

Zoë Marriott said...

Lauren: As John Green says - “Nostalgia is inevitably a yearning for a past that never existed.” The arguments of book banners and people like the writers of this article are *always* weak, because they're always comparing the state of YA or children's lit now to some past Golden Age WHICH NEVER EXISTED. Fact is, fifty years ago no one worried about getting teenagers reading because most kids left school at 15 and got a job! That's why YA is new, and why it's experimental and scary. Because in The Golden Age, there was no YA book category.

Emma Pass said...

The article-writer's attitude angers me beyond belief. Does she think that, if no-one writes about the problems young people face, then they'll cease to exist and the lives of children the world over will be filled with roses and rainbows and puppies butterflies? I mean, seriously??

I can't think of a single children's author who tackles difficult or uncomfortable topics who doesn't do it with humour and incredible sensitivity. And for what it's worth, I don't believe that ANYONE makes it through childhood without any problems whatsoever. No matter how privileged you are, no matter how loving your family, life is going to throw *something* at you as you're growing up, and reading books where the characters deal with similar problems to what you might be going through can be a huge help – it makes you feel as if you're not alone, as if there's someone out there in the world who gets it, and gets you.

It also seems to me as if the writer's saying that children can't possibly feel – and therefore deal – with so-called 'adult' emotions. Which says to me that she really does not understand them very well at-all.

Grr. That is all.

NicoleL said...

I think she's also forgotten that books like Where the Wild Things Are were hugely controversial at the time and were considered too dark for picture books because they didn't model what a perfect child should do -- just like YA today, which touches on the hidden desires and realities of teenagers' lives. They said the exact same things about Sendak, Seuss and Silverstein that she says about YA today.

Zoë Marriott said...

Emma: I've noticed this weird shift taking place, where as more YA authors achieve success and previously unheard of prominence as writers, the popular press is painting all YA authors as money-hungry hacks who are only in it for the huge pots of cash. Which is so ludicrous that I'm sure they *can't* believe it. They're just doing it for the pageviews and the Lulz.

NicoleL: You know, that's just what I thought! A case of rose-tinted nostalgia blanking out the facts.

Isabel said...

Beautifully said. I was struck by how naive the writer was being, too, while I was reading the article.

Sara M. Harvey said...

What's most depressing is that the article's author is "the chairwoman of Harvard’s folklore and mythology program, is the author of “Enchanted Hunters: The Power of Stories in Childhood” and the editor of “The Annotated Peter Pan.” "
Which strikes me as a real issue as she obviously has a very narrowly defined set of views about the subject matter and does a real disservice to those she is teaching.

Elissa said...

It also seems to be the same mentality that drives those who want to ban books. This whole misguided idea of wanting to "shield" children from their own reality instead of giving them the tools in which to understand and contextualize it. Kids see violence and sexuality and unhappiness. What good does it do to create books that deny their reality? That will only make them feel more isolated and alone. It's also ridiculous to think that books with such themes can't also be fun and silly.

Zoë Marriott said...

Isabel: Thanks, hun :)

Sara: Yeah, that is worrying. Peter Pan and the Alice books are acknowledged classics, but if you are judging all other literature for children and young adults by how closely they resemble those books, you're being unfair not only to the writers and books you judge, but to the children living in today's world, who need books which reflect that. Not to mention that Lewis Carroll and J.M. Barry were both writing for an MG target audience. Those silly, funny, wonderful MG books are still out there in scads. It's just that we now also have another category for older children.

Elissa: How beautifully you put it! Our current obsession with keeping children innocent is really problematic when innocence is the same thing, in many people's eyes, as 'ignorance'. Kids aren't stupid. This idea that there's an 'adult reality' and a 'children's reality' is false and damaging. They live in and with the same reality as the rest of the world - denying that is only going to make sentimental adults feel better, not the children themselves.

Bekah said...

It is hard for me to believe she can be serious with words like "unprecedented" in relationship with darkness and death in imaginative children's books. For pity's sake. Has she never read faithfully translated fairy tales? Any Grimm, Anderson? Doesn't get a whole lot darker than a little girl's feet being chopped off because of bewitched shoes that wouldn't stop dancing, or the true Little Mermaid choosing to die rather than murder the bride who got the Prince in the end. Wasn't Pinocchio's Blue Fairy a dead spirit? What is this apparently educated woman SMOKING? =)

Emily said...

As was mentioned above, the biggest problem with this article is the comparison of Where the Wild Things Are (a picture book) to The Hunger Games, which is obviously not meant to be read to five-year-olds. In the article's defense, that second to last paragraph was about how the darker YA fiction she speaks of is bridging generations, just in a different way than children's lit used to. And yes, the image of all YA authors being required to row on the Thames with little girls is really silly and just so far from reality...

but I remember having similar thoughts when I read Harry Potter in Junior High as what she's expressing: that it was unnecessary dark, and people seemed to be dying just to prove a point about how serious and adult the books were; it really annoyed me and it still does.

I’m speaking as someone who came from a fairly privileged background in which harsh realities like drug addiction presented themselves, and personally I was never a fan of ‘dark’ literature. I don’t enjoy Stephen King’s writing, I would never read The Hunger Games now that I know what it’s about, mostly because I have experienced anxiety, depression, and fear for the future and for those I love in my life as a young person, and the last thing I want is for those feelings to be recreated in fiction. I wanted to read ‘nice’ books in which the world was nice and the biggest problems weren’t all that big because my real life was difficult and dark at times.

Now that I’m older I appreciate books that feature ‘dark’ material that is based on fact: meant to open my eyes to problems people in the world who I’ll likely never learn about otherwise face, but reading such books wouldn’t have done any good for me as a teen because I was self-centered, and wouldn’t have been able to believe such accounts were based on fact.
I guess what I’m getting at is, there is definitely a place for nice, happy children’s and young adult’s lit. among the darker, more complex, honest if you will, works that seems to be so popular lately. Not all teens want to read books that shock or sadden, or even that broaden their minds, and if that’s the case, there’s no shame in seeking other options. What I think is interesting is that adults are reading YA books, but the article didn’t mention young adults reading adult books, which is always what I did when I was a young adult…

Zoë Marriott said...

Emily: I appreciate your point of view completely. There have been times in my own life when I wanted to read books that were funny and fluffy and light and which comforted rather than challenged me.

But there are and always have been many books out there which fulfill that need. If all you wanted to read, night and day, for the next year, was light and fluffy books, you could easily do that.

My main problem with all these articles on the darkness of YA (other than that most of them are extremely badly researched) is that they all seem to come from a place of fear or nostalgia, wanting LESS dark, challenging YA, instead of praising and raising awareness of all the OTHER kinds of YA out there.

Cluisanna said...

How can you compare Alice in Wonderland with The Hunger Games, His Dark Materials or even Harry Potter?

I've known Alice in Wonderland since I was a toddler, and merely started reading Harry Potter when I was six (I know that's young, but a) I was precocious and b) the first four books aren't nearly as much about death.) Of course I wouldn't let a 8-year-old read The Hunger Games, that's ridiculous, but it seems to be what she is suggesting, that all those books appeal to "children" - no, they don't, that's why they are called young adult.

Also, I just can't help defending Harry Potter. Granted, I don't know how it is if you read them one after the other in one session, but I practically grew up with Harry - and as I got older, the content got darker, but that was appropriate. I think it's a really good series about growing up.

Emily said: "but I remember having similar thoughts when I read Harry Potter in Junior High as what she's expressing: that it was unnecessary dark, and people seemed to be dying just to prove a point about how serious and adult the books were; it really annoyed me and it still does."

I don't agree. Well, maybe in the Battle of Hogwarts she went a little over the top, but even then every death has a meaning and place in the story, and I was rather amazed about how she manages to describe Harry's grief again and again without getting repetitive.
And because I feel chatty, what do you guys/gals think about series that seem to go out with a bang by practically killing everybody and/or making them sad, like SPOILER SPOILER OMG OBVIOUS SPOILER TeHuGa (that sounds stupid.) and HiDaMa (where I really, really hated the ending)?

Megha said...

I do remember writing a reply to this, but since it deleted itself, I'm going to LINK to my reply. Yes, I blogged about it! :-)

http://enadream.blogspot.com/2011/10/wonderland-is-not-real-world.html

Zoë Marriott said...

Megha: An excellent rebuttal - very well written! :)

Megha said...

Aww, thanks! I'm surprised it turned out well - usually when I rant I seem all unsophisticated and stuff, because I'm concentrating more on virtual screaming :P

Zoë Marriott said...

Megha: oh ho ho - that's a problem that ALL writers have! Getting the rage/clarity quotient right is a real skill.

Neil said...

Oh man, it is amazing to me how easy it is to rant rather than engage in reasoned dialogue. But I guess that's what blogs are for--venting without actually having the patience to read carefully and frame a counterargument.

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