LIT 4334: The Golden Age of Children's Literature

Blocks or Pokemon?

For class the other day, we read the article “Commodified Enchantment: Children and Consumer Capitalism” by Beryl Langer.  In it, she argued that capitalism’s appropriation of the “sacred child” was a direct contradiction with commercialism’s intrusion into the domain of childhood. In arguing this case, she also brought up the argument that today’s toys, which all stem from a TV show or a movie (and therefore already have a story affixed to them and are often part of a set which requires you to buy most or all of the set before it becomes useful), limit creativity.

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Today’s Toys: Each sold separately.

At least more so than the toys of the Baby Boomers (blocks, G.I. Joe, Tonka toys).  The reason for this (they argue) is that for many of today’s toys, there are only one or two configurations for them, while you can do tons of cool stuff with blocks.

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Like put them in a pile.

My question is, is there any validity to these claims?  There is certainly some validity to the argument that you have to buy most or all of a set before the toy achieves full functionality.  In Pokemon, for example, the driving force is that you, “Gotta catch ’em all.”  Well, if you play the video games, then you will know that in order to “Catch ’em all” you have to buy at least two video games from each “Generation (Gen)” of video games. In the first Gen, there were three games: Red, Yellow, and Blue. In each game, there were about ten Pokemon which were unavailable (Bellsprout and his evolutions, for instance, were unavailable in Red version). In order to get it, you had to have a friend or sibling who owned a Blue (or Yellow) version, plus an additional Game Boy, plus at least one link cable. The consumerism is most definitely there.

But does this limit creativity? I have seen teams of Pokemon (in Pokemon you make a “team” of six pokemon in order to battle other “teams”) which appeared really poorly constructed, but which actually showed remarkably elaborate strategy. People take the games and are extremely creative in building their teams.  However, it can still be argued that they are still being creative within the confines of a set of rules, and therefore are not being actively creative, they are just taking advantage of someone else’s creation.

But aren’t children with blocks doing exactly the same thing? They are taking someone else’s creation and piling them up and perhaps creating remarkably elaborate castles and creating intricate stories of princes and princesses and dragons, but they are still doing so within the confines of the rules of the blocks. Perhaps the rules are simpler, and allow for more physical interpretations, but doesn’t Pokemon do basically the same thing? Sure, it has a storyline, and the end result is always basically the same, but within that storyline, you can do a TON of different stuff.

But how does it affect creativity on a grand scale? One could certainly argue that we see the result of the children who played with blocks. They are adults now, and they have been creating things for quite some time now, including…Pokemon? So Pokemon was just a creation by a person who played with blocks. It is the very embodiment of creativity.  Shouldn’t creativity spawn more creativity? And if a creative endeavor doesn’t spawn more creativity, then why create it in the first place?

In the end, creativity will still survive, and humans will be creating things for the rest of time.

Now, have a picture of Bellsprout with Nicolas Cage’s face.  (credit for the image here.)

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Hey look! Pokemon spawned creativity!

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What Kind of Classic is Peter Pan?

Whether or not Peter Pan is a classic is not a very difficult question.  Of course it is.

All of

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Wait, this isn’t the only one?

the various

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Probably my favorite version.

adaptations

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Welp, that one’s a woman

of

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Robin Williams in tights. Not a good look.

the text can attest to that (and I’ve only listed some of the film versions [other works can be found here]).

However, I argue that Peter Pan is a very specialized type of classic.  It is not only a classic where no one bothers to read the original text, but it is also a classic that is remembered in the same way as most medieval texts–as an overall, conglomerate, archetypal, text.  This is due to the fact that there is not one “original” Peter Pan text.

Chaucer’s “The Canterbury Tales” does not exist in a single manuscript.  Instead, there are 83 known manuscripts with multitudes of variation between them. Chaucerians compare them all, and attempt to make the so-called “definitive” text.

Similarly, Shakespeare’s “King Lear” (although not Medieval) exists in two forms: the “Tragedy of King Lear” and the “History of King Lear.”  At first, scholars thought they were simply conflicting manuscripts of the same story, and tried to create a conglomerate version of the text.  (It was not until later that they realized they were two different plays and were intended as such.)

Finally, King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table exist in so many forms that Arthur himself is simply a conglomerate form of everything that has been written on him.  Each text about him describes him differently, and so he is remembered in his simplest form–the just king who will return to bring balance to the kingdom (no one remembers that his table of supposed equals is actually inherently flawed, that he is the result of just-barely-not-rape, or his incestuous relationship with his sister).

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But maybe we should just forgive this sexy beast for that.

Peter Pan exists in a similar state.  The varied and various texts about him differ so greatly that no one bothers to read them anymore, since they really only complicate him.  Instead, they have created a conglomerate form out of the most fun versions of him:  the boy who can fly, who never grows up, who plays with fairies and Indians, who fights pirates.  We only marginally see, in the modern conception of him, all of his flaws: the boy who kidnaps young children, who is so far removed from society that he doesn’t know what a kiss or a thimble is, the boy who is cursed to always be alone, and never grow up.

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The Gateway as a Trope

In much of Children’s fiction, the Child is transported to a fantastic land by means of a gateway of some kind.  C.S. Lewis’s “The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe” possesses one of the most literal and iconic of these gateways: the wardrobe.  narnia-wardrobe_1112147726

The rest of the series also possesses such portals or gateways:  a magic ring in “The Magician’s Nephew,” and a portrait in “The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.”   C.S. Lewis was not the first to use this mechanism, though.

In L. Frank Baum’s “The Wizard of Oz,” the twister transports Dorothy from Kansas to Munchkinland.

 

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Peter Pan and Wendy fly to the second star to the right.  Alice gets to Wonderland through means of the rabbit hole, and even in “The Water Babies,” Tom is transported when he falls in the river.

In modern times, the gateway has become a ubiquitous means of transporting the protagonist into a fantastic world, and has even departed the realm of Children’s Literature.  A machine turns a paraplegic into a nine foot tall blue man with a hair tail.  A girl travels through a tree in the middle of a labyrinth in Spain.  An entire team travels through an alien portal to various other worlds.  A man is transported by a church bell to 1920’s Paris.  Neo takes the red pill.

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Why has the portal to another world become so ubiquitous?  Perhaps it is because it is a simple way to show a distinct change between the real world and the fantastic one.  But perhaps it is because the  portal allows for the suspension of disbelief–once you go through the portal, anything can happen.

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Logic and Alice

Carroll delights in taking logic and turning it on his head.  In Chapter V, Carroll proves that little girls are serpents in the scene with the Pigeon.  Alice says she is a little girl, but the Pigeon says that she can’t be a little girl “with such a neck as that!”  The pigeon says that Alice must be a serpent.  “I suppose you’ll be telling me next that you’ve never tasted an egg!”  Alice admits that she has tasted eggs, but defends herself by saying that “little girls eat eggs quite as much as serpents do” (48).  The pigeon uses this as grounds to say that little girls are a kind of serpent.

Such uses of logic (serpents eat eggs, little girls eat eggs, therefore little girls must be serpents) abound in Alice in Wonderland.  Carroll uses syllogisms to reach ridiculous conclusions.  In doing this, he treats children like they are actually logical, thinking people, rather than wild things, like Rousseau’s ideal of the “perfect child.”  While Rousseau believes that children would be empty, wild beasts until they are educated at twelve, Carroll believes that children will develop their own mental faculties, even without guidance from adults.  Carroll’s use of logic to reach odd conclusions forces children to, in thinking for themselves, realize why the claims are false, even though they seem to be logically sound.

Carroll trusted that children could and would understand the difference between reality and fiction, nonsensical or otherwise.  He speaks to children as though they are capable of adult thought, because he believes that they are.  He does not speak to them as though they are less intelligent, or like they are lesser beings in need of moral and ethical instruction.  It is this quality that makes Alice in Wonderland a classic work of children’s literature–the belief that children are not some mythical being that is somehow different from a regular person.  Carroll writes as though children are adults and are capable of adult thought, and that makes his work not only timeless, but ageless as well.

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In Kelly Hager’s article, “Betsy and the Canon,” she explores the role of novels in the formation of the canon, and how the novels turn their audience into good readers. Hager uses the Betsy-Tacy series and Alcott’s Little Women as her primary examples, showing how various characters influence what books the protagonists read.  These characters, although fictional, have had a hand in the formation of the canon, through their selections of works for the protagonist.

These selections include such works as, Tales from ShakespeareDon QuixoteGulliver’s TravelsTom SawyerIvanhoeTwenty Thousand Leagues Under the SeaOliver TwistThe Grapes of WrathAnimal FarmPlutarch’s LivesPilgrim’s Progress, and other works by the likes of Ernest Hemingway, Charles Dickens, Thomas Hardy, and William Faulkner.

These works are deemed “acceptable” for young girls to read.  But what most of them have in common is that they were not necessarily written with children as the intended audience, and none of them speak to children as less intelligent than adults–none of them speak down to them.  Why, then, are they “acceptable” reading for young children? Shouldn’t children read books that are for children? Aren’t these all books for adults? The Grapes of Wrath, for instance, has several deaths, and ends with a woman breastfeeding a grown man, and Gulliver’s Travels deals with such subjects as public urination.  I could speak for months on the inappropriateness of William Shakespeare (among the least racy of his credits is the invention of the “your mom” joke).

My argument is that these books are appropriate for children specifically because they do not speak down to them.  They actually prepare children for reading and writing in the adult world, not to mention teaching them how to interact with other people.  The books do not treat children as if they are less intelligent that adults, but rather expect them to learn the reading skills required of an adult–looking up words in the dictionary, using context clues, and, in extreme cases, dealing with adult topics such as death and sex.

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Fairy Tales for Twenty Somethings

Fairytalesfor20somethings.tumblr.com is a blog which takes fairy tales and modernizes them for the 21st Century.  The author updates both the characters and the problems for the “Disney Generation;” that is, those who grew up in the 1980’s and 90’s watching the approximately twenty animated films released by Disney during that period. (which was when the highest concentration of animated films came out, as well as when they were the most popular). In “Fairy Tales for 20 Somethings” technology replaces magical assistance in fairy tales.

The blog plays on the common fears and anxieties of ‘twenty-something’ adults to create stories about fairy tale heroes in the modern age in a similar manner to the universal fears found in traditional tales.

In this post,the author places Cinderella in the modern age, even saying that she has a Facebook. The author relates Cinderella to the reader by saying “sometimes she just had to write a Facebook status about how shitty her day was.”  This turns Cinderella into a twenty-something everyman—a figure instantly relatable to an audience member. This also makes the audience member relatable to Cinderella, fairy godmother, prince(ss), castle and all.  This idea of “I am just like a character in a fairy tale” is prevalent throughout the entire blog, but the blog expresses that by showing fairy tale characters attempting to deal with their problems without the aid of any magical assistance.  The idea that even fairy tale characters have the same or similar problems that we ourselves have seems to make our struggles less personal and more universal.

In this post, the iPhone feature “Siri” becomes a fairy godmother of sorts and gives Beauty advice on how to introduce Beast to her family. In this blog, technology replaces magical assistance as the third party which helps the protagonist accomplish dreams, or at least feel better.  The replacement of the magical figure with everyday technology shows that in the same way that the fairy tale figures have the same problems what we do, they also have the same resources for dealing with those problems, and reinforces the concept that they are relatable to the audience member, and makes the struggles less personal and more universal.

In the same way that the tales themselves have been modernized, the medium through which they are being conveyed has been modernized as well.  Throughout history, fairy tales were passed down through the oral tradition.  In the modern day, however, the closest thing that we have to the oral tradition is blogging—with the advent of the internet, people began writing and telling stories, and most of these people wrote the same way that they spoke. The oral tradition, then, lives on via the internet, even if the light of the campfire has been replaced by the light of the computer monitor.

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Introduction

Hello all,

My name is Tyrel Clayton, and I am a third year student, majoring in English.  I am from an itty bitty town called Live Oak, Florida, to which I hope never to return. I make bad jokes that most people don’t get. I enjoy swing dancing, and devote most of my time and energy to perfecting that activity. I also like Doctor Who, Pokemon(,) video games, and Sherlock. I look like this on my bad days. Which is most of them.

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I wanted to take this class because I enjoy learning about Children’s Literature.  It takes away a great deal of the stress associated with dealing with an “adult” book because its content is accessible to everyone, and everyone can reasonably add something to a conversation about children’s books. I also love the fact that a field which is based on such (so-called) simple books is actually quite complex and difficult to deal with (at least in studies with other academics).

I’m looking forward to working on my analysis skills.  Children’s books are perfect for this because  their simplicity requires you to actually work at analyzing them, you can’t just pull something out of the complex heart of darkness in the middle and run with it.

My idea of Children’s Literature is pretty straight forward: literature/books I would give or read to my kids. This, for me at least, is a pretty broad definition, and ranges from the obvious (The Cat in the Hat, Winnie-the-Pooh) to the slightly unexpected (The Hobbit, Harry Potter) to the books you might raise an eyebrow at (A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Hamlet) to the, “Wait, what?” (The Canterbury Tales).

I have taken one class on Children’s Literature before, with John Cech.

I think the term “Golden Age” means the greatest era on the timeline of Children’s Lit history. It refers to when the best books were coming out–the books that we base all the other books on, the timeless books that we can still relate to today.

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