Kids’ Carnival

I ‘ve been away from blogging long enough that I forgot we didn’t do comments any more. Otherwise, this would merely be a comment on the teaser to his new book Henry Jenkins recently posted. He is looking at the ways in which authority plays out in children’s literature, and how it reflects the values of the parents who buy them, and the culture in which they are bringing up children. He draws on Mary Poppins as an example.

And yes, the choice of a Nanny is laid out in stark terms, but Poppins is also part of what seems to be a much broader trend in children’s books (and now movies), the inversion of power: kids being kids without the pesky interference of grown-ups. It is extraordinarily difficult to escape this theme. Indeed, from the film side, what is particularly striking about Mary Poppins as a film is that while they may have a neglectful parent, at least he’s not dead. Disney seems to be fascinated by orphaning children–way better to off them then to deal with the complex power relationships, perhaps?

And you don’t really get away from the dead or absent parents. Maybe it is attributable to the success of Lindgren’s Pippi Longstocking or Ronia, but it’s hard to name a book that doesn’t abscond with the parents early on, leaving children to find them (Artemis Fowl) or–in the case of orphans (like Hugo or Harry Potter or Nobody Owens, or… well… all the rest)–their replacement. In Poppins, as Jenkins notes, the specification is more explicit, but the motivation of many of these stories is to describe the role of the parent in their absence.

I think Jenkins is arguing in part that these are intended to appeal to parents, who buy the books. I suppose that is true to a certain extent, but it does not explain why parents buy books in which there are no parents, or where the parents are dullards. I was thrilled by the books for young children by Andrea Beaty, and when we found Iggy Peck architect, not long after my first son was born, it was just the kind of story I wanted to tell him: a story about a young person defying expectations, understanding the power of his own imagination and creativity, even when the teachers and parents might not. It was a story of defying authority.

That’s Pippi, too, of course. Lindgren says in an interview she isn’t sure why she made Pippi so strong. (I think we might guess, as she wrote it while injured, at some of the reasons, but that’s a dangerous game.) She does suggest that publishers were concerned about promoting a book with a willful and strong leading character. There are a couple of possibilities here.

One, and I suspect the simplest, is that we don’t know how to write good parents. It isn’t easy to do. Many people see their own kids or themselves as kids as the heroes in their own minds and their own stories. Too many of us as parents and authors see ourselves in George Banks, the father in Mary Poppins.

But I suspect, that these books are also intended as a funhouse mirror, a sneaky way of establishing what parents should and shouldn’t be by their absence. What better way to show parents what they should be than to get rid of them? And what happens when these parents get out of the way? Kids always end up demonstrating that they are self-sufficient, capable, creative leaders. (That doesn’t map well to outcomes for those who lose their parents, who often have difficulty finding that stride.) These kids may not need or want a ward, but they do want a home: they want people who love and accept them, who are proud of them and cherish them. The parents many of us wish we saw in ourselves.

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