Friday, January 6, 2012

But Think of the Children!

I recently read a blog which featured artist Dave Devries’ The Monster Engine project, wherein he takes children’s original drawings of monsters, and paints them realistically. I think it’s really cool; the results are both surreal and somehow primal – and I think Devries taps into something basic about the way children think, and view the world, and translates it so we adults are transported back to a time when we were scared of what might be – what most likely was - under our beds.

According to the comment section, however, it seems there are a few parents who don’t feel the same way. These folks said that the project was cruel, dishonored the child’s vision, and two women stated that their children would be ‘devastated’ if someone ‘did that’ to their art. They accused him of twisting a sweet child’s sweet vision into something nightmarish.


Okay then, many other commentators commented – but… Devries is collaborating with the children. He isn’t asking them to draw a precious fwuffy bunny, and then turning it into a blood-soaked serial killer. He’s asking them to draw a monster.

No, no, the mommy brigade insisted. Twisted. Appalling. Heartbreaking for a child. The argument became so heated that the blog moderator eventually deleted some of the nastier digs, and shut down the comments section.

The whole thing got me thinking about children's and young adult literature, and what exactly is appropriate for children. And also, who is the best to judge?

First of all, I know that every child is different. One 8-year-old could be blithely watching Tales From the Darkside alone with the lights off, and the next could be unable to sit on the couch for a week after watching that one Muppet Show episode where the furniture starts eating people. (Yes, those are examples from the 70s and 80s, and yes, I was the latter kid.) Also, I know that a parent should be the person to choose what is appropriate for their child to read. No question. It’s their job. But I’d argue that authors, parents and, most importantly, children themselves all have different criteria about ‘what is appropriate.’

Of course, the question of appropriateness is not limited only to how scary a thing is. There’s sexual content, violence, adult themes, religious philosophies, even language and humor. The big question on all fronts is, “Is the child ready?”

I am not a parent. Barring some bizarre and/or tragic happenstance (knock on wood), I will never be a parent. One of the first times in my life I was awed by the protective instincts of a parent was at my friend Dan’s house. He was having a party in the back yard, grilling out. There was a gaggle of children tearing about the place. I was sitting on the deck, in a lawn chair, the hot charcoal grill a mere 6 feet or so in front of me. I was watching as a little girl, at that age where she had just started to walk, suddenly started careening, hands out, toward the grill. Dan, who was not the father of the girl, but who is a parent, was in a conversation all the way on the other side of the lawn, not directly facing the girl and her imminent charring. I don’t know how he did it, but Dan was over there, the girl’s wrists clasped firmly in his hands, stopping her short, before I had even managed to completely rise from my chair. Don’t be too horrified; I would have reached her in time. It’s just that Dan, distracted, and way farther away, nevertheless got there first. He had the advantage of finely-honed daddy instincts.

The protective instinct is so innate; it’s really a wonder to behold sometimes. Sometimes, however, it gets in the way of reality. Or, more specifically, manners.

My friend Shannon was on a plane, sitting in the window seat, and like any good Midwesterner, she didn’t want to disturb her neighbors, so she waited until she really had to pee before she climbed over them to go to the bathroom. When she got to the back of the plane, dancing from foot to foot, there was a line. As she was waiting, a mother and her approximately 7-year-old child got in line behind her. The door opened; it was Shannon’s turn, but the little girl walked in front of her and started to go into the bathroom. Shannon said, “I’m sorry, honey, I think it’s my turn.” The mother, in a loud, indignant tone of voice exclaimed, “She’s just a CHILD!” Shannon, not to be daunted, crouched down in front of the little girl and asked, “Sweetie? Do you need to go really bad?” “No,” said the girl, shrugging. “Then do you mind if I go first?” “No,” said the little girl, smiling. Shannon walked into the bathroom. The mother huffed and glared.

Okay, so. No parent I know would ever behave in such a way. The woman was rude. But it’s a good, albeit extreme example of that protective instinct gone bad. It’s a miracle that the little girl, despite her mannerless mom, didn’t behave like an entitled asshole – or at least a coddled little baby chick. In truth, she had more on the ball than even her mother cared to notice. Which I think is true for many young readers, as well.
I’ve heard the “She’s just a CHILD” argument applied to children’s lit, too. How dare they market this to children, how dare they put this in that section of the store, how dare they carry this at a school! When it comes to what parents want their own children to read: fine. When it comes to institutionalized ‘protection’ of children to exposure to ‘harmful’ works (I’ll stop air quoting now), that’s when we authors, avid readers, aunts, uncles, and erstwhile children get uppity – along with every savvy parent out there.

I sometimes wonder if people who never have children somehow remember more accurately what it was like to be one. No, we’re not necessarily exposed to kids every day, but then again, our memories of childhood are not filtered through the parental lens. My friend Rhoda, for instance, a mother, had to stop reading Philip Pullman’s children’s lit book, The Golden Compass, because it featured the kidnapping and torture of children. I knew Rhoda as a child, and I can guarantee she would have loved the book then. Likewise, she would have devoured it greedily at any point as an adult, before she had become a parent.

Childhood reading experiences are fundamental in the development of language, humor, imagination and knowledge of the world. I may have been terrified of Muppet ottomans (ottomen?) as a child, but I could take most anything in book form. I read the Lord of the Rings trilogy at 11, and the Thomas Covenant books when I was 13. War, rape, torture, sex, death, cruelty… I distinctly remember my wide-eyed fascination, reading ‘beyond my level,’ stretching my understanding… what I don’t remember is being traumatized. I read books at a time when I only had one digit in my age, books about terrorists, murderers, kidnapping, obsessive love and abuse. Sure, I also read about magic and friendship, kindness, beauty and true love. But I think I understood the good things all the better for the bad. Protecting children from books containing big ideas and big evil seems backwards… after all, what gentler way to introduce a person to the big bad world then through fiction?


Mark Teats said...

Hey Q,
Nice post.
I love the Devries art.

Shawn Enderlin said...

Funny that you should post this.

I've never read much YA but it's been on my mind a lot lately, especially after reading Shatter Me and writing my novella Witness It.

In particular, I've been thinking a lot about what's "appropriate" for the YA audience.

First off, let me say that I completely agree with your assertion that children are better at handling adult subjects then a lot of adults give them credit for. I, like you, read far above my grade level and was exposed to a lot of things some people would consider shocking.

But none of those were YA, because YA didn't really exist until a few years ago.

For some reason I had always assumed that YA fiction would necessarily be watered down from what you would typically find in a "normal" book.

Boy was I wrong.

Shatter Me was shocking in its brutality and I can't tell you how many times I found myself saying, "This is YA?" I mean, I was horrified for the first 1/2 of the book! The subject matter alone would make Shatter Me rated R if it were a movie.

I still haven't decided whether I think it was wrong to have marketed that book as YA when the subject matter was so clearly adult.

I'm not saying Shatter Me is inappropriate for a younger audience (you be the judge of that), I'm just saying that – at least to me – YA has a PG/PG-13 connotation and that if I were a parent I would be pissed to find such strong subject matter in a YA book.


Lisa said...

Love the ending line, Claudia. On a related note: I know I struggle when I read books to Smunch that are racist/sexist/imperialist. My first impulse is to censor and change the story. On my good days, my second impulse wins out: have a conversation so that he learns how to talk about and notice racism, sexism, imperialism...

Jon said...

Great post, Q. I think the real issue, beside the "special snowflake" parents in general, is that there are really two YA audiences: one is kids, but the other are adults. How many read twilight and hunger games...? They're trying to sell to both, but really i think they're mostly selling to adults who think they may need the YA as a shield against... I don't know, swearing and boobs maybe. I think Lisa has it right, police your kids, but don't censor them, talk to them. It's a big mean world out there, they should at least be aware of more than their backyards when they finally have to go out and face it

Qlaudie said...

Great points, guys... and Lisa, you brought up something that I thought about putting in there - which is the fact that I had an older sister to talk to these things through... also, parents who would listen. That's a huge part of being able to read about adult concepts.

And I didn't think about books that contain imperialist, sexist, racist, characters... but good point. All in the Family was on when I was quite young, and my mom didn't want me watching it, because she didn't think I'd understand Archie's bigotry - That the show was poking fun at his outdated ways, rather than setting up his behavior as acceptable. Which brings up the concept of subtlety... she wasn't wrong, at age 6, I don't think I would have understood... I remember seeing the show a few years later, and just thinking he was mean, not understanding why it was funny. Again, the parent's prerogative to choose what is acceptable, and to discuss the why's and wherefores.

Mark Teats said...

I'm with Lisa when it comes to reading time with my son and "editing" out the parts that might be unsavory for an 8-year old. It's a temptation and sometimes I give into it. It's easy for a child to be exposed to way too many things at a young age in today's world (Google and cable TV can dish up just about anything you want or don't want with ease).

We're reading "Princess of Mars" together right now--and last night as I read I debated about reading about the attractive naked woman (of course, the princess of Mars) that John Carter was meeting for the first time. It's not a sexual scene nor explicit, it's just how she's dressed (or not) in the scene. I read it as it was, expecting some comments or questions--but my son didn't seem to think twice about it and we continued on in the book.

When I was 12 I recall reading a book called, "Manchild in the Promised Land" by Claude Brown. It is filled with racism, drugs, violence, sex and so on... but it is a good book and eye-opening for me, the white, midwestern kid. My parents didn't try to stop me from reading it--I got it out of their home library.
And then of course there was my diet of horror books and movies starting at about that same age....

I do take great offense to books and shows that try to "dumb down" the story-line for children. It's not necessary--I agree, the kids can handle it--and what you end up with is a bad story no one, not even a five-year-old, likes or remembers.

Surprised by Witches said...

I agree with Shawn that if you're going to classify something as YA then it really should be YA. The House of Night series, for example, is supposedly YA but in the very first book two of the characters are engaging in a fairly explicit sex act, which I found inappropriate. I'd like to think if something is labeled as supposedly safe for a younger audience, then it is in fact, safe for a younger audience. That's what ratings are for, right?

Every kid is different. I say, parent your kid but don't try to control what mine can see, or read, or listen to. Rate those books but don't remove them from the shelves. Regardless of how I feel about a certain material I would never in a thousand years impose that on someone else's child. What was that old adage? If everyone removed a book they found offensive (*cough* Twilight *cough*) from their local library the shelves would be empty.

mmm said...

first of all, love the devries art. second, love your writting, third... all great points!

Qlaudie said...

Thanks mmm!

Jon said...

Woo! This one was a busy one.