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?