Wednesday, June 09, 2004

How books affect children and how freedom affects barbarians

Some link somewhere led me to World Literature Today, and I'm very excited about this discovery.

The cover story: "How Are Children Affected by the Books in Their Lives?" by Marc Aronson.

As a parent, I act as if I believe that what we put into a book affects a child’s behavior, but as an author and publisher, I make just about the opposite claim. This question of how books affect their readers is the big unexamined issue in children’s books, and while we all know it is there, we have not even begun to face it.

As literate and trained thinkers, says Aronson, we know that readers construct their own meaning in a dialogue with the text. Kids, arguably more impressionable the rest of us, still come up with the darndest things, as individual "thinkers." But reviewers of children's books insist on discussing the messages in the text and their impact on the malleable minds of young readers.

Our certainty about how kids will respond to the texts they read, the art they view, is not, then, based on research or, for most of us, on well-defined ideological positions. We just believe it, and somehow know it. I think there are two reasons for this: (1) we can all think of books that have affected us deeply; (2) we are in the very strange position of creating, publishing, and evaluating books for people whom we know to be fundamentally different from ourselves but toward whom we feel a protective concern. We believe we are acting in the best interest of the child. So a book that makes us feel good seems good for them. We desperately wish that the messages in books would work, and we dare not think of a world in which they don't.

The more children's books I discover, and the more I'm confronted by the whirl of independence and self-assertion that is my daughter, the more I think the messages aren't worth the paper they're printed on. Certainly we don't give kids the credit they deserve for thinking for themselves. Kids don't learn lessons from books — they learn from life going on all around them. All the time.

Helena likes The Rainbow Fish, by Marcus Pfister. Its message of sharing is so poorly executed that it sounds as if one can buy friendship. Sure, this troubles me, but it's only going to affect Helena deeply if it's reinforced in the relationships she witnesses around her. (How much of the text she understands as an 18-month-old is questionable, but there will come a day...) Helena likes the book for the pretty pictures. And that's OK.

Similarly, I heard a lot of fairy tales as a child. For all the gender stereotyping (a historical record of social attitudes) and the evil that men do in them, I wasn't scarred. Sometimes a story is just a story.

On the flipside, just because something's "good" for you doesn't mean you have to like it. The compulsion some people feel to correct the industry to ensure there are appropriate books out there with life lessons for their children has produced a lot of trash (for example, Madonna's books for kids).

No kid becomes sweet, nice, sensitive, politically enlightened, culturally alert from one book or another. But reading many books, hanging around the library, and keeping a flashlight under the bed for those late-night dates with books you can’t put down has a humanizing effect.

Aronson doubts this proposition. I'll have to side with the humanizing factor — exposure to books and art, all the glory and garbage both high and pop culture have to offer, makes Helena a balanced and interesting little person.

There's also an article on how Polish poetry has changed with Poland's becoming a democratic country. "The barbarians have come."

The most striking features of poetry by this new generation are its aloofness from politics and a programmatic absence of the historical consciousness that distinguished what became known in the West as the “Polish school of poetry.”

The new poets are egocentric.

One of the values this generation of poets appreciates most is the sense of freedom, but, unlike their predecessors, it is not freedom from a specific political reality of a totalitarian regime. It is freedom from politics itself, from any manifestation of public life. The mythology of political freedom of previous generations is now being replaced by the reverse mythology of personal freedom. It is a passive conception of freedom, freedom as a “state” rather than action. It abandons not only commitment, patriotism, and Polishness but also the need to present a new poetic program, new aesthetics, and a new social sensibility.

It'll take time, but Poland still has to get over its new-found democracy. It may yet find for itself a viable economy. And then it can find its cultural self all over again.

World Literacy Today is published four times a year.


Miriam Jones said...

Finally! It has taken me DAYS to get hold of my old Blogger password so I could post a comment.

The whole question of how children are affected by culture is a fascinating one. My spouse wrote an article at the height of the Power Rangers controversy that argued, in essence, that children, at least children over five, have a clear notion of the difference between "real" and "pretend," even when they are hopping madly around and aiming kicks at each other's heads. Of course your child, and mine, are not yet five... But even at three, my son seems to understand the concept of "pretend," and to find it reassuring when something seems scary.

I completely agree with you about the Rainbow Fish. Luckily for me, his Nibs doesn't seem too interested. But there are certainly other stories that he likes that I don't. I think the main thing, as you say, is to expose them to a wide range of culture and try to help them develop the tools to evaluate it. And yes, especially at this young age, they read SO differently from us that I try not to worry. It's a little sad, really, to think of the process of education as shutting off all those alternate possibilities that are open to them now.

On the other hand, as an instructor, some of the wild interpretations of my first year students dumbfound me. And their contention that it's "their opinion" drives me wild. So we do expect the meanings of texts to be limited, and we do expect readers to recognize that. I guess the trick, as parents and educators, is to try for some balance between perceptive reading, and free-play of the imagination. Huh! That's all.

But back to choosing children's books: I would go with the book with humour, wordplay, and imagination over the book with a "message," any day. Of course, when you find them together, that is golden.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for hooking me up with the World Lit link...

Isabella said...

What an interesting subject, Miriam — I should look into it. Knowing the difference between real and pretend must be innate. (Not knowing the difference makes for mental illness.) You can't learn to distinguish between them — you just know.

I remember being astounded by Helena's ability (was she days old? months?) to distinguish between the real thing (say, one of the cats) and a two-dimensional representation of the thing (picture) and the toy thing (stuffed cat). Part of that has to do with the maturing of the visual cortex (or something like that) and "figuring out" spatial perception. But I wouldn't be surprised if some other "dimension" were at play — like "the reality check factor."

And that's, like, my opinion, man.

Meaning in text has to be limited to what you can logically derive from what's actually in the text, or at least what can be logically implied by it. Doesn't it? Lucky for me, kids books can be taken pretty much at face value. (Well, books for preschoolers anyway. We'll slowly work our way up to Narnia.)