Friday, May 31, 2002

DEATH, DISEASE, AND DESPAIR: THE WONDERFUL WORLD OF CHILDREN'S LITERATURE: : When I was a child reading juvenile literature, I ignored books about "reality," especially books meant to "teach lessons" about death, drugs, sex, racism, sexism, nuclear war, etc. I did read Judy Blume's Forever, about a girl losing her virginity, but not because it taught the consequences of premarital sex (actually, I think Blume's point was that there aren't any consequences), but because it seemed the shocking thing to do in junior high. I didn't want "reality," which involved pimples, gawkiness, and vicious adolescent girls; I wanted fantasy. Not "fantasy" as in "fantasy literature" (never understood A Wrinkle In Time, never got past The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, and to my brothers' disgust, never read Lord of the Rings), but books set in a "real" world that still allowed me to escape my reality and pretend to be some else. I could be an orphan, but a very happy orphan, in Anne of Green Gables; I could break and enter and snoop in Harriet the Spy without going to jail. I could even run away and live in a museum in The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. Books like these were magic enough for me. (Now it's romance novels.) So I was taken aback when I read Moira Redmond's essay, "Tales of a Seventh-Grade Scare Tactic: The new Gothicism of children's books," on Slate, describing a new genre of juvenile "reality" literature she calls "Dreadlit" -- modern morality tales like those of the grim Victorian tradition in English literature or like Der Struwelpeter in German literature. In these stories, bad or just unwise actions always have CONSEQUENCES. Youth loses its innocence suddenly and tragically, assuming it starts out with any at all. Now, when I'm in parent-mode and my control-freak instincts begin to surface, I wonder whether books that teach the dire consequences of bad behavior might be a good idea. But then I remember that I would have hated books like these as a child, and no matter how many my mother brought home from the library, I wouldn't have read anymore of them than I read of the "good literature" she plied me with when I wanted to read the latest The Babysitter's Club book. Then, as now, I wanted to slip the bounds of reality and explore worlds in which the usual rules didn't apply. And I never had any trouble once I closed the book and slipped back into reality: no one had to tell me not to sneak into people's houses after reading Harriet the Spy, not to run away from home and live in the museum, or that life as an orphan, even a Canadian orphan, wouldn't be peachy. The funny thing about some of the examples of "realistic fiction" Redmond cites is how little they have to do with "reality": I certainly hope there isn't a large market of children drawn to Julius Lester's When Dad Killed Mom ("Jenna suspected her parents' marriage was in trouble") because it parallels their family life. Remond also notes that children in Dreadlit "have operatically unreliable parents: often only one and often with a substance-abuse problem" and that "there is a bizarrely high incidence of cancer in these books, and the death rate in general is surely higher than is found in real life." But as Redmond argues, the disasters wayward children suffer in Dreadlit are "real" in the sense that they're "just plain terrifying, with no entertainment or allegorical value." Of course, I don't have to worry about any of this, since Paul Bunyan is the longest book my two-and-a-half-year old has sat still for since he started objecting to Beowulf's lack of pictures (yes, his father is that twisted). But when his attention span extends beyond five seconds per page (and when he learns to read), I think I'll pass on Dreadlit. My kids will learn about actions and consequences from me and from experience. If they need reinforcement from literature, they can get it from some genre besides one with books like It Happened to Nancy ("Nancy was an innocent fourteen-year-old when she fell in love. ... Then he date-raped her and left her -- infected with the HIV virus).

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