October 16th, 2009

Curious George and his descendants: more on children's books

calvin-hobbes-32-uppwyd2ye8-1024x768Yesterday, in our excitement to see how “Where the Wild Things Are” would turn out (and it seems to have fulfilled at least some people’s expectations), we touched on the original book’s lack of a clear moral or lesson. Daniel Zalewski’s piece in this week’s New Yorker, on the rebellious protagonists of contemporary children’s literature, provides an interesting counterpoint to the roar Max and his wild things have produced in the media.

The lovable mischief-maker is hardly a new archetype, whether in stories for adults or for children. In fact, Sendak’s Max seems tame and sensitive compared to, say, Bill Waterson’s Calvin, who drives his parents to the brink of insanity in almost every comic strip. Zalewski says that recent children’s books play up the rebelliousness of their five- and six-year old protagonists to the point of absurdity, at which they become “pure spectacle.” Parents in these books have no choice but to throw themselves at the mercy of their children’s mischief.

Zalewski ends his article by recommending the books of Kevin Henkes for their treatment of children’s misbehavior: “Henkes’s book is squarely traditional in its message,” he writes, “yet in the context of modern picture books its confidence in the idea that young children are capable of sympathy—even moral growth—feels positively radical.” There is a way in which stories for children have always been an important disciplinary tool–see Grimm’s fairy tales or Aesop’s fables–and Zalewski is right to be put off by the way parenting culture seems to have caved to “the defiant ones.” Still, stories of any type are best when “moral growth” is the by-product of pleasure, fantasy or fun.

“The Defiant Ones” [The New Yorker, 10/19/09]

“Some of his Best Friends are Beasts” [The New York Times, Manohla Dargis, 10/16/09]

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