First off, let me just say that I'm thrilled to be a new nester and honored to be among the company of so many illustrious writers! On to my post...
I saw Fantastic Mr. Fox a few weekends ago, and I absolutely loved it. I am a big fan of both Wes Anderson and analog animation, and it was hilarious and touching and visually fascinating. I keep hearing debate about whether or not this movie is for kids. A.O. Scott in his New York Times review asks, “Is it is a movie for children? This inevitable question depends on the assumption that children have uniform tastes and expectations. How can that be?” I think his point is that children are people. They have preferences.
Whenever I hear someone say, “I don’t like kids,” I am reminded that folks get it in their heads that the very young and the very old are somehow "not people" and that the ways they are and the things they want must be very different from the things that "adults" want. I just can't get behind that. I really believe that children can have good taste, that they can understand complex emotions and that they can appreciate films and books that are beautiful and ambiguous.
Recent waves of criticism of high-quality children’s programming strike me as odd. Fantastic Mr. Fox is too complicated, Cookie Monster is a bad influence on fat kids, and, reaching back a few years, Harry Potter is against God. Yet, I don’t hear too much criticism of the ultra-violent, ultra-simplistic stuff that counts as family fun these days: The Dark Knight, Transformers, or any of the myriad violent video games (take your pick). When I look at what gets critiqued, I get the feeling that the point is not to protect children from something, but rather make ourselves feel better about the world we inhabit without attempting to change it too much.
There are so many things that aren't appropriate for children around the world: racism, poverty, substance abuse, bad health, negative role models, bad parenting, political or tribal violence, insidious advertising, unhealthy food, bad drivers, precocious sexuality. Unfortunately, many children are right in the thick of it. Hell, they live in the same beautiful, terrible, inappropriate, ultimately ambiguous world we live in, too, don't they?
Instead of erasing or evading difficult subjects, or reducing hard topics to the easy good-versus-evil killing sprees that you can see in a kids movie such as Transformers, can’t there be a way to reflect these difficult subjects in a satisfying way back to children? Isn’t this one of the functions of art? I paraphrase Lynda Barry when I say, “We don’t make art to leave the world, we make art so that we can stay.”
I’ve been thinking about Cookie Monster and his recent health-conscious choices. While it was just a rumor that he’s now “Veggie Monster,” he still says that cookies are a “sometimes food,” and talks about his love for healthy food, too. There’s nothing wrong with that, I guess, but I don’t get what demon they’re trying to exorcise. I don’t think anyone who saw Cookie Monster as a child thought that he was a role model to emulate. I think instead Cookie Monster functioned as a cultural hero precisely because he was a manifestation of an unconscious childhood desire, the very real desire to pig out on cookies! We all knew that we weren’t supposed to do it, but we got great joy out of seeing him do it. We saw ourselves reflected in him, that was what made him so magnetic.
Another great example is the Harry Potter series. Harry Potter appeals to children, I think we can safely say that. There are many levels on which to appreciate the Harry Potter books, but I think one of the most interesting is all the tragedy that he lives through. He’s pulled out of an abusive situation (living with the Dursleys) to go to Hogwarts, but tragedy strikes him again and again. By the time he’s ostensibly a senior in high school many of the people closest to him have died due to political violence. I think that children who live tragic lives can see themselves reflected in Harry’s pain.
There are many other books, films, and TV shows that are full of ambiguity, tragedy, and joy that spoke to me as a child. Another striking factor about quality culture for children is that it can be appreciated on more than one level. There’s enough slapstick and cute animation in Mr. Fox to keep anyone entertained, just as there’s enough adventure and characterization in Narnia to allow the allegories to slip under the radar until you’re old enough to understand them. I can now appreciate the language in a Jacqueline Woodson or S.E. Hinton novel while I probably more appreciated having characters with which to identify when I read them as a kid.
Like A.O. Scott says in his review of Fantastic Mr. Fox, “There are some children — some people — who will embrace it with a special, strange intensity, as if it had been made for them alone.” That’s a great description, and pretty much sums up how I felt about all my favorite books and films as a kid. Actually, I feel the same way now when I encounter the uncanny in art (animation is especially good at this); when literature or art represents something that is so pitch-perfectly familiar that you stop and give that "hey!" of recognition over and over as you read/view. It is this recognition, this feeling of having something in your culture reflect you, or say something that you can't say, or that you want to hear someone else say finally for the love of pete! that makes art (literature/film) so emotionally powerful. It’s what makes you laugh out loud at something tragic represented on the page, simply because you couldn’t have said it better yourself.
Literature/art/film has the power to reaffirm and make sense of life, simply by telling it like it is instead of avoiding unpleasantness. I think children deserve that high quality in cultural forms directed at them as well. If anyone does, children do, precisely because it is even more urgent that they make sense of the world they’ve just arrived in.