Childish Nonsense

Exploring Children's Literature

The Nonsense of Nonsense

Humor is primal. Just ask my dog. If he knows an action will make me laugh, he’s bound to repeat it. Most mammals are natural comedians. A lot of birds are too.

Kids are the same. They learn very early that laughter is good. You will get more attention and people will like you if you’re funny. How many parents wait for that first real smile from a baby? (The answer is: all of them.)

Even the most serious stories need some comic relief to help hold the reader’s attention and draw in more readers. Page one of The Hunger Games includes a description of “the world’s ugliest cat.”

At the same time, even the funniest book has a serious side. I just read Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile Storybook Treasury, the fiftieth anniversary edition of the book that introduced Lyle, The House on East 88th Street by Bernard Waber. After all these years, children can still identify with Lyle’s completely outrageous behavior and learn about the world.

Somewhere in the middle is best.

I’m not a big fan of potty jokes nor of slapstick that seems harmful, like the Three Stooges poking eyes. These are the things that generally appeal to adolescent boys. I was never an adolescent boy. But slapstick has worked well for many authors.

I am, however, a big fan of plays on words and puns. I think I mentioned before that certain members of my family have very dry senses of humor, so I grew up with this. One does not react to puns, even if one thinks they are funny. It only encourages people. If you and I ever meet, don’t assume I don’t appreciate your humor, even if I don’t laugh. One of my favorite books in this genre is The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster. Oddly, this book also celebrated its fiftieth anniversary in 2011. (The early 60s were a banner time for funny books.) Many books containing this type of humor seem to be classified for adults. I can’t figure out if the booksellers don’t think children can appreciate plays on words or if it’s because adults can still appreciate them.

Irony and sarcasm are way up there on my list, too. And those seem to appeal to children, as far as they can understand the jokes.

Of course there are many other types of humor. Children’s literature should aim to keep the kids’ attention and have them get something out of what they’re reading. Humor helps.

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Is There Nonsense in the Dark Side?

With the passing of Maurice Sendak, seems like everyone is talking about the dark side.

Where the Wild Things Are was groundbreaking, yes, but it followed the tradition of dealing with our innermost fears by telling stories. No one who really looks at Little Red Riding Hood can miss the fear of the wolf and of being eaten. Three Billy Goats Gruff certainly plays to our fear of hidden danger. And Cinderella is full of abandonment and abuse. Amazingly, all four of these tales end happily, which still seems to be a criterion for modern day picture books.

So how do we decide how much angst to include in stories and when children are ready for the fears explored within the pages?  Obviously, reading the story itself should monitored by parents and teachers, depending on the sensitivity of the individual child, but that doesn’t help very much from the writing/publishing end of things.

In my opinion, adults tend to over-explain with children. You need to listen to the question and answer that. What I mean is: what does the child need to know about the world in order to function? Children are exposed to more “adult” subjects than we were fifty or even twenty years ago, but children do tend to tune out what they don’t understand. For example, watching Bugs Bunny cartoons again after all these years, I laugh at different jokes than I used to. Or I laugh at the same jokes for different reasons. If a child, especially a very young child, asks you a question, listen to what they’re asking. Don’t answer “Where do babies come from?” with an anatomy lesson. If there are monsters under the bed, chase the away and be done with it. If Max and your Teddy bear can’t keep them away, they are very pesky indeed. Don’t say there are no monsters.

The fact is, scary things do exist. Most of them are not as nameless as the monsters under the bed. Kids notice the scary things and need to have them addressed. Having all sweetness and light in children’s books might make adults feel better but they do nothing to help kids deal with the world they live in. It’s all in the approach. And Maurice Sendak had a great approach. We will miss you.

Still debating about my next subject. Maybe a specific book or author. Stay tuned.

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The Nonsense of Fairy Tales

I blame Walt Disney. He was the one who insisted on making nearly every fairy tale into a feature film. Of course, I adore most of the stories Walt himself was involved with but I don’t think I ever identified with the mice that helped Cinderella. Yet, it was very entertaining and pulled me in. But even Disney carries things too far. I find the very existence of Tangled annoying – mostly because Rapunzel was one of my favorite stories as a child. Not sure I should share this, but my grandmother’s reaction to the original Fantasia was, “Whose nut’s cracked?” (Grandma specialized in dry humor.)

One of my favorite authors, Bruce Coville, has re-written at least seven Shakespeare plays for kids. In general, I’m not a big fan of re-writing Shakespeare. Most of the genius of the Bard lies in the language and the arrangement of the words. But Bruce acknowledges his work as merely an introduction and encourages kids to seek out the actual plays. I can accept this approach, though I still prefer the real thing. Maybe he draws in some kids who wouldn’t love Shakespeare without this introduction. (http://www.brucecoville.com)

Jane Yolen has re-written and expanded several fairy tales. She lists eighteen on her website. (http://janeyolen.com) Her approach is to find the historical story hidden within the oral tradition of tales such as Snow White. I can see this as being useful for the curious child. Why do these tales exist and is there more meaning to them?

Now we have the highly successful Wicked by Gregory Maguire, the re-telling of The Wizard of Oz, which is in a different category. Wicked is most definitely for adults, but probably the adults who grew up with Oz. Actually, it seems like most re-tellings these days are for adults.

In my opinion, most re-tellings should be presented for what they are – completely different from the original story and borrowed only for story content. After all, “they” say there are really only so many stories to be told. The differences lie in voice, setting, etc. I love West Side Story in spite of critics who refer to it in terms of Romeo and Juliet. Of course, my love has a lot to do with the genius of Leonard Bernstein and Jerome Robbins. And Natalie Wood and Rita Moreno and …

Are re-tellings worthwhile? Yes. There’s no reason to hold them to a different standard than any other story. Each one has to be good on its own. Sounds like a good project to me.

But first, I want to put in my two cents’ worth about writing about the dark side.

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Movies and Other Nonsense

I’ll admit it. Several existing movies or movies in production have led me to certain written works. Sometimes, I know about the movie before I know about the book.

Of course, I’ve seen just as many movies made after I was in love with a book. Often, I fall in love with the movie too.

The problem is that movies and books are two entirely different media. (Duh)

Books spark the imagination in ways that movies never will. I don’t know how many times I’ve had a complete picture in my mind of a character or a place and then been confronted by a totally different image on the screen. It’s jarring and it cuts the imagination short. Katniss Everdeen lives in my head. Not on the screen. Many people pick apart Harry Potter. His eyes are the wrong color. His hair isn’t wild enough. Maybe these things are petty, but they’re at least distracting.

Movies are, of necessity, shallower. You can come back to a book in a way you can’t come back to a movie, so the entire movie’s story needs to be told in a couple of hours. So screen adaptations always leave out characters and subplots and always have less depth to the remaining characters and plots. The Wizard of Oz is nothing like the book.

Even short books are changed so much for the screen that end up being unrecognizable. Cat in the Hat, Where the Wild Things Are, and Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs come to mind. Where did all that extra stuff come from?

Along the same lines, you can’t get the thoughts of the characters as easily in movies, unless they narrate. To Kill a Mockingbird is one of the best movies of all time, but it’s a much better book. And that’s after Scout tells us what she’s thinking in the movie.

But some things are just visual. I can think of several movie scenes adapted from books where I cry or jump every time. I didn’t cry when I read the book. My favorite example of this when the people of Minas Tirith bow to the hobbits. (I don’t think of this as a children’s book. I just like that scene.)

Movies are often more accessible than books, though. I’ve probably seen The Wizard of Oz over 40 times. Only read the book once.

On the idea of sharing with other people, I think movies and books come out even. Movies are more immediate, with people sharing a tub of popcorn and a big laugh. But few things are more intimate than reading together and discussing what the author meant by that and what might come next.

So, what do I prefer? Both. If I really like a story and the characters, I’ll immerse myself in it.

Next time, I want to talk about the merits and pitfalls of updating classic books and stories.

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