Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Thursday, May 01, 2008

Scattered thoughts on children's cultural education

My daughters' preferred method of selecting library books is to sweep an armful off a shelf into a basket and stagger over to a table to peruse them. I peruse too -- I certainly don't intend to check out tomes such as The Happy Halloween Adventure or The Easter Bunny's Day Off (titles invented just now but based on books I've vetoed in the past). The other day one of the books in the pile was a retelling of Rumpelstiltskin. Now I'm all for children hearing fairy tales, and the artwork wasn't bad, so I gave it more than the cursory scan. And to my great irritation, it was a revisionist telling in which the miller's daughter ends up marrying Rumpelstiltskin and their daughter is carried off by the king, whom she manages to outwit before passing up the role of queen in favor of being appointed Prime Minister.

I'm not particularly in favor of parody for children, because childhood is the best time to absorb the basic cultural and literary building blocks of a society. Parody works when the original source has already been assimilated to such an extent that subverting expectations becomes amusing. (Spaceballs: is it funny even if you haven't seen Star Wars a million times? Discuss.) If children aren't being sufficiently exposed -- and often -- to fairy tales, myth, Bible stories, famous events from history, and great works of literature (even in simplified retellings), how can parody even survive as a genre?


It wearies me how books and movies targeted at children involve shallow plots and characters smeared with a thin veneer of cleverness. Can we just forgo the snappy banter and the mouthy sidekick? And must sincerity only be reserved for speeches in which characters are exhorted to transcend their differences or be true to themselves?


I've been looking over the Mass books that Darwin has been researching, and I'm appalled by the amateur and/or saccharine quality of what's considered acceptable children's illustrations. The garish, childish pictures in the modern books are certainly different from the anemic blond pansy Christ depicted in children's devotional works of decades past, but it's hard to argue that they're an improvement. There's always a place for the amateur looking to improve his craft, but the job of teaching a child to appreciate the beauty of the Mass ought not to be compromised by the aggressive childishness in teaching aids.

On a positive note, I've been delighted by the illustrations in Inos Biffi's Illustrated Catechism, which seem to take seriously a child's ability to appreciate what is beautiful. Also, Caryl Houselander's illustrations in My Path to Heaven are intricate, detailed line drawings that inspire admiration as well as meditation. And the gentle style of Ben Hatke's artwork in Regina Doman's Angel in the Waters are elegant in their simplicity.

Certainly, there's no shortage of ugly artwork in secular books. But Christians seem particularly disposed to excuse mediocrity on the grounds of devotional sincerity.


max said...


I grew up as a reluctant reader. Now I write action-adventures & mysteries, especially for boys 8 and up, that kids hate to put down. My web site is at and my Books for Boys blog is at
Ranked by Accelerated Reader

Max Elliot Anderson

Amber said...

I really don't get why the fairy tale take -offs are so popular with the publishers, because my kids certainly aren't fond of them. They just don't get it - I think they are meant more for the parents than the children. I guess that makes sense in a way, since the adults are the ones with the money to buy the books... but I don't see why adults would buy them for children. I bet their biggest purchasers are aunts and uncles without children. ;-) But that still doesn't explain why they are so common at libraries!

I'm thankful that I have my children fairly well settled into a pattern where they sit at tables and I gather books for them. So long as I don't take too long to get them started with a couple to look at, it works remarkably well. It is unfortunate that this is necessary, but there is so much junk out there on the library shelves!

mrsdarwin said...


I don't necessarily mind the girls bringing a bunch of books for me to sort through because they find lots of good stuff that I wouldn't think to look for. This week we have two books on art (one of which is a really delightful story of mice examining a postcard of a Renaissance portrait) and one on playing with a baby, illustrated with bunnies. Most of the books the girls find are harmless, even if they're not my style, and I'm willing to check out anything that I think I can live with for a week or two.

My oldest turns six next week and will be at the age where she can get her own library card, but you can bet I'll still be vetting her books.

I think that publishers and producers think that parents get bored sitting through kids' stuff and that's why they want to mix it up with edgy humor and re-imaginings. But if a story is told well enough, it doesn't need to be tarted up. This is where a lot of the Disney cartoons lose me -- I'm so sick of the sidekick character who gives sassy advice. Just tell the story, guys!

Kyle R. Cupp said...

Most insightful. While they are currently out of print, you might keep a lookout for Mark Helprin's three children's stories: Swan Lake, A City in Winter, and The Veil of Snows, each illustrated by Chris Van Allsburg. I haven't yet read them, but Helprin is one of my favorite novelists.

Ana Braga-Henebry said...

No kidding! Leave the traditional tales alone! I love picture books but oh, do we we have to be ever so careful these days!

On religious books, I couldn't agree more-- I refuse to have holy books with ... sappy pictures. The ones you mentioned are excellent choices. This is one of he reasons we have loved Faith & Life for the homeschool- mostly the pictures are reproductions of gorgeous sacred art paintings.

CMinor said...

the miller's daughter ends up marrying Rumpelstiltskin and their daughter is carried off by the king, whom she manages to outwit before passing up the role of queen in favor of being appointed Prime Minister.

Might be useful in training the kiddos to identify blatant political correctness!

We've always had a taste for a good joke (note: this generally does not include your standard Disney fare) and can appreciate a well-done parody for kids. It's one of the things we like most about the Veggie Tales. But I agree that it's a waste on a kid who doesn't know the original story. And if it's an obvious ploy to make a point (as above) a perceptive kid will see right through it.

mrsdarwin said...

C, I used to enjoy the Veggies until the tragically unamusing Lord of the Beans. It was about the worst attempt at parody I've ever seen, the sort so bad that you realize even as you snicker at a joke the first time, that you'd never laugh at it again because its funny quotient has just been used up.

Though Darwin and the girls did enjoy the recent Veggie movie, so maybe the Bean episode was just a horrible anomaly.