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.
Fortnightly Book, December 4
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