le plus loin le plus serré

le plus loin le plus serré
mourning art

in memoriam

"yet I tell you, from the sad knowledge of my older experience, that to every one of you a day will most likely come when sunshine, hope, presents and pleasure will be worth nothing to you in comparison with the unattainable gift of your mother's kiss." (Christina Rossetti, "Speaking Likenesses," 1873)

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Where are the pre-1960s nonwhite children's books?

Last year, a lot of my thinking about all things related to children's literature culture revolved around money - class, wealth, etc. This year, it seems everything's about race. In fact, it's probably both (and a few other things as well), but the problem of racial underrepresentation is currently the most pressing, and shocking.

I'm working on my syllabus for a children's lit class in the spring. I've decided to just go with a mix of classics and obscure texts that cover a broad range of time. I'm sticking with Anglophone, mainly British and American, texts because they are what I know best. I've been eagerly adding titles to my list of possibles, dreading the moment when I have to actually make a decision and choose which stay and which get cut.
In reviewing my list, which has mainly concentrated on the 19th and early 20th century (since more recent texts that I want to teach I have in abundance), I realized: Gosh, all of my titles are by white authors, with white characters.
Then I thought: Wait, WHICH books by nonwhite authors and/or with nonwhite characters can I even think of from the decades before the 1960s?
Aside from some Langston Hughes and one or two other texts I've seen referenced in various people's scholarly work, I can't think of anything. The Hughes, and the references I remember, were mainly in the picture book genre, and I want novels or short stories. Not for or about teenagers, but legitimately children's literature.
So I turned to the Collective Brain of the child_lit listserv, because they always know everything there, and asked for nonwhite children's books, NOT picture books or poetry, from before 1960.

I have not gotten very many responses.
Most of those responses have directed me to Arna Bontemps and Langston Hughes. There have also been a number of suggestions of collected folktales.
Rudine Sims Bishop's Free within ourselves : the development of African American children’s literature has been recommended, and I am heading to the library tomorrow to get it.

But I feel discouraged that folktales and Langston Hughes are what we, as people who know children's literature very well, can come up with. Perhaps because I've recently been thinking about representations of American Indians (thanksgiving, of course), folktales and Langston Hughes, even, feel like they give the impression of a past, historical people. Like they don't deal with contemporary-to-their-time children. Hughes and Bontemps do, I think, though I'll have to do some more checking on that. But folktales?
Don't mistake me: folktales, the oral tradition, are hugely important, especially in any culture that has been marginalized and/or oppressed (in the case of African/Americans, denied literacy as slaves, and kept from decent schooling by such terrible legal trickery as Plessy vs. Ferguson).
But folktales also, as far as I've ever been able to tell, have their feet very firmly grounded in the past, in a historical or even mythic past. Those folktales have as much to do with the contemporary lives of kids reading then in 1930 as they do with kids reading them in 2013. Perhaps, in reading Rudine Sims Bishop, I will learn that African-American folktales have a very different existence than any of the Anglo/European folktale traditions I have some knowledge of. This could be true. But it's still a very specific tradition, a specific genre, that is distanced in several ways by its generic conventions from its audience.

So why don't we know - and we should know at least one or two token titles!  - nonwhite children's literature from before 1960 or so? W.E.B. DuBois's  Brownies magazine made efforts at providing African-American children with African-American children's stories, but can anyone name any of those authors or stories? [Answer: yes, obviously someone, probably more than one someone, can - but they have a too-specialized knowledge].

We learn/teach/are taught the Golden Age narrative of children's literature, which definitely is important and plays rather an important role in the development of the genre, and also in the dominant Anglo-American culture of the last 200+ years. Knowing Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Peter Pan is still important. But I am really flabbergasted to realize that I don't know any African-American, or Native, or Latino, writers or texts for children from before the later 20th century. I do spend, and have spent, rather a lot of time trying to know everything about the field of children's literature, but I am happy to admit I don't know everything - so it would be easy for me to say "argh, a horrid oversight on my part!"

But the fact that the Collective Genius and Knowledge of the listserv didn't have a couple of go-to authors or titles really does surprise me. Maybe it's because it's the end of the semester and folks are too busy to reply. And the responses I DID receive are definitely helpful - I don't want to dismiss them at all, because they knew more than I did. But the absence is noticeable, and notable. If you'd ask the list for, say, picture books with black child characters, you'd get heaps of replies right away saying "The Snowy Day" or "Amazing Grace" or Chris Raschka's books, or Faith Ringgold's, or any number of others.

I don't know how - or rather, I am afraid I know too well how - to understand the depressing absence of nonwhite writers and characters from the children's literary tradition. I am hoping Rudine Sims Bishop can help me out (and Michelle Abate's and Kate Capshaw's work), because I am now determined to find and include an early nonwhite (probably African-American) work of children's prose on this syllabus.
I had hoped for a nice easy-to-assemble syllabus, so I could attend to the sadly neglected dissertation, but this is too important to let go. So I'll give up a few dissertation hours to poking around the libraries and internet, and reading Sims Bishop, and seeing what kind of fiction I can find, written for and about and by the nonwhite population.

When I find those texts, I will do my best to wallpaper my tiny corner of influence with their names.

Sunday, October 06, 2013

kids these days, with the sexting and the selfies and the changing modes of communication

I'm basically reposting this here (I wrote it on tumblr), but cleaning it up a little. It's a result of listening to a fairly recent episode of Roderick on the Line (podcast), and of showing "Blurred Lines" to my freshman comp class as an introduction to close reading 'text.'
I got Way Behind with my Roderick on the Line, because I am a terrible person who doesn’t deserve nice things like RotL. Anyway, washing dishes, listening to ep 78 (“Driving Lesson Costume”), I was intrigued by two things pretty quickly.
The discussion Merlin & John have about their respective daughters, and those daughters growing up, and their unease about certain aspects of that, was touching and adorable and hilarious. Really, I think the best advice to give them (as a daughter who grew up mostly successfully) is, to paraphrase Merlin, Just don’t be weird about it. Don’t make it weird. Young Lady Roderick and Young Lady Mann will be A-ok. they’ve got good parents.
Next: selfies taken in the bathroom mirror and sexting and what’s the point? Merlin says “If I was the kind of person who still read Roland Barthes, I would write about that” (or something similar. Quote marks here indicate speech, not accuracy in quotation).
A moment of conversation ensues, then John decides to behave precisely like a person who reads Roland Barthes and says something like: those naked mirror-selfies are more a form of communication than pornography. It’s about the real-time communication that a person is getting naked *for you*. If you look back, out of context, at the photo you’re like “eurgh, not the most flattering image.” But the context - the communication of “I’m naked RIGHT NOW for YOU” - is the only thing that really matters. That really has significance, in the “signs and signifiers and signification” sense of the word.
My mind, blown. Suddenly: all those out-of-context nakedy pictures one hears/sees about are stripped of their sexual content. They’re like reading a transcript of one side of a phone call, but not even the complete call. It’s almost meaningless.
So then I think about these naked selfies - the Kids These Days, teenagers sending around Naked Selfies to their teenage boyfriends or girlfriends or whatever - as not sexual. And….it kind of makes a really fucked-up sense.
One of the things I’ve noticed, teaching the Youth of America, is that they’re really weird about sex, or at least talking about it in class in the context of a specific novel or film. Now, I spent my college years being thoroughly repressed, except I went to a college that was basically one giant hippie orgy. It wasn’t just that there were groups of people who liked to walk around naked - outside, in public areas - or that everyone seemed to be having sex constantly, with someone, or that femynysts performed dance routines featuring smacking their ovaries, or that there were actual orgies. nope: there was also plenty of talk in classrooms, in academic, scholarly ways, about sex. This only got worse in grad school (where “worse” = “more frequent”). For a repressed person, I had to get unrepressed real fast, or be chronically uncomfortable and silent.

I’m used to everyone having a gutter mind. Everyone around me always did, it seems, from at least middle school on. *I* have a gutter mind. But the Kids These Days, in my classes, they don’t seem to. They are a weird mix of nonchalant “oh yes, pansexual multi-partner orgies involving unusual fetishes are totally the norm in high school” and red-faced, giggling, inability to say “have sex” in the context of a discussion of a novel in which characters, in fact, have…. you know.
As a kind of early practice in close reading, I had my freshmen watch the rather revolting video (unrated - topless girls) of Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines.” And discussing it afterwards was shocking and revealing. Many of them were confused - openly, raising-their-hands-to-ask-questions confused - about various innuendo in the video. Like….what’s with him licking the ice cream? what’s going on with the feet? that’s really random….what was she doing with that stuffed animal?
I was shocked. Like seriously, actually shocked. “Blurred Lines” isn’t exactly a subtle video. And the sexual content just seemed to pass many of them by, or flat-out confuse them. This class meets too early in the morning for them to be actively trying to fool me, either - I think those were their honest reactions.
So: circling back to RotL: what if, somehow, the pornographic signification of sexting and such is  - if not totally absent, at least really watered down, for Kids Today? I don’t get the sense that THAT many of them are THAT much more sophisticated about sex and sex-adjacent stuff than repressed-me was in college. Some are, sure, but it doesn’t take much to exceed that low bar.
I guest-lectured in a friend’s class once, ages ago, probably my second year of teaching. And one of the boys in the class - one who was simultaneously too cool for school and sincerely smart and engaged - said something like “Nakedness doesn’t always mean sex.”
He was and is right, of course, but I wonder if - somehow, in these weird modern times of ours, with kids who grew up during the very conservative reign of GW Bush (remember John Ashcroft having the exposed bosoms of statues covered up in the Justice department building?) - I wonder if somehow nudity and sex - like actual sexuality - have been split apart in some odd way. So that they KNOW what is “sexy,” and that is “naked bathroom selfies” but it doesn’t register for many of them in a truly sexual way? That, again, it’s a way of communicating something - for straight girls, I imagine, it’s something like “I love you boyfriend so much i’m willing to do whatever will make you happy and sending you this naked picture of me in my bathroom mirror will let you know that i really care about you.” Or maybe "I'm cute and confident because I'm 16 and hot!"  But it has about as much sexual content to it, for them anyway, as would bringing the boyfriend chicken soup when he was sick.
If sexuality has become split in some way from nakedness, even from the idea of “sexy,” which basically means nothing very different from “pretty”, both of which just signify "attractive to the gender/sex i want to attract" that would explain an awful lot about the weird reticence of my students, and their inability to lie in the gutter and think about Robin Thicke's gross explicit video.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013


A week or so ago, some acquaintance on facebook posted this video from Parenting Gently. Despite the fact that I am not a parent and have no real interest in contemporary parenting (gentle or otherwise), the title of the video intrigued me enough to get me to click through: "4 Ways Parents Teach Kids That Consent Doesn't Matter."

Because it's the start of the school year, and I have two classes full of college freshmen, I've been thinking about anti-rape education a lot lately. I did a brief reminder (with handouts from the internet!) about what Consent means - the most important reminder, I think, is that being asleep/being drunk/being passed out does not mean you are consenting. And that maybe if your person is really drunk, even if they are consenting, they might not really mean it. So use some intelligence.

It struck me as rather awful that at age 18 or 19, these students might need some information about what consent actually means, but then i realized that we don't talk about it very much until then, and it's almost always in the context of rape. The Parenting Gently video makes it really clear that there are ways we, as adults, model consent/disregard of nonconsent - and that that carries over into all aspects of life, including sex and sexual coercion.

Parenting Gently's 4 ways that adults teach kids that consent does matter are:
*Tickling & Rough-house Play
*Contradicting Their Feelings
*Forced Affection
*Respect For Elders

You can watch her extremely concise and insightful discussion of each of these, but I was particularly struck by what she says about Tickling/Roughhouse Play: If you're tickling a kid and they say no (even if it seems like a playful no), stop immediately. That way, they learn that saying NO results in a behavior ending, but it ALSO shows them that the correct response when someone says No or Stop is to stop what you're doing. It works both ways. It models the effectiveness of saying NO, it gives power to the kid, and it also shows what you do when someone doesn't like what you're doing to them.

A couple of days after watching this video, which I've been turning over in my mind since the initial viewing, I checked my much-neglected tumblr stream. For some obviously masochistic reason, I still follow "Reasons my son is crying," and this was near the top of my tumblr stream.  
And it made my blood boil, especially in the context of the Parenting Gently consent video.
The tumblr is a photo of a little girl, maybe 3 years old?, sitting on the floor in a blue dress, crying.  the caption: "She asked Daddy not to look at her.  He didn’t listen."

I think steam probably came out my ears I was so angry. Who knows why she asked daddy not to look at her? But when a girl asks a man not to look at her, "he didn't listen" is not the best response. And yes, it's her dad, and yes, she's only 2 or 3, and yes, it was probably all quite silly anyway. But who knows? Who knows what was going on in her mind when she asked her dad not to look at her? Maybe she had a really good reason for it. She's clearly in a safe, secure location - looks like she's sitting on a kitchen floor - so it's not like her dad needs to keep an eye on her for safety reasons. We don't know who took the picture, but if it was dad, I'm even angrier - imagine, not only ignoring your daughter's request not to look at her but PHOTOGRAPHING her in that moment!
I do think my reaction is influenced by the gender dynamics there as well as the age dynamics. Girls are so looked-at, their whole lives, and sometimes you just don't want to be on stage. Laura Mulvey, fetishistic scopophilia, etc. Men are taught to look at women, their whole lives, and that they have every right to look at women when and how they want. And even if the woman is a three year old girl, and the man is her own father, it's still a problem. I won't even go into any of the stats about child sex abuse and likelihood of family perpetrators. I don't know anything at all about the situation being reported in the tumblr other than what I see and read. I don't do hysteria over child molestation, either, for a variety of reasons, but I also see no reason to pretend that no father has ever molested or been sexually inappropriate towards a daughter. It is a Thing. You can't say "but it's just her dad," as if that, in every single case, is an automatic exculpatory statement.

Sometimes you just don't want to be looked at, and when there's no pragmatic reason that supervision is necessary, no one *should* look at you if you ask them not to.

Taking Parenting Gently as a guide, fast-forward this moment by about 16 years. Girl, age 18 or 19, asks Boy not to look at her (for whatever reason; maybe she's changing, maybe she's taking off a layer of clothing and doesn't want her shirt to pull up in view of him, maybe she's feeling shy, maybe he's making her feel creepy, maybe he's looking at her in a disturbing way, who knows). Boy ignores request; in fact, Boy takes out his phone and takes a picture of Girl.

And suddenly we're in a disturbing coercive situation where Girl's right to be not-looked-at is violated. Girl has been set up for this situation by parental disregard of consent/nonconsent. Maybe Boy has been similarly set up - say, by the "contradicting of feelings" item on Parenting Gently's list. Girl says "Don't look, I'm feeling shy," and Boy thinks "Oh, you're not really shy, you're just being silly/self-conscious/a tease."

I know a lot of people would think this is a huge leap to make, and maybe it is. But I somehow don't think so. Ignoring children's actual feelings and desires - for instance, to not be looked at - tells them, as humans, that it's okay to ignore people's actual feelings, and that their own feelings and desires aren't legitimate. If we're lucky, we re-educate them at some point down the line to have self-respect and to know that their emotions are legitimate and should be respected, etc etc. But why not start that training from the very beginning? Why not say "Your feelings should be respected, and you should also respect other people's feelings"?
That sounds very Mister Rogers-y, not surprisingly of course, but I think it's also true and important. Kids, as much as adults, are human beings with thoughts and feelings and wishes. We don't get to ignore them, make fun of them, trample over them, or contradict them just because we're older (see item 4 in the video: respecting your elders). Doing those things suggests that those behaviors are okay in adults, and they aren't. Doing those things suggests that your resistance/refusal is going to be ignored.
These are not behaviors we want to encourage amongst people in our society - or they shouldn't be.
Consent matters, and it matters from the very earliest imaginable moments.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Vale E.L. Konigsburg

As if this week hasn't had enough bad news in it, word comes today that E.L. Konigsburg has died.

Konigsburg is one of the rare greats of children's literature who I actually read as a child (I don't know what I was reading then, but it was mostly nothing I read now). From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler is probably THE iconic Konigsburg text, and of course it's a great one, but my personal favorite has always been - and still is - Up From Jericho Tel. I taught it once, in a children's lit class (maybe a summer course?), and I was so gratified that the students liked it. It was one of those books they responded to with "Why didn't I know about this book when I was a kid? I wish I had read this sooner."

Journey to an 800 Number is another one of her books I read when I was young, and it really stuck with me. The odd loneliness of the 800-number operator, the way people so easily become faceless and nameless - and the ways they (or people around them) create identities and spaces for themselves, the constant travel of the characters of the book - there's a streak of melancholy to that book that resonated and resonates still with me.

Konigsburg's books draw our attention to the unnoticed: to the people and things, large and small, that we ignore or never see in the first place. She's interested in the real, everyday things that are also completely magical: think of Claudia and the Angel statue, think of Amadeo in The Mysterious Edge of the Heroic World. That title, in fact, seems to be precisely what each of Konigsburg's books is about - seeking, or stumbling upon, that mysterious edge of the heroic, magical, meaningful world.

The View From Saturday is perhaps Konigsburg's masterpiece, if we need to identify any one of her books as such. The multiple narrators, interspersed with the third-person narrated sections focalized by Mrs. Olinski, is an organizational and narrational thing of beauty. The way the stories of the four kids interlock and overlap, and the ways in which those convergences are revealed, is absolutely astonishingly brilliant and wonderfully skillful. It never feels gimmicky, and it never gets old, or becomes obvious. Each new revelation is revelatory, and each segment of the book adds up to an extraordinary whole story, a work of beauty and grace.

Konigsburg's protagonists are a big part of the greatness of her books, and it wasn't until I taught Up From Jericho Tel that I even realized that her characters all share one major thing in common: they are all very smart, slightly (or more-than-slightly) eccentric kids. Realizing this so long after first reading her books, it made me think that in all likelihood, one of the reasons my child-self liked her books so much was because her protagonists were like me: smart, and kind of weird. In children's literature, we get a lot of clever protagonists, and we get a lot of narrators or protagonists who have what seems like more wisdom/understanding than any kid that age should have, but it often goes unremarked in the text. Konigsburg - who herself must have been a smart, odd kid - so wonderfully captures both the challenges and delights of being an outsider because of your intelligence, because of your quirky interests. If the people around you don't recognize that you're a star - as Jeanmarie's classmates don't - you just keep wearing your appliqued Texas vest until you find someone who does recognize a Star when she sees one. The scene on the bus with Jeanmarie's vest is one I remember vividly identifying with as a younger reader: the feeling of being criticized or made fun of for something that you like a lot, or care about intensely, and really do not want to change, the uncertainty that engenders, the contempt for the bullies who don't understand, the desire to be like them even while loathing them - it's all so familiar.

Konigsburg's books make smart kids the main actors, the ones who can see and do and understand things around them in ways not everyone else can. Her kids aren't caricatured nerds, or strange performing monkeys - they are real, complex, intriguing people who live in a world where they are not the norm, and where not being the norm can make you invisible. The trajectory of the narratives are of making the invisible  visible, whether it's your own self or someone else, or some idea, some sense of understanding, some wider way of perceiving the world. The way invisibility works on a metaphoric level in Konigsburg's books makes me rethink the invisibility scenes from Jericho Tel - in some ways, her books function the way those episodes of invisibility work for Jeanmarie and Malcom. Her books let you see that which cannot be seen, uncover that which was previously hidden, understand yourself and the world in ways that make sense.

E.L. Konigsburg worked the best kind of magic with her books: the magic that lets you see the invisible in the world; the magic that lets you see the greatness of yourself, and helps you share that greatness with the world. So thank you, Elaine Konigsburg, for knowing how to see the invisible, and for knowing how to make us see it as well. Requiescat in Pace.

Monday, April 15, 2013

the helpers in Boston

Once again, terrible news of people being injured and killed for no apparent reason. As was the case just a few short months ago, when all those people were killed in Connecticut, I repeat what Mister Rogers has to tell us:
Look for the helpers.
This clip is from an (excellent) long interview done with Fred Rogers by the Archive for American Television. The quote about looking for the helpers has been doing the rounds online, but it doesn't include, usually, the final line in this excerpt, which is a line worth noting and repeating:
If you look for the helpers, you'll know that there's hope.
 I was thinking about this quote, because I think about this quote almost daily, and realized how multi-faceted it is, how helpful in so many ways. Looking for the helpers takes our gaze away from the blood and broken glass, away from the scary, anxious, confusing, nightmare we see on our screens (and our screens are everywhere, focused right on the blood and broken glass and crying people) - it directs us away from the horror onto the good. It shows in ways no statistics can that the good people who want to help us outnumber - by a LOT - the bad people who want to hurt us.
This photo (by John Tlumacki of the Boston Globe), which contains a bit of blood and broken glass, seems to me to be a perfect illustration of Looking for the Helpers as a way to see Hope.

 A lot of the photos from Boston today have featured brave, hardworking men and women in bright green vests: EMTs, doctors, nurses, police, other professional first responders. They are helpers, and they are so important.
But this photo - this one - shows two people helping a third. No one has a vest. No one is a professional helper - at least not that we can see. Neither of these people is on the clock. Possibly neither has any first-response training, or experience, or preparation.
What both people have is empathy and care and compassion and bravery. They're helping a third injured person. Maybe he's a friend, or parent, or family member. Maybe he's a total stranger. Who knows? It doesn't matter. What matter is these helpers, half an hour before this photo was taken, were just two random faces in a crowd.
The helpers are everywhere, all around us, ready to get to work and help at any moment. Anyone can be a helper. Everyone can be a helper. Lots of us already are, in big and small ways.
And there are so many more helpers than hurters. There always are; there always have been. Always. Even when it doesn't feel like there are, they are there. As Mister Rogers says, they might be just off-screen, or just at the edges. They aren't always the center of our attention - certainly not our newsmedia's attention - but they should be. There are thousands, probably millions of helpers in and around Boston today - and just one or two or a few bad guys.

Look to the helpers. Look for them. They are heroes, for sure. They are also us, you and me and everyone in the vast vast vast overwhelming majority of people who aren't bad guys. The people who got hurt? They're probably helpers too - maybe not today, but earlier, or maybe in years to come. Maybe even today.

*   *   *   *   *   *

The Fred Rogers Company - which is composed of some absolutely outstanding, compassionate, and smart people, many of whom worked with Mister Rogers on his program - has some advice for parents or other adults who work with kids on how to help children during tragedies. It's good advice. As I wrote before
Mister Rogers isn't going to lead you astray. He simply isn't. I have read hundreds of letters written to him, and dozens of responses from him and his staff of wonderful people who are very like him. The faith and trust people placed in him was not unfounded. The faith and trust and reassurance he gave them made a difference, in some cases a huge difference, to parents, grandparents, and children.

The link again to Fred Rogers Company's advice on speaking with kids about tragedy is here.

Mister Rogers is amazing, we know this, but his mother was also a very wise woman, and we should mention her, too, in our list of helpers. She helped little Fred Rogers become the great person he was; she is helping thousands, maybe millions, of people right now with her compassionate words of wisdom: Look for the helpers.

Tuesday, April 09, 2013

my dreadful mixed feelings over reasons my son is crying tumblr

 So there's this tumblr called 'reasons my son is crying.' It somehow exploded everywhere, apparently in the last 48 hours, because suddenly it's all over the place. Of course I went and read it, and was delighted and amused and followed it on my tumblr page. And then this morning:

We mic’ed him up for Good Morning America.
And BAM just like that I suddenly feel less pleased with this tumblr. I felt/feel a little weird when people use their young children in such a public way - this kid is too young, really, to consent with full knowledge of what he’s consenting to, but at least on the internet there’s a (very thin) layer between the Kid and the Audience. The Kid’s “performance” (i.e., crying) happens ‘offstage,’ so to speak - there’s no microphone, no other people intervening or influencing, it’s just the not-so-much-privacy of his own family and their own camera. but when you add in things like a live studio audience, a crew, interviewers, a set - then you’ve created an artificial and highly manipulated and manipulative arena, and the Kid is On Stage and being used by multiple adults. It turns a mostly-private emotional reaction into a public performance, and performances aren't about the performer so much as they are about the audience, especially, I think, when the performer is a kid (cf. Shirley Temple, every child on 'Toddlers & Tiaras,' etc).

The premise of ‘reasons my son is crying’ is kind of interesting in addition to being funny - I don’t find it “cute” at all, but I do like the way it records the incredible frustrations of being small and quasi-helpless and inexperienced/untutored in the world. To us, maybe it’s funny that a kid would cry because he can’t run naked into Times Square, but the Kid presumably doesn’t know why he’s dreaming the impossible dream there.

I often tell my students that being a little kid is hard - the world isn’t sized for you, you have very little actual freedom and autonomy, you can’t pour your own juice or milk, there are monsters under the bed. You don’t know yet that your hand will get burned if you touch the stove when it’s on. You learn everything the hard way, or experience a world of what appear to be irrational restrictions. It’s this sense of difficulty that ‘reasons my son is crying’ captures that I like.
But I don’t like converting that into a sideshow - it’s already perilously close to being reproachably exploitative. I mean, would YOU want someone taking a photo every time you cried or felt frustrated, and posting it on tumblr for all the world to see? What if you couldn’t say no? what if you couldn’t say yes, either?
I am always, constantly suspicious of performing/trick children, and more suspicious of them in the age of “reality” media, where a kid might not even know or realize he’s being turned into a performer. And so this tumblr - and its transformation into a viral! media! sensation! meme! - makes me uncomfortable now.
[And that doesn’t even begin to address the fact that i suspect you’d see a VERRRRY different public reaction if the evidently continually crying child wasn’t white.]

I should say that I don't think this Kid's parent(s) are being neglectful or abusive or even truly exploitative. I think the original idea is actually quite clever, and I like that you (or I) can read the "reasons" in multiple registers. I'm not especially concerned that this Kid evidently cries constantly. I do think we as a culture are way too quick to embrace emotion-as-spectacle/entertainment, and I think we absolutely make a hash out of the way we treat child performers. I also think we use children, in our culture, in all kinds of ways that aren't really about the kid, or aren't in the kid's best interest. Even more than that, I think it's really easy to turn your kid into a vehicle for money and/or fame - again, the story of virtually every child star demonstrates this - and in this modern world, I can't think of a better example than the Gosselins, who originally appeared in a one-off TLC show about quintuplets and sextuplets. Easy to see how you could agree to doing this, a kind of documentary, and get paid a bit - with eight kids, who wouldn't need the extra cash? And then the reality show - you think, 'great, we can set up college funds for each of the kids,' and/or 'we'll give it a try,' and/or 'this could be fun.' And then you're on tabloids and having a very ugly very public divorce and running through money like water and oh hey, turns out reality-tv 'star' children aren't protected by the kinds of laws (like Jackie's law) whereby some portion of their earnings have to be banked in trust for them, untouched by their parents.

I'm not saying the Kid who is crying is going down that path. Probably he isn't. Probably he's just a kid, with average-affluent parent(s) who are kind of amused by the whole thing. Probably he'll grow up and be kind of mortified at these crying-kid photos, and not much more.

But in the meantime, the tumblr - and now the national tv appearances - raise some interesting and, I think, important questions/issues about how we view and use children in a variety of kinds of media. There's no Jackie's law for social media, there are no protections (and I am thinking primarily of economic/ financial protections) in place for child "stars" of tumblr or instagram or their parents' blogs or youtube.

There are also - and I do think this is very important - lots of reasons to cry when you're a very small child, and those reasons should be taken seriously by the wider culture when we think about children and childhood, even though in the moment, those reasons might be exasperating or just plain hilarious.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Kid Pickers: early lessons in capitalism

Evidently the American emphasis on teaching kids to be capitalists has moved well beyond the old standby lemonade stand; Macmillan Kids has published Kids Pickers: How to Turn Junk into Treasure "by" Mike Wolfe, star of the History Channel show "American Pickers."

I came across this via the Children Book Council's Pinterest, which is pretty terrific and very worth following.

I have many thoughts on "American Pickers," but in the interests of ever getting anything done I'll skip most of them except to say that it's a remarkably queer show putting up a 'brave' front of butch masculinity, and that I find both Mike and his co-star rather repellent; their open greed and capitalistic fervor disguised as genuine affection for and interest in history and material culture makes my stomach turn. At the Console-ing Passions conference in Boston last July (2012), I attended a panel that included a talk about "mantiquing," which didn't go as far as I wanted it to (i.e., dissecting the queerness/butchness of the show) but which did introduce the word "mantiquing" into my vocabulary.

And now mantiquing goes kid inclusive with this book. I can't think for the life of me how kids, who for the most part lack the essential picking resources (transportation, time, knowledge, and capital to buy 'junk') are supposed to launch their picking careers, but I guess that's why Mike Wolfe had to write a book. I hate the language of "turn junk to treasure," because it totally removes the value of any material object as anything but a money-maker; that is, the social, historical, cultural value of, say, an antique book is erased and replaced with nothing but its current market value. The things of history become metonyms for cash, and nothing more.

Because I get interested in about 18 different things each week, I don't have time for them all and I have to watch myself so I don't run after Shiny Objects and neglect things like teaching or dissertation. this is why I don't know what kind of critical work has been done on indoctrinating kids into commercial enterprise (that lemonade stand) - but I do remember talking about it in connection with (I think) The Great Brain when I took a children's lit class at Georgetown. Perhaps the most famous of Tom Sawyer's escapades also centers on moneymaking - the whitewashing of the fence. Kids in books are always trying to figure out how to get money, which is both totally reasonable, since kids in general are demographic without the power of the purse, and totally distasteful in its capitalism.
Making the leap from fictional moneymaking schemes to an actual how-to centered around this most peculiar of occupations - picking - is unsurprising but still deeply unpleasant. I'm curious about the gender implications of the book - the TV show really works hard to make picking a Man's Job, full of motorcycles and gasoline signs and jokes about wives. I also wonder how well this book will sell: what parents will support their child's new career as a picker? Or will it be a 'family who picks together...' kind of scenario?

Friday, March 22, 2013

tweens, adolescence, and sexgender

I've been thinking a lot about adolescence for the last few years, and one of the things I've thought about - but not had time to really pursue - is the way American adolescent culture plays to/engages with/creates sex/gender in different ways. [note: I have not yet come to any satisfactory conclusion about how to refer to sex or gender, because neither term quite gets at what I want to express, which is something to the effect of traditionally-understood, normative traits and qualities associated with males or females, regardless of how an individual is constructed biologically (sex) or psychologically (gender - and psychologically is a problem term here too). For the purposes of this post, I'm going old-school regressive and just saying "boy" or "girl" to mean those normative, traditional qualities and characteristics, with many apologies to trans-and-pan-and-queer-and-counteridentifying persons]

Recently - a week ago or so - I wondered on facebook if "tween" is just girls, or if it includes boys as well. I always think of tween as girls; when I first encountered the term "tween," it was in an article about Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen, and I've rarely, if ever, seen it used in connection with boys. I was surprised that my friends - all of them academics of one sort or another - replied with certainty that of course, tween includes boys.

I was pleased, then, earlier this week to read Tyler Bickford's post of the text of his paper given at this year's SCMS conference, because he writes

the sphere of children’s entertainment that is emerging the most rapidly is directed to “tweens,” who a category that is presumptively (if not categorically) made up of girls. The term, which is a cutesy play on “teen” and “between,” emphasizes an age-based tension between grown-up autonomy and childhood domesticity that resembles nothing so much as the postfeminist tension between feminism and femininity. So talk about tweens is always already gendered. It’s also always already white, affluent, suburban, and consumerist, but then childhood also, as it’s hegemonically constructed, is itself presumptively feminine, white, affluent, suburban, and consumerist.
(emphasis mine)

I felt slightly vindicated in my conviction that tween is predominantly female, and that it at least is far from obviously a category that extends itself to include males in that Awkward Age (because really, that's what tween is: ages around 11-14).

So if, as Bickford claims (and as far as my exceedingly cursory sense of it goes) the most rapidly emerging sphere of children's entertainment is for tweens, where are the boys left?

It's a rare occasion when I say "but what about the boys?!" and mean it in anything but a sarcastic way. I say it when I think about Disney Princess culture, especially as it's enacted at Disney parks, where little girls (and big girls, and adults) are routinely addressed as "Princess." There's just no character set analogous to the princesses that is "for" boys. Of course, and obviously, plenty of little boys play princess quite delightedly, and plenty of little girls scorn princessing. But the culture emphasizes little girls in its focus on princesses, and that leaves the boys with...what?

I feel like this a bit about adolescence and boys. When I browse the teen section of my library (which is often, and it's a good teen section), I'm continually aware and reminded of how many of the books have pink covers, or purple covers, or sparkly covers. Many of them have images of girls on their covers. Many of them have girls as their protagonists, and many of them are written by women, or under female pseudonyms.

When I've asked my undergrads - and because I usually teach children's lit courses, I have a painful dearth of male students - what they read while they were themselves in high school or younger, the girls can usually rattle off lists: Sarah Dessen, Twilight, Hunger Games, Gossip Girl, Maggie Stiefvater, Libba Bray, and so on. The few boys, when I put them on the spot, usually say they didn't read much, then go on to mention James Patterson, Stephen King, maybe Neil Gaiman. Once, I had a boy student who was really into Neal Shusterman - possibly the only boy to name a young adult writer as someone whose books he read as, you know, a young adult.

Despite my general avoidance of Real-World studies and surveys and things that look like social science, I would be extremely interested in surveying a whole lot of teenage boys to see what books they read when they read voluntarily, or get to pick their material. I suspect it would be a whole lot of James Patterson-type stuff.

In class once, talking about something related to adolescence, I mentioned teen magazines - 17, YM (if that even still exists), Teen Cosmo, Teen People - then realized these were all girls' magazines. Then further realized I couldn't think of any teen magazines that weren't for girls. Once again, I put the few boys in my class on the spot and asked about magazine-reading (I supplied them with Maxim and the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit edition just to get that awkwardness out of the way; some day I need to write and think deeply about how incredibly uncomfortable Kids These Days seem to be even acknowledging sex and erotics). The boys said: yeah, things like that, Rolling Stone, snowboarding or dirtbiking magazines, or other sport-specific ones. Those are adult publications - not in the brown-wrapper kept behind the counter sense, but just in that they are not produced with a teenage audience in mind.

so how come girls get to (or are forced to) have this distinct experience of teenager-ness, complete with rituals (prom, homecoming), periodicals, literature, movies, music, and so on?
why do we expect 14-year-old boys to be reading the same material as 34-year-old men? Is one group being "forced" to grow up too quickly? Or is one group being expected to act like teenagers their entire adult lives? Some combination of the two?

I'm concerned about the alienation of boys from YA fiction, in particular. There are some great YA books for and about boys, and plenty of the male students I teach end up really liking a lot of the "girl" books, too (Speak, for instance, always resonates with boys; they are very often the first to initiate class discussion and talk in very serious ways about how the book felt real and relatable). But the YA section as a whole looks extremely girly, and that turns boys off.
Women are attending college in markedly greater names than men now, and while I am not worried about men being oppressed and made into sad minorities, I do think that any kind of substantial gender imbalance - in schooling or in most other places - is not likely to turn out well in the end on a society-wide level. I can't help thinking that there is, or might be, or could be, a connection between the ways boys seem to be left out of this tween/teenage space of cultural production/consumption, and declining rates of college attendance. I could be totally wrong, and that's fine, but I do, for now, have the feeling that something is slightly askew here. Can't quite figure out precisely what it is, or how to correct it - is it a problem of how we're targeting girls? or a problem of how we're failing to target boys? is a creepy normative set of boy-oriented teen crap what I really want to see? (but then, how is that different from Maxim?)

I'm exceedingly interested in this, and I think it's important. I'm near the end of the list of the last people who would say that men in this country are sad, oppressed victims, but I do think that boys are being left out of an important cultural space. And that space also seems to be dedicated almost entirely to building and reinforcing traditional ideas about girl-ness and femininity in a way that is very hard for me to see as feminist or empowering or anything progressive and positive. This is a problem, and I think it's a big one - and it's one we need to be thinking about closely and carefully.

Tuesday, March 05, 2013

cuteness studies

I am teaching assistant for a lecture course this semester, and today's lecture dealt largely with questions of cuteness. I am not an expert in cuteness studies, which, if it is not yet a thing, will probably be one soon; I realized today, in thinking about it, that despite being intensely interested in most things child-related, I don't spend much time seriously thinking about children's stuff and cuteness. My cuteness-related contemplations are primarily reserved for baby pandas, and kittens, and miniature horses, and miniatures in general.

At the start of lecture, the professor put up a few cute-related questions on her powerpoint. This set caught my attention, and is now buzzing in my brain:
"Why might cuteness have been so attractive to people living in early 20th century America or Europe? Why are we invested in children’s cuteness as a culture?"

I've been thinking about nostalgia a lot, and also about reception theory, and so this pair of questions set off all kinds of bells and whistles and whirling lights.

First of all: Cuteness is a thing that happens in the audience. There has to be someone looking (or listening, or reading) for a thing to be cute, because cute is in the eye of the beholder. Yes, there are all kinds of studies trying to science-ize why I enjoy looking at baby pandas, but - as with many psychology studies - I am skeptical. Cuteness is a construct that happens outside of the thing or creature "being" cute.

Which brings me to the second point, which was actually raised (sort of) by a student in the fall: cuteness HAS TO BE unintended. The second a child (or anyone) starts trying to be cute, trying to perform cuteness, it ceases to be cute. I think this is one of the reasons people find *Toddlers & Tiaras* so unsettling - it's an endless stream of very determined, conscious efforts to be cute.

Because...cuteness is "natural." It isn't, almost definitionally cannot be, something you do on purpose. It's un-self-conscious. It's "authentic." Perhaps most importantly, it's not manipulative. Cuteness, and the cute, can be manipulated, for sure - this is how advertising works - but it cannot originate in a place of intention. It has to be natural and authentic and unprompted, unscripted. Cute stops as soon as a script or intention can be detected.

Cuteness is non-functional, non-utilitarian. Those same kinds of studies which I regard skeptically occasionally suggest that we find babyness (big head, big eyes, roundness) cute so we don't just throw our offspring into a river when it starts shrieking, but even for me this seems hopelessly cynical. Biological imperative for survival keeps humans, like most animals, from eating their young (so to speak); I don't think panda mothers hang on to their absurdly small panda cubs because the mothers are ga-ga for big round eyes.

But because cuteness comes from a place of no intent, it is never selfish, always selfless, always a kind of gift or benevolence. The only thing cuteness does, in a functional way, is make the viewer feel good. Good can mean amused, or content, or pleased, or amusedly perplexed, or surprised, or satisfied - but it's not a productive response. Cuteness is not productive. It doesn't make or do anything until it's manipulated by a third party (and then it can do almost anything).

So in the 20th and 21st centuries, when we're as industrialized and mechanized and computerized as we've ever been, when humans feel increasingly isolated or alienated from themselves and other humans, when everyone with the wealth privilege to experience it is feeling the many pressures of modernity, a thing that is not manufacture, non mechanized, non technological has tremendous appeal. There's a lot of buzz about "the search for authenticity," blah blah, but that drive to locate something real in a world that feels chock-full of artifice is very strong. The fact that authenticity is as much a construct as anything else is beside the point (for the moment, anyway).

Cuteness isn't manufactured, and it doesn't ask anything of us except that we enjoy it. It's also got the weight of nostalgia, and all the unattainable longing that nostalgia carries with it. Since cuteness is unconscious of itself, we can never BE cute, or be the cute. We can, perhaps, recognize our past cuteness - look at a photo of yourself from when you were three or four or six, or listen to a parent or someone recount a charming story of something you said or did when you were a child; it's eminently possible to see cuteness there. But in the moment of the Cute-ing, the Cute cannot recognize itself as cute. And because it can't be intentional, we can't plan to be cute in the future (though we may be). So our own cuteness is always, forever, constantly retrospective; it is always something we cannot ever have or be. Cuteness, in a weird way, is always vicarious. Cuteness is a reaction, a response. In our nostalgia-saturated culture (see Svetlana Boym for some brilliant work on nostalgia), cuteness is another mode for our nostalgia to work in, or on; that intense, desperate longing for the thing which can never be again, maybe never wasto begin with, is at the core of nostalgia; it is identical to the way in which we are positioned in relationship to our own cuteness. We can never have it (again), we can never intentionally do it, we can only mourn its loss and furiously desire to have it. It has to be experienced vicariously, so we seek it out, and when we find it, we fawn over it.

I am not sure that I would argue - not yet, anyway - that cuteness is harmful to children or adults. I just don't know. I don't think cuteness has to be, or can only be, exploitative - it's how that cuteness is deployed and maneuvered that becomes the problem, but that, as I suggest, doesn't reside in the thing of cuteness itself. Still, it's an interesting and probably vexed (if not more disturbed) set of relationships and conditions that circulate around cuteness and The Cute and the viewer of that cuteness.

Friday, February 22, 2013

PSA: Lost Toys, found

I like toys. I like material culture. This year, because of my teaching assignment, I've been spending extra time thinking about material culture and childhood, and children, which most of the time seems to mean toys.

There's an artist, Jennifer Maher, in upstate New York who does gorgeous portraits of toys and dolls; tonight I was poking around her site and came across links to some Lost Toy Finding Services [which sounds like a charming mystery novel for younger readers, probably with an all-toy cast].

Because I've spent so much time thinking about how absolutely essential toys are to us when we are small (and often not-to-small; most of my students report bringing at least one stuffed animal with them to college), the search service struck me as particularly worth noting and linking to. They're a no-cost service - it's really just a hosting site, I think, with boards set up on Pinterest for easy access. basically: if you can identify or find a toy, you post that info, and hopefully the searcher can make the connection. I wasn't really struck by this, though, until I went to the pinboards - Disaster and High Priority.

You know you can never really replace a lost Toyfriend, but finding its twin can make a huge difference. Think about how that must be, to lose your toy(s) in fire, tornado, storm, hurricane, earthquake. Finding other random toy replacements is probably easy - I don't doubt a lot of donations are of new stuffies. But - when you've lost your best teddybear, you maybe don't want a stuffed dog as a replacement. You want THAT. BEAR.  There are also a good number of sick, or very particular, or developmentally-disabled folks who need a really specific toy - it has to be THAT. EXACT. ONE. or it isn't good enough.

So this service is actually filling a bigger need than the nostalgia/whimsy market, I think.
At home, we recently went through some of the bags of my sister's and my old stuffed animals and dolls; sorting through which to keep (preserve, or - to be pretentious - curate) and which to toss or donate. I wish I'd know about this Lost Toy search before, when we did that; I'd bet at least one or two of the Missing were amongst those my sister and I discarded.

Plush Memories finding service: go, overlook the excessive use of multicolor comic sans, use the pinboards, and keep an eye out for any of the Missing.