Thursday, June 29, 2017

Misreading Children's Fiction for Its Political Implications

I don't write often about religion but I did in a post from 7.5 years ago called Theism - "Pan," "Mono," and "A", where judging from some comments I received it was among my better pieces.  It had two disparate sources of stimulation.  One was a column by Ross Douthat about the movie Avatar and the religious implications of the pantheism in the story. I thought he was making much ado about nothing, so I wanted to say something in response to that effect.  The other was from my own classroom teaching.  I was in my 30th year at Illinois and this was the first time that religion had found its way into the classroom.  I hadn't invited that, at least not directly, but it was there nevertheless.  I found it awkward, but I also thought my situation relevant to others, at least those of us who teach or who have taught a class.  So I wanted to write something about those experiences.

In this piece I'm reacting to another column by Ross Douthat, The Muggle Problem.  In the Harry Potter stories, which have been celebrating a twentieth anniversary, Muggles are people who can't do magic, ordinary folks if you will.  In Rowling's telling of these stories Muggles are occasionally seen but hardly ever heard.  Douthat then makes the analogy - wizards are to liberal elites as Muggles are to Trump voters.  Armed with that off he goes.  I thought his argument was over baked.  I want to take that on in this piece.

I will eventually get to my refutation, but I have a different purpose as well.  I want to give my view of kid fiction, my ideal of what it should accomplish, and how it played out in my family with my kids, quite far from that ideal.  Indeed, I have some issues with the Harry Potter stories, but those issues are unlike anything that Douthat writes about.  In order to understand the role of these stories, it is useful to consider the full trajectory of stories the kids were exposed to when they were young.

When the  kids were too young for school they went to daycare during the school day. Then, in elementary school, the pattern when they got home was similar.  There would be play, perhaps outside on the structure in the backyard or inside with Legos.  While inside there surely would be some TV viewing.  Favorite programs included Barney, Thomas The Tank Engine, and Pokemon.  Then at night we would often watch an animated video on VHS tape.  Disney made a variety of these that we viewed repeatedly.  (I still like to watch Balto and Mulan on occasion.)  And there was also the Land Before Time series that the kids liked very much.  The kids developed two intense interests from this viewing.  One was trains.  There are train tracks that go north-south in Champaign (among the trains that ride those tracks is The City of New Orleans) and every time we'd drive near the train tracks and hear the train whistle, we'd have to pull over and watch as the train passed.  The other was dinosaurs.  (On a visit to Chicago we'd go to the museum to see the skeletons.)

After the evening movie the kids would get ready for bed and we'd read to them a story.  I can't remember whether I would read to one kid and my wife to the other (they boys had separate bedrooms) or if we got them together and one of us would do all the reading.  For quite a while Goodnight Moon was the book of choice.  In addition, I know I developed fondness for books by Sandra Boynton and some others.  Going to the bookstore to select new titles for the bedtime reading was among my favorite things to do.

A different form of media also found its way into the daily routine.  The kids got into playing video games, first Super Mario Bros., then a variety of other games.  I became the household champ at Diddy Kong Racing, after which I went cold turkey on the genre.  I was killing my thumb, pressing too hard on the joystick, and the images on the screen got implanted in my head in a way I didn't think was good for me.  Plus, I could see that before too long the kids would easily be my superior at game playing, given how much time I could devote to it, and my ego couldn't take the beating.  I don't believe they missed having me as a competitor after that.

This charming educational environment of childhood, idyllic as it seems in retrospect, must gradually be abandoned for the kids to develop further.  The stories must begin to be about people rather than about animals or inanimate objects that come to life.  Cartoons and anime must give way to more realistic video with human beings.  And the kids need to begin to read for themselves.  It is not obvious on how to get from here to there.  We did not get to Harry Potter straight away, as the way to make this leap. But other alternatives weren't the answer.

Before Harry Potter we tried adventure stories.  In the movies there was The Last of the Mohicans and a made for TV version of Kidnapped.  The boys and I watched those several times.  I also read aloud Treasure Island to them.  They enjoyed it all.  But there was a problem.  My wife was not interested in this stuff.  If you recall early fiction when we were kids, the girls had Nancy Drew while the boys had The Hardy Boys.  The separation of entertainment for girls and boys still happens, but it happened more then.  The upshot is that if we we were to find entertainment for the whole family, we'd need to do it with something other than adventure stories by Robert Louis Stevenson or James Fenimore Cooper.

There was also a great deal of anxiety among parents at that time about getting their kids to read.  That wasn't a new thing.  The original copyright on Why Johnny Can't Read dates from 1955.  But given the rise of the personal computer, in addition to the other developments I sketched above, it was evident that my kids had a much more media rich environment than my wife and I had when we were kids.  Reading had to compete with that as a source of entertainment.  The issue then was whether reading could do that.

Into this setting steps J.K. Rowling with the Harry Potter stories.  At first it seemed something of a godsend.  It offered the path from here to there.  My wife discovered the first book well before I became aware of it.  We'd read it aloud to the kids each night, ten to twenty pages at a time.  My first time at the reading we were already in the middle of the book.  After that, my wife and I took turns with the reading. So I never got the full story, nor did my wife.  But the kids did.

When I was a kid we had individualized reading.  Somebody might give me a book to read or a suggested title.  I'd read that.  Then I'd read several other books, either by the same author or by different authors but in the same genre.  But then that would get exhausted and I'd move onto a different author in a different genre.  For example I remember as a kid I got The Black Stallion's Sulky Colt as a present.  After that I read other books by Walter Farley about the Black Stallion.  Either when the supply of those or my interest in them diminished, I read other things.  Somewhat later I know I read a bunch of baseball fiction by Duane Decker.  Rebel in Right Field was perhaps the first of these that I read.

This pattern continued as long as I read books intended for kids.  Eventually I turned to fiction for adults.  I'm not sure when that happened, but I'm pretty sure I read The Grapes of Wrath during the summer after 7th grade.  The novels for adults were longer and more challenging to read.  It took a while to get through them.  Though I did go on a jag and read many books by Sinclair Lewis, often it would be only one book per author and then onto something else on a different subject.  Titles I remember reading either in junior high or high school that were not assigned to us in English class include, Of Human Bondage, Crime and Punishment, The Fixer, Catch-22, A Farewell to Arms, and The Chosen.  Also, I eventually became a regular reader of The New Republic, Scientific American, and The New York Times.  The point here is that there was substantial variety on topic and authorship, so the exposure was broad and I developed an interest to keep it that way.

Things were different when Harry Potter came onto the scene.  It seemed that all the kids were reading the same books.  The movie versions followed soon after the books appeared and the kids watched those too.  Indeed there seemed to be some feedback loop between the movie versions and the next book in the series.  And while I don't know this for a fact, it seems to me both the book publisher and the film studio wanted to get the kids really hooked on Harry Potter.  Publishing has become a blockbuster business as has film making.  Getting the kids hooked was a way to make not just one blockbuster, but an entire series of them.

The Harry Potter movies were soon followed by The Lord of the Rings trilogy.  This renewed an interest in reading Tolkein, something I confess I never did when I was a kid.  But my older son definitely got into it.  He followed that up with reading Artemis Fowl books, which occupied him for quite a while.  Eventually, he moved onto reading Michael Crichton fiction.  I believe that lasted through high school, at the least.  In other words, he remained in the world of fantasy fiction during those formative teen years.

I did strongly encourage/force him to read The Grapes of Wrath and eventually he did that, but it had no derivative consequence on his further reading that I could ascertain.  I believe he also read Holes, perhaps when he was in Middle School, and maybe after he had seen the movie.  But that too was a one off, with no apparent impact on other reading.

The younger one was less of a reader of fiction and less of a reader overall.  He became quite a history buff.  Part of that was playing Age of Empires on the computer.  Another part was watching certain shows on the The History Channel.  He became the master of arcane detail about certain historical events.  He could extract those from the computer and the TV in a way that he probably couldn't by reading.  And he could do that extraction relatively quickly.  Reading is slower, no doubt.  It takes patience.

My ideal for how a kid should grow up with reading is much closer to my experience as a teen than to the experience of my children.  In a recent post entitled Love of Country in an Era of Social Divide I wrote:

In a compelling essay by Philip Roth, which is a reprise of a speech he gave back in 2002, he talks of his own sense of being American as a teen, while living in a Jewish working class section of Newark New Jersey, the locale that in one way provided his entire universe.  But he was a bookish kid and thereby was able to get a sense of America beyond his own direct experience through the fiction he read.  Roth read a variety of great American writers from the first half of the 20th century.  It was his reading that gave Roth a sense of being American, knowledge of the country as a whole, rather than merely an occupant of his own little niche.  There were many tensions in America while Roth was coming of age.  Being a proud American did not mean putting on rose-colored glasses about the America where one lives.  But these tensions were part of a dynamism, which itself was part of the American story.  There was confidence that things would get better, even if they never would be perfect.

In other words, reading broadly is a way to combat the inevitable limits of our own experience, which are situated in a certain place and a certain time.  By reading broadly, we can overcome those limitations, at least to some degree.  The fixation on fantasy fiction, something that the Harry Potter books encouraged, has had the unintended consequence of narrowing the kids, because the fantasy is not steeped in the reality of anyone's experiences.  It is fantasy only.  It shares features with other fantasy stories.  But it doesn't open the reader's eyes to the situation real people experience who are unlike the reader.

Now let me turn to criticism of Douthat.  He takes on the Harry Potter books as an entity unto itself.   Apart from the other fantasy fiction works I mentioned above, he might have also considered Star Wars and its renaissance, now a property of Disney, nor does he consider The Game of Thrones (my older son did read the George R.R. Martin novels first), or the various Marvel comics brought to the big screen.  All of these works are mythology, perhaps updated to current times, but mythology nonetheless.  It matters not whether you call the main characters gods or superheroes.  They are more than normal human beings in their capacities.  And they play a featured role in all these stories.

It's true that in the original Superman stories the people who worked at the Daily Planet - Lois Lane, Jimmy Olsen, and Perry White - were normal human beings but featured nevertheless.  But they were featured because they were in repeated contact with Superman, or with each other.  And likewise for Han Solo and Chewbacca in Star Wars.  Otherwise, the Star Wars stories were about the Jedi and their battle with the dark side of the force. All mythology focuses on the gods.  Sometimes the gods are in contact with humans and then those characters become part of the story.  Other times the gods just do battle with themselves and their are no ordinary human beings in sight.

The Harry Potter stories are not exceptional this way.  Why Douthat thinks otherwise, I don't know.  But he is making too big a case of it.

Rowling was clever, casting the wizards in training as kids at a boarding school.  While most of the readers of the Harry Potter books lived at home with their parents, at least through high school, the boarding school concept was not so alien from their own experience that they could readily identify with the situation in the story.  Bringing fantasy into a familiar setting was a good way to generate a broad audience for the books. 

But in the process of doing this a kind of mass addiction developed.  Some mythology in our entertainment is probably fine.  However, the balance between such works and other dramatic works seems quite tipped in favor of the former.  Reading in general is on the downs.   The bias is therefore impacting movies and TV, and surely it also can be found in computer games and video games, though I am ignorant of current offerings in that space.

This I believe to be the harmful legacy in the Harry Potter stories, although it may have been inevitable even if Rowling never wrote those books.  Too many other factors were pushing us in this direction.

Let me close with a different observation, one about the benefits of reading a book as compared to watching a movie or a TV show.  The reader does more work to complete the story.  The movie or TV viewer is more passive this way.  More than a decade ago there was a piece Watching TV Makes You Smarter.  So there is a counterargument on this point.  But I wonder how many people actually buy the counterargument.  One of the damning criticisms of President Trump that has been offered up repeatedly is that he doesn't read and prefers to watch TV.  It is said this is evidence that he is not curious about things.   Reading encourages thoughtfulness in a way that viewing a TV or a movie does not, especially for a person who doesn't read much at all.

The Harry Potter craze is behind us now.  Maybe that offers an opportunity to make reading more important to today's kids and in a way where the kids read a much greater variety of written work.  I sure hope so.

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