Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Insight without illumination

I often am exasperated by the large community of well intended readers (most often out of academia) who spend so much time harping about the purported disguised messages (and thereby corrupting dangers) hidden in classics of children's literature, usually with the resulting advocacy that children should not be exposed to these books. My exasperation is threefold. First, that the critiques leveled at the books (usually race, class, and gender or some combination) are so extended that they would encompass virtually all well written books and thereby leave us without reading material. Second, that the messages are often so hidden that they are only discernible to an adult rather than to a child; and an adult, at that, with plenty of time on their hand for reflection. In addition, that which is being criticised is open to multiple equally legitimate interpretations - i.e. the criticism is speculative rather than fact based. Third, that the critique is so completely divorced from any sense of proportion or perspective. Proportion in that the element being criticized may only be a small part of the story. Perspective in that a parent needs all the help they can get to find an engaging story quickly and doesn't have time to read/comprehend a forty page explication about the inherent class bias exhibited in Lassie or the dangers posed by the disguised misogyny of the Hardy Boys. They just need a good story - Now!

All that being said, sometimes these cogitations do turn up some interesting points. It is rather as if these deeply knowledgeable critics entered a darkened room with a laser pointer. They can point out all sorts of interesting little features of the room in a strange red light but can give no overall illumination of the nature of the room. The parent gains more understanding of the room with a one second flip of the light switch than three hours of a laser pointer tour.

All this is brought to mind because of an article by Adam Gopnik in the September 22, 2008 New Yorker, Freeing the Elephants. Gopnik addresses a central charge leveled at Jean de Brunhoff's Babar books for the last two or three decades; namely that they are purveyors of an imperialist mind set and are therefore dismissive of the non-European world.

It is an interesting article for pointing out different ways of understanding the context in which the Babar books were written and ways of interpreting the stories. Gopnik is as deeply knowledgeable as the critics but takes a more tolerant and encompassing view of the stories.

If you are short on time though - just read the Babar stories. They are still great after all these years and will almost certainly hold your child's interest.

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