Wednesday, October 21, 2009

A bedtime story about drowning kittens and puppies

Consider this guidance note for my present assignment in Children’s Literature. (By that I mean all arts – films, TV, books, magazines, etc.)

‘[G]o on to discuss the issue of ‘instruction through delight.’

So, what do I see the other night that made me want to throw the TV out the window – the Government's latest Global Warming, Save The Planet ‘advert’. I was just waiting for the complaints to appear before I put the proverbial boot in.

I refer to New Labour’s bedtime story about drowning kittens and puppies.

Energy and climate change minister, Joan Ruddock, denies that the six million pound advert is aimed at children. (Just like the Iraq war has nothing to do with oil.) It is a bedtime story read to a little girl by her father involving drowning kittens and puppies because we don’t turn our light bulbs off or, in more technical terms – reduce our carbon footprint.

What kind of nonsense is this? Forget for the moment the scientific controversy around increased CO emissions and our energy consumption, whether it is or not, isn’t the issue here. Anything that reduces the wasteful use of our dwindling resources is obviously a good thing and best of all; saves loads of dosh. ‘Seemples!’

Whatever team came up with this advert complete with cartoons being used to show a terrifying account of drowning puppies, rabbits dying of thirst and the end of the world as we know it; must have been taking a leaf out of the writings of Professor of Children's Literature, Kim Reynolds, of Newcastle University, who wrote:

If children’s literature fails to offer young people ways of thinking about themselves and their world that suggest that they can make a difference (Yes we can – Obama 2008), and help them construct discourse of their own to empower them as political subjects, it can not be excluded from the other social forces implicated in the gelding of youth and youth culture. (Keenan and Thompson, 2004, p147)

Now if that means frightening kids to death, so be it, the Labour government seems to think so but American fantasy and science fiction author, Ursula Kroeber Le Guin, in Language of the Night, wrote ‘But what, then, is the naturalistic writer for children to do? Can he present the child with evil as an insoluble problem … To give the child a picture of …gas chambers … or famine or the cruelties of a psychotic patient, and say, “Well baby, this is how it is, what are you going to make of it” – that is surly unethical. If you suggest that there is a ‘solution’ to these monstrous facts, you are lying to the child. If you insist that there isn’t; you are overwhelming him with a load he’s not strong enough yet to carry.’

What adults believe is suitable for children are an extremely complex social network that is very vulnerable to censorship. Remember the recent furore over Tintin in the Congo. (As a result, Amazon’s sales of the ‘offensive’ literature shot up 25000%.) There is still the problem exactly what the child reader understands.

Joan Aiken, English children’s novelist, recipient of the Guardian Award (1969) and the Edgar Allan Poe Award (1972) said ‘What terrifies one child may seem merely comic to another, or may be completely ignored; one can’t legislate for fear. Exercising any degree of control over the kind of books written for or read by children is a highly doubtful policy.’ (Haviland, 1980)

So, returning to the advert- does it have a happy ending? Is there ‘education through delight’ after all. Does the little girl say to daddy ‘If I listen to an audio book in the dark, will Peter Rabbit be saved from floods?’ Hardly, he has more chance of being shot by a farmer or ripped to shreds by a fox. As for drought - in Australia they would be delighted to get rid of the myxomatosis riddled pests from lack of water.

So what beggars belief, as far as I can figure out by this advert, is that all involved with the project have absolutely ZERO knowledge of what is ‘instruction through delight’, nor are they very clued-up on children’s literature.

Were we as children delighted by Big Billy Goat Gruff killing the troll, or were we sad that he was rather stupid and should have just eaten the Little Billy Goat Gruff , hence prolonging his life and perhaps then procreate and make more trolls who would grow up to become Labour MPs? Are trolls, along with dragons, bad because Tolkien says they are? But Puff the Magic Dragon lyrics tell a story of the ageless dragon Puff and his playmate Jackie Paper, a little boy who grows up and loses interest in the imaginary adventures of childhood and leaves Puff alone and depressed. (Amazingly some critics believed it was all about smoking marihuana.)

So is the ‘delight’ actually just the delight a child has when actually learning something new and exotic and successfully understanding the plot - regardless of the theme. Surely children’s literature should create more questions than it answers. As Peter Hunt, Professor Emeritus in Children's Literature at Cardiff University, in his essay Instruction and Delight writes in conclusion ‘To understand what is happening to narrative and our children we need to understand the process of decoding texts, as well as their history and their contemporary forms; the study of children’s literature can provide us with this understanding.’

Now, take this headline from today’s Telegraph. –

Babies who suck dummies and their thumbs for too long could damage ability to speak

So if the Office of the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs decided to make a little advert about that topic, I can help them out. I would simply use some 150 year old German children’s literature, animate it a bit, and then they can flash it out every ten minutes on CeeBees and Nickelodeon – job done, loads more of traumatised kids and at just one million pounds, a real bargain. It goes like this –

Die Geschichte vom Daumenlutscher

"The Story of Little Suck-A-Thumb".

Konrad, speaks Mrs. Mamma,
"I go out and you stay here.
Be nice and well behaved.
Until I come back home again
And especially, Konrad, listen!
Don't suck on your thumb anymore;
Otherwise the tailor with his scissors
Comes very quickly along,
And cuts off your thumbs
Just as easily as paper."

Just as soon as mother left-
Wupp, the thumb is in the mouth.

Snap! The door opens,
And at lightning speed
Jumps the tailor into the room
to the thumb-sucking boy.

Wow, now it goes snip, snip
With the scissors the thumbs come off,
With the big sharp scissors!
"Oh boy" Konrad hollers loud.
Just as mother comes home,
Konrad looks very sad.
Without thumbs he is standing there,
Both of them are gone forever.

Acknowledgment: Translation and pictures lifted from here

So, finally, what is the difference between the advert and the German fairy tale? Well, one tells you it is a bad idea to suck your thumbs and the other is brainwashing pre-election propaganda.


Anonymous said...

I just wanted to say what an amazing analogy of that advert. I am sat here writing an essay on children's literature on the debate of instruction through delight and came across your post.

Lore said...

Many thanks for the comment. I would like to point out that it is a part (to be changed so as to stay in the rules), for exactly the same assignment.