Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Lack of Science Fiction for Children: Failing to Imagine a Better Future

In a recent panel at the New York Public Library, an important question was asked: Where’s the science fiction for young readers?

Even today when one hears the term “science fiction,” the immediate titles that come to mind most often belong to the oeuvre of Jules Verne or H.G. Wells—the founding fathers of the science fiction genre. Many of the older SF writers are now celebrated for having the foresight of envisioning many of the technological advancements that now are a part of our daily lives. We belong to a time when the brightest minds of our time were able to create Siri, a “personal assistant” and “knowledge navigator,” who functions as a “human consciousness inhabiting [an] electronic [space], blurring the boundary between human and machine” (Cadora); but has our imagination and ability to envision the future stunted in comparison to the past?

In the wake of the moon landing and the Star Wars saga, there was an explosion of interest in the SF genre—as seen by the popularity of books like A Wrinkle in Time, Ender’s Game, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and The Giver—but the emergence of the Harry Potter series in the late 90’s changed the children’s publishing world forever. Following on its coattail came the Percy Jackson series and the Twilight saga. Fantasy suddenly became the most desired sub genre for young readers. 

Even the popular dystopian novels of today, which fall under combined category of science fiction/fantasy, have a distinct lack of science in them. Despite our futuristic world where we are slaves to our phones, people are turning away from the imagining and exploration of a future defined by “exploitive technologies” and “obeisance to authority” (Cadora). With constant criticism that social media and texting are taking away our ability to connect with each other on a personal level, one would think the fear of “social breakdowns caused by the alienation” of communicating with each other through machines would be a more enticing issue to readers (Crandall). Yet, readers are much more interested in patriarchal oppressed dystopian societies, and the popularity of the Hunger Games and Divergent series can attest to that.

Most books that are solely identified as SF are generally marketed towards adults. Even so, some YA novels, such as Cinder by Marissa Meyer and The Maze Runner by James Dashner, do try to incorporate the SF characteristics of technologically and scientifically advanced future societies into their stories for interested readers, but it is becoming increasingly difficult to distinguish the difference between fantasy and science fiction for YA.

As far as science fiction books for children, you can find pictures books like Doug Unplugged by Dan Yaccarino and Oh No!: Or How MyScience Project Destroyed the Whole World by Mac Barnett and Dan Santat. Then in middle grade you find select books such as When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead and The Accelerati Triology by Neal Shusterman and Eric Elfman. But the issue remains they are few and far in between. So it begs the question: Is science fiction in children’s literature out of place because there are not enough interested readers? Or is it that publishers are choosing to place their focus elsewhere? I believe it is a disservice to young readers to not let them explore the fun side of science fiction. The writing of both Stead and Shusterman/Elfman are filled with so much heart and humor:

"'s like they say, 'Keep your friend's clothes... in your enemy's closet.'" 
-Tesla's Attic (Accelerati, #1) 

This shift away from science fiction has me wondering: At what point did children turn away from imagining and exploring the possibilities of a technologically advanced future to yearning for a life of magic and monsters (of the mythical and human variety, but not machine)?

Scholarly Sources:

Cadora, Karen. "Feminist cyberpunk." Science fiction studies (1995): 357-372.

Crandall, Nadia. "Cyberfiction and the Gothic Novel." The Gothic in Children’s Literature: Haunting the Borders (2008): 39-56.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Greetings for Spring 2015

Welcome to the new year, children's lit scholars. It's 2015, and it's going to be better than ever with a number of exciting publications on the horizon. 

Joining us this semester on our awesome blog is Meg Mardian. She is in her last semester at San Diego State University, working on her MA in Children's Literature. Her focus in research encompasses fairy tale retellings and the cultural significance of the changes produced for each new audience. 

Back for another semester of blogging for the SDSU Children’s Literature Department is Cristina Rivera. Having survived her first semester of graduate school, she is back and ready to share fun topics and information across children’s literature. 

Last semester, the Children’s Literature Department created our very own Instagram account. We are looking forward to increasing our followers and bring you the inside scoop from our marvelous department with a picturesque point of view. Please follow us!

Also, be on the lookout for our weekly updates on the blog, with the occasional extra posts from bloggers of previous semesters. 

Wishing everyone an epic semester: "May the odds be ever in your favor." 

Friday, December 19, 2014

The Grimm Brother’s Surprisingly Terrifying Authentic Fairy Tales Recent Translation By Jack Zipes

As many of you probably already know (and if not this will be quite a surprise), the Grimm Brothers were the authors of many well-known folktales past down over generations. Many of these tales have been adapted into sweet movies of lovely princesses and songs that provoke nostalgic memories. The original published stories, however, were nothing like this. They were, dark and twisted, filled with scenarios of murder, greed, lust, death, and even rape.  Silly to think those stories adapted by Disney are so precious, right?

In a recent article for the Irish Times,Jack Zipes (acclaimed author of several books discussing fairy tales in society today such as Breaking the Magic Spell: Radical Theoriesof Folk and Fairy Tales and Why FairyTales Stick: The Evolution and Relevance of a Genre), talks about the contradictions and distortions these modern versions hold. He points out how there are dark images and descriptions in the original publications and how these new versions are probably opposite to the intentions of the Grimm Brothers original publications. He emphasizes that the original published fairy tales were not originally meant for a child audience and also never intended to become great works of children’s literature. Interestingly, the stories originated from European, Middle Eastern, and Asian tales passed down orally over generations and most of the stories did not even contain fairies.

Zipes states, “Clearly, if [the Grimm Brothers] were living today, they would be shocked to discover how their tales have been misread and hyped and spread throughout the world in all sizes and shapes, not to mention in films and TV programs that might make them shudder.”

From Rapunzel
To clarify just how different these versions of the fairy tales are, here are two examples:

In the Grimm’s version of Rapunzel, a husband steals from the garden of a witch to satisfy his pregnant wife’s brutal pregnancy cravings. When the husband is caught stealing ‘rampion’ from the garden, he is forced to give the witch his daughter, who then grows into the most beautiful girl with long golden hair. The witch locks her in a tower on her twelfth birthday that has neither stair nor doors. A prince wandering through the forest sees the witch call to Rapunzel to let down her hair one day and upon her departure mimics the call to the dame at the top of the tower. They fall in love and the prince impregnates Rapunzel. The witch finds out and in her anger cuts off Rapunzel’s hair and put her out into the forest to fend for herself. The next time the prince comes to visit, the witch pretends to be Rapunzel and ultimately throws him from the tower, blinding him when he lands face-first in a thorny bush. He wanders around for years blinded until one day Rapunzel, who has now given birth to twins, finds him and they are reunited.
         This is exceptionally different from the Disney movie version where Rapunzel starts out as a princess and the witch is the villain of this version. The prince's character in the Disney movie is a thief-outlaw and together they defeat the evil witch and return to the king and queen, who have missed their daughter for eighteen years. Then once the outlaw-thief gives up his bad ways, he and Rapunzel get married and live happily-ever-after.

The Grimm’s version of SleepingBeauty is sort of similar to the Disney version, expect for the whole second part of the story that gets cut out of the movie. After the prince rescues the princess from her hundred years of sleep, in the story, he does not go and fight an evil dragon fairy, but instead marries the princess and they have two children. His mother, the queen, is a terrible evil ogre who is very jealous of the princess and the children and desires to eat them for her dinner. She demands that the cook kill and serve them to her. The cook hides them in his house and instead uses different animal meats to disguise the dinner she thinks she is having. The queen ends up finding out the trick and as she is preparing to throw the kids and the princess into a pit with snakes and vipers, the prince arrives just in time to save the day. Disney probably assumed that mothers wouldn’t be so satisfied with a story that portrays them as an evil ogre. So they simply cut out that ‘unnecessary’ part of the story and included their own ending, which they could gain more profit from about fifty-five years later by creating a movie version of the villain, Maleficent.

If these original versions have caught your attention, check out Jack Zipes’s recently published The Original Folk and Fairy Tales of theBrothers Grimm from Princeton University Press. This collection is translated from the last original edition of the Grimm Brother’s fairy tales and is one that will bring up many hot conversation starters next time someone brings up a Disney movie, song or princess.

Sources and Notes:

Thursday, December 11, 2014

A Recap of Brilliance and Accomplishment

In an earlier post this semester, we announced some of our every own SDSU faculty, staff and alumni were participating in the 2014 PAMLA conference held in Riverside, CA. Fortunately, two of the presenters were able to share their experiences and what they presented on for this year's conference .

Alya Hameed presented on the film Paranorman through both a Gothic and a feminist angle. “The presentation examined Norman's queerness as one that both subverts and systematically upholds heteronormative and patriarchal structures.”

This was Alya's second year presenting at the PAMLA conference. However, not only did Alya present her brilliant ideas but she was also able to sit as chair to two panels, both on the topic of Children's Literature. “As a panel experience, my paper thematically flowed with the other papers (one on Coraline and Meg's on The Sleeper and the Spindle). Those discussed female protagonists contending with different experiences of entrapment and conscription (whether by the narrative or my socialized feminine standards).” Alya explains that she was able to guide the conversation in a direction that discussed the male protagonist “with an explicitly emasculated or feminized heritage.” Together the panel was ultimately able to cover the question of gender and selfhood within the concept of child-identity.

“Chairing is also a great experience,” Alya says, “offering an opportunity to be active on the other side--no presentation needs to be prepared but you are actively listening and possibly preparing questions to garner discussion, especially if you have a quiet audience. I recommend graduate students consider opportunities to chair at conferences (as well as present, of course) if and when possible.”

Meg Mardian, a current graduate student at SDSU, presented on the socio-cultural issues that come about from the depiction of female beauty as an inborn virtue found within the young female heroines of fairy tales. The main focus was Neil Gaiman's "The Sleeper and the Spindle,” a combination of Sleeping Beauty and Snow White. Since both stories portray young, beautiful girls who are punished by evil, old women, Gaiman rewrote them into a Gothic twist in order to critique current day female anxieties surrounding beauty as well as age. “My main argument [was] based on the critical work of Naomi Wolf, called The Beauty Myth, wherein she talks about why the patriarchy propagates unreasonable beauty ideals for women as a way of keeping them under control.”

Interestingly, Meg points out that women over the years have focused aggression towards one another more so than trying to fight the oppression that defines gender roles. Once the female hero can assert her independence she is able to “pass on the torch—or in this case the bloody spindle.”

However, it gets better. Meg says her favorite part of the paper was discussing the absence of older strong and beautiful women, pointing out that they are normally portrayed as bitter old women who hold resentment to the younger beauty in the story and as a result wish to steal these qualities from them. Quoting Wolf, she states, “To airbrush age off a woman’s face is to erase women’s identity, power, and history. To show children that wrinkles are not beautiful means to show them their worth is only skin deep” and it allows the patriarchy to maintain dominance, which is why women should be fighting against this.

After Meg's presentation a man asked if she thought the gender of the author (Gaiman) mattered in the these new types of fairy tales that do challenge the patriarchy's agenda. To this she replied that it shouldn't make a difference what the gender of the author is, in the same way it shouldn't matter what the gender of the person reading is. “These types of texts, if they are meant to defy status quo, should be aimed at all audiences… I can't say if a woman could have done it the same way or better, just that Gaiman succeeded in creating a new fairy tale that makes the reader question their own expectations and roles in society.”