Friday, October 30, 2015

Be Very Afraid: The Literature Monsters are Here!

There’s nothing scarier than a terrifying monster in literature: the one not on a television screen, the one we can’t see or hide from because our imagination is running wild and incessantly conjuring up what it may look like in the story. Sitting alone in your darkened room, your every breath overly loud in the silent house, you’re unable to put the book down for fear of discovering that that dark shadow is actually sitting in front of you. Often times the question arises: why we are so attracted to horror stories?

When dealing in horror texts for children, adults often convolute what exactly is acceptable for children and what is too scary form, drawing a blurred line that changes over generations. And what is then even more curious is the question: why are children’s books — once dark and then sanitized until they had squeaky-clean happy endings — now becoming once again tales with darker themes?

Just think of it. Children already live in a scary world where there are giants all around them (adults) and chairs that are too high. The richness of the macabre in contemporary children’s literature seems only a continuation of the fairy-tale tradition, but now it’s been updated to take the anxieties of the modern world into account. Children’s darker tales and horror stories use fairy-tale-esque metaphors in order to tackle the fears and desires lurking beneath the surface of children’s lives — worries not just about death, but about alienation, insecurity, loss, and lack of agency in their lives. Just as adult horror stories provide a more palatable way to absorb the notions of death, bodily decay, and the bleakness of the human condition that would otherwise be too disgusting or distressing to deal with, so, too, do the vampires, ghosts, and ghouls in children’s literature address issues that even adults find too difficult to explain. Horror stories are honest with children in a way that adults, especially parents, are often not, and thus teaching them how to survive against monsters and, in turn, be powerful as well; they can confront their fear in a safe way.

The author of The Uses of Enchantment Bruno Bettelheim writes in his introduction, “While it entertains the child, the fairy tale enlightens him about himself, and fosters his personality development. It offers meaning on so many different levels, and enriches the child’s existence in so many ways…” (Bettelheim 12). And there is something for every child’s (and adult’s) taste, with as many variations of the supernatural as the number of snakes on Medusa’s head.

Here is a list of the 5 scariest monsters in literature we’ve compiled. Until next time, Happy Halloween!
  1. Jabberwok — The villian in the nonsense poem written by Lewis Carroll was published in his novel Through the Looking-Glass. The Jabberwock stood “with eyes of flame,/ came whiffling through the tulgey wood,/ and burbled as it came!” This terrifying monster first came to life with John Tenniel’s famous illustration. His interpretation of the creature included the body of a dragon with a catfish-like head, with his “claws that catch” and his “jaws that bite.” Judging by the grotesque yet whimsical description, no one would want to wander into a forest and run into this beast!

  2. Bunnicula — Because what’s more terrifying than a vegetable-sucking, domesticated rabbit? Bunny rabbits are supposed to be the picture of innocence! Until this Bunnicula open their mouth that is. James Howe’s series about the fanged little creature perfectly blends humor and mythical lore about vampires and makes kids look twice at the animals they are responsible for. 

  3. The Nothing — Now this is possibly the most existential monster in children’s literature. The Nothing is the evil, mysterious force of Fantasia in Michael Ende’s The Neverending Story, which the protagonist Atreyu is sent to destroy in order to save the citizens of Fantasia. In order
    to protect them from death and sickness, Atreyu must face The Nothing, and in the process, learns that this force is the embodiment of the darkest parts of humanity, everything evil and destructive, depriving the world of meaning and hope and creating a nothingness that will soon engulf us all. 

  4. The Dark Family — This particular “monster” is perhaps the one kids can relate with the most, because children often have that tense relationship with their parents and other adults. Children struggle to make their voices heard in a world that assumes they know and see less than they do or that their knowledge is somehow lesser or invalid. R.L. Stine’s The Girl Who Cried Monster’s parents are literally the monsters at the end of the novel, and this trope of adults who do not validate what their children know is common in The Goosebumps series and costs the adults dearly in the end. However, nothing is more representative of the Dark Family than Coraline’s Other Mother. She is the ultimate representation of the anxieties of smothering, possessing parents, for she “loved Coraline as a miser loves money, or a dragon loves its gold… Coraline knew she was a possession, nothing more” (Gaiman 127).

  5. The Goblins — Maurice Sendak is no stranger to darker tales for children. While you may be familiar with Where the Wild Things Are, he wrote another story, Outside Over There, the story of set of goblins that kidnap a young baby, replacing him with an icy doppelganger that melts in his sister’s arms; his older sister then leaves the house through a window to “outside over there” to rescue her kidnapped sibling. In an interview, Sendak says that the Lindbergh baby kidnapping case and seeing the baby’s remains in a newspaper clipping inspired him to write Outside Over There. In an interview with the Paris Review, he states, “You had to form a kind of fake life, to protect yourself. Because you learn very quickly that parents can’t protect you. It leaves a lurking fear. You never feel safe, never believe, really, that your parents are any safer than you, or could protect you from the unknown.
  • Bettelheim, Bruno. The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales. New York: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 1976. Print.

  • Steinbrg, Avi. "Maurice Sendak on 'Bumble-Ardy.' The Daily. n.p. 27 Dec. 2015. Web. 27 Oct. 2015.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

What’s With These Abecedarians?

Fun Fact About ABC Books:
There are three types of ABC books that are known as:

  1. The Swallow Alphabet: this type involves arranging the letters by anything that revolves around eating things or use food as signifies for letters.
  2. The Body Alphabet: this type was common in the 1800s and used drawings of people’s bodies or animal bodies that were made into the shapes of letters.
  3. Alphabetic Array or Worldly Alphabet: this type is most commonly used for children today and is where each letter can stand for anything in the world that starts with that letter.
When we think about children’s literature as a whole, ABC books for children are always an area of inquiry. This doesn’t seem surprising since, each year, there are many new publications of ABC books for children. It could possibly be just a race to the top, who can think up the newest most clever way to teach children the alphabet.

From The New England Primer
Let’s starts with the basics. An abecedarian text is any construction of text that is arranged alphabetically. Texts that included the alphabet started with the primers, in the mid to late 1500’s. The primers were books used in early education and included various religious lessons within its abecedarian form. The New England Primer was the first of this kind in the United States that was intended to teach children to read so that they would be able to read the Bible. John Locke, in 1693, suggested that learning the alphabet should begin as soon as possible for a child, which then allowed these alphabetic methods to adapt into texts for children with more playful elements. In the 18th century, once realizing how profitable book publishing for children was, John Newbery published a type of abecedarian called A Little Pretty Pocket Book with images that were carved from wood and depicted playful setting, starting with “A is for Archer and shot at a frog.” These types of children’s texts were then later turned even more popular through their use of verse and rhyming patterns.

After years passed and more biblical referencing ABC books for children were published, children authors of nonsense finally jump on the children-abecedarian bandwagon and perhaps do an even better job of flipping it upside-down on its head. Alphabet book publications seem to be a common habit among nonsense authors. Edward Lear, Edward St. John Gorey, Shel Silverstein, Dr. Suess, and even Maurice Sendak all have at least one published alphabet book for children.

Within Edward Lear’s collection of nonsense literature, there is A Nonsense Alphabet, which perhaps later on inspired one Edward St. John Gorey to publish so many of his nonsense and dark ABC books for children. How does anyone forget the lines: “A is for Amy who fell down the stairs, B is for Basil assaulted by bears” (The Gashlycrumb Tinies)?

In today’s age, while there are some creative ABC books for children still being published, they may be lost on the shelves, squished between the ABC baby board book, the ABC baby peek-a-book board book, the ABC baby bath time plastic book, and any other form they come in that are harder for baby consumption. So maybe instead of worrying about eaten pages out of ABC books for children, we should worry about the content and display that these eaten pages would have contained.
And while most ABC books for children being published today have different marketing intentions, there are still some note-worthy contemporary ABC books for children.  One example is Animalia, a sophisticated alphabet book by Graeme Base. This incredibly artistic and creative ABC book took three years to create and was an international best seller. Animalia is a great example of playful ABC books with its hidden boy in each picture, which was actually the author as a little boy. Marion Bataille is another author worthy of recognition. She published a 3D alphabet book for children titled ABC3D in 2008 that also came with a cool video of a hand flipping through its pages to the tube of "Roll On Mississippi, Roll On" by The Boswell Sisters.  These contemporary examples of ABC books for children will hopefully challenge and inspire the next abecedarian books for children authors to continue to create clever, witty, and a unique design in order to continue a culture of brilliant ABC books for children.

Notes and Citations:
"Animalia (1986)." The Cambridge Guide to Children's Books in English. Ed. Victor Watson. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001. Credo Reference. Web. 20 Oct 2015.
"Alphabet Books." The Cambridge Guide to Children's Books in English. Ed. Victor Watson. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001. Credo Reference. Web. 20 Oct 2015.
Shortsleeve, Kevin. "Edward Gorey, Children's Literature, and Nonsense Verse." Children's Literature Association Quarterly, 27.1 (2002): 27-39.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Steven Universe and "Soft Masculinity"

There’s nothing new about male superheroes being the pinnacle of masculinity. Superman, with his idealized wholesome masculine power with danger lurking just beneath the surface of his calm exterior and Batman, with his fearlessness and gritty strength as the revered “lone wolf,” are both iconic images of this trope. However, studies have shown that these muscled, thick-veined, often-snarling masculine icons are just that—male power fantasies. Thus suggesting that masculinity is still a socially constructed performance, like any other gender role, even if it is always at the peek of power.

Performative masculinity has a tension to it that performative femininity does not, in that the performance itself is seen as unmasculine. In other words, you cannot learn to be a “real man” — you either are or you are not. And that is the story that both popular media, from movies to first-person shooter games, and heteronormative societal structures pushes on its young male audience. More and more today, we see dangerous displays of this toxic sort of masculinity go unchecked.

I think masculinity can, and should, manifest in different, healthier ways: emotional strength, bravery, and above all, love.

With a lineup of Lego-brand shows filtering into people’s homes about male physical prowess, Steven Universe is another popular TV series that is a breath of fresh air. Protected by three, ageless, female-presenting alien warriors called the Crystal Gems (by the names of Garnet, Amethyst, and Pearl), Steven is a half-human, half-gem boy who inherited his gemstone from his late mother, and the Gems’ former leader, Rose Quartz. And what do the four (Steven included) Crystal Gems do? They protect the world from evil, of course.

Steven’s weapon is a shield — a bright pink, impenetrable shield with a rose emblem in the middle of it. Steven does not attack; he defends. Unlike other characters in movies, Steven does not thrust forward in battle with a phallic weapon. He inherited his powers to shield and ability to heal from his mother, but Rose also left him her sword, which he does not wield at all. Steven is adventurous and confident, which is typical of boy leads in shows, but he is also affectionate, selfless, very prone to crying, and just plain adorable on all counts. These characteristics and abilities are often distinctly feminine-coded as far as popular media tropes are concerned and therefore unfit for growing boys; they are seen as less powerful traits than traditional masculine ones like ambition. And what makes Steven Universe such a transgressive show is that not only are Steven’s traits not treated as weaknesses, they are also frequently the source of his greatest powers.

When asked about her decision to play with the dynamics of gendered television, the show’s creator Rebecca Sugar said it was an intentional one: “My goal with the show was to really tear down and play with the semiotics of gender in cartoons for children because I think that’s a really absurd idea that there would be something radically different about a show for little girls versus a show for little boys.”

Aside from the other Crystal Gems raising him, he also has a great father, Greg Universe, who is arguably just as responsible for Steven’s strength as his three “mothers” are. At first glance, the audience would assume Greg is one of those “bad-father” types. He doesn’t live with Steven as the primary caregiver (he lives in a van, i.e. he is homeless); he is unambitious; he is an ex-musician with a hoarding problem. Despite all of this, Greg is a large presence in Steven’s life, offering unconditional love and support for him even when Greg doesn’t understand and/or fears the situations. In one instance, he helps Steven gain control of his powers, and in another, he gives Steven the space to participate in missions and battles, but also remains close by in case his son needs the extra support.

Greg Universe is definitely not perfect, but what makes him as “trope breaking” as Steven himself is that he doesn’t try to change any of the abilities or personality traits that make Steven so uniquely him. He is a gentle, nurturing father in a sea of emotionally unavailable — or just plain absent — father figures, another popular media trope. He does his best besides the crappy circumstances he finds himself in and becomes an excellent role model for his son — and furthermore, for the young boys that are watching the show. 

Steven Universe is undoubtedly a show dedicated to showing that our lives do not have to be ruled by rigid, heteronormative gender roles. Steven Universe is a reminder that boys and men can be good and kind and powerfully loving, instead of just plain powerful. He is a boy who embodies the possibility of turning away from simulated and toxic masculinities to a movement toward one that is deeply rooted in love and compassion rather than domination. And most importantly, that it’s okay and wonderful and necessary that young boys be allowed to cry and be excited and gentle.

  • Lachenal, Jessica. "Rebecca Sugar on Gender, Steven Universe, and the Show's Inspiration." The Mary Sue. n.p. 15 June 2015. Web. 15 October 2015. 

Monday, October 5, 2015

Ninjago: Commodity and the Fixation of “Goodness”

Unlike classical folktale structures and themes — behave or die, prince charming will rescue you, or stay away from adventures or die — the modern kid lit texts seems to have developed into its own beast.

It seems safe to assume that everyone has been exposed to the Star Wars stories, and the generation of children that followed the original three films, the 90’s kids, were exposed to TV shows like Power Rangers, Dragon Ball Z, and Batman: The Animated Series, all of which have a few things in common with Star Wars. Within these texts, there is a resounding presence of light vs. dark, good vs. evil, confronting inner demons, and being reintroduced into a sacred space with “kick-ass” powers, and of course, how can we forget, the special “chosen one.” So when exposed to the new hit TV show Ninjago: Masters of Spinjitzu recently, we must stop to think, what is it about these Star Wars themes that are taking over children’s texts lately?
Ninjago: Masters of Spinjitzu is an animated series that airs on Cartoon Network and is currently in its sixth season. This extremely popular TV program, created by the Lego Corporation, is about five, pubescent male characters who discover that they are the ones who must fight for good in their world and maintain the sanctified balance for everyone else. Of course, there is one who is the “true chosen one,” Lloyd, whose father Lord Garmadon (wait can you guess?) turned evil and is bringing evil into the world. Lloyd, along with his friends Jay, Cole, Zane, and Kai, train under Sensei Wu, Lord Garmadon’s brother, and learn about patience and how to fight the evil forces. Ok… so not only does this story follow a semi-Star-Wars-esque theme, but it also hones in to the 90’s popular TV shows, like Power Rangers, where each character contains their own unique power but when combined with their friends, will always create the most awesomely powerful weapon.
While this may sound like a show that is positively influencing the younger generation to continue the wise lessons Master Yoda embodies, the use of Legos for the animation holds an opposing connotation. Here, Sarah Banet-Weiser’s definition of “brand-culture” in American society can be explored through how it continuously maintains the illusion of childhood imagination and personification of “goodness,” but also how it simultaneously supports a capitalistic society. As in the 2014 Lego Movie’s implied didactic message arguably attempting to inspire children to express themselves in imaginative ways, it also promotes the belief of individuality through the concept of “special-ness,” like being chosen for “Ninjahood.” While The Lego Movie is very explicit in its anti-corporation message, the characters that prevail in both the movie and these TV shows are the ones that think outside the box and learn to work with others. Once labeled as one who will “bring balance to the universe,” it appears that “goodness” is used as a selling strategy. The movie itself tricks the audience into acquiring a false sense of empowerment through the exaggeration of paying for a $12 coffee or still loving the song that repeats on the radio every hour; yet, this paradox only hides the truth that branching away from this corporate control only introduces new methods of control. “Goodness” or being trained on the “good side” can be seen as a super power, which exposes the continuation of brand-culture because it is the corporation that ultimately contains this power. Through self-discovery, these characters encompass more that just perfect citizenship (“valuable ideology”), perhaps mirroring a story that may have intended to truly inspire “goodness” but instead perpetuates new children’s text with the theme that good will always prevail over evil.  

So in a world where the Disney Corporation owns the rights to Star Wars and Lego™ suggests childhood dreams should be built in blocks, the commodification of “goodness” is resoundingly present in the texts created for the current generation’s children.

  • Banet-Weiser, Sarah. Authentic TM: The Politics and Ambivalence in a Brand Culture. New York, N.Y.: New York University Press, 2012.
  • Ninjago Information from Lego Wiki: