Tag Archives: children’s literature

Maurice Sendak, I’ll Eat You Up I Love You So

Even more than Dr Seuss’s verbal prestidigitations and Arnold Lobel’s elegies and ironies, I love Maurice Sendak’s simple words and striking pictures.  And so, the day after his death, I’d like to address what made so many of his stories so brilliant, effective, and scary: he understood and concretized every child’s worst fear. It is primal and simple.

It is being eaten.

And so the main motif of Where the Wild Things Are is food—the meal that Max would make of his mother (an idle threat), the meal the wild things would make of Max (highly plausible, given the reiteration of terrible teeth and claws), and the return to safety at the end, where the reward is supper–not the never-seen parent–waiting, still hot. And more importantly, supper is not Max.  My kids and I had many conversations about what was in that bowl, and the way the final image violates the first commandment of Children’s Lit: Thou shalt end with the main character going to sleep, not eating, or the parents will suffer another round of “I’m hungry.”

Max’s reward for returning? Food. Pierre’s punishment for not caring? Being food–eaten by the lion, a far more effective surrogate parent than Pierre’s real mother or father, who helplessly, impotently rail against Pierre’s apathy, whereas the lion provides what in today’s parenting jargon is known as natural consequences.  You don’t care if I eat you? Fine, I’ll eat you. And behold, suddenly, Pierre has a deathbed conversion!  Even with its allusions to early Christianity’s punishment, Daniel, and Jonah, the lion’s swallowing of Pierre seems more Greco-Roman, more Goya, and more Freud than Judeo-Christian.

Maurice Sendak

And who can forget Mickey, of In the Night Kitchen fame, put in the oven by triplicate cooks with matching Hitler mustaches?  The book raised eyebrows for its full frontal, um, Mickey, but its Holocaustic humor still seems beneath the radar.  A children’s book in the form of a comic decades before Diary of a Wimpy kid cashed in, In the Night Kitchen still strikes me as Sendak’s most dream-like and most nightmarish, the continued and sustained childhood fear that all of those seemingly loving culinary parental nicknames—Sugar, Honeycakes, Sweetie-pie, or, in the case of my daughter, Smooshy Cookie and, later, Pickles—are not metonyms at all but veiled threats.  I’ll eat you up I love you so. As Mickey’s parents slumber unknowingly, Mickey is, to switch from Jewish fear to Christian theology, being transfigured into food.  That he turns out to solve the mystery of why we have cake every morning, or that Pierre survives the lion’s belly, or that Max’s supper is waiting for him, still hot, are the feel-good endings that prolong the benevolent mysteries of childhood.

But the sustained conflict throughout—to eat, to be eaten, to escape, or abandon, the ovens, bellies, and faraway lands–encompasses the real, primordial wishes and fears of childhood. And while Sendak rendered the dread of being eaten by the ones you love literal, parents and adults can still understand and recognize  the possibility, even likelihood, of feeling consumed by those closest to you.

Time: 35 sad minutes.

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Bedtime Stories After the End of the World (Ages 12 and under)

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Liposuction

The days of waiting for an owl on your eleventh birthday, revealing that you’re a wizard and inviting you to Harry Potter’s Hogwarts, are over. Instead, children—young adults, or YA, in the publishing parlance, now fantasize about being entered into the Hunger Games’ tribute lottery at twelve.

Owl

Katniss, please don't shoot and eat me

The fall fascinates me.  Harry Potter’s wizarding world belongs to a genre I think of “Secret Worlds,” with predecessors JM Barrie’s Peter Pan, Frank Baum’s Wizard of Oz, and CS Lewis’s Narnia, and successors in Neil Gaiman’s Graveyard Book and Lev Grossman’s Magicians.  There is our world as we know it—Muggles, or worse, Kansans—deadened by lack of magic real and metaphorical. But then the protagonist, who is somehow both special and ordinary at the same time, discovers, or is invited as part of an initiation or rite of passage into adulthood, into a closet kingdom, via some mundane threshold: a window, a hidden train, a magicked out car, fireplace, or, um, boot, or best yet, an actual  closet.  There, they discover that the world is full of possibilities, and that they are more special, more integral, to saving it then they had dared dream.  The books’ pages function as that wardrobe, opening and taking the young reader into its realm. While danger obviously must ensue, the books begin and remain inherently hopeful that the world will be saved, and that it is worth saving. The status quo is essentially an optimistic one—restoring order is a good thing, even if part of that restoration means sending the satisfied protagonist back home, to apply the valuable lessons of the adventure to what he or she comes to understand as real life.  Yes, Harry Potter complicates things, since you can argue that he belongs in the wizarding world and not in the Dursleys’ domestic nightmare. But by the end of the series [600 million books and the highest grossing film series of all time and I have to say spoiler?] Harry too has restored what we understand as the proper pillars of love, family, and society, The Voldemort Years an awful aberration rather than the way the world is or must be.    

In Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games series, Patrick Ness’s Knife of Never Letting Go, Michael Grant’s Gone, and Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies series, plus other books that I haven’t read yet but plan to—Ashes, Ashes; Bar Code Tattoo; Empty; Maze Runner; Feed, and more—the new YA lit genre is not Secret Worlds but World’s End.  Narnia, Harry Potter, Neverland, and Oz were always Utopian, if Utopias in peril.  Some of that threat even included a nicely, dramatically apocalyptic sensibility, especially Narnia, with its Christian inflected Last Battle, but also late series Harry Potter, with its sense of an impending End Times.  

Harry Potter and the Deathly Everybody's Dead

But the newer books are different.  They’re dystopian, not apocalyptic but post-apocalyptic, the filthy children of Orwell and Huxley and Bradbury, as these things always are, but also, for me, more indebted to the pessimism of 1970s and 1980s lit and film: Stephen King’s futuristic, non-supernatural run, Kurt Vonnegut, JG Ballard, Margaret Atwood, Planet of the Apes, Escape from New York, Omega Man,  Mad Max.  Who would have guessed that the most influential YA published in the 90s would not be Harry Potter but rather Lois Lowry’s The Giver?

But the previous dystopia authors and movies were not aiming for the mall, the ‘burbs, the multiplex, and the tweens.  (I apologize for the use of the word “tweens.”)  If all fantasy, as Freud suggested, operates on the contrasting yet simultaneous levels of wishes and fears—as I believe—Harry Potter is a lot of wish fulfillment (Magic! Friends! School is awesome! Flying! Etc!) tempered with fears (a powerful dark wizard wants to kill me!). The New Dystopia is awfully heavy on the fear: starving (Hunger Games; Gone’s sequel is called Hunger); loss of self, mind, and identity (Uglies, Knife); a seeming loss of freedom and the end of the current social order.  But where is the wish fulfillment? Other than the fact that the post-world world opens up the requisite narrative need for conflict, struggle, and adventure, what is the appeal?

I’m not going to wrap this up now, and the clock is ticking, but I think there are a few possibilities. First, I didn’t mention the one other book that these series remind me of: The Lord of the Flies.  It is, or was, a staple of highs school reading, in part because of its ratio of heavy-on-the-cautionary-tale with just enough wish fulfillment.  In it, high school students get to understand just what would happen if You Kids Stopped Listening to Us.  You want to do what you want?  You want freedom? You don’t like rules? OK, smart guys, take a look at this. It may seem as though it would be a blast to live in a world without adults, but it’s all fun and games until Simon loses an eye life.  

The nature of adults in the New Dystopia is very different. In Gone, the adults are just, um, gone.  And some Lord of the Flies-style mayhem ensues.  But mostly—in Hunger Games and Uglies as well—the reader gets to see how fragile, how flimsy, and how arbitrary the veneer of adult society really is.  There is the Lord of the Flies-style wish fulfillment of a world without grownups, but not the guilt, because in these worlds—taking place after the end of our world, rather than, like Harry Potter, Narnia and the others, parallel to it—the absence of supervision is generally the adults’ fault or poor decision.  No accident, no separation.  The adults either chose to do it or screwed it up.  And the kids are the only ones left to see the world for what it is, struggle to survive, and—maybe—clean it up. The true fear of the books goes beyond food or even death—it is that these dystopias represent some adult version of utopia.   It’s Charlton Heston at the end of Planet of the Apes, not as shock or twist, but simply as the way the world is:

Or Charlton Heston at the end of Soylent Green:

And even for happy, well-adjusted teens, adult utopia=teen dystopia gets enacted and exaggerated.  In the end, that’s what the books do: exaggerate and make literal the metaphorical struggles and hungers that teens—and, it seems, plenty of adults—immediately recognize.  Isn’t high school  a version of the Hunger Games, with each kid competing for limited resources, hoping yet fearing that they’ll be catapulted into the spotlight, going back and forth between fashion show and death match, pushed by a hyper-competitive culture of achievement and selectivity to view their peers as rivals?   Any resemblance to free-market capitalism is surely unintentional. Uglies represents the tension between wanting to be yourself and wanting to fit in, that adolescent contradiction that says “Look at me! Look at me!  Look at me! WHY ARE YOU LOOKING AT ME?” In the novel, all teens get full body plastic surgery at age 16 to eliminate every flaw, but in doing so, who they really are becomes corrected as well.  Again, it’s a sci-fi version of how they feel, with adults, for the most part, absent, behind the scenes of the operations, or adversarial upholders of the crooked status quo.  The stakes are, remarkably, even higher than in HP and Narnia, and the books are more radical for it—the teen heroes are not struggling against usurpers but rather against the legitimate machinations of commerce and government themselves, the libertarian flipside to the books’ seeming anti-capitalism.  

It’s conventional wisdom that the Harry Potter books began as jolly fun before the series grew up and got dark.  But it’s worth remembering the scary three headed dog and two faced evil wizard(s?) who populated Sorcerer’s Stone.  Maybe in terms of darkness, The Hunger Games picks up where Harry Potter leaves off.  After all, The New York Times, discussing the problems and promises of the Hunger Games movie franchise, suggests as much:  “One possibility might have been to follow the “Harry Potter” model, which succeeded as perhaps the first middle-grade novel to bring in adults to both the reading experience and the movie theater. As Harry and his Hogwarts friends made their way into the upper grades, the stories themselves became darker and more sophisticated — decidedly young adult” (see article here).  

 And this image, condensing every frame of the whole HP series, certainly grows darker and darker. 

 

Huh. They really do get darker.

But as dark as the New Dystopias seem, like the Secret Worlds novels, they suggest, again and again, as Shakespeare once sang, that the children are our future.  Adults, not so much.  They’re the problem.

There’s your wish fulfillment.  And your fear.

 

Time: 90 minutes! What the hell?

 

Jesse Kavadlo

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Hunger Games are from Venus, Hunger Artists are from Mars

Some assembly required. Batteries not included.

Just in time for the movie, if two years behind the teens, I read The Hunger Games.  But even though he’s been dead for almost ninety years, Franz Kafka beat me to it.  In 1922, just a few years before he died, Kafka published the short story A Hunger Artist, a weirdly candid but unsurprisingly depressing mediation on a man who starves himself for the entertainment of others.  Although the story was published ninety years ago, it is already nostalgic, looking back on the golden era of starvation artists, a real-life phenomenon where men would live in cages, their wasting public for gawking spectacle. As the story opens, “During these last decades the interest in professional fasting has markedly diminished. It used to pay very well to stage such great performances under one’s own management, but today that is quite impossible.” 

As usual with Kafka, it’s nearly impossible to easily interpret, although at least no one wakes up as a cockroach.  Is the story autobiographical and symbolic, with emphasis on the word “artist”: starving artists as hunger artists, sacrificing themselves for their art?  Is the hunger artist a Christian martyr or Christ himself, sacrificing his body for the seeming benefit of others, even if those others don’t know it? Is the story sincere or ironic—does Kafka really think that slow starvation is a great performance?  Is the hunger artist a victim of a vicious society or the perpetuator of a con, making a living literally doing nothing?  Is he misunderstood, as he believes, or does he misunderstand himself?  Kafka seems to want to story to seem spiritual and existential, but in our contemporary culture of eating disorders and reality television, he now seems anorexic and narcissistic, equally food- and attention starved—psychiatrically disordered, rather than acetic, spiritual, or even alienated.    The hunger artist would have loved the present.   

So let’s cut to the present.  The Hunger Games, the first major post-Harry Potter young adult lit phenomenon, seems the titular heir to Kafka’s hungry hungry hero.  Yet I had some major qualms about the book—at least until I was more than halfway through it.  Like Hunger Artist, Hunger Games is also nostalgic, not because the days of starvation are behind them but because they are ahead. In this futuristic, totalitarian dystopia—like there’s any other kind?—America is now Panem, but not the friendly skies: a weird amalgam of technological advancement amidst an overall feudal, semi-agrarian society. 

Our futuristic dystopian overlords, apparently.

In order to keep the story’s twelve districts in line and circumvent rebellion, the government, such as it is, uses a lottery to select two contestants—Tributes, one boy and one girl—from each district, elevates them to celebrity status, has them model haute couture and eat haute cuisine, makes them appear on TMZ, then televises their gory fight to the death, with a single winner rewarded with food and other valuable prizes.    The good news is that this set up keeps ex-contestants from robbing convenience stores or starring in pornography once the show is over.  The bad news is that it doesn’t make much literal or political sense.  We like our ultimate fighting and our reality stars separate, not that I’d be surprised by Kickboxing with the Kardashians.  But time tested, old fashioned slaughter, secret prisons, pograms, public impalement, and killing fields are far more cost effective for the frugal, discerning despot.

The influences show everywhere: Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery, obviously, Stephen King’s Running Man and The Long Walk, an episode of Justice League called War World, which itself borrowed from Spartacus, and every battle royale ever written, from Koushun Takami to Ralph Ellison. Plus, the writing seems equally prosaic. While it’s ostensibly the first person POV of Katniss Everdeen, our protagonist (and therefore, we quickly surmise, winner of the Games, a kind of built in spoiler), the language is often so clichéd and dry that it reads more like a book report about some other, better written novel that Katniss read and is telling us about secondhand.

Yet somehow, even with this ticker of criticism running through my head as I read, I found myself enjoying the book more and more, until by the end, none of the problems mattered, any more than the unlikelihood of talking bears or the existential crisis of wishes in a fairy tale. 

Even more than what turns out the be the novel’s narrative triumph—that is, somehow creating suspense even when the ending is predestined; somehow making interesting a violent snuff film of a bunch of kids killing each other—is what the novel does for gender.  It may seem, in our post-Aliens and Terminator world, that female heroes are at last the norm, but they’re not, not really.  Katniss is simply herself, and who she is is tough, but not particularly smart; self-preserving more than altruistic, even if, like Kafka’s hunger artist, she seems to sacrifice herself for her sister Prim and despite that she does rue Rue; skilled at traditionally masculine tasks like hunting; and lucky, but the kind of lucky that comes after the disaster of living in Panem and winding up in the hunger games.  In other words, she’s far more like Harry Potter than Hermione Granger, more Peter Pevensie than Susan, who does receive a bow and arrow from Father Christmas but is admonished to use it only “in great need…for I do not mean for you to fight in the battle.”  Girls are supposed to be the smart ones, the sisters, the girlfriends, the blank slates, the protected, the supporting characters. Katniss is not any of those things.  She’s better. Yet at the same time, the book never seems to have any gender agenda.

What’s more interesting, though, is her contrast with the male District 12 tribute, Peeta, whose name sounds feminine and reminiscent of bread (he’s the baker’s son), who protects himself in the hunger games by painting himself in camouflage and hiding, and whose sensitive romantic dumb love for Katniss could give Bella a run for her hanky.  This alone would be an interesting gender reversal. But the book does more.  After an improvised rule change forces Katniss and Peeta to team up, Peeta’s injuries make him more of a liability than an asset for Katniss. But not only does she have to protect him, she needs to protect his male ego, so that as she’s protecting him, she has to make him believe that he’s protecting her.  Edward, Jacob, and all those other guys just have to protect, without any self-consciousness and subterfuge.  And in the end, [yes, yes spoilers, although why you’re reading this if you haven’t read The Hunger Games is a mystery to me] when Peeta and Katniss both live, we discover that Peeta’s leg has been amputated.  He’s been saved by a girl like a hundred times, and then symbolically castrated.  And all he wants is looooove. 

I remember in my first year of college reading a super politically correct textbook called Racism and Sexism.  I no longer have it, so I can’t double check this (although I never sold books back so it must still be on my old bookshelf in my parents’ house).   But in it I remember a thought experiment for guys, imagining that every President, nearly every major world leader, nearly every famous scientist, nearly every writer until only a hundred years ago, etc etc etc, was a woman, and how women must feel about the real world.  I got it then, of course.  But I think I get it much better now, thanks to Katniss and The Hunger Games.  In the back of girls’ minds, there had to be a little nagging that the girl is always a Wendy but the boy gets to be the Peter Pan.  Yet when kids read Hunger Games today, they’re not going to think about Kafka, or Shirley Jackson, or the occasional clichéd language.  They’re not even going to notice that Katniss stands almost alone as a realized yet nonchalant female hero.  They’re just going to take the book as it is, and Katniss for herself. 

For a story in the dystopian future, it makes me very optimistic.  And the only Kafkaesque hunger the fans feel is for the next book. 

Time: a little over an hour

Jesse Kavadlo

Coming soon: from Wall-E to Hunger Games to Gone to Uglies: what’s with all the dystopia for kids?   

UPDATE: Here’s that post: https://jessekavadlo.wordpress.com/2012/03/26/bedtime-stories-after-the-end-of-the-world-ages-12-and-under/

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