I had an interesting discussion, if you could call it that with a writer of children’s books (the name will remain undisclosed) who seemed to take offense that I did not think it was the job of a writer to be an agent of social change for children. That in effect a writer should not have the authority to countermand parental authority and that it is irresponsible at best and propaganda at worst to use children’s literature, that is literature designed for impressionable minds to further a social agenda. I was actually scorned and demonized. It got me thinking how unfortunate the state of modern children’s literature is that so much of it has descended into social manipulating. Liberal vs conservative, religious vs atheist, gay vs straight. It is all really pathetic. Charlotte’s Webb certainly made me think about the status of farm animals, it made me questions why I eat what I eat and also it made me question the idea of value, who has it and who gives it. But one thing Charlotte’s Webb never tried to do was to preach a vegetarian lifestyle to children. This same book written by authors similar to the one I had the displeasure of speaking with today would transform the humans into evil corporatist gluttons and make the barnyard animals beatific saints and the end result would be, as is the case of most recent literature, a totally unforgettable story. Perhaps that is the point. Maybe, just maybe some authors are more interested in casting themselves in the role of social reformers and are perfectly happy to write a book that will be ignored in five years. After all in five years impressionable minds will already be swayed. One good thing came out of that conversation… I now know certain books by a certain author to be very cautious of.
Today we as parents, teachers and those interested in childhood studies are obsessed with a child’s self esteem. We look for clues to a low self-esteem, we cast a wide net of blame on absent fathers, over protective mothers, ambivalent teachers and well meaning psychologists yet for all this children’s self esteem is no better off. In fact with the alarming increase in bullying physical, emotional and now increasingly online, the rise of drastic body image archetypes that are unrealistic, the over sexualization of children at a younger age than ever before. This is because in our desire to alleviate the problem we have become to focused on the study and have forgot to look for a solution. Children have been too long ignored or at the other end of the spectrum placed in glass houses as if they were nothing more than sociology experiments and the results are alarming. Abortion rates among young women continue to rise, suicide has reached into younger ages than ever before, plastic surgeries are being given to preteens to correct even the most minor physical attributes that if given time would change with the malleability of the normal aging process. While many argue for the importance of teaching 11 years old about the proper use of condoms because, well “children will engage in sex” we overlook the greater problem that 11 year old’s simply don’t have the emotional or physical maturity to engage in sexual behavior. What was once discouraged is now being normalized and in some cases even encouraged and the detriment to our children could not be more obvious. Childhood in America today is broken a state of being.
But what can we do about it? How can a problem be fixed that we adults have been fostering for so many years? How can we shift our attention away from studying modern children’s psychological troubled state and begin to correct that state and return childhood to a a healthy state where bullying, when it does exists is not malevolently violent. Where a child does not look in the mirror and see fat or short or a bad nose and where our young children do not validate themselves through the pantomime of maturity that ranges from the most obvious (preteen beauty pageants) to the most subversive (internet relationships and overtly provocative body displaying clothing).
I believe on answer is simple. We, the grown up needs to start acting the part. We have ceased the pursuit of wisdom in favor of immediate gratification of the internet or armchair quarterbacking over athletic events or arguing over politics while removing ourselves from the actual issues. In a nutshell we, the grown ups need to grow up! If we fail in this the price will be our own children’s well being and that cost is too high to take so lightly.
There was a time children reached for the sublime, adults too but today, with reality TV and instant information the drive for immediacy of thought has left us without a desire to be in touch with anything sublime. We are too enmeshed in the real world to look out for the unseen world and by failing to look for the unseen we lose our ability to have meaningful dreams.
We no longer go boldly where none have gone before. For a while we went hesitatingly where a few others had already been; then we halting went where many had preceded us and at last we no longer go anywhere, we just sit back and watch as others pretend to go places nobody really cares about going anyway.
Words, you say, have no power? Words are the most powerful magic of all. Words shape the world every day. The western world revolves on the words of the Greek philosophers and on the writers of the Christian bible! Protests are launched by a call to action, that call is a word! Words invented Childhood in the 19th century; words lead us to the altar of matrimony and all too often to the cold rooms of divorce court. We say that words hurt or that words heal! We admonish our children to watch their mouths. Words elevated us beyond the animals of the earth and connect us to all the ways we perceive god. There is no power in the entire world; not electric, not hydraulic, not even atomic that comes close to motivating us to action. And when we are desperate and bowed to our knees, when we are reverent and thankful of some life changing event we do not ask for a token or a flash of light or some grand spectacle. We ask only for a few words. So yes there is power in our words, don’t ever forget that. If there is any wisdom at all in the world it is this.
“I was delighted to take the role of Mr. Hooper, the gruff grocer with the warm heart. It’s a big part, and it allows a lot of latitude. But the show has something extra, that sense you sometimes get from great theater, the feeling that its influence never stops”. - Will Lee who portrayed grocer, Mister Hooper on Sesame Street from 1969 to 1982.
This is a true statement of Sesame Street’s impact. I for one recall with great fondness my journey through childhood, a journey that followed a path begun by my parent’s hopes and dreams for the kind of person they hoped I would be. It wound through the dark and foreboding forests of my darker imagination, through uncertainty, through emotionally painful medical diagnoses that left me feeling as if I were a half-made boy, or a boy mistakenly assembled from flawed parts. When the journey was at its darkest, when my young life seemed overwhelming I nearly lost hope. I can’t say that my childhood was all that bad when I really think about it. The good times far outweighed the bad and my family was always there but in those moments when the world seemed to press against me and I felt alone, no matter if that loneliness was real or imagined all the good times seemed barely worth notice. Misery is funny that way; no matter how brief the visit its presence feels all encompassing. Misery blacks out everything that does not feed its own peculiar hunger. Children of abuse, children from broken homes, the bullied and the tormented, the confused and lonely all recognize this even if they are too young to fully understand it. I was one of those bullied kids, I was different, and I had this horrible thing called Tourette ’s syndrome (before it became funny and quaint and thing comedians made jokes about) that made my body do things that were not in my control. I grunted and sniffed, shrugged my shoulders until my neck ached, blinked so hard and so often I gave myself headaches. This made me a target for bullies. My family was there of course to console me and there were others to whom I turned and could always rely on so I won’t overstate the role of a television show but neither can I understate its impact on my life. Even then, in those dark moments when for some inexplicable reason I felt I could not let my mother and father know how hurt I was or how afraid, I found solace on a magical street where the monsters were not so terrible and the people all lived in harmony.
On a larger scale we all go through periods of darkness when things seem bleak. That is why such moments and such places as Sesame Street continue to be so important all through our life. It was a place that gave space for something special to flourish deep down inside. In a world that has grown banal and disinterested in things that are really important all that we have left, perhaps all that we have ever really needed is the positive influence good things leave behind. For some children a lot of the time and for a lot of children some of the time the refrain “Can you tell me how to get to Sesame Street” was as a much a plea as it was a call for joy. And that feeling is an influence that never stops!
- Sesame Street 1969
- Sesame Street 1990
- Sesame Street 2010
Title: Dear Mili
Author: Wilhem Grimm
Illustrator: Maurice Sendak
Date published: 1981 (from a letter first sent in 1816 and subsequently lost)
Themes: War; Death; Journey; supernatural intervention, Familial Devotion, Hope
Dear Mili is a delightful long-lost story from Wilhem Grimm and Illustrated by Maurice Sendak. The story itself is an evocative and somber exploration of the individual human and especially the child’s reaction to war and tragedy. While heart-achingly sad at times the greater truth underlying the story pushes the reader along through a landscape made ethereal by Sendak’s wonderful illustrations, illustrations that at times like a frightening and mysterious cabinet of curiosities filled with strange images barely hidden, watching. Sendak’s illustrations blend in seamlessly with the narrative each giving greater depth to the other to such a degree that it feels almost collaborative, despite the 70 years separating Grimm’s Death and Sendak’s birth.
At heart Dear Mili is a journey story in the classic tradition but a journey into what unusual land? The reader is not quite certain if Little Mili’s path takes her through a real world landscape that has been intruded on by other worldly figures or if she has somehow intruded into the other world herself or indeed if her path follows the old death roads of folklore and myth. Not until the last few pages are we given an answer and when it comes it hits like a powerful and sublime grace note .
Dear Mili cannot be said to be a fairy tale in the Grimm tradition. It is too philosophical and too intimately crafted for a particular person. Mili was a very real little girl and this story was written as a letter for her in 1816. Despite this the tale has a strength born of its universal meaning. Mili, though a real person could be any person in similar circumstances with similar feelings and apprehensions. And for children who have tasted the bitter fruit of conflict such a story could not help but too have a more significant meaning. Perhaps muchof ths power of this story lies in how the war is conveyed. We never see the war itself and so can’t be quite sure who the aggressors might be and to children touched by war patriotic notions of us vs them, the good guys and the bad guys is often diminsiehd through personal anguish and confusion. The war appears first as a horizon on fire looming in the distance and stalks each narrative image nearly unseen but eerily nearby, not simply a catalyst but an actual character integral to the story. Whats more this could be any war precisely because it is all war and the symbolic imagry is among Sendaks most evocative and certainly most disqueting. Here the image not only propells the narrative but serves to elevate it into something higher. That this story haas strong Christian undertones should come as no surprise. This was a common element in much of Grimm’s retellings but here Christianity loses all its religious trappings and sheds its dogma until it is rendered as pure hope amid a world of turmoil. For this reason it would be a mistake to call Dear Mili a Christian alegory.
Adults should not feel excluded either. The themes are not merely difficult concepts conveyed to a child, they are difficult concepts conveyed with the forthright honesty and sincerity of a personal letter.
Dear Mili is the kind of story that draws us in to a different world compelling us to follow Mili on her journey. We feel impotent to console her, and as a parent this impotance struck an especially upsetting chord, yet empowered by the shared experience of walking in her shadow. It is a beautiul story that is at once charming in its simplicty and deeply moving in meaning. Anyone of us who has the courage to face sadness and be moved it will find Dear Mili well worth their attention.