October 10, 2010
The first book I remember reading all by myself I have here on my desk now. It’s called Tinker and Tanker Out West and it’s weathered and beaten, like the literary equivalent of the Velveteen Rabbit. The “Tinker” in the tale is in fact a rabbit, while “Tanker” is a hippo. (T&T were series characters developed and illustrated by Richard Scarry, perhaps not the best surname for a children’s author).
A quick glance at Amazon indicates the latest printing of the book was 1979. I recently showed my crumbling copy to a current kid’s editor in New York to see what the opinion would be about it now.
“It’s dated. It wouldn’t get published today. You’ve got Native American characters called Indians, and they’re shown as buffalo.”
“Yes,” I said. “But all the characters are animals. And the tribes of the western plains had a strong totemic relationship with the American Bison. What better animal choice could there be? Plus, think of The Lion King…think of all the TV shows and movies…think of…think of…”
I got nowhere. And this scenario was repeated with four other people in the “children’s book field.” No one came within a brushstroke of commenting on what should have been, given the picture book medium, the most salient feature–the illustrative style. This surprised me deeply. Cogent grounds for criticism do exist on that basis and I had this reinforced by several visual artists, who confirmed at least to my satisfaction, that there is something “nostalgic” about the style, independent of my memory and the personal associations I bring to it.
This impression is enhanced in the matter of the book as artifact–the printing process and the quality of the binding. My copy is a Doubleday book published in 1961. In addition to the black and white line drawings, there’s a richness of color saturation in the feature pages that’s reminiscent of pre-War publishing, in particular the output of the Whitman Publishing Company, who were big in the children’s book field, and important in my family history because they employed my grandfather and grandmother as illustrators (who in turn used as models my father and my aunt).
But the use of the word “Indians” and showing them as buffalo–when you’ve got bad guys in the form of the Crocodile Kid, Bob Cat and Blackie Wolf? That’s a problem? Hmm. There’s a problem all right, but that ain’t it.
The Inappropriate is What We Often Love the Most
Many writers I admire have commented on the surrealist delights to be found in the works of L. Frank Baum, especially the Oz stories, and especially the tales outside the most famous book in that series. There’s a lot of very odd stuff going on if you haven’t had the pleasure or haven’t looked at them in a while. And quite a few people haven’t it turns out–and guess in which field many of them work?
Not long ago I happened to find one of the more obscure Oz books as a downloadable file, so I downloaded it and changed precisely 10 key words on a pattern basis and then submitted the manuscript commercially under a made up name over the transom. The letters that came back speak volumes. The unmistakable context and style went completely unrecognized given the very minor and discrete word substitutions. The work was deemed “imaginative” but also “inappropriate” for child readers. Really? And yet that same story with 10 words changed throughout, included in a reissued Baum compendium, is selling very well–right now.
I never mean to berate anyone involved in the complex process of bringing ideas and words to life-whatever part of the process they’re involved in. I would never seek to identify and embarrass those hoodwinked editors or their publishers. But it’s worth pointing out that editors act as first rank censors whether they acknowledge it or not. In the case of children’s editors, this responsibility seems exponentially significant.
In other media appealing to children, such as films, games and toys, there’s an almost manic tendency in the other direction–to too directly market research child opinions and then engineer “products” to meet those needs. There are problems with this approach to be sure, but in the case of children’s literature, in many instances kids literally don’t know what they’re missing because the decision has been made for them–often on the basis of a very dubious adult agenda, which isn’t disclosed or very well articulated. When we look at levels of literacy, book sales and the quality of participation in print media culture amongst our young, we need to bear this in mind.
Of course having said all this, there are certainly children’s book which have fallen by the wayside that are better left there–but can be enjoyed or gawked at by curious adults and especially writers. One I particularly recommend for twistedness is called Johnny Mouse and the Wishing Stick, written and illustrated in 1922 by Johnny Gruelle (1880-1938), the creator of the Raggedy Ann and Raggedy Andy stories.
At this distance in time, it’s perhaps difficult to appreciate the intense commercial success the Raggedy Ann and Andy stories achieved-and of course, their namesake dolls. Taken together they are truly one of the major landmarks in the history of marketing-to-children. For anyone who believes the merchandising of spin-offs of entertainment products for children started in the 1950’s and 60’s, this is just another example of how in error that belief is. Highly sophisticated and phenomenally effective marketing concepts were in play prior to World War I and escalated throughout the Depression. Many of our conventional notions about prosperity, the image and role of children in society, and both the innovation and greed on the part of marketers all need to be reevaluated as a result.
There are several fascinating legends and speculations surrounding the invention of the dolls. Some attribute the inspiration for Raggedy Ann to Gruelle’s daughter, Marcella, who sadly died following a school vaccination for small pox-and here is where things get potentially very interesting.
Embittered by the death of his young daughter, Gruelle couldn’t accept the official cause of death as a heart defect. He became a strident national proponent of the Anti-Vaccination movement. As a consequence, there’s a line of debate in the history of dolls and children’s literature that argues that Raggedy Ann became a symbol of this movement. How explicit and manipulated a tactic this was remains controversial. Nevertheless, the fact is that although the stories definitely do seem rather hokey and lost in time today, the images of Raggedy Ann and Andy remain iconic–recognized at a glance and named by many people with no knowledge of the stories-without this other alleged propaganda subtext being known at all. Consciously contrived, or simply associated with her creator’s personal beliefs, Raggedy Ann was a highly successful literary creation and a mass-produced doll that was also understood at the time to be a symbol of a social, political, scientific and moral agenda that remains active and still very controversial today.
The Moral Evolution of the Woozgoozle
However explicit the politicization of Raggedy Ann was or is thought to be, any such subtext is entirely absent in the Johnny Mouse opus–replaced instead by a very distinctive psychology, reminiscent of the seminal clay animator Art Clokey’s creation of Gumby (and his pony pal Pokie too)-only presented in a completely naïve fashion. (Clokey’s self-conscious involvement with psychotherapy and the search for religious meaning led him from the Episcopalian Church to a deep involvement with the Eastern religions and a profound personal association with a guru. Highly recommended is the Gumby box set available from Rhino, a staggeringly entertaining and elliptical journey, featuring both groundbreaking stop motion animation and some marvelous absurdity, sincerity and vision on the larger issue of spirituality and the “evolution of consciousness.”)
But Johnny Mouse and Co. aren’t involved in anything even vaguely resembling a spiritual quest. Whether it’s the blatantly phallic “wishing stick” of the title, which young Johnny clutches with two hands on the cover and a very disturbing rodent glint in the eye, or the “wishing clock” that you put your hand in to find what you want, there is some engaging fun of a decidedly different kind to puzzle and chuckle over. Not the least of which is the increasing reliance upon the various magic implements, which have a pronounced effect on the work ethic of the characters in question. They soon don’t have any at all. In Johnny Mouse’s world all you have to do is wish for something. So, there’s plenty of time for other things–like eating. (I challenge anyone to find an example in children’s literature–or any literature–where the debauchery of eating is given more page time and more positive presentation.) “I have invited a great many friends over to my house for a strawberry short-cake dinner…”
“When the cakes are baked we will have some, so we might as well eat some ice-cream first to give us a good appetite.”
“Johnny Mouse ate sixteen pancakes and nine sausages. The Woozgoozle ate sixteen pancakes and nine sausages. Gran’ma and Gran’pa Mouse, of course, ate more than that, because they were bigger.”
And bigger is what everybody gets. Buttons are always popping–chins mopped of grease. The stories form an orgy of gluttony where satisfaction and happiness are synonymous with the massive overindulgence in the sweetest and highest fat content food you can imagine. Cream puffs, lollipops, ice cream sodas, ladyfingers, chocolate éclairs, taffy, pies, cakes and pancakes–there are pancakes piling up everywhere, flapping and rolling around like hubcaps.
In a key scene, Johnny and his friend the Woozgoozle torment Billy Bear by trapping him in a mire of candy and stuffing their faces in front of him with his own ice cream and honeycakes. And have I mentioned the Magic Soda Fountain? Or all the sticky molasses and syrups–the whipped cream-a-nd the pancakes. My God, there are pancakes everywhere!
At the beginning, Johnny lives a quiet well-fed life with his grandparents in a little cigar box (which gets tighter). Things get moving when they go on a picnic (everything significant happens around eating). Here they meet a creature called the Woozgoozle, a fantastic monster with a sort of sombrero for a head (how he eats is unclear), who is forever raiding Chicky Town and swiping up young chickens in his sack to devour in his cave. Until Johnny and family get him hooked on sugared doughnuts instead.
From a political correctness point of view, some Animal Rights people and vegetarians might applaud the foregoing of the chickens–but how would they feel about all the jelly, cream and goo that forms the new diet? And the pancakes. Have I mentioned all the pancakes?
What is even more perplexing is that after this rehabilitation from eating chickens in favor of cakes and soda, which connects to the discovery of the first of the magic aids, the rest of the stories demonstrate a subtle but relentless sub-motif whereby any activity that requires work or effort is undermined in favor of the use of the unexplained magic that delivers whatever is wanted–which is of course more food. The characters are always complaining about being hungry, and there is always room for more. “Let’s see if we can each drink another three sodas.” And to return to the inciting incident of the picnic, here are the contents of the basket that was to form their meal: “sixteen doughnuts, nine cream puffs and a lemon pie.” (The amount of food is always precisely quantified, with the exception of some of the pancake mentions, in which case there are sometimes simply too many to count.)
To be sure there are many strange and colorful creatures with funny sounding names, like the Snicklefritz, the Whangdoodles and Old Whixwangle–but there is one hell of a lot of eating, where all the meals are based around sweet treats–and it’s telling that when Johnny gets caught by some three-legged green things with fuzzy faces called a Whazzis (not sure of what the plural is), the dire torture they have in store for him is to pull their children’s wagon. The simplicity is breathtaking. Anything requiring effort–work–is bad. Happiness is eating and eating until you can’t eat anymore. Then eating more.
It’s amazing to read a successful and much loved book of its day, by a major author in the field at the time, display such a forceful and indeed gleeful embrace of what is often just plain perverse, and is certainly based on some highly suspect ideas of pleasure and satisfaction.
Which isn’t to say there aren’t some truly magical moments. My favorite story is “The Pirate and the Golden Pennies,” in which Johnny and the Woozgoozle stumble on a house that is larger on the inside than the outside (a theme worthy of Carroll, Kafka and Borges). Consider this exchange:
“Dear me,” laughed the Woozgoozle, “here we are, lost in a one-room house!”
“One room on the outside but no telling how many on the inside,” replied Johnny Mouse.
“The closer we come to the front door, the farther we get away from it!” laughed the Woozgoozle. “We went through twenty rooms away from the door and we’ve come back through twenty-five! Now the question is–if we go back through five rooms will we be nearer the door?”
Mark Danielewski, the author of House of Leaves would love it. That the one-legged pirate they eventually meet in the house has an old woman trapped as his slave (to cook him pancakes of course!) is a slight letdown–but there’s definitely something enjoyably bent about this one.
Indeed all the stories are enjoyably bent. I wouldn’t say they were “appropriate” for children at all, unless you’re a very big fan of morbid obesity. I don’t just say this in regards to now–I query their appropriateness, period. In 1927 or 2010.
To my surprise, however, when I asked my children’s experts for comment on the Pirate story (which begins with a pancake and sausage feeding frenzy) their focus was completely on the “overly intellectual and somewhat obscure nature of the Pirate’s house,” and a general systemic sense of “quaintness.” The enslavement of the Old Woman, who is literally paralyzed in a chair, went without comment. Two other stories did get a rise about the food–but along the lines of the kind of food consumed: lollipops, cream puffs, etc. It was more a matter of topicality and contemporary reference for my panel. “Kids don’t eat that sort of stuff now.” (When I simply substituted Happy Meals for pancakes, there was all manner of commotion.) Yet, things went silent when I pointed out that one of the distinguishing features and a widely acknowledged factor in the popularity of the Harry Potter books is the nostalgic Old English Private School milieu, however tripped up with owls and beards it may be.
My summary point is that it’s a part of the natural selection process of popular culture for some, even once very widely read, books to get lost. The list in this regard is long and this may be the fate of the Harry Potter series in time–who knows? Some books, for a range of reasons, deserve to be resigned to history. Ray Bradbury made this case in the still vivid Fahrenheit 451.
Helen Bannerman’s enormously popular The Story of Little Black Sambo first published in 1899 is an excellent example, for obvious racial reasons and the more fundamental quality of story issues, WHICH NEVER GET MENTIONED. (On a side note, it should be recalled that people in this story also consume ridiculous amounts of pancakes–and the defunct Sambo’s restaurant chain gives this another marketing related resonance.)
But let’s be mindful of the reasons and who’s making these decisions. And let’s be wary when anyone uses politically and morally charged words to bolster their verdicts. They may be entirely justified or justifiable. They should also be clearly articulated, and make reasonable discernments between genuine issues of content and message–of imagery and visual communication.
At the same time, it’s also important to revisit and rediscover those aspects of successful characters and marketing initiatives from the past that derived meaning through a now-overlooked propaganda agenda. And it’s critical for all of us who consider ourselves as intelligent and have the benefit of some education to do our due diligence and be more demanding of ourselves and those “representatives of culture,” who often make what end up becoming unexpectedly influential decisions. It’s not just smart-ass quiz show bravado to point out that that the Coca-Cola lettering, Spencerian script, named for Platt Rogers Spencer, was made into the penmanship standard across all American schools. That’s not just a fun fact, that’s history–and in part your history.
Finally, it’s time to stop being so anal about literature for children–and for adults–when so many liberties are taken in other media. Look at the stupendous outrageousness of South Park. In the print medium, political correctness gets forked at us and into us constantly, too often by people who don’t understand their own agenda well enough to prosecute it openly.
As part of the food and eating related issues with my panel, the matter of The Simpsons came up… “Hmm. Doughnuts.”
I was informed, as if I didn’t know, that the now-historic endurance of The Simpsons has “everything to do with political incorrectness.”
Duh. Everyone’s now quite happy to publish print spin-offs of the show…but would they have been game to introduce it as a children’s book, if that was how it originally had been introduced?
Do we really wonder why we have a problem with the love of reading amongst children today?