Sunday, April 01, 2007

Child by proxy

In 1st grade we had something called the Miss Piggy Contest. For each book we read, we received a Miss Piggy sketch that we cut out and glue-sticked (or is that glue-stuck?) to our composition notebooks. The first grader with the most Miss Piggy pages won. Ever the deal-maker, I convinced my teacher that since I was reading Hardy Boys and other big chapter books while everyone else was reading picture books, I deserved two stickers for each book. I easily overwhelmed the competition and won the grand prize of...a composition book filled with Miss Piggy pages. That's it.

In the past few weeks, I've been reading nearly as feverishly as during my golden Miss Piggy days, but instead of burning my way through books a few years ahead of my reading level (wouldn't it be great if adults had a "reading level?" Judith Butler writing for a 35-year old reading level? Salman Rushdie for the 45-55 set?) , I've been devouring children's literature so I can begin to get a handle on the tropes. I'm proud to announce I've read every last fairy and household tale of the Brothers Grimm and just finished the last delightful page of Dahl's BFG.

So, what did I learn?

Well, in most of the great children's literature I've been reading, from Dahl to Grimm to Kastner to Snicket to Carroll, the child protagonists don't actually think in kid-logic. The kids are usually very down-to-earth, pragmatic, sensible, and fully socialized, with flights of fancy few and far between. And yet, the fictional worlds in these works always seem to follow the rules of kid-logic: wildly unimaginable (to adults, at least) events occur spontaneously (and yet organically) and are accepted without question. What's particularly brilliant and insidious about the work of Kastner and Snicket is that this frighteningly unpredictable world with unstable rules is not some fictional wonderland, but the actual world. And actually, even the most fanciful elements of the work of Grimm and Dahl and Carroll are still fully in dialogue (sometimes fabulously anachronistically so) with the authors' contemporary worlds. In one of the Grimm's tales, a talking sausage has been sent to go cut wood to bring home for his friends the mouse and the bird (yes it is an AMAZING story!) and is devoured by a hungry dog who later justifies his actions by saying the sausage wasn't carrying the appropriate travel documents.

Now, how a child protagonist resolves her conflict with the absurdist worlds she encounters reveals quite a bit about a book's overall message. In some of the pieces (think Alice and Wendy), the protagonist expends all of her energy trying to make the nonsensical land conform. In others (think of Snicket's Violet Baudelaire, Kastner's Emil and Dahl's Sophie), the children are forced (usually under threat of real danger) to accept the world as it is; in abandoning their conformity they usually find the solution to their dilemma. One model bespeaks the child's struggle to master her own inner absurdist in order to transition to the adult world, the other validates the child's "special" modes of cognition and creativity.

This is interesting to me. Very. But it also brings me to another point. The tensions between the adult world (represented by child) and the child world (as represented by proxies, be they giants, witches or what-have-yous) are most often articulated (even in the Grimm's stories) by a wry omniscient narrator.

Now I struggle: how can we commit to creating a world of group fantasy and show its interaction with the everyday without such a narrative presence? And if we have one, how can that narrator be present without undercutting the world of play?


All right. You all ponder; I'm off to try to get 2005's Commedia dell'Artemisia back on its feet with an all-new cast...

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