Friday, October 16, 2009

On Wildness and Power Plays

I confess I didn’t know quite what to do with Daniel Zalewski’s essay in the October 19 New Yorker. Titled “The Defiant Ones,” it neatly dissects the trend in picture books over the last 7-10 years to replace moral fables--in which children who who throw tantrums and commit other transgressions are met with firm parental correction and corporal punishment--with stories of child-centric parenting in which children who are wild and defiant are rewarded with extra dessert and a parental shrug: What are you gonna do?

I guess I ended up feeling that Zalewski was being a wee bit harsh on the authors and illustrators he singled out. The pendulum of parenting styles (or dogma, if you like) swings to and fro, and the picture books of any given time show us pretty accurately where the pendulum is. But then I got to wondering about the tension between the job of a parent and the job of a child, and I wondered how they both fit with the job of the storyteller.

I do remember when I was reading Russell Hoban’s Bedtime for Frances to the Budza when he was a preschooler, being brought up short by the line about the threatened spanking. At the time, I skipped over it--still in the thrall, as I then was, of the What to Expect books and parenting gurus like William Sears. It was such a stark reminder of the difference between parenting then and now, like riding in the station wagon without car seats, or watching my father drink a martini while he watched the Huntley and Brinkley Report, or playing with toys with small parts. Grown ups spent much of their time absorbed in a mysterious world of work and grown-up concerns that largely excluded us, and for much of the 1960s my sister and I and our friends were left to our own devices to do our important work of play.

The clueless, ineffective, apologetic or exasperated parent goes back a little further in children’s books than the 1990s. I am thinking of the Mrs. Piggle Wiggle books by Betty MacDonald, published between 1947 and 1957--most memorably illustrated by Hilary Knight of Eloise fame, but also, interestingly enough, by Maurice Sendak, who knows a thing or two about childhood wildness. In Mrs Piggle Wiggle and its three sequels, we find ineffective parents reaping what they have sown, in terms of offspring who are tattle-tales, interrupters, slobs, gluttons, and other miscreants. Mrs. Piggle Wiggle, widow of a pirate who lives in an upside-down house, reassures Mom and Dad and provides them with a sure-fire, hysterical cure for whatever bad habit is creating household discord. Who can forget the tidy little pig who teaches the messy eater manners? Or the boy who refuses to pick up his room who eventually becomes immured by his toys, so that his mother has to send up chunks of beef stew on the tines of the rake, followed by the garden hose so he can take a drink?

It’s not for nothing that Mrs. Piggle Wiggle’s house is upside down. It’s only by taking the established order of things apart, and allowing children to suffer the inevitable consequences of their bad behavior, that family harmony is restored. And I think it’s important to say harmony, and not order. That’s the essential tension, between the parent who must socialize the child and teach her to be a reasonable member of society and to hew to a certain code, and the child, whose job it is to figure out, often in messy and socially unacceptable ways, how the world works. It’s the parent’s job to set the alarm clock for school, the child’s job to take the alarm clock apart. A good story teller will find ways to tell stories that honor and subvert, in turn, both those tasks.

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