In an op ed in Sunday’s New York Times, Maria Tatar takes issue with the way in which contemporary children’s literature shows kids, tweens and teens a darker side of life: death. She compares teen literary phenomena like The Hunger Games with the dark, but more benign, stories of the past…She proposes that Peter Pan, Alice in Wonderland, and the many works of Maurice Sendak (of Where the Wild Things Are fame) balance out their sometimes dark themes with the levity and self-conscious sensitivity that allows children to embrace the frightening without crossing the line. In contrast, she claims that modern day darkness is doled out with less redemptive endings. She notes, specifically, that today’s moral dramas trade in monsters and pirates for a more real threat: other children. And modern day heroes, according to Tatar, don’t seem to follow the same chivalrous rules that heroes of the past abided by. While we can assume that Tatar would attribute this cultural turn to a wide variety of factors, in this op ed, she attributes it to authors who aren’t as “invested in finding ways to win their attention and affection in real life.”
Certainly, Tatar is not alone in her nostalgia for media of the past. And to her credit, she doesn’t reduce the appeal or the artistry of the modern series she mentions to their edgy content. But Tatar’s assessment of today’s literary landscape and her memory of children’s past media’s might serve more as a call to look more closely at children’s literature than a definitive diagnosis of any disease afflicting it.
When it comes to many aspects of society and culture, it’s easy to fall into a trap that sees everything new as better. We know more (or know differently) in many categories, from medicine to marketing. When we look at the history of ideas and technologies, we’re almost always biased towards seeing life as “getting better.” But when it comes to culture, and particularly, children’s culture, we might be more likely to fall into a different sort of trap. Many critics of children’s media have moaned the abandonment of a simpler style of children’s media - when, seemingly, less commercial, more wholesome and perhaps more sophisticated shows and stories were made available to youth.
But this is, in the least, up for debate. The Wizard of Oz may have had an explicitly moral message about the comforts of home, but it also included a nightmare-inducing witch who threatened a puppy and threw fire at her own guards. Classic cartoons like Bugs Bunny may have introduced children to classical music, but they also included guns. Bugs’ appeal might have rested in his witty banter and clever schemes, but he was also a bit of a bully.
Does, as Tatar suggests, a bit of a happy ending balance out the darkness? And are today’s tales really that different? Twilight, for example, is often cited as a symbol of youth culture and teen literature. But Tatar doesn’t note this vampire drama…Perhaps it’s because the story of a vampire who wants to be good (opting for a vegetarian lifestyle) doesn’t fit her paradigm? And what about the popular tween series, Diary of a Wimpy Kid, which rises to the top of middle schoolers’ list of favorite books by focusing only on the drama that occurs in the cafeteria?
Any statement about children’s media is challenging, given the vast amount of media that provides counter-examples to any theory. But even with this acknowledgment, Tatar’s assertions might be a bit flawed. In many domains, especially those that would likely seem to be the most edgy from Tatar’s perspective, children’s fare has become tamer. Preschool TV must not only meet high standards for family-friendly, developmentally appropriate themes and ideas, but is also expected to be educational. One could argue that today’s movies are edgier, but one only needs to compare “G”-rated movies from the earliest days of children’s film to today’s movies with the same rating to see how much more conservative children’s media has become (at least on this one measure).
And what about Tatar’s claim that authors like Lewis Carroll and J.M. Barrie were more concerned about and in touch with their audiences? As youth researchers, of course we’re biased…Publishers, networks and studios check in with children in much more systematic ways than ever before. Unlike their counterparts in previous generations, today’s authors tend to care about a broader group of youth than those particular children they find in their own homes or neighborhoods. Creators of properties engage their readers and viewers on social networks, via book tours and through surveys. And, in fact, one looming critique of children’s media today is that it’s too subject to data regarding children’s explicit needs and wants. Even researchers recognize that ideas from artists must be handled with sensitivity in the research setting. Children can easily find the appeal in work that looks familiar, but they might not be able to assess the cultural value of a breakthrough book or a paradigm-shifting program in the context of a focus group.
Still, Tatar’s theories (especially when localized to Young Adult fiction) might have some merit. What does the popularity of series that scare say about this particular cohort of youth? And perhaps, more importantly, what does our view on today’s children’s media say about how we see them? The answers might frighten as much as the fictional tales that Tatar references, but they might also unlock insight that makes this treacherous trail worth following.