Thursday, June 23, 2005

Books vs. Cartoon Network

Trying to think of classic young children's literature, apart from throwing up yet more examples of how brilliant Dr Seuss really is ("The Sneetches", "The Zax", "Pale Green Pants", "Horton Hatches The Egg", "Did I Ever Tell You How Lucky You Are?"), has led me to three possible conclusions:

1. There are so few genuine young children's classics that there is probably a huge market out there just waiting for some more...the ones that play both to children and the adult reader, that are funny, that are neatly crafted with clever but balanced and meaningful twists, that do not patronise, or underplay children's intelligence, that allow for the breadth of knowledge that the average child will have nowadays (no more twee teddy bears PLEASE!), and above all, that contain non-coercive, respectful messages, and are otherwise ethically sound.

2. Cartoon Network is SOOOO far ahead in providing this type of clever, funny, multi-textured, neatly crafted material, that we may as well give up on literature until it catches up.
I say this cos have just sat down with Dd and Ds and, completely at random, watched an episode of "Foster's Imaginary Friends". I admit the animation is pretty uninspired, but the script, if you bother to stop to listen to it, is unequivocally brilliant and streets ahead of most children's literature. The vocabulary is consistently stretching eg: The "prospective benefactor" (Mr Benny Factor) is "considering making a financial donation" to the home.
Gone are the days when you would at most have to jiggle two separate story lines in a totally formulaic Scooby Doo episode. Instead there were so many clever riffs, subplots and interweaving of plots in this one episode that you wonder how books can possibly keep up. We had here a whole essay on the meaning of sarcasm, with one character trying to teach the other how to be sarcastic, without realising that the other character is being sarcastic about not knowing about sarcasm. This theme ties together with another sub-plot in an utterly satisfying fashion, with the final line delivered by a previously completely pompous and utterly prosaic character from this other sub-plot saying "How much more sarcastic can I be?" to the total confusion of all the other previously sarcasm-wise characters.

3. I am beginning to doubt if literature really can keep up in this regard. It is just so much more possible to deliver complex messages, new vocabulary, multi-layered plots etc, in film, when you have the whole package. eg: new words can be understood through the manifest nature of the context and the impetus of the plot. Classic books instead will have to rely on being jewel-like, perfect in language, balance and craft. This perhaps should be their role. Am off to see if this is possible which may well be very depressing!


watson said...

I think literature will always have one huge advantage over visual mediums - that of private imagination. Everyone knows the disappointment of seeing a much loved literary character or scene 'wrongly' created in film. The other advantage J was explaining to V and T the other day - TV or film simply can't compare to relishing the compulsive page turning effect of a really good book, and the fact that it is a private affair, I think, adds to this. I agree completely with your comments about the depth of modern cartoons, but think literature is something completely different. I think when the kids are older and you begin to explore children's read alone fiction you'll be pleasantly suprised to find that the standards you are seeing in cartoons are also showing up in literature - I have certainly been known to pinch a few books and there have been a good few fights over who gets to read a new book first in this house (my argument being that as I am the fastest reader, me getting it first makes perfect sense as that means everyone else will get it sooner!).

Carlotta said...

You are completely right re the private imagination thing and can't wait to get on to this other level of children's lit.

I do, though, have to admit to being a total Harry Potter phobe. I simply cannot abide it, in any shape or form. It just strikes me as witless rubbish, with so little depth of characterisation and so much meaningless twaddle for plot! Am I just missing something?
(Luckily Dh has no such quibbles...again saving the day.)

watson said...

Harry Potter is really a poor cousin to other stuff now available - don't worry! I read the books to my lot when they were about 9 and 6 and that was OK - they have enjoyed the films but none of them have bothered to read any of the books and I gave up after a few chapters of the last one it was so dull. Much more exciting are the Anthony Horowitz books about a teenage spy and books like Feather Boy by Nicky Singer and The Kite Rider by Geraldine McCaughrean.

J has also enjoyed old favorites though - recently Kes and ongoing, anything by Willard Price. Yes, a boy who wants to be a zoologist and/or conservationist reads about shooting big game and taking young animals from their mothers for zoo collections. I guess that shows us once again that children are well able to make up their own minds about ethical quandries!

Carlotta said... comparative standard of HP and will follow up on all your tips. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

Would agree that there is simply loads of brilliant children's literature out there. E.g. Pullman's novels are extremely good reading.

I also think that they can not really be said to be more or less valuable than film (even though most successful films are adapted novels) because they offer an opportunity to deal with issues that film can not deal with so successfully, for instance, the inner world ofcharacters - something that is much less successfully handled with visual images and dialogue alone. (Perhaps that is why Amelie was so loved by many, because it included a fairy tale narrative. Thereby, achieving a rare combination of the two.)