Pages of Perception

Last Monday night, feeling drained after several hours of academic reading, highlighting, and note taking, I found myself curled up on the carpet in an unoccupied corner of the library–reading the titles of cracked spines with a nostalgic smile spread across my lips. I was among friends.

The three shelves of the Rolvaag Library that house hundreds of beloved children’s books seemed so lonely in those late evening hours. After running my fingers over the covers of such classics as “Where the Wild Things Are,” and “The Cat in the Hat,” I got to work. This was one of the best assignments I had ever received. Paired with three academic articles about cross-cultural conceptions of childhood, my week of work for my Child Rearing Across Cultures independent study was to be spent searching children’s books for evidence of what those carefully chosen words, morals, and images really teach kids. Diving in, I quickly realized how unaware I was as a child of the brainwashing that was taking place as I nestled into bed every night with a book in my hands.

After leafing through a dozen or so books of talking animals and oversized font, I started in on the articles written for an audience a bit closer to my age group. As I hunched over Future Generations and Global Standards:Children’s Rights at the Start of the Millenium, Relatives and Relations, and Children and the Politics of Culture in ‘Late Capitalism,’ I found the words of stories like Yertle the Turtle and The Ugly Duckling fit right into the conversation. Each of the books I selected from the shelves of the children’s section told their own hidden cultural story–pushing values of individuality and enforcing the social hierarchy of Western thought.

A classically animated tale published in 1947, Alvin Tresslet’s “White Snow Right Snow” tells the story of a town before, during, and after a snowstorm hits. The mailman is forced to don his “rubbers,” the police man catches a cold, the police man’s wife knits him a scarf and cares for his nose, and the children are left to play outside all day long. The plot line is simplistic and a bit dull, but the meaning behind the short lines of text is far more complex. As is examined in the article Future Generations and Global Standards by Judith Ennen, definitions of childhood vary across cultures. In fact, the notion of childhood itself is a relatively new one. Children used to be valuable economic assets of the Western family–working to bring home a steady income from a very young age. Now, their value has become mostly sentimental (this is a point made in all three articles.) In our Western culture, childhood responsibilities post-industrial era transformed to include obeying orders, playing, and learning. Teenagers rely on their parents for longer periods of time, and leave the house largely unaware of how to clean, cook, or care for themselves. This differs vastly from other cultures (like Tanzanian culture for example, where a boy becomes a man when he can support a wife and child rather than when he turns 18.) Within “White Snow Right Snow,” we can already see the Western cultural conception of childhood responsibility and innocence–not to mention traditionally accepted gender roles. The children in this idyllic town are not held responsible for anything but snowmen and forts, while Mrs. Policeman is left to sit by her husband all day and knit, cook, and clean. When Spring arrives, she dutifully moves outdoors to plant a garden. We never hear about her leaving the house. Granted, this book was written in 1947 and I like to think that children’s literature has come to define the sexes a little less blatantly, but the messages are still there. This short book might also be analyzed in its portrayal of play–leading to questions like: Is play necessary in childhood? Do all children have a right to play? When does play end? How do we know that we have become adults? In all three articles, the idea of universal rights for children are addressed.  Is there a way to respect the “rights” of children while also respecting the reality of varied cultural perceptions of what these rights might be? Can we ever all agree on what is morally wrong for all of humanity?

As these questions ricochet, Yertle the Turtle offers potential solutions. A beloved tale of Dr. Suess, this moral riddled story introduces the quintessential “underdog.” When a hubristic king Turtle demands that all of his village turtles stack themselves so that he can sit higher on his throne and rule more of the land, they all obediently comply. One after one they stack themselves into the sky–painfully putting up with the weight on their backs until they get close to the height of the moon. One turtle, Mack, has the guts to complain. “But down on the bottom we, too, should have rights. We turtles can’t stand it. Our shells will all crack! Besides, we need food. We are starving! groaned Mack”(Dr. Suess.) Though the children who read this artfully rhymed story may not grasp it quite fully, Suess uses Mack as a voice for human rights. All on the bottom, even children who lack true control, should have rights. This is the point made by the 1959 Declaration of Rights of the Child and the 1989 UN Convention upon the same topic (Children and the Politics of Culture, 33). Interestingly enough, despite stories like Yertle the Turtle, the U.S. is one of the only nations that did not sign the declaration that came out of that 1989 UN Convention.

In the story “Reading With Dad” by Richard Jorgensen, the dynamics of childhood and courtship and duty are explored through the narration of a girl’s experience reading with her Dad. A little girl reading Cat and the Hat becomes a young woman traversing the libraries of college and the world of boys, a mother to two girls who she reads with, and finally a caregiver to her aging father. Through her story, we see the values of the Westernized child as a vessel for knowledge and tradition, the importance placed upon education and literacy, and the sort of “gift exchange” that occurs in families as the younger generation turns around to take care of the old. These are several of the themes covered in the wonderfully written article Relatives and Relations, represented in only 20 or so pages filled with 2-3 lines each.

In both “Another Important Book” by Margaret Wise Brown and “The First Thing My Mama Told Me ” by Susan Marie Swanson, the strong American sense of individuality shines through. After moving through pages describing all of the great things you can do at the ages of 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6 (usually paraded as things you can do all by yourself) “Another Important Book” ends with the line: “But the important thing about Six, Five, Four, Three, One and Two is that you are YOU.” The back cover of the book is literally a mirror. If this doesn’t scream “be independent!” I don’t know what does. Again and again, we see that in America the measure of a child’s success ultimately depends on how effectively independent he or she becomes. We are a society of individuals, yet we are also focused on a nationalist sense of unity in this individual isolation. It’s a bit strange when you really start to think about it.

“The First Thing My Mama Told Me” begins with the fairly predictable line: “The first thing my Mama told me was my name.” The book goes on to describe all of the ways little Lucy learned to put her name–from birthday cupcakes to wooden stools to t-shirt tags and kindergarten coat hooks. The story is sweet and simple. It recalls the memories we all have of learning to write our names with awkward pencils and in exciting squirtgun streams on hot summer pavement. However, the importance placed upon names in our culture is something significant to be gleaned from this children’s book. In Relatives and Relations, Lewis Henry Morgan is revealed as the founding father of kinship studies–a man who defined two major systems of kinship based on names. The classificatory system classifies a whole group of relatives by the same term, while descriptive systems differentiate with separate words for each distinct relationship. Morgan believed (as would many of us today) that descriptive systems were more correct–feeling that those cultures who recognize everyone by the same name are somehow “backward.” In America, your name is incredibly important. We follow baby naming trends just to be sure our child has a name that is fairly “unique” and will ensure success. As the documentary “Freakonomics” points out, names become an investment. In the film, the impact of having a decidedly stereotypical “black” name was revealed as detrimental to “success.” In an experiment in which “white” and “black” sounding names were attached to otherwise identical resumés, the “white” named applicants were called back 33% more often. It turns out there’s a lot of stake held in a name.

As always, there are many more connections to be made and points to be discussed from this week’s readings, but I trust that they will continue to crop up in continuous conversations and constant thought. Everything is intertwined. Until next time.

To see an outline of a few more of the children’s books I took a look at, click here: Children’s Books

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