Saturday, October 24, 2009

Where The Wild Things Are

The heroine of the book I am currently reading out loud to my nine year-old daughter finds herself in an enormous outdoor arena with 23 other teenagers. She is part of a televised fight to the death, with the sole survivor winning food for his or her province for a year. It is a brutal story set in a brutal world. And my daughter can’t get enough. (Hunger Games)

The book I have just finished reading to my class of sixth graders features global flooding, the near-extinction of humanity, and a fight to survive against overwhelming odds. Many sympathetic characters die horrible deaths. It is certainly NOT the feel-good book of the year. And my students loved it. (Exodus)

The current debate about Spike Jonze’s film adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s 1963 classic Where The Wild Things Are has got me thinking about kids and just what is appropriate for them. Online message boards and stories on CNN and Yahoo News feature quotes from many parents who are shocked and horrified by the tantrums, tears, destruction, and just-plain emotional messiness of the film. Their reactions boil down to one complaint: This is NOT a kids’ movie.

I have no memory of any specific books I read before the age of twelve. The first book I can clearly remember reading is Richard Wright’s Native Son. It begins with a desperately poor family cowering in their apartment as the oldest son tries to kill a rat with a frying pan. This one scene opened my eyes, my brain, and my heart to books. It was harsh. It was violent. And it was real. Much more real and much more vital than any book I had read before Native Son.

Before reading Richard Wright’s novel I could not have told you what most books were lacking because I didn’t know. After those first 20 pages, it was immediately clear what was lacking in those other books: complexity.

The world is certainly not a simple place. And humans are certainly not simple creatures. We are a complex jumble of contradictory thoughts, wants, and emotions, and these competing forces can leave us roiling. Children are not exempt from the complexity that comes with having such large brains and such complicated and obscure motivations. Books and movies that reflect some of the messy truth of being human talk to me much more directly than books and movies that ignore or deny this truth.

And I am happy to find out that the same is true of my daughter. The books we read together now interest me as much as they interest her. Of course, there are some caveats. Children are different. They are individuals. Some children are deeply affected by images of cruelty, violence, cold-heartedness, and anger and the parents of these children need to exercise the “G” part of the PG movie rating. As parents, we know our own children far better than any movie- or video game- rating board.

I hope the release of, (and accompanying debate about), Where the Wild Things Are, motivates parents to take a more active role in guiding their children to books, movies, tv shows, and video games that are right for their kids. I will not be showing my daughter Pulp Fiction, (or even episodes of The Office), but if she wants to read a challenging work like To Kill a Mockingbird or Of Mice and Men, I will be right there with her, helping her make sense of some of the harder, darker elements.

In a recent interview with Newsweek magazine, Maurice Sendak, Spike Jonze, and writer Dave Eggers talked about the idea that some things are too scary for kids:

What do you say to parents who think the Wild Things film may be too scary?Sendak: I would tell them to go to hell. That's a question I will not tolerate.

Because kids can handle it?Sendak: If they can't handle it, go home. Or wet your pants. Do whatever you like. But it's not a question that can be answered.

Jonze: Dave, you want to field that one?

Eggers: The part about kids wetting their pants? Should kids wear diapers when they go to the movies? I think adults should wear diapers going to it, too. I think everyone should be prepared for any eventuality.

Sendak: I think you're right. This concentration on kids being scared, as though we as adults can't be scared. Of course we're scared. I'm scared of watching a TV show about vampires. I can't fall asleep. It never stops. We're grown-ups; we know better, but we're afraid.

Why is that important in art?Sendak: Because it's truth…

And with our guidance, kids can handle the truth.

1 comment:

  1. Chris, I couldn't agree with you more. I've often complained about the plastic natue of contemporary cartoons, which is why we watch "Pink Panther," "Atom Ant," and "Tom and Jerry." Not complex, perhaps, but not disgustingly happy and lacking in conflict. I can't wait to see "Where the Wild Things Are!" And I love that you read aloud to Isabelle. I'm looking forward to reading Tolkien to Dylan and Alexa when they get a little older.