Sunday, February 24, 2008

What We Are Teaching The Children

So this year I've found myself in a surprising number of conversations about Into The Wild, which I've never read (in book form) or seen (in movie form) but because I am fully prepared to have conversations without any background whatsoever I have no problem discussing the finer points of the morality of somebody wandering into the woods in a half-assed way while breaking the hearts of those who loved him.

I am, however, hampered in this endeavor by the fact that one of my favorite children's books was always My Side of The Mountain, where a young kid runs away from home and holes up in some property technically owned by his family and lives off the land. He has a hollow tree and he tames a falcon and he makes his own clothes out of deer hide. It's presented as touch and go, sure, and when, at the end, his family shows up they seem to have been a little upset by his absence, but basically it's presented as a good thing to do. He learns to live off the land. He exercises his ingenuity. He gets in touch with the things that matter. There are, it turns out from bringing this up in conversation, quite a few books along these lines -- I'd like to single out Swiss Family Robinson which doesn't really have anything to do with the point I'm trying to make here (the way in which our most loved children's books are at odds with our cultural mandates) because it's not the family's fault that they're cast ashore. Still, for sheer dreaminess about the potentialities of leaving civilization behind, you could do a lot worse than Swiss Family Robinson, and when someone mentioned it to me in a recent Into The Wild conversation a whole host of things that I had totally forgotten crossed my mind, like them sleeping in a super-elaborate tree house.

It's not just in the realm of "flight into nature" that our children's books take up somewhat odd positions. I mean, consider just how much literature for that age group is told from the point of view of the mouse.

Mice, I am going to come out and say, are gross. Growing up on the West Coast I never had mice in my apartment, but one day in New York at 3 a.m. on a rotten day a mouse came racing across my floor and I realized in an instant how disgusting it is to have something little and furry worming its way around your living quarters. I would not have thought that a mouse would freak me out, but it did, in an atavistic kind of way.

I am not, I think, alone in this. So why do we have so many books (The Rats of Nimh, of course, being the best) designed to convey to us the loneliness and terror of the mouse's view, designed to make us dread the plot-mandated call to the exterminator or, worse, the cat (cats, by contrast, being in real life an animal we often feel affection for).

The simple explanation would be that these books are designed to change the way we look at mice. But I don't think that's true -- I don't think that the author of My Side of The Mountain actually hoped to encourage a bevy of schoolchildren making for the hills. More likely it has something to do with how marginal and small children feel themselves -- that these books are about giving them a sense of possible agency. They are the mice of the universe, smaller than everybody else, and it's a way of giving them a hero to identify with without actually inciting revolt. Or, from a more hardline position, you could think of it as the incorporation of rebellious impulses into a safe space. Let your child read about mice and running away rather than doing it; you read about the same things and it did not actually, when you grew up, cause you to treat all mice as your brothers or to live in a hollow tree.

I don't know -- it just seems strange. On the other hand, the books that do live up to societal norms are usually pretty rotten.


Octopus Grigori said...

I'm saddened that you didn't capitalize "NIMH".

Anonymous said...

o.g., is that because you support acronyms in general, or are a particular fan of this particular organization?

Noko Marie said...

I had to google Into The Wild to see what it was... I thought it was that thing about the guy who got eaten by the bear on tape. But now I understand.

Weirdly enough, I've never read any of these books. But a huge favorite of my childhood was Pippi Longstocking, which fits, too. Interestingly, as far as I can remember, those books nuanced the whole dilemma by having Pippi have a father who loved her very much but was away at sea and taught her all her tricks.

I see partial confirmation of this now at Wikipedia (link). The first part of the entry says, "She is very unconventional, assertive, rich and extraordinarily strong, being able to lift her horse one-handed without difficulty." No wonder I wanted to be her!

Octopus Grigori said...

Anon: I just think that's how the mice would want it.

Anonymous said...

o.g.: I think they would like the much more poetic, plosive sound of 'nimh,' without the dignity of capital letters.

Liz said...

My version of Into The Wild would be more along the lines of "From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler."

I read the book Into the Wild and (unwillingly) saw the movie. I feel ashamed to say that I didn't like the guy, tho I was envious of his skills. Like building fire, using a hunting knife in a positive way, etc.

Octopus Grigori said...

Anon: A fair point.

But consider that the rats -- not mice -- I misspoke, would probably want the bureaucratic, faceless nature of NIMH to be preserved in the frightening acronym.

I would point to anti-globalization protesters, who don't domesticate acronyms like NAFTA or the WTO; or anti-war protesters who don't try to make CIA or the DoD more pleasing to the ear. I think those who resist these organizations want the brutal, soulless nature of the organizations represented through use of their chilling acronyms. Because the rats were resisting NIMH (which planned to exterminate them) I think they would probably want the same.

But who am I to speak for the rats?

Anonymous said...

the movie Into the Wild brought up all kinds of scary memories; as a teenager I worked in REI and every weekend, it seems in memory, some grieving relative would bring back a mangled pack or something like it, apologizing because their kid/friend/spouse etc. had fallen off a cliff or had rock crumble beneath them. We did not penalize for returning the rental equipment damaged in cases like this, but I felt like shaking the young man pretty much throughout the movie. It ain't Disneyland out there. as for you, o.g., you'll have to answer that question for yourself.

Octopus Grigori said...

Anon: I actually got a little scared when I read "As for you, o.g. . . . ."