Sunday, November 20, 2011
Back in the middle of 2006 I’d blogged about Kiddie Lit. I’m republishing that post because it’s directly relevent to my recent series on Disney’s Fantasia and, in particular, to the issues of cuteness and familly presented by the Pastoral episode. I note also that I’ve been looking through Nocholas Sammond, Babes in Tomorrowland: Walt Disney and the Making of the American Child, 1930-1960 (2005).
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Two or three years ago I read Kiddie Lit: The Cultural Construction of Children’s Literature in America by Beverly Lyon Clark (2003). I had just gotten interested in manga and anime and figured that, as many titles are produced for children, that scholarship on children’s literature would be useful. I was attracted to Clark’s book because it addressed the institutionalization of children’s literature, which I figured would help me think about the institutional landscape in which manga and anime must make their way in America, along with homegrown comics, and graphic novels, and cartoons.
Clark argues, and demonstrates, that our (that is, America’s) fairly firm distinction between adult literature and children’s literature did not exist in 19th century America (probably not in the UK either). Writers would write for both children and adults, the reviewers would review (what we now think of as) children’s books as well as (what we now think of as) adult books. And magazines such as The Atlantic Monthly assumed their audience included children as well as adults.
As one case study, Clark considers Mark Twain, in particular, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. These days we think of Huckleberry Finn as an adult book and Tom Sawyer as a boy’s book. But that distinction was not a firm one for Twain and his contemporaries. In his own statements on both books Twain vacillated in his sense of his audience and so did his reviewers. Similarly, Louisa May Alcott and her audience did not think of Little Women as a specifically girl’s book. It was a book that could be read with pleasure and edification by both children and adults. In fact, at the time, some considered it a mark of excellence that a book was accessible to children as well as to adults.
The move to differentiate the adult from the children’s audience came in the first and second quarters of the 20th century and succeeded so well that we now assume it without question. And children’s literature has been, for the most part, marginalized.
Clark devotes her final chapter to Disney. She makes the point that prior to the 40s Disney and his work was quite highly regarded in intellectual circles. Some even thought his cartoons were more aesthetically significant than contemporary live-action films. She also points out that anyone going to the movies assumed they would see cartoons before the feature. It didn’t make any difference whether the feature was a light-hearted comedy or a serious drama, you’d see cartoons first. Cartoons became children’s fare, she argues, after WWII and as a side-effect of TV, which made it easier to develop niche audiences. Families went to the movies, but it was easy to let kids watch cartoons on TV while mother went about her duties elsewhere in the house. As for Disney, Clark argues that opinion turned on him when he introduced human figures into his cartoons (with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in the later 1930s, his first feature-length film).
One issue looms large: How can we properly value children’s literature? Is the study of children’s literature a proper part of the general study of literature or should it remain the province of schools of education and developmental psychologists?
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That’s not the issue that faces me now, however, though it’s important, not simply to literary culture, but to film culture as well. There IS Disney, of course, but also Hayao Miyazaki and a host of others.