The Children's Book Garden

Reading and weeding through the best and worst of children's literature

Comic Books: Friend or Foe? August 18, 2011

DC comicbook heroesMy daughter is 5, but thanks to her dad, she already knows which superheroes belong to Marvel, which to DC.

On the one hand, I’m impressed.

On the other hand – the one with the super mama-cyborg powers – I’m not sure if comic books are good material for these young, impressionable brains.

Don’t get me wrong: I may have an MFA in poetry and thus sometimes qualify as a literary snob, but I have some comic-cred, too:

1) I read Kavalier & Clay twice

2) I owned Wonder Woman underoos

3) I got my Storm figurine when I was 21.

At first, I was all about my daughter getting exposure to super-girls. I even started seeing correlations between heroine storylines and goddess mythology – even the art can look similar, if you’re talking about some of the new Hindu goddess pictures. Strong women with power? Absolutely.

Well, not exactly. I have some concerns:

1) Ethics. Most of the storylines are extremely simplistic – no nuances or subtleties that question perceptions of right and wrong – just very childish black and white thinking. Jo asked one morning, “Why is Cat Woman a bad guy?” and I realized that I don’t like the values of painting people as “good” and “bad.” It’s unrealistic. And these books don’t really explain or investigate motivations. They teach moralistic opposition, punishment and judgment, but not empathy and understanding.

2) Violence. Don’t think I really need to explain this one. I don’t cringe so much that violence exists in these comics – certainly my son needs to have some way to exercise his need for speed – but fight after fight after fight – it’s overwhelming. It’s the main source of action. It’s the only way problems are solved.

3) Power. Sure, my daughter sees strong women – but they are definitely warriors, not goddesses. There power is all physical, not spiritual. These images of exaggerated muscular domination absolutely transfix my kids – but are they learning that might makes right?

Josephine and Sam love comic books – from the old-school editions to the new and strange made-for-preschoolers Super Friends series.

I’m not sure how I feel. I think I prefer Super Woman to Cinderella – and DC to Disney. But are they equally negative? Am I being too reactive?

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Kindle for Kids: Now, for sure, the End is Nigh June 22, 2011

My girlfriend was about to enroll her six-year-old daughter in a summer reading program with Barnes & Noble until she realized that by doing so she was entering to win a Kindle (well, probably a Nook). For her kid. Then she stopped.

Which reminded me that I needed to write about how much I loathe the electronic book craze that’s happening. I realize that by doing so I sound like an old-fashioned old lady, Luddite-lite (I AM blogging, so I can’t be All Luddite, right?). But I don’t care.

You may argue that, just as culture transitioned from an oral tradition to the written word, and then from books to visual media, Progress take various and shifting forms of communication and story-telling – and one isn’t better than the other, but the quicker, the more portable, the less cumbersome, the better.

Of course, using that logic, we should return to the oral tradition, which was extremely portable and definitely not subject to fires or electronic rights hang-ups.

But I digress. I don’t agree that every change is either

a) unavoidable or

b) an improvement.

Cultural shifts occur through human choice, and we can be mindful about which paths we take, which options to exploit.

As for ‘progress’ or ‘improvements,’ inventions, new technologies – these often have both positive and negative effects, some we don’t see for decades or more. But whatever the effects, I think we can look even closer at the experience, and weigh the costs and benefits.

The Options of Experience vs. Convenience

For instance, there’s the issue of pregnancy in hospitals. Many people advocate for home births, for a better experience. I personally care less about the experience than I do about safety. So, I’m fine with medicalized birth.

Guns, on the other hand, are great for protecting against snakes, but I don’t think anyone should experience the power of killing another person with a gun. I think it does something to our brains. It’s not just the power, but the lack of effort required to shoot a gun; it’s too easy to point and shoot. Point and click. Touch and go. When certain activities become too easy, we treat them too casually, and shrug off the consequences, because we literally, physically, do not feel or experience any. We’re into convenience, at the expense of experience.

How we choose to structure and frame our experience – whether it’s education, entertainment, socializing, transportation, whatever – changes the context and tenor of the experience itself.

  • Shopping on Amazon vs. visiting a store
  • Having a conversation in person vs. on Facebook
  • Going to live theater vs. watching a movie

Virtual reality is not “bad” – but it does insert an interface between the person’s physical body and senses and the physical reality of the world. Stripping out the information our bodies get from our physical senses lessens the amount of information we’re getting; depletes reality a little; and leaves those senses, our sense of our physical selves, our sense of our bodies, to wither from lack of use.

Five Reasons to Stick with Real Books

And that’s reason number one for me thinking e-books are harmful, especially for kids:

1) It will train a child’s consciousness to understand the self as divided and separate from the body and the world. The lack of the anchor of a physical book separates your mental experience from your physical experience; reinforces the false notion of a division existing between mind and body, a cultural understanding that allows us to divide reality and subjugate parts of it.

2) It will affect the growing brain. We know too much about the brain now NOT to bet that interacting with an electronic reader will have a different effect on your neural networks than reading traditional books will, especially when the brain is young and growing.

3) It will hurt your eyes – there’s a reason heavy computer users are encouraged to take a break from staring at the lit screen. Eye strain, headaches can result from prolonged exposure. Not so with the printed word.

4) The experience is less pleasurable – and reading should be pleasing! I argue this based upon my own subjectivity mostly – but also just in terms of the physical, sensory engagement of each – with a regular book, you feel its weight, touch its texture, smell the pages – you write in the margins, you dogear pages, you can flip back and forth…

5It will instill a value of convenience over experience: it doesn’t matter if it’s enjoyable or not, moral or not, painful or not; if it’s fast and easy, it’s the better option. FYI: it is not.

Ever since Derrida and the other post-structuralists solidified the Cartesian dualism that has ruled Western culture, I feel like we’ve given up on real life. OH well, we’re saying; we’re hitched to Progress, and it’s killing the planet and giving us stress and cancer, we’re stuck in ruts of war and competition and hierarchy, jobs we hate and economies built on cheap goods and suffering and There’s Nothing We Can Do About it.

I agree that we’re not going to fight the power and take it all down.

But I don’t agree there’s nothing we can do about it.

By firmly choosing values of experience over convenience, especially for our children, we can grow and retain conceptions of reality and self that will allow us to make choices that remove us from the drowning yoke of Progress.

Thoughts?