Monday, April 12, 2021

The Humbug of Children's Literature

 


In The Wizard of Oz, when Dorothy and her friends return from killing the Wicked Witch of the West to have their wishes granted by the Wizard, they find out he is a humbug, a circus performer from Omaha, a kind of P.T. Barnum, and not a real wizard. However, they still expect him to deliver on his promise, so he gives Dorothy's three friends brains made of bran, a plush heart, and a liquor of courage. Even though these things are obviously not the real items, Dorothy's friends accept them as suitable for their needs. 

Children's literature is like humbug. We draw inspiration from it even while recognizing its fictions, including its fictions about children and childhood. Much has been made of the fact that children's literature is given to kids by adults, positioning children as rather helpless recipients of whatever adult authors, publishers, marketers, teachers and parents allow them to read, and whatever adults want to believe childhood should be. But like Dorothy's friends receiving the Wizard's humbug gifts, kids of all ages may be well aware of the situation. Even as they embrace the stories, they might be aware of them as a kind of performance of childhood and children's stories. They participate in the writing of these fictions, negotiating their relationship to them as they hear, repeat, share, play, perform, and revise the repertoire of children's stories.

Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Barney and Friends: Let's Help Mother Goose!

 


In this episode of Barney and Friends, Mother Goose's book of nursery rhymes is eaten by a bookworm, so Barney and the kids help her remember all the rhymes while she writes them down again. In this scenario, the relationships among print literature for children, oral traditions, games, and material play become clear in the dynamics of the nursery rhyme. Although Mother Goose can't remember her rhymes, which she wrote so long ago, the kids know them from memory and repetition. As they recite the rhymes for Mother Goose, they sometimes say them and sometimes sing them. They act them out as well, incorporating toys, costumes, and other material effects, using a tea set for "Polly Put the Kettle On" and cat ears for "Three Little Kittens." They put together puzzles illustrating the rhymes while repeating them. These activities culminate in "Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush," a classic children's circle game with choreography. In the nursery rhyme, concepts of literariness and musicality converge. All of these activities, along with reading, or being read to, are integral to the transmission of the rhymes.  Indeed, Barney and Friends bases most of its songs on nursery rhymes and their tunes, constituting yet another way in which nursery songs are not only transmitted but also transformed in repetition. "Yankee Doodle" provides the tune for the show's theme song, and "This Old Man" becomes the show's other theme, "I Love You," which is sung at the end of the episode. This method of setting new words to an existing tune, contrafactum, is core practice of children's music by children and the adults who collaborate with them.

Friday, March 26, 2021

Ring Around the Rosie

Kate Greenaway, "Ring-a-ring-a-roses," Mother Goose (1881)
“Ring Around the Rosie” is the iconic children’s circle game song. The words and melody have varied over time. Here’s the one I learned as a kid:


Ring around the rosie

A pocket full of posies

Upstairs, downstairs

We all fall down.

It’s a strikingly simple game. You hold hands and move in a circle till you get to the part about falling down, and you fall down. Then you get up and do it again. I’ve hardly ever seen any additional verses or accounts of the game being any more complicated. You just keep repeating it for the sheer simple pleasure of it. There's no story (it's not about the plague), and the main appeal seems to be the fun of spinning and falling (the dizzying kind of play Roger Caillois called ilinx). In some historical accounts, the last person to fall or squat becomes the “rose tree” and stands in the center of the circle for the next round. There’s at least one account of it being used by young children in the US as a kissing game. I wonder if this suggests some kind of connection to play party games that nineteenth-century adolescents played as outlets for flirtation and courtship.

The tune currently most associated with the rhyme in the United States is an iteration of what Patricia Sheehan Campbell has called the children’s “ur-song,” famously sung as “nana nana boo boo!”

It first appeared in print in Kate Greenaway’s Mother Goose; or, the Old Nursery Rhymes (1881).

Wednesday, March 24, 2021

Fisher-Price Change-a-Record Music Box

 


The Fisher-Price Change-a-Record Music Box was first released in 1971. It includes 5 double-sided toy records in different colors with a total of ten songs. These are kept in a storage compartment in the back of the record player. Like so many musical toys, it has a handle for portability. I'm still trying to figure out what it means for a music box to pretend to be a record player. Is this a practice record player for very young children who are not yet able or allowed to use a real one, or is it a toy in its own right with pleasures specific to its form?

Sunday, March 21, 2021

Children Are Angels

 In which Donald encounters a gap between the child in the book and feathered reality of Huey, Dewey, and Louie.