Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Imperialist Implications and Other Negative Inflections in Children Literature: A Study on Curious George

Sometimes children's literature really bothers me, and it seems like those are the books that Abby always wants to read over and over again. So to make her happy and to satisfy my discontent, I'll paraphrase. Right now, I have one specific book in my sites: Curious George by H. A. Rey, published 1941. In fact, my in-laws, who still have a handful of books from when their children were little, have some of the books that bother me the most. Peter Cottontail, seemingly innocuous, has a page in their where the mother rabbit tells Peter and his siblings to stay out of Mr. McGregor's garden because that's where their father was shot and put in a pie. What the what?? This is a book for little munchkins--how do you explain that to a 2-year old?

We are also choosing to raise our children in a pacifist environment, and it makes me really uncomfortable to have blatant references to violence and death in these stories. But Abby really likes Peter and his bunny exploits when she visits her grandparents. What does a parent do? Tonight, I was reading a book with her that I hadn't read yet that she'd just brought home from the library a few days ago--Elmer and the Lost Teddy. This seemed to be a innocent enough tale. But Elmer has a cousin, Wilmer, who is a ventriloquist. C'mon now. What's the point of having an elephant who is a ventriloquist and then how do you explain that to a child? Unlike guns, this isn't a harmful detail, but how is it possibly necessary? It's just bad writing, and who ever accepted this at the publishing house?

In the last library visit, Abby and Daddy came home with the original Curious George book. They're obviously dated (and frankly, I find the stories pretty ludicrous and stupid) and very formulaic, but neither of those qualities are turn-offs for children now. Abby enjoys "reading" the books herself once in a while, and I like to switch up the story and have her correct me. But the first time I read through this one with her, I couldn't believe it. On the second page, the story states that the man with the yellow hat saw George and declared "What a nice little monkey...I would like to take him home with me." So the white man in the jungles of Africa (as was pointed out on the previous page) lured George over, took advantage of his curiosity, and "picked him [George] up quickly and popped him into a bag. George was caught" (4). And there is an original illustration of a very distraught George tied up in a bag up to his head. This is a classic example of Imperialism, which is generally considered to be problematic...now. I realize that in 1941, our view of the world was different, but this is a perfect study of what our society was 70 years ago. You can hide rhetoric in adult contexts or manipulate it as you want, but there's no purpose to do so in children's literature, and I see it as a pure representation of societal viewpoints.

But it continues. On page five, the man with the yellow hat has captured George and is taking him to his boat (obviously, without asking George's permission...sound familiar??), but the text specifically says "George was sad;" subtly, the text implies that the white man has captured what he wants and has disregarded the person's wants and needs in favor of his own desires. The next page, he usurps his control again over George (who is sitting dutifully at his feet in the illustration), telling his monkey that "I am going to take you to a big Zoo in a big city. You will like it there." This is somewhat contradictory as he first claimed earlier that he was capturing George because he wanted to take him home, but now he is again choosing what George really wants, by removing him from his freedom and limitless environment only to cage George and tell him that he will be happy in his captivity. On page 10, the pair embarks from their ocean liner and according to the text, head off "to the man's house" (not the "Zoo"), which is again, contradictory--is he a pet? is he to be a caged animal, a curiosity? can you trust what the man in the yellow hat says? if the man in the yellow hat represents white men, then can you trust any white man?

And while they're back at the man in the yellow hat's house (who, speaking of Imperialism, is always dressed in safari gear no matter the situation) on page 11, George has "a good meal and a good pipe." This is complete with illustrations of George eating, smoking a pipe luxuriously in an armchair and trying on pajamas in preparation of going to bed. Again, what the what? George is a creature roughly the size of the children for whom the stories are intended, and by demonstrating that George enjoys smoking a pipe, doesn't this send an implicit message to children as well about what they can and should enjoy? Even in 1941, I can't believe that this was a standard message in society.

Finally, one more disturbing image--page 17. George has accidentally called the fire department while playing with the telephone, they rush to his house, become upset that it there was no fire, and "a thin fireman caught one arm and a fat fireman caught the other" (why the need to focus on body types here?) and they drug George away because "You fooled the fire department...We will have to shut you up where you can't do any more harm," again, reverting to the mentality that we must cage the Other, the weaker being (and now that I think of it, again, children identify with the size and curiosity of George, so what message are we sending them that when they are at all naughty, even accidentally, that they are to be caged up?). In fact, the text specifically states, and this message is reiterated in the corresponding illustration, that "They took him away and shut him in a prison." How does this crime fit the punishment? The illustration is definitely a stereotypical dungeon cell, complete with wooden cot, small stool, bucket on the floor, and a plate of what is ostensibly food and several mice eating off of it. And there is a very despondent George sitting my himself on the wooden cot underneath the tiny barred window high up in the wall.

As he always does, George escaped his predicament and 8 pages later, he ends up apparently right where he wants to be "the ZOO! What a nice place for George to live!" The accompanying illustration shows a frolicking happy zoo where animals are barely contained between really short, completely inadequate fences, and George reigns over them all in the top of a leaf-less tree with the biggest smile on his little monkey face.

Think about that last image. Personally, it makes me cringe a little. Maybe it's just me, but I hope that it's not.

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