children's books, fiction, genres, iconic characters, joys of reading, just for fun

Our love affair with magical nannies.

mary poppins

There was a nanny debate the other night in our house. No, we’re not considering getting a nanny! The debate centered upon which is the most magical magical Nanny. Is it Nanny McPhee  (originally Nurse Matilda) or Mary Poppins? After this post at Of Maria Antonia recently reminded me of the similarly delightful Mrs. Piggle Wiggle, I came away wondering about our love affair with magical nannies, and began Googling in an earnest search for others I may have forgotten.

Including the delightful dog Nanna in J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan,  it was clear that the magical nanny trope extends beyond my original limited imagination of what a magical nanny is. She’s not only characterized by the possession of literal magical powers, but also has a magical effect on the entire family as she serves. The literary blog Slap Happy Larry outlines the general story arc of children’s books which employ the magical nanny trope:

  • The parents are colourless and unremarkable except for their utter cluelessness.
  • The nanny might be actually magic, or seems to work magic due to being a ‘child whisperer’
  • The children are highly spirited tricksters
  • The nanny sees right through the children and although she may have a harsh exterior, has a heart of gold
  • The children are at least upper middle class
  • Nanny stories of the old-fashioned kind, set in large houses, are probably from an earlier era such as the Edwardian
  • The plots tend to be episodic rather than dramatic, with each day bringing a new adventure which is over and solved by bedtime. But there is still a character arc whereby the children become better behaved (or more morally upstanding) by the end of the story.

Mrs. Piggle Wiggle, an American story, necessarily demands a slightly different twist on the notion than we find in the the other renown stories, typically written by British authors. In contrast to Nurse Matilda, Mary Poppins, or even Nanna, Mrs. Piggle Wiggle doesn’t live with her charges. Instead, she is a kindly neighborhood lady whom all the children love and all the parents trust to know just the trick to rectify their children’s bad or detrimental behavior.

This short exploration doesn’t even begin to address the numerous nannies and nursemaids to be found in adult literature, who are far more likely to have a significant effect than magical powers. The unrefined but devoted Mrs. Wix from Henry James’ What Maisie Knew springs to mind here. I’m not sure I could even exhaust the list in a short post as short as this one. This leads  me to the question:

What is it about the magical nannies that grabs hold of our imaginations and makes us enjoy them so? I have my own hypothesis, but I’d much rather hear yours first!

 

 

 

 

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children's books, genres, homeschool

On morals in children’s books

In addition to books we are reading individually, I like the idea of having something we are reading aloud together. Over the years, we’ve had some very memorable experiences reading aloud. The Wind in the Willows was a particular favorite, as well as Mrs. Piggle Wiggle, and more recently Peter Pan.

Currently, our read aloud book is Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. Little Women is interesting in that the morality and lessons to be learned from the daughters’ struggles are laid bare; often complete with a sermonette from their mother.  I myself am not particularly fond of what is known as “preachy” entertainment, but in this book, I have determined that the detours are a net advantage to the story. I and my children rather enjoy the brief, overt moments in the book which extol virtue, but not everyone does.

In recent weeks I have had the opportunity to muse on this issue of “preachy” or overt morality presented in children’s books as writers far more articulate than me have tackled the subject. First, Krysta at Pages Unbound makes the very astute point that despite any protestations, most people do prefer children’s books with moral. Indeed, the problem most people have with the older children’s books is not that they are overtly moral, but that the morals presented are out of step with our postmodern sensibilities and current morality.

However, moral messages are not relegated to books of the past.  Indeed, moralizing remains alive and well in children’s stories.  It’s simply that many of our moral messages have changed.  While books of the past may have emphasized virtues like honesty, cheerfulness, humility, and a good work ethic, books today often focus on themes of confidence, individuality, and inclusion.  Perhaps some readers do not see these books as moralizing because they agree so whole-heartedly with these themes that they see them as self-evident and not as lessons to be inculcated.  However, a good many readers actively expect such messages–and are disappointed or offended by stories that do not include them.

She is absolutely correct. In fact, our moral lessons of today actively discourage cheerfulness, humility, and a good work ethic if those virtues in any way conflict with our ability to be a confident individual. Hence, it’s not particularly hard to see why Little Women’s overt moral lessons might be offensive to contemporary readers.

Additionally, there is the presumption that Marmee, the mother of Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy, offers her lessons and sermonettes in a way that is unrealistic or stilted. I find the assertion curious as it is not at all unusual in our home for events to evolve into teaching lessons complete with reminders of what our faith and the rules of our family demand. Our children seem to connect with, enjoy, and be enriched by those moments. we do our kids a disservice when we project our hardened resistance to being influenced to a higher standard onto them. The teachable, open hearts of children are much more receptive to such messages than adults tend to be.

In addition to Krysta’s post, there is another well presented argument in defense of preachy children’s books by Lindsay Brigham Knott at Circe Institute. One of the thoughts she offered is our error in presuming that children’s books are to be read solely for entertainment in the first place:

As near as I can tell, the arguments against preachy children’s stories range from shallow to significant. On the shallow end is the argument that children will, by nature, “tune out” anything that smacks of a sermon. The following excerpt (again, compliments of Google) typifies this argument:

Adults patronize kids almost all day, so as an adult ourselves, it is too easy to make this mistake. The key here is to make your point without going too preachy or didactic. Nothing can turn children off faster than a lecture, or worse, a moral lesson. Kids want to be entertained and delighted. The first thing you can do is erase the words moral, teach, message, and lesson out of your vocabulary. Instead, trust your readers to figure it out through the storyline and actions that your characters take. Another tip is to keep authoritative figures, like parents, teachers, or older siblings, in the background. Lastly, never let the adults in the story tell what the main character should do. Remember, it is a sin to preach in fiction.

I shall let that argument stand for itself, and not belabor a rebuttal; anyone already committed to classical education likely does not need to be convinced that kids’ desire for entertainment should not determine the content of their reading, nor that authoritative figures ought to be honored rather than stuffed in the closet.

Over the course of the recently ended school year, our 11-year-old, in her fulfilled assignment of writing a short story, was admonished by her teacher that her story didn’t direct the reader to draw a conclusion with regard to the behavior of her characters. Because I was stuck on my concern that it sounded so much like a Disney movie, that particular aspect of her presentation eluded me.

Rather than ask her what she wanted to convey, I read the story again, and again was struck with the notion that the problems inherent in the behavior of the characters was evident because of the troubles their decisions wrought. The fact that there was no overarching, ultimate consequence could certainly be perceived as problematic.

However, on the heels of having read Rudyard Kipling’s Captains Courageous, which was also very matter of fact in its presentation of behavior and consequences, I was prepared to accept my daughter’s presentation as valid. What to do about the canned plot development is another issue.

It left me wondering what positions others general have when it comes to presenting morality and life lessons in children’s books.

What say you?

 

 

 

 

books for women, genres, tales from the local library

The anti-aging genre.

I ran across this cluster of books in our library’s featured titles section and was immediately struck by the implications. In the health section of that library, which is one of the smallest branches in our county, there are tens more of them. Given the explosion of books dedicated exclusive to cheating Father Time, I’d say anti-aging qualifies as its own genre separate from health and wellness. There is a distinction to be made between desiring wholeness and well-being, and a dogged pursuit of the fountain of youth.

The opposite of aging, for those unaware, is death. We either age or die, and we certainly cannot “age backwards”. So books with titles like these bother me, and here’s why:

Look at the psychological game the library tries to play here by marking these books as part of the ya category (young adult). Why would a young adult be interested in a book on looking younger? Conversely, what do these books’ target audience gain from the characterization of the books as young adult?

They are, after all, marketed directly to women like me. Namely, these are catnip for 40-something women, many of whom are in various stages of mini-crises. The crises range from sexual and relational, to career and motherhood and everything in between.

In our youth worshiping culture, a woman who is recently divorced, grappling with her rapidly changing body, or just watching a daughter blossom into everything she used to be, these titles are tempting. I find them sad. And yes, even I have read a book or two which focus on adding a little friction (okay, focus on adding a lot of friction) to what can feel like a fast downward slide. Usually they are –like this one- medical in scope.

One of the reasons I review the books I read about this season of life, even though I grappled at first with whether to do it, is that openness helps keep me tethered to the reality of where I am on life’s journey. It makes it possible to grow older gracefully* rather than give in to the pretense of stopping the inevitable or turning back the clock. There is no way we can be 25 again, or 35 again, no matter how well we eat and how far we go to pretend otherwise.

I recognize that my life has been touched by heaping measures of grace and love which make it easy (or easier, at least) for me to grow older gracefully. I’m not in the brutal postmodern dating market. My husband long ago lost all objectivity concerning my looks and desirability, which I embrace as the blessing that it is. I have adult children, but also relatively young children to raise yet as well. There are bits of residue and vestiges of younger years present in my daily life.

At the end of the day, however, 46 is 46 is 46. Age is not relative, and all any of us can do is take the best care of ourselves that we possibly can, enjoy where we are, and try to live in a way that brings comfort and solace during our twilight years. Fantasizing over books telling us we can “crack the aging code” are not helpful over the long run.

But since when has contentment sold any books?

*Disclosure: I am fully persuaded that my grandmother would vehemently disagree with my assertion that I am growing older gracefully with one perusal of one of my health receipts. She could stretch the dollars I spend on collagen peptides, bio-identical progesterone, make up and skin care over a fortnight with little effort. Hopefully the money I save on hair dye and anti-aging books makes up for it. A little.