Sunday, August 13, 2017

Universal Kid Space & Kiddie Lit

I was reminded of what I call “universal kid space” some years ago when I was at one of Nina Paley’s “frunches” – a weekly lunch-gathering of people interested in free culture. Vibha Pinglé and her six year old son Kartik were visiting New York and joined us for the frunch. It turns out that Kartik is a great fan of Paley’s film, Sita Sings the Blues. Which was just a little surprising, but not too.

Sita, as some of you may know, is an animated feature-length film. In America animated films, aka cartoons, have been regarded as kid’s fare since the 1950s. Sita, however, was not made for children. Its subject matter, divorce and the subsequent mourning of the lost relationship, is adult and Paley’s story-telling technique – three intertwined narratives – is quite sophisticated. And yet young Kartik loves the film, as he demonstrated by singing one of the songs from the film, a satiric little ditty about the omniscient goodness of Rama.

Even if much of the story was lost on Kartik, there’s much in the film that would resonate with a lively and intelligent six year old. For one thing, the film is just freakin’ gorgeous, something anyone with a brain, a heart, and a liver, can appreciate. And it’s filled with more or less self-contained musical set pieces that can be enjoyed for their marriage of music and image. And then there’s the cool stuff – purple monsters, a many-headed man, flying eyeballs, arrows and fighting and gore – cartoon gore, of course, but gore nonetheless.

So Kartik can comprehend the film in his way and we can understand it in ours. The visual presentation, I believe, is very important. Verbal presentation, written or spoken, will involve vocabulary problems as there are many words that adults or even older children know, but young children will find mysterious. Where the story is visually present on the screen there’s something that even a young child can see and grasp; the words don’t matter. That’s one aspect of universal kid space, but there’s surely more.

I associate universal kid space with the phrase “for kids of all ages” and with the animated feature films produced by Disney studios starting with Snow White and Pinocchio in the late 1930s. Here are some notes I made some years ago when I was just beginning to discover anime and to think seriously about animation.

September 2003

What I find so interesting an peculiar about those films [the early Disney features and similar films] is that they are intelligible and entertaining both to fairly young children and to their parents and grandparents. That is to say, Grandpa’s grandchildren can enjoy these films on their own terms, but so can Grandpa. Grandpa might take special pleasure in viewing these films with his grandchildren, but he doesn’t need to be with them in order to take pleasure in the films; he doesn’t need to borrow his pleasure from theirs.

I think such films, and the cultural space they inhabit, are a remarkable creation. When and where did it come into existence? What are its characteristics?

On the first question, the narrowest possible answer is that Disney created that space in the later 1930s. I do think that is too narrow an answer. We can, for example, look to such 19th century texts as “A Christmas Carol,” “Tom Sawyer” (but perhaps not “Huckleberry Finn”) and the “Alice” books. Most broadly we might think of Neolithic campsites where the band gathers in the evening to chat and to tell stories. Everyone in the band is there and so everyone hears the stories – as such bands do have specifically children’s music, they may also have specifically children’s tales, but I don’t really know. This answer, I feel, is perhaps too broad, as Neolithic cultures are, in general, rather undifferentiated.

As for the characteristics of such a cultural play space, the question arises because of the very different psychologies of children and adults. Here I’m thinking both in cognitive terms and affective-motivational terms. I assume that children and adults construe the objects in this space in very different ways – each according to her needs and capacities. What interests me is that objects can be created which answer to such very different psychologies. How is that possible? What specific characteristics must those objects have?

Later in September 2003

I’d like to get back to my starting point in all this, that peculiar space in which one can create feature-length films that appeal to both children and adults and that do not require the adults to “borrow” their pleasure from children they’re with.

Having watched lots of 3 to 5 minute cartoons my sense is that, in that form, the basic idea is to stick in jokes and allusions that make sense to adults, but that do not get in the way for children. This is not, of course, a universal feature of cartoons, but it is frequent enough.

But this technique isn’t going to work for feature-length films. I don’t recall that “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” or “Pinocchio” were full of sly intellectual goodies for adults. Adults and children see the “same” film. But I don’t think they see it in the same way. But how do we formulate that difference?

November 2003: Kiddie Lit

Meanwhile I've been reading "Kiddie Lit: The Cultural Construction of Children's Literature in America" (2003) by Beverly Lyon Clark. She argues, and demonstrates, that our 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" (TS), and "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" (HF). These days we think of HF as an adult book and TS as a boys 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 girls 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).

All the issues that Clark discusses come up over again in considering manga and anime. Plus another issue: a deep and abiding cultural prejudice against images and the visual in Western culture. This attitude has roots in both the Hebrew and the Greek branches of ancient Western cultures.

November 2003: Life Cycle

I was looking at the life cycle chart on pp. 56-57 of Erik Erikson's "The Life Cycle Completed," and got an idea about how to think of about this imaginative space for kids of all ages. The basic idea is that children and adults enter the space with distinctly different life cycle concerns. Adults enter the space at Erickson's stave VII, generative vs. stagnation, where the capacity to CARE for others is the psychosocial fruit of successful negotiation of conflicts at this stage. Children, on the other hand, enter the space from one of the other stages – just which one probably depends on the child and the nature of the story.

Let us consider "Spirited Away." Once Chihiro enters the other world – which takes the form of an enormous bath-house for the gods and spirits – she meets a young boy, Haku, who acts as her guide. He tells her that, if she wants to be able to return to the outside world, she must convince the boiler keeper to give her a job. She does this, though it requires considerable persistence, but he tells her she must, in turn, secure the permission of Yubaba, the witch who runs the bathouse. Chihiro does that, again, with considerable persistence. But that's not enough. Now that she's "in" she has to convince her fellow workers than she can actually accomplish something. Which she does, in various was both mundane and imaginative. But her ultimate escape depends on her concern for and loyalty to Haku.

All this strikes me as being at Erikson's stage IV, industry vs. inferiority, with COMPETENCE as its psychosocial reward, and a bit of stage V, identity vs. identity confusion, with FIDELITY as its reward (cf. Chihiro's loyalty to Haku). So a child can see this movie and use it as a vehicle for working though matters of competence and fidelity (and probably issues from some of the earlier stages as well), while the adult enters the space and rehearses a rather different set of issues even while identifying with the child protagonist and her struggles.

And that is what happens, the adult identifies with the child protagonist. For there's no one else to identify with, at least not as the primary link to the story. In the case of "Pinocchio" I can imagine identifying with Gepetto, but only as an abstract possibility. But I don't really believe that he's anyone's primary link to the story. Pinocchio is – that's what it means to be the protagonist. The child identifies with Pinocchio to work through Pinocchio's problems while the adult identifies with him to cheer him on.

Now, I can imagine a rather different kind of story where the protagonist is concerned with issues of generativity vs. stagnation. This kind of story could not be told in the universal kid space – at least, not told well – because children would be unable to follow the central action. Here's where I'd put, for example, late Shakespeare, the tragedies and romances. When "The Tempest" was reworked into "Forbidden Planet," thereby fitting into universal kid space (something very like it), the psychology was changed considerably. Morbius, the Prospero figure, was removed from the protagonist role and rather diminished in his various capabilities, except his capacity for wreaking havoc.

And so forth . . . .

2010: Michael Barrier on Training Your Dragon

These next notes are not old, nor are they mine. The following passage is from an article in which Mike Barrier, the animation critic and historian, discusses the last half of How To Train Your Dragon, the first half of which he liked quite a lot:
There is a much greater gulf between the juvenile and the adolescent than there is between the juvenile and the adult. Good children's films and books deal with serious subjects as seriously as good adult films and books, but from a different perspective (particularly where relations between the sexes are concerned). Films that pander to the adolescent sensibility, like most of the DreamWorks features and all too many of today's other movies, can't afford to take anything seriously, except the panic that's always threatening to erupt in the adolescent mind and that the movies treat with the soothing balm of a pervasive flipness. Carl Barks said that he thought of his readers as being around twelve years old—on the cusp of adolescence, but still children. Once children enter adolescence, with its anxieties and insecurities and consuming self-consciousness, they pass beyond the reach of artists like Barks; they're incapable of hearing what those artists are saying until the glandular din subsides and they become adults.
A Puzzle About Cultural Difference

Cartoons were not originally kiddie’s fare. Before WWII they were made for the general movie-going public. In the United States that changed after WWII. Cartoons became kiddie’s fare and animated features were marketed as family entertainment. But quite the opposite happened in Japan. Manga, Japanese comic books, proliferated and began moving out of the child market and into adult markets. The same thing happened to anime after it became popular in the 1960s. Anime is made for all audiences, not just for children and families.

Why did Japan go one way and the United States another?


  1. Manga is older. See Katsushika Hokusia (he produced the famous Wave print) but is also known for manga. No text, but it is described as almost anticipating later animation styles.

    Link to Priincton U.L. Hokusia manga (Transmitting the Spirit and revealing the form of things)

    1. Yes, certainly before WWII. I saw some lovely examples a couple years ago at an exhibition of Japanese picture books (ehon) at the NY Public Library.

      A lot depends on your definition of manga. One can plausibly push them back into the 19th century and, less plausibly, back to the 12th century.

  2. Really nice B.B.C doc. "Katsushika Hokusai Old Man Crazy to Paint"