All good children's stories are the same: young creature breaks rules, has incredible adventure, then returns home with the knowledge that aforementioned rules are there for a reason.
Of course, the actual message to the careful reader is: break rules as often as you can, because who the hell doesn't want to have an adventure?
― Brian K. Vaughan, Saga, Vol. 3
The largest population of orphans anywhere in the world is within the pages of children's books. This Barnes & Noble article gives a nice list of some of the most familiar: Little Orphan Annie, Anne (of Green Gables) Shirley, Harry Potter, Cinderella, any Roald Dahl protagonist, Tom Sawyer, Jane Eyre, Frodo Baggins, Oliver Twist and the Artful Dodger, Tarzan, and Batman. There are so many, many more in books both well-known and not. Not only are absent or missing parents a good source of conflict and drama to make stories exciting, they also make sure the characters are independent individuals more free to have exciting adventures.
Perhaps most important, orphaned protagonists free the story to remain fully focused on the world of children and their concerns, as free from the adult world as possible. Even in books with parents, most of the best ones have adults who are largely absent or, even better, ineffective and incompetent. Unlike reality, the kids get to turn the tables, subvert the rules, and have all the power. They're the only ones who can solve the mystery or fix the problem or see behind the curtain to encounter the magical lands and creatures. They know secret things that adults don't. It's what young readers long for, and the best stories allow them to experience it.
I've always loved the Captain Underpants series for its subversive sensibilities. My review of what appears to be the final one--with author Dav Pilkey's latest enterprise being his hugely popular Dog Man books--Captain Underpants and the Tyrannical Retaliation of the Turbo Toilet 2000 (#11), begins:
Dav Pilkey's humor in his Captain Underpants books has always been about subverting the rules. From the title on down, he's mined the immense amusement in mentioning unmentionables and shared the mischievous joy of getting away with those things we ought not to do. And, while the potty humor is certainly an essential element, the books have never rested solely on it, as Pilkey's genius has been in extending that spirit to the flaunting of all convention in general. Just as central, for instance, has been the undermining of adults undeserving of their authority because they only use it to bully. He allows his young, still-learning characters to write with authentically poor spelling and grammar, and he laughs at the idea of stories needing internal logic and consistency. In this book, more than ever, Pilkey has fun subverting the rules of storytelling itself with an unending stream of self-aware meta-references.
(See the end of this post for my full review.) A very explicit example of this from book #10, Captain Underpants and the Revolting Revenge of the Radioactive Robo-boxers:
I think it's a lot easier for adults to stomp out someone else's fun than it is for them to reflect on their own lives and figure out where it all went so miserably wrong. It's just too depressing for grown-ups to ponder all the decades of compromises, failures, laziness, fear, and regrettable choices that slowly transformed them from running, jumping, laughing, fun-loving kids into grumpy, complaining, calorie-counting, easily offended, peace-and-quiet-demanding grouches.
It might seem backwards and counterintuitive, but allowing children the power to subvert adult norms, mores, and rules, even if only in stories and play, gives them the freedom they need to grow into adulthood for themselves. Children have to have the chance to reject what they have been taught is good and right and normal, and then be given the autonomy to choose to accept those things for themselves so that the acceptance is authentic, personal, and meaningful. Encountering that ability in books not only empowers them, it allows them to explore adult ideas within their imaginations, and, perhaps, limits their need to explore those ideas--rebel against them--with their actions. It's an important part of maturing into independence and responsibility.
This post has so far been about "chapter books," ones for school-aged children. That's only half of my interest and half of my job. I also do weekly storytimes (under normal circumstances) and provide library spaces, services, and reading recommendations for preschoolers. I have the same philosophies and preferences for picture books. Parents more often play important roles in picture books, but the ones with empowered young characters are best. I love silly, ironic, and subversive ones, and avoid those that I find too saccharine or earnest in their lessons. The stories need to be about kids and their concerns, emotions, and experiences, and adults--along with their morality and ethical concerns--shouldn't intrude into the childhood world any more than absolutely necessary. That doesn't mean the books shouldn't have moral and ethical lessons, it just means those things need to be framed within the perspectives of children. Nothing ruins a children's book more, whether picture or chapter, than patronizing adults defining what is good and right. That condescends to and takes power away from the young characters and the readers who identify with them. The power to determine worth, value, and right and wrong needs to lie with children. Adults, whether in the form of characters or moralizing narrative voices, need to stay out of it.
Consider this recent article from Firstpost:
Here is the crux of the problem with moral crusading: children hear their parents telling them to share their toys with their siblings and friends, but see their parents lock all their valuables into an impenetrable ‘Godrej’; parents tell children to share their cupcakes, yet they would never consider sharing their evening drink with the live-in cook. Simple tales mean simple rules to follow, but it is clear there is one set of rules for kids, and an entirely different set for adults. Should they do what they are told to, or do what they see? . . .
While flat and humour-less tales are shameless displays of adult manipulation, subversive plots enable children to fantasise about mastery of their own fate — and are often good reminders for the grownups who read them too. . . . When we allow children to live out their bully-duping fantasies, to make fun of adult institutions, encourage imagination over reality, disruption over self-righteousness we enable them to figure out how they can improve the status quo; and in this we too can venture past our own boundaries. Rigid moral instruction is pushy and unsympathetic, but subversion is nuanced, it requires interpretation of and negotiation with circumstance. Without it, we become complicit in our own conformity and blinkered ideals. . . .
When we exit the lockdown and enter a new era, we need civic virtue born from the understanding of democratic principles, not from indoctrination. We need citizens who recognise the subversion of democratic values and are subversive enough to question and call them out. We need people who can unlock their imagination to actualise the impractical and impossible. And who better to lead the charge than the grownups who read The Gruffalo to their children?
As Neil Gaiman writes in The Ocean at the End of the Lane:
Adults follow paths. Children explore. Adults are content to walk the same way, hundreds of times, or thousands; perhaps it never occurs to adults to step off the paths, to creep beneath rhododendrons, to find the spaces between fences.
Now a slight shift to a related topic. Recently my Facebook memories popped up with something I'd shared two years ago, when my oldest son was four-and-a-half. "When my wife discovered the boys playing with toothpaste as though it was slime, big brother said, 'I'm just using my natural desire for exploration to learn about the world.'" When someone commented, "He has the appropriate response, wow!" I replied, "And he knows how to use it to be manipulative." So it seems I've not only talked about the ideas that follow at home, I've managed to put them into action. I'll let the sources speak for themselves. First, from Aeon:
The authoritative statement of scientific method derives from a surprising place — early 20th-century child psychology
According to theory theorists, a child learns by constructing a theory of the world and testing it against experience. In this sense, children are little scientists – they hypothesise on the basis of observations, test their hypotheses experimentally, and then revise their views in light of the evidence they gather.
According to Alison Gopnik, a theory theorist at the University of California, Berkeley, the analogy works both ways. It’s not just that ‘children are little scientists’, she wrote in her paper ‘The Scientist as Child’ (1996), ‘but that scientists are big children.’ Depending on where you look, you can see the scientific method in a child, or spot the inner child in a scientist. Either way, the theory theory makes it easy to see connections between elementary learning and scientific theorising. . . .
The image of science that most of us hold, even most scientists, comes from a surprising place: modern child psychology. The scientific method as we know it today comes from psychological studies of children only a century ago. . . .
Studying children’s mental development gave psychologists a model of thinking, including their own: scientific thinking. They saw their research methods in the minds of the children they studied. Thus, science has always been child’s play. This does not mean that it is easy, or replaceable, or that it should be done away with. Much the opposite. Returning to this formative moment shines a bright light on the authority of modern science, including its method. . . .
Observing children at play convinced Dewey that spontaneity was crucial to scientific progress too. . . .
Like many of his contemporaries, he looked to children’s learning for keys to psychology’s advancement. For the field to grow, he and others felt, it would have to be open to new, often wild ideas. Scientists needed to take a cue from children, in other words, and stay alive to the improbable and even the inane. . . .
Spontaneity was one lesson Dewey learned from children. The intensely social nature of thinking was another. . . .
Mead rooted even the most rarefied scientific pursuits in a world of social values and social ends. For scientists, like children, progress in the pursuit of knowledge meant working out both stakes and methods in a community of co-investigators. The implications here are radical. Taken to its extreme, Mead’s view was that we never know things on our own – insofar as knowledge and learning go hand-in-hand, and all learning is social, then even our private thoughts are shaped by social relations. Childhood learning shows us something that the idealised image of the lonely genius fails to capture – and, in the end, seems closer to the realities of the scientific community. . . .
Today, science is torn between accessibility and authority. Crises of replication and claims of data-dredging appear alongside such phrases as ‘studies say’ and ‘what science tells us’. But the secret, well-known to most scientists, is that ‘science’ doesn’t ‘tell us’ anything. Science is a medium – a really effective one – not a message. Dewey saw it this way: science is less what a set of people called scientists say than it is a way of saying things. Science is a style of reasoning. This is what made children ‘little scientists’, at least originally. . . .
Casting children as scientists is not about taking science down a peg. Rather, linking the scientific method and child’s play might help us imagine new ways of putting science to work in the world around us.
And transcripts from a couple of Neil deGrasse Tyson videos.
Kids are sources of chaos and disorder. Get over that fact.
I was in Central Park and it had rained a little earlier and there were puddles on some of the walkways. I saw a woman walking with her kid, the kid has galoshes on and a raincoat on, and there's this big, juicy, muddy puddle right there. I said, "Please let the kid jump in the puddle. You know the kid wants to jump in the puddle." The kid is like three or four. And what does the mother do? She pulls the kid around to prevent that from happening. That was a bit of curiosity in that moment that was extinguished. Gone.
Kids are sources of chaos and disorder. Get over that fact. And where does the disorder come from? It's because they are experimenting with their environment. Everything is new to them. Everything. You splash the water, there's mud, it's fun, you get to see the cause and effect of a force, downward force, operating on a fluid. You don't have kids with the intent of retaining a clean house. These are noncommensurate goals. People ask about raising their kids, they ask about education. So I can just tell you that what has to change, with our kids, curiosity--provided it does not kill them--if it meant we had extra work, I would do that extra work.
And on the other side of that is school should, as a minimum, preserve that curiosity for you. When you come down the steps on the last day of school you should be sad that school is over, not happy, saying, "Gee, I gotta go 2 or 3 months without learning anything?" And the fact that you're happy that school is over means that something is not working in there, you're not enjoying the learning process.
If Einstein were here and we're talking with Einstein, we could talk to him for hours and hours and hours and you know what question will never come out of our mouth is, "What college did you go to? I want to go to that same college." I bet most of your people who've sat in this chair, it's not about what college they went to, it's about their own initiative, their own ambitions, their own curiosity. That is not taught in school. Sadly. School, they view you as this empty vessel that they pour information in and you test it over here, you get a high grade, you're praised. Is that who become the shakers and movers of the world? I don't think so.
So I can just tell you that what has to change, your task, is less to instill curiosity in your kids than it is to make sure you don't squash what's already there. They'll retain that curiosity through the turbulent middle school years into high school. And what is an adult scientist, but a kids who's never lost the curiosity.
Kids are born scientists. They’re always turning over rocks and plucking petals off of flowers. They’re always doing things that by and large are destructive. That’s what exploration kind of is. If you take stuff apart, whether or not you know how to put it back together. This is what kids do. An adult scientist is a kid who never grew up. That’s what an adult scientist does. So what happens at home, is the kid reaches in the refrigerator, pulls out an egg and starts juggling it. What’s the first thing you do as a parent? "Stop playing with the egg. It could break. Put it back." Excuse me. This is an experiment in the material strength of-- . Let the kid find out that when it drops, it breaks. This is a physics experiment rapidly turned into a biology experiment, okay. The yolk oozes out. You say, "Hey, that becomes a chickie one day, okay? Wait. How does this gooey yolk become a chicken? Well, that’s biology. Check that out." And what did the egg cost you? 20 cents?
The president of Harvard once said, if you think education is expensive, you should try the cost of ignorance. So, we don’t have enough parents who understand or know how to value the inquisitive nature of their own kids because they want to keep order in their household. Kids go into the kitchen and pull out all the pots and pans, and start banging on them. What’s the first thing you say as a parent? "Stop making all that noise. Stop the racket. You’re getting the pots and pans dirty." You just squashed an entire experiment in acoustics.
So, I’m not worried about kids. People say, "What can I do to get my kids interested in science?" They’re already interested in science. You’re the one who’s the problem. Almost my entire professional energy is focused on adults because they outnumber kids. They vote. They run the world. They wield opportunities. Kids will be fine.
Our online Homework Help resources are not only good for school, they're great places for kids to explore their personal curiosities, passions, and interests, the most authentic learning there is.
Finally, the promised review:
Dav Pilkey's humor in his Captain Underpants books has always been about subverting the rules. From the title on down, he's mined the immense amusement in mentioning unmentionables and shared the mischievous joy of getting away with those things we ought not to do. And, while the potty humor is certainly an essential element, the books have never rested solely on it, as Pilkey's genius has been in extending that spirit to the flaunting of all convention in general. Just as central, for instance, has been the undermining of adults undeserving of their authority because they only use it to bully. He allows his young, still-learning characters to write with authentically poor spelling and grammar, and he laughs at the idea of stories needing internal logic and consistency.
In this book, more than ever, Pilkey has fun subverting the rules of storytelling itself with an unending stream of self-aware meta-references.
Chapter 2, for instance, opens with: "Somewhere in the deepest, darkest reaches of our solar system, a red, rubber kickball was zooming through space. None of Earth's scientists could explain where it had come from, or why it was racing toward Uranus, but it had been on its present course for the past five and a half books, and nothing could stop it." The chapter closes with: "The only thing left to do was travel the long journey from Uranus to Earth. It was a voyage that would take him nearly three whole pages." The duration of space travel is not measured in time in this universe, but in storytelling convenience.
Smaller, simple turns of phrase show the same sensibility. On one page Pilkey sympathetically refers to "the surface of the icy, ridiculously named planet," then a mere two pages later reverses course and takes advantage of it with: "that bleak night on the terribly gassy surface of Uranus." When characters are worried about time-travel overlap issues, he solves it with: "and before you could say 'convoluted plotline,' it disappeared into the noontime haze."
Chapter 6 is titled, "Sanitized for Your Protection." It begins: "Unfortunately, the epic fight that followed was WAY too violent and disturbing to appear in a children's book. The images and descriptions would just be too terrifying. You'd have nightmares for weeks, trust me. So I have invited a guest illustrator, Timmy Swanson (age four) to draw the action in a style that won't depict too much graphic detail. I've also asked his nana, Gertrude (age seventy-one), to describe the scene in her own, gentle vocabulary."
Chapter 22 is the full, complete comic book that George and Harold write/draw to sell as a money making scheme.
And, just to make sure readers don't take too seriously the rule that this series is about the ridiculous adventures of two slackers, a key central portion of this book is concerned with George and Harold's efforts to study hard and make it to school on time to pass tests so that they don't flunk third grade. (But don't worry, that section devolves into the school's teachers running around the school in their underthings.)
In Dav Pilkey's stories, the only true rule is that stories must be fun:
"Are you still trying to figure out how we ended up with three half-pterodactyl, half-bionic-hamster pets?" asked George.
"Yeah, sort of," Harold replied.
"You're thinking too much," said George. "Listen, if you look too closely at these stories, they're gonna fall apart completely. Whaddya think this is, Shakespeare?!!?"
"I guess you're right," said Harold.
"Of course I'm right," said George. "Just go with it, man."