Friday, June 21, 2013

Children's literature heroes -- what they say about our times

Children's stories permeate our culture. Whether it's Disney films, Broadway musicals or even public television, characters from children's stories sink deep into our cultural heritage. This is nothing new -- the Brothers Grimm recorded fairy tales that had been passed down generation to generation; these same tales still enchant us centuries later. But lately I've been wondering what the heroes from children's literature say about our times.

This week, we've seen two fantastic musicals based on Roald Dahl's stories, Matilda and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and visited the Harry Potter  studios outside of London. Last month, my youngest was in a musical based on Disney's version of Alice in Wonderland.

Our whole family was captivated by these productions. The musical productions amazed us for the sheer talent the young performers showed. I loved the way that the musical numbers brought the joy and heart of these stories to new audiences. But I think there's something at the heart of each of these stories that speaks to the generation they came from.

All of these heroes are lonely children, a protagonist that kids today still relate to. They face trials and tribulations, whether it's the dreadful Queen of Hearts or the terrifying Miss Trunchbull. A common theme is certainly that children have to bravely fight injustice and tyrannical adults. But each of these heroes overcome their challenges in different ways, and I'm fascinated by these journeys.

Alice is certainly brave as she faces down the strange creatures in Wonderland. As Julie Steinberg writes in the Wall Street Journal,
"Unabashedly inquisitive, she’s not afraid to stamp her foot and demand rational responses from authority figures. And when she doesn’t get them, she doesn’t quiet down."
I've always been a bit perplexed by how Alice eventually faces down the Queen and makes her way back to her regular life. The whimsy of Carroll's wacky world has always struck me as a bit too happenstance and random. Alice would never find her way through Wonderland if it weren't for the White Rabbit guiding her way.

Roald Dahl's heroes succeed through sheer will, positive spirit and determination. Matilda, with music by Tim Minchin, emphasizes that you have to stand up to tyrannical authority figures. Matilda sings, in "Naughty,"
Just because you find that life's not fair, it
Doesn't mean that you just have to grin and bear it.
If you always take it on the chin and wear it,
Nothing will change.
Even if you're little you can do a lot, you
Mustn't let a little thing like 'little' stop you.
But how does Matilda stand up to her parents and Miss Trunchbull? At first, my youngest was sure that Miss Honey helped her. But as we talked about it, we realized that while Miss Honey was certainly kind, she didn't really help Matilda. Miss Honey sings about how she's too afraid to stand up for what's right. Matilda finds the courage within herself. The librarian, the wonderful Mrs. Phelps, certainly encourages Matilda to believe in herself and find courage in her stories. Like all Roald Dahl's heroes, Matilda's imagination sustains her when nothing else does. But I would argue that Matilda really survives on her own.

Harry Potter, in contrast, succeeds through his own courage and determination, but only with the help of his friends. Much of the plot of the Harry Potter books revolves around the relationship between Harry, Ron and Hermione -- coming together, getting into fights, and then resolving them to fight the common enemy. This emphasis on group work reminds me of how much we ask children to work together on projects in school now.

In a similar way, the Warner Brother's Harry Potter Studio Tour in Leavesden, emphasizes throughout just how many people are involved in producing these movies. You get a sense of the intricate detail and craftsmanship put in at all levels, from the props to the set design, from the costumes to the special effects, from the concept art to the scale models. It is a tremendous group effort. You also get a sense of the effort, time and skill put into each step - that the movie magic is far more work than magic.

©2013 , Mary Ann Scheuer, Great Kid Books

1 comment:

  1. A very interesting study, Mary Ann. Thanks for sharing your thoughts with the June Carnival of Children's Literature.