Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Imagination v. Nonsense

"Hi, we don't make any sense. Would you like us to rescue you?"

I watched a few Qubo cartoons with my son this past Sunday morning while we ate waffles and berries, and I got to wondering why some kids shows (and books) entertain and teach about life with such great imagination, while others use complete nonsense to try to convey some more serious message. Almost everything on PBS Kids is appropriate and even amazingly instructional for intelligent children, but some mornings they do pledge drives or international news or some other non-kid programming, so Qubo is his weekend breakfast backup channel. Qubo is a mixed bag of cheap crap and creativity. I think it airs all the PBS Kids rejects (Qubo is a joint-network-owned attempt at something like PBS Kids).

*Before I get started I apologize for bringing up kidisms and kidstuffs so often lately. I know some of you probably don't want to hear about it. I'm trying to keep it to the cultural and philosophical sorts of questions that can arise when you're a split academic/mom personality like myself. I promise I will have much more scholarly things to say after the summer (and I will be totally ready for time away from Qubo and PBS!). But if you are still annoyed, despite my well rationalized disclaimer here, let me remind you that you were all children once. Wouldn't you like to think that someone (maybe even your own dear mother!) thought your child-self was a peach? That you were great enough to write about? Yeah, I thought so.

Without further ado, here is what happened on Rescue Heroes this Sunday:

The Rescue Heroes (thick, giant-footed men and women who are perpetually outfitted in firefighter gear no matter what the rescue situation) are flying over the Pacific in their futuristic jet plane (it can hover!), followed by a backup crew of Rescue Heroes who are curiously all black and are flying in a helicopter. Tidal waves keep coming, and they have to fly up and out of the way of the tidal waves. No explanation is given for why tidal waves keep appearing. Maybe at the very beginning of the show (I missed it) there was an earthquake or something, but they never talk about it. They just keep saying, "Here comes another tidal wave!" as if tidal waves are some weather or tide related phenomenon we have no way of understanding, and they just keep coming and coming! They never called them tsunamis either, which I think is what we're supposed to be calling them nowadays to prevent this kind of confusion. All this time, another Rescue Hero was on the sea floor in a submersible, with Rescue Dolphin close at hand. (Rescue Dolphin apparently dives miles below the surface of the ocean.) The tidal waves swept them all around under the sea.

After saving some Americans who fell off a tiny sailboat (and sank all the way to the bottom of the ocean in their spiffy sailing clothes, but that's okay it was only like 30 feet down), the Rescue Heroes get the call that the next wave is headed for an oil rig, and then onto annihilate the entire coast of Chile. They never explain what happened to the fourteen men on the rig (they were going to rescue them but got sidetracked by some dramatic backstory), but the rig does get destroyed. Now how are they going to save the entire coast of Chile? With bombs! They decide to set off three bombs on the ocean floor (which might not actually be so deep now that they're closer to the coast, but I highly doubt it's only 30 feet under) to create their own counter-tidal wave! Yes, that's what we do when tsunamis start mysteriously multiplying -- we send lady scuba divers to the ocean floor with three little bombs, and stop those nasty tsunamis right in their tracks.

While the lady scuba diver (who required lots of coaxing to be able to scuba -- she had a bad experience once and was shaken, like any female would be...) places a couple of charges, a great white shark bumps into her and swims off with one of the bomb bags stuck to his tooth. Of course, they radio Rescue Dolphin right away. "Stop that shark! Get the red bag!" Rescue Dolphin speeds toward the shark, blindsides him, and the shark gives up the bag. As if.

Finally, they set off the bombs and the Chile-bound tidal wave is put to rest by the amazing Rescue Hero wave. They had to act fast too, so Rescue Dolphin, scuba bomb lady, and her assistant ducked into a nearby sea cave during the blast. (I'm sure that would have provided sufficient shelter while near-nuclear-magnitude bombs were set off.)

So the main lesson of this show was that we should get back on the old horse even if we've had a bad spill. That is, the girl who was afraid to scuba was the main event and her scuba bomb planting was the triumph. It took me awhile to figure this out what with all the tidal waves, rescue dolphins, shark attacks, men left to fend for themselves on a doomed oil rig... Those things were all just the "imaginative" story to go along with the lesson. They kept cutting to closeups of the girl's face and flashbacks of her scuba snafu (acronym time!), and I just kept thinking "WHY is this as important as the tidal wave? Why do I care about this?" The only safety message amidst all this fun was, "those people on the sailboat aren't wearing their lifejackets!" I think that is the last thing we need to be concerned about in this destructive nonsense-fest.

I can't believe how much room it took to explain all that, but I just kept thinking of more idiotic things that happened on that show.

What the Rescue Heroes do is not imaginative, but just simply lazy, ugly, nonsense. And it is presented seriously, as if children should be listening to the details of it, and believing it. Of course surreal and unreal things happen on other shows, but these events are not presented in a confusing way. Kids know they are just for fun, and that kind of use of imagination is healthy.

A Qubo show that is the complete opposite of Rescue Heroes is Gofrette. This is a very silly show about a cat and his bird and dog friends. The cat has a talking refrigerator, and little creatures live all over his house and help him figure things out. This show makes almost no attempt at instruction, but I think it is infinitely better programming than Rescue Heroes. Occasional safety messages mixed in with dubious values, horrible drawings, and ridiculous premises that violate all laws of nature and physics are not what I call quality TV (an oxymoron?). Gofrette and his colorful talking animal friends, who once saved the day by plugging up a bursting dam with the talking, burping refrigerator, are much more my speed (and my kid's).
Now that looks like fun.

The best kind of children's entertainment happens when instruction and imagination are a perfect blend, and neither the kid nor the parent really thinks about what's being taught. Some PBS shows are good at this, but even the best of them are usually more instructional than not. Word Girl and Martha Speaks are obvious lessons in vocabulary, Curious George is an obvious lesson in X causes Y (always followed by a most annoying caveat about how "this is a cartoon so don't do what George does").

I think the only way that the entertainment/imagination/education combo can really be perfectly balanced is in children's literature. Whereas the act of watching TV is not in itself beneficial to anyone, the act of reading (or attempting to read) is inherently instructional, especially when the reader is reading a little beyond his or her level, or rereading with a new eye (situations which are almost always the case for children). Silliness can go through the roof, if the silliness is presenting the child with new ideas, bigger words, or tricky rhymes and tongue twisters. Even books with messages for kids, i.e. A Fish Out of Water ("don't do things just to find out what will happen") do not necessarily come off as didactic because they are so silly. The child is even challenged to see a story like that as an allegory (no one's fish is going to get as big as a swimming pool, but I bet Junior can think of something similar that could really happen), rather than a direct cautionary tale. If the Berenstain Bears want to teach you, say, about cleaning your room, well, then Brother would just get in trouble for not cleaning his room. Where's the fun in that?

The best of kids' lit with "messages" imparts values about the self, and not moral ones. Dr. Seuss is the king of those kinds of messages, as well as total silliness in the form of rhymes and rhythms and repeating word shapes that help kids almost effortlessly build reading and pronunciation skills. "Kids can spot a moral coming a mile away," he always said. Seuss does, however, bury some obvious commentary between the lines for the grownups who are reading along, and not just political messages either -- he seems to be telling us, "don't discourage imagination your children, don't belittle their ideas, and work along with their reading and speaking problems." He was also known for saying, "Adults are just obsolete children and the hell with them." It's almost like Dr. Seuss lurks there behind the fuzzy treetops and furry landscapes, floating in those deep turquoise background washes, just watching the parents for any child-stifling moves. His is a specter I don't mind.

I do mind horrible rhyming, and that will be my last "nonsense" complaint for the day. Throwing rhymes around, especially near rhymes (which some desperate rhymers of children's lit will do), doesn't do any good for helping kids to read. And they're not even fun for non-reading purposes if the kid can't get the rhythm of them! Some authors have no concept of meter -- they just put two words that rhyme on the same page at the end of a couple of lines. You can tell they're trying to rhyme it, but it doesn't work. Jamie Lee Curtis, bless her brick shithouse body, is not very good at this. We have It's Hard to be Five (received as a Christmas gift) and on some pages I have to stop and repeat myself or wrangle the words into ugly pronunciations or stammer in between them to get the rhymes right. She is not the worst (at least she writes about funny things, and doesn't scold), but she is very inconsistent. I can't quote the worst here because I take one look at them in the store and lodge them firmly back on the shelf where they can wait, and eventually pollute some other child's library. There are complete nonsense rhymers, and there are Dr. Seuss imitators among them, and the lot of them have obviously never studied poetry of any kind.
She may pose nearly topless, but her rhymes are not bottomless.

There are other good authors out there, mostly oldies, who don't all write in anapestic tetrameter or its cousins. I just get so stuck on Seuss (and "Theo. LeSieg" of course) because he has something for so many age groups (the ancient, longer, non-rhymed stories are my favorite, i.e. The King's Stilts). Margaret Wise Brown (mostly baby books) uses very simple rhymes and the most brilliantly simple word choices (see Goodnight Moon for gems like "Goodnight nobody. Goodnight air..."). P.D. Eastman's books with birds in them (Are You my Mother, The Best Nest, Sam and the Firefly) are some of the boy's favorites. And I'm sure you've all read all of these. The oldies are the goodies -- it seems today's children's literature, like today's grownup literature, and all of today's television, is mostly pretty bad. (And now I want to do a quick writeup on weird kids books you may not have read yet!)

My son is currently stuck on the Martha Speaks series of books, which predates the PBS cartoon and therefore I do not object to them (I might otherwise!). On Sunday, after the terrible Qubo cartoon, we went to the library for some brain-cleansing and my five-year-old performed his first library catalog search. He wrote out MARTHA (so he could figure out how to spell it first, and he did so on his own despite the fact that he still pronounces it "Marfa" -- how their little brains work!) on a piece of library scrap paper with a stubby library pencil, hunted and pecked the keys, and clicked on "Title." Even if he doesn't become a career student like his mother, I hope he at least continues to spend more time at the library (or at least with books) than in front of the TV. Especially those damn Rescue Heroes.

Martha speaks because she eats alphabet soup, and the letters form words in her brain. There are many philosophical (and scientific) problems with this, but I will ignore them for now.


  1. I wish every parent would read this and quit letting their kids watch crap like "Sid the Science Kid" and other shows that are going to make their brains fall out. My mom wouldn't let me watch Smurfs because they turned every word into some other version of smurf.

    And I agree with you about the books. There are lots of good ones from when we were little that are just as good today. There are tons of bad ones that are more recent because they haven't been filtered out yet. Thanks for being a good parent Robyn. I bet Mikey will be the smartest kid yet.

  2. I see tons of children's books weekly for work. There are some good ones in picture books as well as novels for older children, but for the beginning reader crowd I have yet to find anything new that is better than say, "Hop on Pop".
    There are a few here and there. Mo Willems does some fun things in his children's books, though I don't love all of them personally. His easy readers are fun. Also Nick Bruel is pretty clever, though most of his books are picture books. I have met him a few times and he has been really nice, so I am biased. It is hard to recommend this area of children's literature because it seems like so many of them are either pure unadulterated dry phonics or mediocre words on a page with so-so illustrations. So, obviously the classics really shine because they were good then and have withstood the test of time.
    Of course there are plenty of awful dated mediocre books from the same time period we are more than happy to weed (check out the awful library books blog. Not all of them are children's books but I can't believe some of the crap that hides on the shelves sometimes.)


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