Friday, April 11, 2014

Barbie at the Book Fair

Advertisements masquerading as children's literature.
Barbie showed up at my four-year-old's school Book Fair. She was there in all her blond and blue-eyed, plastic, dead-eyed, all-surface-no-depth glory in the form of five "based on the movie!" board books and two sticker storybooks.

Stickers - they're interactive! (And chocking hazards for half the kids at my daughter's reverse mainstream preschool. Not to mention a cheap gimmick to distract kids from desiring and delving into actual children's literature. But I digress.)

Like many of her friends, my daughter wanted to buy a Barbie book. I observed that they came with plastic toys or stickers and were poorly written and illustrated, so I said no. Instead she picked out Fancy Nancy: Fanciest Doll in the Universe, written by Jane O'Connor and illustrated by Robin Preiss Glasser, and Princess Grace, written by Mary Hoffman and illustrated by Caroline Binch.

THIS is children's literature.
What a difference a professional author and illustrator make! The characters of Nancy and Grace feel like real people with distinct personalities. While Nancy does at first seem to be the typically girlie girl who adores fancy stuff such as tutus and accessories, she's also a quirky designer with her own unique style, and is sometimes clumsy or tacky. She is rather dramatic with both her words and body language, capable of intense anger, but also forgiveness. With the character of Grace, too, the traces of typical girl melt away as we learn what really grabs her interest, and how her ma, nana, teacher, and friends (her daddy moved away and is re-married) influence her views.

These books are stories about the human experience, particularly what is can be for children. How the reader perceives the surface appearances changes as we get to know the personalities and personal dramas of the characters, and that provides a meaningful connection to our understanding of real life, with all its bumps and blemishes.

I don't have serious problems with Barbie as a doll. I don't like the re-enforcement of unrealistic beauty standards, but I must admit that I loved playing with fashion dolls as a kid. Even a child without her own fashion dolls will likely encounter and play with them at a friend's house. Much creativity, social, and intellectual development ensues when children play pretend games with dolls.

But Barbie in books? No. No no no no, a thousand times no.

That goes for LEGO in books, shamelessly stealing attention away from quality children's literature in order to advertise their line of Chima and Ninjago toys. Toys are one thing. Books are another.

That goes for all the books based on animated children's shows and films, such as Disney Princesses, Bubble Guppies, and yes, even Elmo.

I have read enough of this crap to know that the vast majority of it is poorly written and poorly illustrated.

For instance, Barbie the Pearl Princess takes the form of a board book (books marketed to toddlers), but the actual text is far too long-winded for that age group. It reads like a straight-forward synopsis of the movie. The words merely describe the bare facts of what has transpired, and so any personal human experience, character development, building of suspense, impact during climax, or emotional satisfaction found in the resolution of conflict, is dulled.

The illustrations are equally awful. Don't get me wrong - they are pretty. Glossy, brightly-colored, slick and shiny. But in every image the characters appear as if posing for a movie poster, rather than behaving naturally. Every page made me think of the cover of a fantasy novel, but with a plastic fashion doll used as the model.

Worse yet, the pictures had only the most superficial connection to the text. For instance, on one page of Barbie the Pearl Princess, the words tell us Caligo had "spies everywhere." This is a perfect opportunity for the illustrator to show the dangers in Lumina's midst, but instead we're shown just another pretty picture of Lumina as a child playing with her adopted mother. The problem is that an hour-long film is being crammed into a 24 page picture book. Countless great story-telling opportunities are sacrificed for the sake of forcing something that doesn't really work to work.

THIS is also children's literature

In a good picture book, words and pictures also interact and compliment each other. Words tells us that Fancy Nancy's little sister JoJo is "a handful, which is a nice way of saying really naughty", while the illustration shows JoJo dressed as a cop in a menacing stance, tying her playmate to a tree. Words tell us that Grace has decided to be an African princess wearing a dress made by her nana out of Kente cloth, while the illustration shows us how regal and unique she appears on the float.

In books based on toys, shows, and movies, oftentimes no author or illustrator is even listed on the cover. Indeed, why would they be? These books are not the brainchild of any artist and/or creative writer. These books are an assignment for commercial writers and illustrators. They are in every meaningful way advertisements that merely take the form of a child's picture book.

To quote a poignant scene from the satirical show Futurama, where the character Fry discovers that in the future commercials are broadcast right into people's dreams.

Fry: That's awful. It's like brainwashing. 
Leela: Didn't you have ads in the 20th century? 
Fry: Well, sure, but not in our dreams. Only on TV and radio. And in magazines and movies and at ball games, on buses and milk cartons and T-shirts and bananas and written on the sky. But not in dreams. No, sir-ee!

Call me a snobby bibliophile, but books for kids should be off limits. Or at least the ones being sold at book fairs in schools should be off limits. Children's literacy is too important to turn their books into advertisements for cheap, plastic crap.

We let this happen, and we will become a society of anti-intellectual dupes who run out and buy every piece of shiny shit dangled in front of our eyes, oblivious to the harm all this junk is doing to our intellect, our aesthetic senses, our emotional experiences, not to mention our budgets.

But maybe it's too late. To quote one of the many 5 star reviews of Barbie the Pearl Princess:
My daughter may be 8yr old but she loves her Barbie books! This was easy for her to read and the story is always a learning tale. I love the happy endings. Gives a girl something to dream of herself. :) Thanks for always giving my girl something to dream about. :)

See, advertisers don't need to develop any futuristic technology to broadcast their cheap, plastic crap into our dreams. They already found a way in.

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