Sunday, June 29, 2008

Why Children's Media?

I hope most readers of a blog like this will agree that good children’s media—books, movies, television, and so forth—is, in moderation, good for kids. This week I’d like to speculate about some reasons why it’s worth our attention as adults.

In Kindergarten Cop there’s a scene where Arnold Schwarzenegger claims he chose to teach kindergarten rather than high school because that’s where all the real action is. My own recollection of high school is of a pretty fecund, stimulating place, but I think that to a degree he was right: everything we ever needed to know we learned in kindergarten, right? Well, no, not if you ever do long division or drive a car, but nevertheless I agree that young children are the most intelligent, energetic, and curious people in the world and they’re certainly impressionable, increasing the responsibility upon those who teach them. Start a child off right and it’s a good bet he’ll keep going that way through youth and adulthood; start him with disadvantages or bad experiences and it’s an uphill climb for the rest of his life. This has its political and macro-level implications, like the funding of Head Start programs, but most teachers and certainly parents deal with children not like this but on an individual, micro-type level every day. As any parent of a toddler or preschooler can attest, children are simply amazing, not to mention guileless (try looking for that quality in your typical middleschoolers).

So if adults, when they’re being honest, admit the impressive intellect and vitality of young minds, it’s astounding that there seems to still be an air of inferiority hanging around children’s media. This is certainly less true—or untrue—of children’s literature, which I think has over the centuries managed to cast itself as a challenging and respected field. But with children’s film and television there always seems to be an air of, “Yes, the kids’ stuff is nice, but it’s simply not as serious as adult drama.”

A couple years ago I did some assistant editing for a straight-to-video children’s feature film for Lightstone Studios. Lightstone adapts scriptural stories into live-action musicals (their website can be found here). After I finished working on that film I asked the company’s director Dennis Agle to write a personal essay about what it’s like to work in children’s cinema. This was sadly never published, but many of his comments struck a chord with me, particularly as I was preparing to enter children’s media as a long-term career. Dennis wrote about his joyous experiences watching Saturday matinees with his family in a rat-infested theater in Hawaii, watching films like The Sound of Music, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, and Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, and then his own experience as a parent trying to replicate that but not finding any, or at least many, worthwhile family films out there. But what was most telling was the following anecdote, which occurred after Lightstone had achieved a reasonable degree of success. During a lunch break on the set of their sixth film a seasoned Hollywood professional who was working with them for the first time complemented Dennis on the caliber of his script and then asked when he was going to apply himself to something…and then he struggled to find the right word and eventually came up with “something more weighty.” Serious work. Grown up films. Dennis surely gave some sort of deft answer, but in contemplating it later he was struck by the de facto assumption by so many in the industry that work for kids was neither serious, challenging, nor fruitful.

So if we are answering the question “Why children’s media?” for industry professionals, the answer is to flatly refute that assumption. Far from being vapid or trivial, children’s media can be substantive, engrossing, and incredibly challenging to produce. Children, while more enthusiastic with success, are discerning and stern critics. They’re forgiving, which is nice, but they are keen at detecting faults and insincerity. Plus the short duration of much children’s media—concision—makes producers have to be that much more spot-on accurate than in lengthier (more rambling) productions: a one hundred-word story is harder to write than a thousand-word one.

There is, of course, an army of filmmakers who have realized this and moved from children’s films to adult films, using the former as a springboard to graduate into the latter. Steven Spielberg is often the first such name to spring to mind, though he does occasionally return to his Amazing Stories roots with projects like his new family-friendly puzzle game for the Nintendo Wii, Boom Blox. In this way I suppose Spielberg has joined another class of filmmakers like Abbas Kiarostami from Iran, Jacques Tati from France, and others who are able to switch back and forth between adult and childlike concerns, often within the same picture. One of my favorite examples in this regard is the famed Bengali director Satyajit Ray. Ray is widely acclaimed as the greatest filmmaker to ever come out of India, the largest film industry in the world (I realize that’s a hyperbolic claim that many Hindifilm fans will probably contest). His films were dramatic productions, masterpieces of global art house cinema; when he featured a child protagonist, as in his first film Pather Panchali, he did so with a skill rarely equaled, but for the most part his films were by, for, and about adults. Given his global stature, it is incredibly surprising to discover that he divided his time between his filmmaking and his work as a writer, illustrator, and editor of the children’s magazine Sandesh. He was prolifically involved with the magazine from 1961 essentially throughout his entire life, which ended in 1992. His film fans generally never know about this alter ego in children’s literature, and the children for their part had no interest in boring grown-up films.

What Satyajit Ray knew, which Dennis Agle’s interlocutor evidently did not, is that the challenges and rewards of creating children’s books, television, and films are just as great as for adult media, sometimes greater. Dr. Seuss’s character Horton the Elephant is perhaps most famous for his couplet about keeping his word, but his aphorism that I have posted above my desk is: “A person’s a person no matter how small.” I think, to a great extent, that was Dr. Seuss’s attitude about his own work and writing—and there was certainly nothing second-rate about the work he produced. He created some of the greatest literature of the English language, and did so for children.

Another way to answer the question “Why children’s media?” is to take the perspective of parents. Parents have a natural reason to be interested in children’s media, and that is their children themselves. In discussing the parents it is easy to forget that the children are the actual intended audience of children’s media, though again that’s a discussion for another day. But why is a discussion of children’s media beneficial for adults, for parents? First, it gives them empathy into the cares and concerns of their children. Particularly when television scripts are vetted by educators and specialists in human development, they can help adults realize what concerns and trials are facing their children at this point in their lives. Just this evening watching the Horn and Antler Club episode of Pinky Dinky Doo I realized that making new friends is major anxiety for my preschooler. Now, I knew that already, more or less, but I hadn’t really realized it, and now that I have I can be more sensitive to what my daughter is experiencing as we transition towards kindergarten.

That leads me to the next reason discussing children’s media is good for adults: it enhances our relationships with our little ones. Perhaps I’ve overdone it in our home, but this same daughter of mine, who by the way is named Loretta, always requests that I come sit next to her whenever we let her watch a television program. For at least a year now almost every Friday night has been a family Movie Night (“movie” meaning anything from Cinderella to, well, Pinky Dinky Doo), and it has become something Loretta looks forward to days in advance. I definitely do not think this enthusiasm is because of the material presented on the screen—it’s the exact same as on any other day that we let her watch—but because of the fact that both her parents sit down with her and watch as well. We have created a family ritual and a shared family experience, a shared frame of reference. Because I pay attention to Loretta’s television viewing we can spend far more time, for instance, pretending to be the Wonder Pets than actually watching their show. Media and television viewing is not the locus of our lives—something I plan to discuss next week—but it is a component that enriches our lives as we use it to draw closer together.

A third though certainly not final reason children’s media is beneficial for grown-ups is in the way it effects our worldview. This is intricately related to our empathy for our children and our relationships with them, but what I’d like to convey is a systematic method of viewing life that extends beyond our interactions with children and roles as parents. A worldview is how you see the world all the time, and I believe that consistently exposing ourselves to music, theater, cinema, television, literature, and art designed for children can bring out our own childlikeness. It helps when you watch with the children, of course, because their attitudes and responses are just as contagious as anything presented on stage or on the screen, but it is true regardless, even in grown-up isolation. I hate to sound incredibly dogmatic, but to a degree it is true that you are what you eat, or in this case watch. In periods of my life where I have spent a great deal of time watching war films, thrillers, noirs, action films, and frankly foul-mouthed dramas I have found my own emotional sensitivity diminished. By viewing children’s media, by contrast, I have nurtured much of my own childlike qualities: curiosity, wonder, awe, joy, honesty, humor. I shall not even attempt to enter into any nature-or-nurture discussion regarding children’s personalities, but I do believe that as they start out children are innocent, guileless. Authors and filmmakers, being aware of this, gear their works to enhance these qualities. When we, as the cynical and jaded adults that we are, consume heavily of this innocent material, it can’t help but rub off a little bit.

If you can’t tell already, I am an unabashed fan of the types of media that often go off the radar screens of many adults. When someone, not a parent, asks me something like my favorite television show, and I answer something like Charlie and Lola, I almost invariably get a blank stare and a change of subject. That said, I’m unsure that it’s healthy for an adult to always consume strictly children’s fare, lest the childishness of it overtake the childlikeness of it. So at the moment I’m balancing my media diet by reading War and Peace and watching, most recently, Spiderman 3 (though I haven’t been able to get into adult television programs yet, not sure why). It is true that the grown-up stuff is rewarding too, generally by exploring themes and emotions that children cannot yet grasp. That said, I still know that partaking of children’s literature, television, and cinema has benefited me in all the ways enumerated above and will do so for anyone else willing to take the plunge. It’s my hope that this blog, as one tool among many, will help give you some original perspectives as you explore children’s media also.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Getting Started

Hello and welcome to my blog, Red Balloon.

There are dozens to hundreds of wonderful blogs about children's television and literature already in existence; I keep discovering wonderful new ones virtually every week. I'll therefore be looking at these and even discussing them from time to time, but what I hope to bring to the table with 'The Red Balloon' is a combination of the views of a practitioner, a critic, and a consumer and parent. I have a darling four-year-old daughter (perhaps a frequent guest poster) and we love to discover new books, films, and television programs together, but I'm also a media professional working on kid's TV and literature and I've published a bit of film criticism as well. So hopefully I'll be able to balance those divergent yet complementary viewpoints into something that will be of interest to parents, professionals, and theoreticians--plus anyone else who likes kids and movies. The emphasis as I foresee it will be not on breaking industry news but on the experience of creating and consuming children's media, the phenomenology of the experience--plus some updates and discussions of my own work, kind of a "screenwriter-cam" type thing where the rubber meets the road to go along with the more abstract discussions. 

The name of the blog comes of course from the 1956 French film La Ballon Rouge, written and directed by Albert Lamorisse and starring his son Pascal (recently released on DVD in the States by Criterion--I'm sure I'll have more on that soon enough). I chose this not just because it's an amazing and awe-inspiring film, which it is, but also because of the relationship between the director and the star. Parents and children are, for me, at the heart of all children's media, in whatever medium and with whatever subject matter. The purpose of children's media is to give parents and children something to take away and share together as they live the rest of their lives in the times when the books are closed and the television turned off. A father and son team interacting and creating this wonderful movie together--for other parents and children to enjoy--is the epitome of this principle. My favorite two books are probably Winnie-the-Pooh and The House at Pooh Corner, precisely because they're essentially in the second person: a father making up stories both for and about his son.

Thanks for taking an interest and I hope to provide you something useful, fresh, and relevant every time you visit.