May 10, 2012

On The Perpetual Threat Of Regressive Nonsense In Children’s Literature

Don't Interrupt

We took Arthur’s Science Fair Trouble out of the library for Maya the other day, and let me tell you: I had always suspected that most of what adults tell you is bullshit, but children’s books live at some horrible Venn overlap of Moore and Sturgeon’s respective Laws where 90% of everything is not only crap but getting twice as crappy every year and a half or so.

I had to go over this book carefully with Maya after I read it, to explain to her why every single part of it is wrong. The description from the dust cover reads:

Arthur has to do a science fair project, but all of the good ideas are taken: Buster is building a rocket, Muffy is growing crystals, and Francine is making a bird feeder. Arthur learns a valuable lesson when he finds his father’s old solar system project in the attic and tries to use it for his own science fair project.

That’s right: Arthur’s in a pickle, because all the good science ideas have been done by other children doing wholly original work. But when Arthur instead decides to update his father’s old solar system project (repainting it) and presenting that he feels, we are told, terribly guilty, finally breaking down after winning first prize to admit the work wasn’t wholly his. He is suitably chastised, of course.

I don’t think Maya understood my rant about why verifying old assumptions was incredibly valuable, not merely per se but particularly in light of Pluto’s redefined status and the inclusion of Eris and Ceres in the “Dwarf Planet” category as well.

I had to explain to her Arthur was explaining the evolution of cosmology by repurposing and updating older (handmade by his father!) demonstration materials, which is not only great on its own, but vastly better scientific and expository work than his classmates’ projects, who were showing no insight into why assembling premanufactured toys might not count as science.

“Maya, the people harassing Arthur for this are lazy, ignorant people saying dumb things to make Arthur feel bad, and Arthur is wrong to feel bad about his work. Building on top of each others’ work is the only reason we have this world of incredible, miraculous wonder we live in, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.”

I don’t think it stuck, but I’ll keep repeating it.

I was thinking about this today when this quote from Mark Twain on plagiarism started making the rounds:

Mark Twain, letter to Helen Keller, after she had been accused of plagiarism for one of her early stories (17 March 1903), published in Mark Twain’s Letters, Vol. 1 (1917) edited by Albert Bigelow Paine, p. 731:

Oh, dear me, how unspeakably funny and owlishly idiotic and grotesque was that “plagiarism” farce! As if there was much of anything in any human utterance, oral or written, except plagiarism! The kernal, the soul — let us go further and say the substance, the bulk, the actual and valuable material of all human utterances — is plagiarism. For substantially all ideas are second-hand, consciously and unconsciously drawn from a million outside sources, and daily used by the garnerer with a pride and satisfaction born of the superstition that he originated them; whereas there is not a rag of originality about them anywhere except the little discoloration they get from his mental and moral calibre and his temperament, and which is revealed in characteristics of phrasing. When a great orator makes a great speech you are listening to ten centuries and ten thousand men — but we call it his speech, and really some exceedingly smail portion of it is his. But not enough to signify. It is merely a Waterloo. It is Wellington’s battle, in some degree, and we call it his; but there are others that contributed. It takes a thousand men to invent a telegraph, or a steam engine, or a phonograph, or a photograph, or a telephone or any other important thing—and the last man gets the credit and we forget the others. He added his little mite — that is all he did. These object lessons should teach us that ninety-nine parts of all things that proceed from the intellect are plagiarisms, pure and simple; and the lesson ought to make us modest. But nothing can do that.

Which is all to say: Constant vigilance!


  1. I think at some point, you need to be willing to take things at a facile level. Encyclopedia Brown isn’t really a book about how the law is useless and you need to take policework into your own hands; Narnia isn’t really about Jesus; Green Eggs and Ham isn’t about sexual assault. They’re about noticing details, magical mythmash lions, and trying new things before rendering judgment. Yes, a smart adult looking for subtext can find it, but if the person reading it doesn’t notice the subtext, is it even there?

    (There are cases when the answer is yes, such as depictions of sexism that you pick up unconsciously; but some stuff needs to be consciously noticed or won’t be at all.)

    Comment by Mike Kozlowski — May 10, 2012 @ 10:07 pm

  2. I strongly disagree with that, though not in the “overlook the allegories” sense. I’m on board with that, to some extent. But this isn’t a subtext I’m talking about, but an overt description of how people should feel about doing a certain kind of work, broadly speaking the kind of work that I spend my whole life doing, and saying that it’s bad and people who do it should feel bad.

    I took it, as you might expect, personally.

    Comment by mhoye — May 10, 2012 @ 10:19 pm

  3. In general, I find myself less than fully satisfied with the cultural artefacts available for my son’s consumption.

    Even things I kind of like a lot, I can easily generate (real) objections to.

    Comment by Mike Bruce — May 10, 2012 @ 10:49 pm

  4. I agree that building on what others do is important beyond the reach of normal adjectives to describe. I also agree that truly “original” work is probably not happening anywhere except in the minds of the clinically insane.

    On the other hand – and I haven’t read the book, so am going only on your description – I’m not sure the takeaway lesson is supposed to be “only purely original work has worth” but rather “don’t pretend to have done work that someone else did”. If he had said in his project description that the model he used for his project was someone else’s but that he had done X, Y, and Z to verify/test/confirm/update/whatever something using said model, I think that would be a fantastic science fair project. But if he said his science fair project was “make a solar system model” and all he did was put a new coat of paint on it, I think that’s definitely something to feel rather guilty about.

    Comment by Amy Young — May 11, 2012 @ 11:30 am

  5. Sometime, I will recount the tale of the “wolf-proof house” which Catherine built as a science fair replacement activity this year. The task was to identify upgrades to the three-little-pigs’ domicile, construct them in a scale model, and demo them at school. And really, why not prepare our kids to be architects rather than astrophysicists? Or highly paranoid minutemen?

    Anyhow, I saw the models arriving from the parking lot on demo day and the construction quality was stupendous. I mean scale model replicas taken from suburban housing estate builders drawings. Walls that had been squared and leveled more carefully than our cottage deck. Interior and external paint finishes matched with fabric swatches. But as Catherine pointed out, what exactly made them wolf-proof? And the answer was: Nothing.

    So if you will permit me, I think the missing plot point in Arthur’s Science Fair is critical thinking, followed by innovation. And as far as I can see, none of the science projects demonstrated that – whether by original work or building on the shoulders of giants.

    Catherine’s project, by the way, included a perimeter of pipe-cleaner electric fences, a garden planted with shreddies (the crackle serves as advance warning), a walkway paved with Disney Princess dominos (the blond princesses explode when stepped on), a house cut out of a recycled OJ carton covered in pom-poms (to make the wolf sneeze and create a window for attack or escape), and a subterranean exit passage as a last resort. I was proud of her.

    Comment by Darcy — May 30, 2012 @ 1:45 pm


    Comment by mhoye — May 30, 2012 @ 1:53 pm

  7. Eeeurgh.

    My kids just reached the point where I can’t read more than half the stuff they read. It comes sooner than you’d think.

    But yeah, not that you asked for advice: don’t get series, they always suck (also don’t read blog comments, they suck even more). And work that nonfiction section, it’s a diamond mine. I don’t know if this is common, but in our library, they have taken all the very best children’s fiction and hidden it in nonfiction under “folk tales” and “myths”.

    Comment by Jason Orendorff (@jorendorff) — May 30, 2012 @ 2:20 pm

  8. Just wondering if there is any interest in some of the old ‘classics’ for kids. The stuff I read until I was through the whole series (Yep, Jason = some series were okay as I recall.)

    Here I am referring to books that may be a tad advanced for Maya at the moment. But possibly only for her current reading abilities. The content should not be too far over her head IMO.(Don’t underestimate her ability to detect the same anomalies that you have, Mike. She’ll just need a bit more experience of the world before the lightbulbs start popping :)

    Anyway, I devoured several children’s book series that were available through the local book trove back then: the public library, starting with The Bobbsey Twins, Trixie Belden, The Hardy Boys and, of course: Nancy Drew.

    I’d bet Maya would love the Bobbsey Twins books – if they are even available now. Series books had the advantage (IMO) that the characters could be observed dealing with many different aspects of life, including getting along with and being conflict with other characters at times, giving the reader (or listener if being read to) a more realistic look at the character’s life and the chance to develop a relationship with them, albeit one-sided.

    Comment by janice — May 31, 2012 @ 11:56 am

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