Saturday, September 22, 2007

(Thursday's "Lio" by Mark Tatulli, reminded me of this column I wrote nearly 10 years ago. The granddaughter, now in sixth grade, has turned out to be well able to see through
commercial hype and comment perceptively about it.)

Poohaphernalia just another storybook sell-out

My granddaughter loves Pooh.
"Pooh!" she says, as we walk through the mall together, and there are many opportunities for her to point him out.
Pooh is everywhere, selling everything.
She's not old enough for the original books, for "Winnie the Pooh" or "House at Pooh Corners," but there are a lot of Pooh picture books, videos, clothing, toys and so forth geared for someone about to turn two, and, like every other toddler in America, she has been showered with Poohaphernalia by all her friends and relations.
In fact, by the time she's old enough for the A.A. Milne books, she'll probably know so much about Pooh that she won't want to bother with slower-paced, less hilarious versions of the bear. We can probably skip those gentle, wise witty sources of make-believe and go straight to, oh, I don't know, maybe Snoopy or Garfield.
The rich, wonderful stories that once warmed our children's hearts and fired their imaginations have been glitzed up, dumbed down and turned into profit centers.
It's certainly not just Pooh. When NBC sought to turn Laura Ingalls Wilder's "Little House" books into a TV series, producer Ed Friendly approached Roger McBride, the adopted son of Laura's daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, and current holder of the rights.
McBride was reportedly afraid of seeing his grandmother's stories turned into Hollywood glitz, but Friendly assured him of the respect he had for the originals, and persuaded him to allow the project to proceed.
The pilot was a made-for-TV movie that followed the first book faithfully, and the first few episodes of the series picked up the storyline of "On the Banks of Plum Creek."
Then Michael Landon took over creative control of the program, and Laura Ingalls Wilder's version of her own life was thrown on the trash heap along with her champion, Ed Friendly. The resulting TV series was politically correct, historically ridiculous and immensely popular.
Now we're seeing the television ads that came from Maurice Sendak's sale to Bell Atlantic of his 1963 classic children's book, "Where the Wild Things Are."
A December, 1997 press release from Bell Atlantic crowed over the Wild Things "first appearance in mass media advertising:"
"The book is a fitting metaphor for the current state of the communications industry. This campaign will remind Bell Atlantic's customers - and reassure them, too - that we are there for them through this figurative jungle of communications choices."
Well, maybe. It reminds me that nothing is sacred when it comes to making a buck. I am reassured that the most precious moments of childhood are available for the right price.
More often, the kids sell out. It was the heirs of A.A. Milne and Laura Ingalls Wilder who let those wonderful visions be sold for a mess of pottage.
Christopher Robin Milne was an unhappy child who hated being identified with the Pooh stories, so it's hardly surprising he was willing to cash in his inheritance.
And, if McBride didn't mean to betray Laura, her innocent pioneer memoirs had already been edited and shaped by her politically minded daughter to emphasize the hardy independence of orthodox Libertarian ideology.
Sendak's business decision is like those bumperstickers that say, "We're spending our children's inheritance." He sold out so he could enjoy the profits himself.
But why not? After all, he wrote the books to make a living, and kid's authors are under no obligation to be idealists.
Nor are they, often. For instance, Danny Kaye's movie and the Central Park statue notwithstanding, Hans Christian Anderson was no child-cuddling storyteller. He didn't even like writing children's stories, but he could make a living writing that stuff, and, apparently, couldn't make one writing what he preferred.
Generations of kids didn't know any of that, though. Whatever flaws their authors possessed were irrelevant, whatever motivations lurked behind their writing were invisible. You couldn't tell from the outside. None of it was inherent in the stories.
The stories were sweet and imaginative, and they created dreams, they inspired make-believe, they made children think about things beyond the specific images contained in them. They were part of a fading world of imagination and storytelling.
Today, our children grow up in a world of commercialism, little more than a target demographic to which simplified, shallow, market-tested images are spoonfed.
Theirs is a world in which Pooh is a cartoon character, the Wild Things sell telephones, Laura is in syndication and the only time storytelling involves a rocking chair is when you pull it over in front of the VCR.

copyright 1998, Press-Republican, Plattsburgh NY


Sherwood Harrington said...

Diane and I have been visiting Disneyland since Thursday. Today we're going to take Grace-the-Granddaughter over to Critter Country to sneer at DisneyPooh.

Or not.

Nostalgic for the Pleistocene said...

Terrific piece! And "politically correct, historically ridiculous and immensely popular" has got to be about as perfect a summary of that show as there could be.