JANET MCCUE: Good afternoon, everyone. Hello. I'm Janet McCue, and I'm the associate university librarian for teaching, research, outreach, and learning services here at Cornell. And I'm really excited to be able to introduce our speaker today, as well as our newest exhibition, Wardrobes in Rabbit Holes, which is about the darker side of children's literature. Anne Kenney, who is the university librarian, usually does introductions for our exhibitions, but she's visiting our partner library in China right now and couldn't make it today, since she's at Tsinghua University, so I'm really pleased to be able to have that honor.
First, I'm excited to be able to introduce MT Anderson, because he's an incredible author and a warm human being. And I'll tell you a little bit about him in a few minutes. Another reason, though, that I'm excited and honored to be here is that we have a wonderful new exhibit over in Kroch Library. Almost all of the materials belong to the library. They're part of our children's literature collection. And I'm hoping that everyone is going to have a chance to stop by after the lecture today and enjoy the reception, as well as the exhibition.
I thought I'd give you a few highlights just in case I couldn't treat you even more. But we have two pages from the original manuscript of EB White's "Charlotte's Web," and if you want to see how he sketched out Charlotte for your own imaginative purposes, you can see that, as well as the Zuckermans' barn and farmyard. We have some beautiful first editions of Lewis Carroll's "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland," as well as "Through the Looking Glass."
We have wonderful examples of young adult dystopian fiction, including an autographed first edition of MT Anderson's "Feed." We have the first Newbery Award, which was awarded in 1922, for "The Story of Mankind" by Hendrik von Loon, Cornell class of 1905, and a story that van Loon wrote and illustrated for his nieces and his nephew. It's on a series of 90 postcards, and I really encourage you to take a look at it. And the reason we received this beautiful addition to our collection is that Deborah Rodgers, Hendrik van Loon's grandniece, who's able to join us today-- Deborah, right there--
--and she gave us this wonderful series of postcards.
The curator of the exhibit said that being able to hold some of these books in her hands give her goosebumps-- a series of books that many of you might have read.
And actually, I feel the same way. I have two sons. Both of them are grown now, but they recently told me about their memories of the darker sides of books that they read as kids. They said, of course, that they were always freaked out and enjoyed freaking themselves out on a series of scary stories told by Alvin Schwartz, by John Blair's Gothic mystery books, which include stories of killer robots and black magic. They even came up with some disturbing undertones in this picture book, which I thought I was reading to them to soothe them to go to bed in the evening. But they thought that that was a little freaky as well.
So I'd like to thank everyone who made this exhibition possible. First of all, I'd like to think Eisha-- Eisha Neely. You can raise your hand there, Eisha.
Eisha really put her heart and her soul and her creative energy into this exhibition, and a lot of her sort of darker side of humor, if you read some of those illustrative cards. But it's a wonderful exhibit, and I hope you'll come over to see it.
The rest of the library staff-- I'd also like to thank them for their talents and hard work, particularly the exhibition curators, Jillian Piccirilli who's not able to be here today, and Fredrika Loew, who did help us. Fredrika, you want to-- Fredrika?
Of course, Katherine Reagan always adds her talent as the Ernest L. Stern curator of rare books and manuscripts. And Nancy Green and Matt Conroy from the Johnson Museum also added some excellent items to enhance our exhibition. And last but not least, the generous donors who funded today's lecture and reception, the Steven and Evelyn Edwards Milman-- the endowment of Stephen and Evelyn Edwards Milman, Nathan Zimelman, and John and Virginia Lindseth
Now I'd like to think MA Anderson for joining us here today. He's written more than a dozen books for children, for teens, and for adults. He also has won a host of awards, including the National Book Award for young people's literature in 2006 for The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Volume One, "The Pox Party." You can see a copy of this in the exhibit as well. This talk is called "The Ceremony of Innocence is Drowned," and we think that this sounds like a perfect dark introduction to our exhibition. And we're so happy to have him join us here today.
Before I invite him to come up and take over this microphone, I'd like to have just two little reminders. If you haven't turned off your cellphone yet, please do so now. And just as importantly, please join us for the reception and a chance to talk to Tobin in a little bit more-- in a little less formal setting than our lecture hall today. And if you need any directions, there will be plenty of library staff who can direct you over to Kroch Library. But it's just down the hallway and through the door, either through Stimson or through the front door of Olin Library. So again, thank you all for coming for today's lecture, and please join me in welcoming MT Anderson.
MT ANDERSON: Thank you very much.
MT ANDERSON: OK, first, the sound-- is everything working? Yes? OK, great. Well, thank you very much for having me here. I actually did live for a couple of years in this area. I got my MFA in creative writing at Syracuse. And when we wanted to class the joint up, we would come down here, in fact, and in fact use the library here, back when there were books that were in a location. Remember that?
And so anyway, I am going to discuss darkness in children's literature, the theme of this exhibition. And I should mention-- I wanted to begin just by mentioning that my experience, in fact, of living in upstate New York, of living in Syracuse, was one of various severed body parts. Within a few weeks of me moving in, I came back to my apartment in Syracuse to discover police tape all around my building, and it turned out that a severed human arm had been found in the parking lot of my building in a truck, found, in fact, by two boys who were-- two 10-year-old boys who were playing in a truck that was not theirs, which in other parts of the world you call breaking and entering, but in Syracuse you call-- in any case, they discovered something smelly wrapped up in plastic. They unwrapped it, and there was the severed human arm.
And eventually it turned out that the killer, who did live in the building next to mine, was the Domino's Pizza delivery man. So as a result, I never went to Domino's again. But that was fine because their meat never really seemed as fresh after.
Anyway-- oh, some of the other severings. I was going for a jog one day past a deer that had been hit by a car lying on the road. On the way back, passed it and its head had been taken off. And I was like, really? Really, you think that that's a trophy? You found it. You didn't even hit it yourself, you know?
And then finally, the one with which I actually want to segue into what I'm going to be talking about-- I used to jog every day past a cat lover's house, clearly. It was a house that had all sorts of little cat ornaments in the yard, and some little lion statues on the gateposts. And then she had a mailbox with a little wooden tabby cat sitting on top of it.
And one day, when I ran by shortly after Halloween, I saw that someone had gone by, clearly with a baseball bat, and had whacked the head off of this woman's-- I know-- off the woman's tabby cat. And I was just like, that is a really shitty thing to do, because this woman clearly takes a great deal of pride in these things. She's very happy with them. They create for her a sense of security and that kind of thing.
Where does that impulse to destroy the cute come from? And that's really what I'm going to be talking about this evening. I'm going to be talking about the destruction of the cute.
And in particular, given the fact that the exhibition is named after rabbit holes, what I'm going to do is read a couple of bunny books to you, bunnies being, in fact, sort of the archetypal thing that a children's book is supposed to be about. So I'm going to read you two bunny books. And then I'm going to ask about what they can show us about the role of innocence in a world without illusions.
So first, I will read you "Big, Bad Bunny" by Franny Billingsley, which is illustrated by Brian Karas. I don't know that this is going to capture all the illustrations, but I'll give it a shot. And I'm not going to read either of these books in their absolute entirety, by the way. I'm going to truncate them just a little bit.
OK, "Big Bad Bunny." Big Bad Bunny has long, sharp claws. Scritch, scritch, scritch. But over in the Mouse house, everything is quiet. It's naptime, and Mama Mouse tucks her babies into bed.
Chomp, chomp, chomp. Big Bad Bunny has pointy yellow teeth. Mama Mouse kisses little Tippy. I love you, little Tippy, and I always will.
Big Bad Bunny comes to a rushing stream. Does that stop Big Bad bunny? No. Big Bad Bunny can go anywhere. Mama Mouse kisses little Flurry. I love you, little Flurry, and I always will.
Big Bad Bunny comes to a mucky swamp. Does that stop Big Bad Bunny? No. Big Bad Bunny can go anywhere. Mama Mouse kisses-- but wait. Where is baby Boo-Boo? Eek! Mama Mouse races into the forest.
Big Bad Bunny comes to thick, tangly bushes. Does that stop Big Bad Bunny? No. Big Bad Bunny can go anywhere. Mama Mouse comes to a rushing stream. Does that stop Mama Mouse? No. Mama Mouse will go anywhere for baby Boo-Boo.
Splish. Baby, where are you baby? Baby? Grr. Stomp. Roar. What's that noise? It's Big Bad Bunny howling as loud as a hungry hyena. Here are my long, sharp claws. Scritch.
Mama Mouse comes to a mucky swamp. Does that stop Mama Mouse? No. Mama Mouse will go anywhere for baby Boo-Boo. [INAUDIBLE] Baby? Where are you baby? Baby?
Grr. Stomp. Roar. What's that big noise? It's Big Bad Bunny howling as loud as 10 hungry hyenas. Here are my pointy yellow teeth. Chomp. So you get the idea. I'm going to move forward just a little bit.
But wait-- Big Bad Bunny has come to a hill. It is a steep, slippery hill. Does that stop Big Bad Bunny? And at this point, the child reader is noticing that Big Bad Bunny looks mysteriously like a mouse with bunny ears strapped on.
Yes, Big Bad Bunny is lost. Eek! Eek! Eek! Eek! Mama Mouse stops. Mama Mouse listens. What's that noise? It's her own baby Boo-Boo howling as loud as 100 hungry hyenas. Baby Boo-Boo, my baby Boo-Boo, at last I found you.
I'm not baby Boo-Boo. Big Bad Bunny wipes her eyes. Oh?, says Mama mouse. I'm not a baby, Big Bad Bunny sniffles. You're not?, says Mama Mouse?
Big Bad Bunny howls as loud as 100,000 hungry hyenas. I'm Big Bad Bunny! Oh, says Mama Mouse. Nice to meet you. Do you want to go home?
Big Bad Bunny holds Mama Mouse's paw. And so they go back through the landscape that we've already seen. They come to the mouse house, tiptoe, tiptoe. Mama Mouse tucks Baby Bunny into bed. I love you baby bunny, and I always will.
So there we go. That is the first of the two bunny books I'm going to read. The second is by Shaun Tan. Now, Shaun Tan, incidentally, has a book in the exhibition, "The Arrival," which I honestly think is one of the best books of any kind written in the last decade. What I'm going to read is his book "The Rabbits," which is by-- it has a text by John Marsden.
And it appeared originally on its own. It has now been republished in this collection, "Lost and Found," which is a bindup of three of his books. And I should say about it-- one second-- you know, being Big Bad Bunny kind of makes you a little dry. My singing career is over. All right. I mean, what happened to Wildcat Bob Goldthwait? That's what happened.
All right, so to understand this book, you also should just remember that rabbits are, in fact, not-- these are both Australian. The illustrator and author are both Australian. Rabbits are, in fact, not indigenous to Australia. They were brought there by the European invaders and very quickly multiplied and took over, in many ways.
So the book starts with just this image of a kind of miraculous looking ship crossing the waters. And then-- and I'm not going to able to do this artwork justice in this format, but in any case it's this very lovely picture of the landscape.
The rabbits came many grandparents ago. At first, we didn't know what to think. They looked a bit like us. There weren't many of them. Some were friendly.
But our old people warned us, be careful. They won't understand the right ways. They only know their own country. More rabbits came. They came by water. Sorry, it's very hard to capture these.
They didn't live in the trees like we did. They made their own houses. We couldn't understand the way they talked. And you can see, those of you who are academic fans of Adorno or postcolonial criticism, this is obviously your playground here.
They brought new food and they brought other animals. We liked some of the food, and we liked some of the animals. But some of the food and some of the animals scared us.
The rabbits spread across the country. No mountain could stop them, no desert, no river. Still more of them came.
Sometimes we had fights, but there were too many rabbits. We lost the fights. They ate our grass. They chopped down our trees and scared away our friends and stole our children. And you can't really see, but in each one of those kites, there's one of the little marsupials that is the-- the population is in those kites.
Rabbits, rabbits, rabbits-- millions and millions of rabbits. Everywhere we look there are rabbits. The land is bare and brown, and the wind blows empty across the plains.
Where is the rich, dark earth, brown and moist? Where is the smell of rain dripping from the gum trees? Where are the great billabongs, the river-swollen lakes alive with long-legged birds? Who will save us from the rabbits? And that's the end.
Where did my water go? Did anyone see that? Oh, really, that's me? OK.
So this is, in a sense, not your grandpa's bunny book. Here we have two books, both about rabbits. But you see that in a sense, they're obviously very different in many ways. You could say that Shaun Tan and John Marsden, they don't compromise. They create a sense of catastrophe and a sense of urgency in "The Rabbits," whereas obviously in Franny Billingsley's book, the child reader is actually enfolded by the reader and by the mother at the end of the book. It reintegrates the child reader into a sense of continuing love, whereas the other one is a vision of destruction that is not actually backed away from during the text.
Common to both books is the sense that the big bad rabbit is ourselves. But Billingsley doesn't just soothe us by telling us that the big bad rabbit won't hurt us. She convinces us that maybe we can be contained. Maybe in that embrace, our own truculence will be soothed away.
So one is a sort of redemptive and comforting view, and the other is an unredeemed and calamitous view. In one, we return to home and it is safe. In the other, there is no home, and that's what's so harrowing.
So in the one case, you have the Peter Rabbit return to home, return to moral certainty, return to a supper of berries and cream. In the other case, you have something more like Richard Adams' vision of rabbits in "Watership Down." They may seem warm and soft, but in moments of overpopulation and starvation, they also become savage.
So does the Billingsley shy away, as it were, the truths of Shaun Tan? That is, I think, the way that we tend to think about it in the modern children's book industry. We would think of it as somehow the one book shies away from truths that the other one totally, in the end, gives way to. And my answer, in a sense, would be no. I don't think that that is right. I think that both of these visions, the terrifying and the comforting, are real and are valid. And as reading experiences with children, even though Shaun Tan's book is for older kids, both are important experiences to share with an adult.
And yet we live in a world that valorizes the dark vision, by and large, over the sweet one. Why is this? Why do we have to defend the sweet now? How can the sweet coexist with the full recognition of our age of-- sorry, with our full recognition of our destructive capacities?
Now, I believe that we have entered a cultural moment which I would call the Age of Spoliation, by which I mean the age in which we want to spoil things. Part of the cultural work that we do is, in a sense, spoiling things. The cultural norm is sweetness tainted.
As it were, we live in a culture that valorizes the smashing of the head of the wooden tabby. So there are a lot of books-- some of which are my own-- books for kids with a sort of knowing, ironic smirk, as if we would be dupes to swallow the sweet. We sort of show off a certain sense of cruelty, how rough and how tough we can be.
We're too knowing. We feel like we know better than those who were fooled by the euphemistic children's books of the past, so we often rework those books to add a modern darkness. The ideas we take, we add a darkness in to kind of re-create the item more fashioned to our own tastes, because we have darker tastes. So this is where we get "Little Vampire Women," the rewrite of "Little Women" or obviously "Pride and Prejudice and Zombies," and that whole range of books.
This is an age when Wonderland has become Underland in the Johnny Depp remake of the Alice story, as if we think we can improve on the nightmare disorder of the original, which I think is actually interesting. By the way, the people who are setting up the catering for the reception for this actually brought in a standup of Johnny Depp dressed as the Mad Hatter, which is a wonderfully terrifying thing. I don't know that I'll be able to eat anything at that reception.
But the thing is that it's interesting that in many ways, the movie takes the moral chaos of the original and actually makes it easier to bear by making it into a story about darkness and light, which is a much more clear arrangement, in some ways. It seems to make it more frightening, but in many ways makes it less chaotic and less disorienting.
Anyway, so think about a notoriously sweet book like "Anne of Green Gables." It is not a book which is necessarily in favor right now, in an age when, by and large, boys need to develop the skills of special ops and girls need to be ruthless and kick ass like Lara Croft, kicking zombies while wearing tank tops. We feel somehow that our female protagonist can deal with darkness-- that is to say, a darkness that has to be shot at with double barrels.
But statistically, the strange thing is, if you think about it, the Alcotts and the Annes of Green Gable, as it were, lived in a world where death was actually more commonplace than in ours. Statistically, many more readers in the late 19th century would have known death firsthand-- dead parents, dead siblings, much, much higher infant mortality rates. All of those things that we now reproduce as a kind of a cute Gothic joke-- orphans, that kind of thing-- those were statistical realities in the period that had a very different feel, therefore, than they do for us.
All of these books they already are produced-- sorry. "Anne of Green Gables," actually, for example, it is a book that is sweet, but at the same time, if you read it, it openly does talk about madness and about death. Obviously one of the most moving scenes in it is to do with death. These are books that are produced by a culture that is dealing with tremendous issues of mortality, and dealing with it in their own way.
What do we think we can tell them about suffering? We think we can add suffering back in? It is already in these books, but just isn't acceptably foregrounded for our own culture, which places a premium on cheap images of pain that cause us no pain.
We live in a culture where sick has become the chosen epithet of good, and in the same way that we talk about something being dark as having a generally positive connotation, as opposed to just being a neutral term. A thing can be dark or not dark, whatever. By and large, when we say it, we actually mean, oh, don't worry, it will actually be good, because you don't have to worry about a certain sort of saccharin quality.
Think about graphic novels like "Flight," which is a sort of a periodical that comes out with wonderful, wonderful graphic novel art, and actually appears in many library collections for middle schoolers or teens. But it's interesting that almost every story in those collections deals somehow with either the cute pierced and killed, or, alternatively, the cute turning out to have fangs and claws. That's a real recurring theme.
And it's interesting that in graphic novels, despite the rise of graphic novels that don't have to do with anything about the past of comic books-- I mean, you have many wonderful graphic novels that just are stories of any kind-- it's interesting that there still is that tedious trope of spoliation, of spoiling things, that does continue in others. You know, the Family Circus mowed down by Squeaky Fromme, Mickey taking off the white kid gloves and getting handsy with Minnie, as if it still is a surprise to some that sex exists and that sadness exists, as if we are still sour to discover that the world falls short of our comic book ideals.
If you go into hipster record stores, that kind of thing, you find the full range of zombie dolls, dolls with the eyes pregouged with stitches, that kind of thing. We have point-of-purchase board books about how baby can mix daiquiris for mommy. Don't forget the incredible success of "Go the Fuck to Sleep," a book which takes-- which my reaction to that is there's such a kind of a hipster irritation with the fact that they are parents now, that they're of my generation that are parents. And no one has ever asked a hipster to have a baby, you know what I mean? No one has ever said, please, Brooklyn literati, have more children.
You know? So anyway-- oh, and in a roundup for the New York Times of picture books, a brittle mother rasps sarcasms about good bedtime books as if the best use for a picture book would be to whap a bawling kid into insensibility. It is for this reason that I named the talk after this quotation from Yeats' is "The Second Coming," and everywhere the ceremony of innocence is drowned.
Now, it has to be said that to some extent, I am part of this culture. These are, in many cases, things that I actually-- things that I've cut down in the last couple of minutes are things that, in some cases, I enjoy. I can't really complain about the ironization of genre, for example, when I myself have written ironically about children's books in some cases, or the focus on suffering when many of my books are actually about extremes of suffering. They're about dystopian situations, or slavery in the 18th century and that kind of thing.
So in some senses, this just is the way that our culture is. And I guess it's important to therefore ask, is there something wrong with it? Cultures are different ways at different times. Is this something that is problematic, and is there something worth keeping an eye on with this?
And I would say yes. I have three problems with it. The first is my objection as an artist, which is an irritation at the predictability of this trope. You know, plots need unpredictability, but humor and surprise now always seem to be based on spoliation, on the spoiling of things.
Your HBO drama, as well as your picture book comedy, tends to be based on this-- narratives where the cliche is that if someone appears very sweet, they are either corrupt beyond belief or will be, within a scene or two, a victim. The idea is that no one can be trusted. We can't get taken in by anyone. This has become, I think, very boring to me.
For example, when I was a kid, there was circulating a tiny little video clip called Bambi vs. Godzilla. And the joke is just there's Bambi, and she gets stomped by Godzilla. A giant foot comes down, and that's it.
And I remember not finding it funny when I was a kid, because I guess for me, in the world that I was living in, it was already taken for granted that the vulnerable would be hurt more. That was not a surprise. And so because there was no surprise in that happening, because it was just how the world that I lived in worked, as a result, there was no humor in it. There was just a kind of a barren truth to it.
And I think that that is what I feel the same now. If there's no reversal, there's no surprise. We've become accustomed to T-shirts showing Bert cornholing Ernie, or Cookie as a jonesing tweaker. These are no longer funny, because there is no longer surprise. Disillusion has become our watery vernacular. So, thus, my first objection is an aesthetic one, to a mode that has become thoroughly predictable.
Second, while I drink some watery vernacular-- second, the wonder of life. What about that? I feel like insofar-- I mean, this goes back to the question of why do hipsters have babies if they're going to complain about being parents? One of the purposes of having children is, in fact, to witness again and to bring into the world someone who will have a sort of a wonder at what life is.
There is-- as someone who believes that human life is fundamentally purposeless, I actually think that the purpose, in a sense, is finding your own sense of purpose, is looking around the world and experiencing wonder. And if you're going to take that away from a child, if you're going to teach a child to be so cynical that they cannot actually apprehend things the first time around like a child, if they have to be wary before that first apprehension, then I think there's a real question as to why you wish to replicate that particular kind of guarded self-interest.
So I think that the wonder of life is important. We need to actually open children up to it. And things that undercut that, I honestly feel like are-- it makes me question why it is that people enter into that enterprise of having children.
And then third and final, as I watch the ramped-up genre television I love so much, as I watch the homicidal cowboy shows that are not your grandpa's cowboy shows, and psychopathic cop shows that are not your grandpa's cop shows, all I can reflect is this-- my grandpa's generation fought a world war and won against terrifying odds. Well, from my point of view, what my generation and I spend our days doing is drinking latte grandes and sending each other links to YouTube clips of naughty dolphins and teen Swedes who suck at air guitar. So who really is the tough guy here, you know what I mean? Who really is the one who can show the world darkness and suffering?
I guess my third objection, then, is that all of this tends towards a kind of fashionable, despairing apathy. Liberals of my age don't do things about their problems. They post cracks about Michele Bachmann on Facebook, which is really not very useful to anyone.
So those are my three objections. And I want to say, why is our culture like this? Does it have to be like this? How can we find innocence for our children again? And should we?
Now, I think that there are two routes to this spoliation in our literary culture. One is negative, and one is positive. But they're bound together.
Route number one-- I think the particular aesthetic approach of my generation and myself is the problem. One of the first reasons for this culture of spoliation is, in fact, that my generation is in charge of creating content for the media at this point.
Now, we grew up in an age-- by we, I mean people of the Generation X general cohort. We grew up in an age of euphemization. The 1980s, you had this sense that everything had to be-- everything public had to have a sort of unnecessary sweetness to it. The media at that time was controlled by images of the positive.
For example, picture the sitcoms of the '80s that always have the half an hour problem that's solved quite precisely in that time, and you know that in about 27 minutes, there's going to be a moment where the comedy stops and there's this silence as mother and child kind of reconnect, and they speak a common truth, and we all get kind of weepy before the sad, happy, canned laughter returns. There's a moment of reintegration and genuine care in those sitcoms that also suggests-- and bothered us because it suggested that somehow problems only last, really, for half an hour.
So for people-- for artistic or sort of generally dissident people of my own generation, that's what we were leaning against as teenage creators. That's what we were leaning against, was this very silly, saccharin media. So for us, surprise did mean disturbing and disrupting the cute. We have pictures of the Care Bears, so we mutilate the Care Bears, drawing bullet holes and slash wounds, or turning their romping picnics into orgies. That was funny for us back in the '80s.
But now the problem is that we are the ones who are actually in power. We are the ones who are writing the media objects that the nation consumes. And we haven't switched out of that mode.
Nor have we realized that there's no one to push against. We're pushing against a mode which is long gone at this point. And so I think that that is one of the problems. We are the status quo. There is no euphemizing force that we're straining against.
We're sort of like teens in the basement with our eyes lined in black, and in our anger at our own disillusionment, our tantrum, we want to force the littler kids to suffer the same-- the same disillusionment. The sound of their voices as they play on their bikes kind of grates to us. We're too adult for joy, is how it seems to us.
We feel disillusioned, sort of like the kid who discovers there's no Santa Claus. Sorry for those of you who didn't know. I mean, I don't know what they teach at Cornell, but-- who discovers that there's no Santa Claus, and in a fit of rage goes around telling the smaller kids in the neighborhood, because somehow it hurts to watch their pain.
Somehow it puts you into power again if you can actually break the heart of someone smaller than you who doesn't know yet how bad things are. It puts us in power again when we've just learned that the world was not made for us, that the world will not provide for us, that even if we are terribly, terribly good, the world leaves nothing for us wrapped up in a ribbon beneath the tree.
When I think of those images of the battered dolls, which used to be things that we would make as a joke, but now have been mass produced, it seems as if the sweet must somehow bear the wound for the rest of us, almost like an inoculation. A story has to become dark before it is allowed to become sweet.
After we have the initial darkness, like for example in the exhibition, "The Graveyard Book" by Neil Gaiman, which won the Newbery a few years ago, it's a good example. You begin with the whole family being murdered, and then, once you've locked down the darkness, as it were, you can proceed to have a sweet story. You're allowed, then, to have sweetness after the initial bloodletting. It's almost like an inoculation.
So we seek power through spoliation and revenge for the disillusionment we've suffered. This is the dangerous route of spoliation in a kind of cultural exhaustion. And it's dangerous, as I said earlier, because it results in greater apathy.
Now, the second reason right now for this culture spoliation, I think, is more positive, and it's more direct. And that is because I feel like everyone feels instinctively that our society is living on borrowed time, in many ways. We are all trying not to think about crisis.
We know that we are no longer the world's single superpower. We know that our wealth is based on a global economy that no longer favors us. We know that our luxuries are made in unbearable conditions in countries that will not always remain quiescent.
The unthinkably vast middle classes of China and India are starting to demand the luxuries that we take for granted. We are worried like never before about resources and who shall control them. We are trying to forget that the Earth is in the beginning of convulsions of a major shift in weather patterns, as has become clear in the last few weeks. We know this and try not to think about it too much, whether we're on the left or on the right, whether we believe that extreme weather conditions are caused by made greenhouse gases or by adultery in Miami.
We are asking ourselves whether it is the government's role to help us when we are weak, or whether it's the government's role to promote the combat royale where we all fight from birth to death for some security. We are all secretly worried that kindness and generosity are nothing but a sucker's weakness.
The reasons for all of this are real and historical. Geopolitics have actually changed. We actually aren't the world's sole superpower anymore. We are encountering deep and systemic changes in our country's labor market. And things will never be for us how they were for us during the 20th century. We're facing the fact that we Americans are 4.5% of the world's population, but consume 25% of everything produced globally. And we realize that this may not be the case forever.
A third of the world is chronically undernourished, and that makes those populations dangerous to us, as well as suffering in a way that we have to confront. So it is no wonder, then, that we find it hard to look into the eyes of children who we love so much and lie to them by saying, don't worry. Everything will be OK. This is part of my own decision, personally, not to have children. I don't know how I'd ever face them and say, this is the world I chose to bring you into.
Is it any wonder, then, in a sense, that post-apocalyptic literature is so popular right now, not merely because we're worried about the specific scenarios involved in that literature, but also the feeling of anxiety, I think, that is the deepest level of those books, is really what that speaks to. And this goes for novels for adults, like Cormac McCarthy's "The Road," to the Hunger Games and a whole host of YA novels about grim futures where we fight for scraps and scrap for love.
Or think of all the zombie books-- once again, zombie books with these images of, you have to decide who it is in the world that you're going to save and who you're going to consign to death. Who is inside the wall, and who do you fire at as they approach the wall?
There is, in a sense, to all of this a return of the repressed. These books allow us to say the things we're all thinking about this world, but can't confront. Our guilty conscience comes out in works like this.
We don't need to imagine a dystopian world. We live in one. It's just that we happen to be the golden citizens of the shining capital, enjoying the luxuries sent to us from grim factory dorms on the other side of the world. People say, does this ever have to change? Why does the world have to change? But why would we really not want things to change when a third of the world's population is chronically undernourished? We live already in a dystopian world.
So when we think about global economics and our fear of what a loss of ultimate superpower status might mean, is that any surprise that we are endlessly examining the question, kill or be killed? Again and again, these books try to prepare us to ask, at what point do we leave someone outside the wall? Who will we keep in our community when only a few can survive? This is the cost of our inaction, is that we can't trust sweetness unless it has grit intermixed.
But this element of spoliation, the recognition of disastrous geopolitical realities-- this, I think, is a more positive symptom than the Gen X cultural depression I talked about a minute ago. This actually can contribute to a sense of urgency. It actually can get people to care. Suzanne Collins, the author of the Hunger Games, for example, is very explicit that the reason she wrote those books was, in fact, to produce a sense of urgency, and to ask these moral, ethical questions about who gets to survive and who has to die.
I'm currently working on a nonfiction book about the composer Dimitri Shostakovich and the siege of Leningrad. I've been doing a lot of research on the siege of Leningrad, when there was, in fact-- it was the longest siege in history, 900 days, several years, the bloodiest siege in history. And I will undoubtedly bring up and discuss the fact that cannibalism became a big thing. Human flesh was being sold on the black market in Leningrad during that siege, because people were so hungry.
And it's so interesting to read the survivors' tales. Some of them are remembering kids in their blocks, their apartment blocks, being killed for food, others remembering the tremendous attempts to bring food in and to help others. And it's very interesting. I will in the final book, I think, talk about that cannibalism. You know, 300 people were executed for actively pursuing cannibalism in this time.
But I also will talk about the other element of it, which was people saying, the other way to survive, the only other way to survive that hideous, hideous, siege, was to actually give yourself over entirely to helping others, because if you actually tried to stay in the middle, that middle where you're trying to take care of yourself but had not either turned homicidal or, in some ways, turned to helping others, that was when you died. That was when you froze to death. It was when you were active in the pursuit of something that you actually could survive, because that was when you had the sort of morale to go on without having eaten for a week.
Anyway, so once again, I think that now that this is a more useful form of literature, in a sense, in that it does at least focus us on the problems. But I will say finally that I believe, therefore, that things should be done, in a sense, to try to address other parts of human experience.
I believe we should and that we can promote a literature of joy. I believe that every parent should be able to look into a child's eyes and say, without prevarication, I brought you into this world because I believe that you will be happy here.
I believe that the cute should be allowed to exist. I believe that the young should feel sheltered. They should feel loved, should feel even an unconditional love, like the mother offers in "The Big Bad Bunny." I do not argue that there is a meaning that we are missing, that there is redemption, but that rather because the world will offer us neither meaning nor redemption, we must produce both if we wish them to be there.
My generation, people like me we, are self-infantilizing. We prefer complaining about those who are in power to taking power ourselves. We seem to be irritated that we're parents now. It crimps our cool. There is no one to take care of us anymore.
But that's the solution. We have to start to take care of others. We have to confront our own responsibility. We have to start making sacrifices. We have to start seeking answers outside our literature. We need to start looking for activity beyond complaint.
We have to start changing what we hate and what we fear. And that change doesn't mean switching to green spray bleach instead of typical spray bleach. It doesn't mean just bringing our own bag to the grocery store. It's substantive, and it's far reaching. We have to start fighting for our children and for their world in ways that are extraliterary. We have to convert our cheap cynicism into compassionate watchfulness.
We have to give up the tantrums we throw as we discover our politicians can't save us without sacrificing something to save ourselves. We will not have a literature of joy again until we are active in the fight for change. We need to fight so that our children do not need to fight. We need so fight to that safety and security are not ours alone.
We need to fight so that we know we're doing all we can to stabilize dangerous imbalances, to directly address the suffering of others. Then we can be candid in our assessment of the world and its ills. Then we will have no darksome return of the repressed, because we will not be repressing our knowledge of what's wrong. We'll be confronting it.
And so we won't shun the cute. We'll fight for it. We'll build it a garden to play in. We will never succeed in fully protecting what we love, but we will enjoy the honesty of the effort.
So two bunny books-- in one, a vision of total desolation, in the other, a glimpse of redemption, of safety. So long as someone is willing to take the role of kindness, the rabbit is at once an image of the euphemizing, soft and cuddly world we want for our children, and an image of an animal that, after all, bares its teeth and screams when it fights for survival.
We are both. It is up to us to make a decision, to admit the ferocity of the one vision, and yet to be adult enough that, at the same time, we can fight to make the world the place we want it to be for our children, and for all children. It is up to us to provide the embrace, the berries and cream, the return to home. Thank you very much.
So we have time for a few questions until someone waves at me and tells me we don't. OK, so we have time for a few questions. Yes, sir.
SPEAKER 1: What have you seen of a shift in direction back towards [INAUDIBLE]. I'm thinking about another short story in that collection "Lost and Found."
MT ANDERSON: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
SPEAKER 1: In which it ends on a note of what appears to me, at least, to be the humble what is good in human nature. I'm thinking about recent movies-- "Moonrise Kingdom," in which--
MT ANDERSON: Yes.
SPEAKER 1: --the surprise is actually that he doesn't die when he's struck by lightning.
MT ANDERSON: Right. Right. Exactly. And imagine-- I think that the reason that that movie really struck a chord was precisely because of what you have talked about.
Here was, in fact, totally-- sorry, the question is about what about the moments in the current culture that actually do return to the cute? I was told to repeat the question for Mrs. Camera. So like "Moonrise Kingdom" for example. "Moonrise Kingdom" is a great example of the surprise that now comes when you have a hipster artifact-- because what could be more hipster than Wes Anderson-- that at the same time actually has a wonderful feeling of warmth to it.
And despite the fact that there's still that edginess that comes from your awareness of-- everything in that film says to you self-conscious. At the same time, there is a kind of a reintegration at the end of that movie that does produce a weird sense of warmth. And it is surprising. And you're like, oh, thank God, for once.
And so I do think that there may well be an aesthetic swing back towards the other. And the question is, can we remain clear-eyed of both realities? Yes.
SPEAKER 2: So right now I'm writing a book for my little sister.
MT ANDERSON: Oh.
SPEAKER 2: [INAUDIBLE] a series that I've written for her.
MT ANDERSON: That's very sweet of you.
SPEAKER 2: Thank you. And I'm trying to tell a story about middle-school girls growing up and moving into adulthood having to kind of embrace the realities that come along with that. So how can authors tell a story about growing up in a world that's full of challenges and difficulties, and make it realistic and make it real, without writing something that's disillusioning?
MT ANDERSON: Yeah. So the question is, how can you write a story that's about growing up and feels very real, but at the same time is not somehow disillusioning? And I think it's a great question. And the problem is that the answers tend to be specific to the thing that one is working on.
Part of it is that different authors have-- we have different aims in writing our books. We want even individual books to have different effects. In some cases, you want a book to be very hard hitting and really go for a sense of, this is the world you have to deal with. Deal with it. In others, you actually do want more of a kind of a feeling of reintegration and whatever else. It depends on things like your aim as an artistic producer, your sister's age, how screwed up you want your sister to be--
--and that kind of thing.
One of the interesting things, I think-- I remember this when I was younger and writing books for kids and talking to some kids who read them. I realized that they were reading a lot of books about college and the problems of being in college. Now, the thing is that they didn't really understand that those problems could be real, because you may have forgotten what this is like, for those of you who are now in college, but in high school, it is just so cool to be in college that whatever problems you have when you're in college are obviously cool problems.
You know what I mean? And it's just, oh, that's great. Oh, maybe I'll have an abusive boyfriend.
It honestly was sort of like that. It was like, whoa, whoa, whoa, yeah. So I do think that it's a wonderful question, but I also think that the answer tends to be very, very particular to the text that one is writing, because you have different aims and different audiences that you're dealing with.
Yeah. I know that's a slithery answer, but it's honestly-- I think that that's true. Yeah. Yes.
SPEAKER 3: I guess my question kind of bounces of that. I'm coming from a perspective where reading the Wall Street Journal article from a few summers ago [INAUDIBLE].
MT ANDERSON: Right.
SPEAKER 3: Just the point of view that there is kind of a necessity for darkness, specifically in books for teenagers.
MT ANDERSON: Right.
SPEAKER 3: And so I know that you're arguing against cynicism that promotes that, but obviously, from your books, you believe that there's a place for that.
MT ANDERSON: Yes, and I think it's-- so the question is-- what's the question? The question is, there's a certain pendulum, I would say, of where people end up talking. I think that one of the difficult things about being a writer for children or for teens is that you get lambasted on one side for writing books that are too straightforwardly moral, and then on the other side for being too amoral. And so we get hit from both directions, typically, usually within the same month. You know, Harper's will do one and then New York Times the other. You know what I mean? Then they switch off.
And I do think that that points to this very interesting question of, to what extent do we understand books for teens operating in a different way than books for adults? It's very infrequently that people will say, this book is so dark that no adult should read it, for example. You know what I mean?
So I do think that there is a pendulum, and I do think that my outcry in a speech like this is based partially on the fact that I have no doubt, now that we've published books on necrophilia for teens, that I'm not really worried about the darkness element diminishing to a point where everyone in these books are just dancing around in circles and throwing flowers in the air. I think that what I'm addressing is something at this cultural moment, and if I were giving a speech here back in the 1960s or '70s, I would probably be saying a very different thing.
But I will say that there is one thing that unifies them, and that is things that-- literary modes that in a sense hide from us deeper systemic problems. That's what I have a problem with in both cases. So for example, the problem novel porn, in a sense, of let's look at a problem that's really hideous and sit with it for a whole book. In some cases it's totally heartfelt and that kind of thing, but in some cases, you do feel as if the author has taken the fatal disease spinner out and just spun it and said, oh, that one. Yeah, we're going to talk about that one.
And that, I think, in a sense, can also be a way of avoiding, to me, larger cultural problems, every bit as much as things which euphemize the state of where we are. So that is the thing that brings these things together. But I will also say that this speech is obviously tailored for this moment in history, where I'm not worried about the darkness appearing.
I remember, in fact, a friend of mine who also is a friend of Coe Booth's, who's a writer for teens, came up to me at a conference, and one walked past me and said, hey, Coe broke the anal barrier. And I said, what are you talking about? He's like, anal sex in a YA novel. And I was like, oh, well, there we go. OK. So as I say, I don't think that necessarily we have to worry about the messy details of life being shrouded in the YA world at the moment. Sir.
SPEAKER 4: You brought up [INAUDIBLE] I mean, clearly that's the conceptual core of [INAUDIBLE] self-confidence.
MT ANDERSON: Yes.
SPEAKER 4: [INAUDIBLE]
MT ANDERSON: Yes.
SPEAKER 4: Hipsters care what other hipsters think.
MT ANDERSON: Right.
SPEAKER 4: And so I'm kind of wondering now, when you say the hipster children's authors, are you really writing books for children, or are you writing them for other hipsters so that they will feel very cool reading them?
MT ANDERSON: Right, no, and I think that's totally legitimate. I mean, obviously "Go the Fuck to Sleep" is a great example of that. You know what I mean? It literally was written by a Brooklyn hipster for his friends, in a sense. No, I totally think that that's true. And you do actually find that in some picture books now.
And then there are those ones like "Arlene Sardine." Does anyone know that book by Chris Raschka? Who the hell knows what that book's about, even? It's very, very cool, but it's a hyperdeadpan description of a sardine who, in fact, gets turned into a sardine. So, then she went to the canning plant. You know what I mean? Then her own oil was extracted from her and put back into a tin.
And it's very brutal. But at the same time, there's a weird lack of affect to it. And it's a very, very cool and interesting book, in a way. That's a book that I'm not actually sure I would bother giving to a child, despite the fact that I love Chris Raschka's work in general.
But yeah, I totally agree. I think that there is that element, because remember that the whole publishing industry is based in New York. And so what the rest of the country perhaps doesn't confront sufficiently is that, just as Hollywood creates its own culture that washes over the rest of the country, but it's really based in many ways on the internal politics of a particular set of people in a particular city, the publishing industry is the same way about New York. The set of those people who are all talking to each other in a kind a circular fashion does end up causing a lot of our own literary taste as a nation. And that is where that kind of thing becomes particularly pernicious.
We've received your request
You will be notified by email when the transcript and captions are available. The process may take up to 5 business days. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org if you have any questions about this request.
In recent years literature for children has seen a tremendous surge in the public consciousness, and many concerned adults have spoken out against what they perceive as a growing trend towards "darkness" in children's books. Sex, drinking, drugs, violence, death and even magic are often cited as dangerous themes from which young readers should be protected. However, if one looks at the history of writing for children, it becomes clear that those elements have been present from the very beginning. This exhibition will explore the vast wonderland of children's literature, shedding new light on the shadows lurking in the rabbit holes.
M.T. Anderson, an American author of picture books, pre-teen books, and young-adult novels, delivered the opening lecture for
Wardrobes and Rabbit Holes: A Dark History of Children's Literature on November 7, 2012.