Weekend Diversion: Not for Kids Only

“In the United States today, there is a pervasive tendency to treat children as adults, and adults as children. The options of children are thus steadily expanded, while those of adults are progressively constricted. The result is unruly children and childish adults.” -Thomas Szasz


Some of the email I get, periodically, asks me if there are any science books or TV shows that I recommend. (When a particularly good one comes across my radar, I let you know.) But a more unusual request I recently received was if there were any books or TV shows that I recommended for kids.

For me — personally — I don’t have kids, but the best things out there from my memories as a kid are the things that aren’t for kids only. Which is why the song I’m giving you for this weekend, off the album Not for Kids Only, is Jerry Garcia and David Grisman’s version of the classic children’s song,

Teddy Bears’ Picnic.
So this week, I am proud to recommend two TV shows (one American and one British) and a book that — while totally suitable for children about age 5 and up — are entertaining and good conversation-starters for adults and parents as well.

The book: The Five Chinese Brothers, originally published in 1938. This classic story that I remember from my childhood explores many important themes such as loyalty, justice, resourcefulness, and the importance of family as one brother is unfairly charged with murder. (Yes, it is a children’s book!) While there are a great many good books for children, this is one of only two books I can point to that is decidedly a Chinese folk tale (along with Tikki Tikki Tembo), and was my first opportunity to learn about a foreign culture.

I bring this book up to you not only because of my fond memories of it, nor because of the very Chinese theme of siblings with special powers, but because it is banned from many schools and libraries due to accusations of ethnic stereotyping, on account of the illustration style depicting the characters with slanted eyes and yellow skin. In my experience, your kid won’t grow up to be a racist because they read this book; but they will grow up unaware of this rich story if they don’t.

The British TV Show: Shaun the Sheep. Perhaps most closely related to a modern-day Bugs Bunny, Shaun is a clever, resourceful, adventuresome, slightly mischievous but problem-solving sheep.

Facing the day-to-day problems on his farm, including a bumbling farmer, a well-meaning but incompetent herding dog, and the enemy pigs that live on the other side of the wall, Shaun’s bravery and leadership abilities help the sheep obtain apples, avoid being sheared (sometimes), and get up to some amazing antics. Suitable for children but still entertaining for adults, this is a great and easy television program to watch. With almost no dialogue and a rich gamut of characters, this may be the perfect show to chill out with on a rainy day. One of the things I love about it is its strong encouragement of curiosity, and its positive portrayal of bravery and risk-taking. And finally,

The American TV Show: My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic. Unlike most children’s shows that also have an appeal to adults (and this one does, believe me), this show is noticeable for three major things:

  • The characters are forced to deal with difficult internal issues, such as jealousy, impatience, keeping secrets, and being good to other people. External events occur frequently, but are secondary in importance.
  • Pretty much all of the main characters are girls, but the themes the cartoon deals with are almost 100% equally applicable to boys. Even the “girliest” characters are much deeper than simply being cute, superficial ponies, and contend with these internal issues.
  • And they get these issues wrong very frequently, but they learn. They apologize, they fix their mistakes, and they actually do better in the future.

You wouldn’t expect a children’s show to tackle issues like land disputes (!), but this show not only pulls it off, they do so in ways far superior to that of great world leaders. The episodes are well-crafted, the characters are rich and well-written, and the show is sincere, rather than sarcastic, which is definitely a rarity.

So I hope you enjoyed the song, and if you were looking for a book or TV show that was suitable for a kid — but not for kids only — I hope this helped make you a little more aware of some of the excellent material that’s out there. Enjoy the rest of your weekend!

Comments

  1. #1 Abby
    July 10, 2011

    May I suggest you add to your list of children-and-adult-friendly TV shows, Avatar: The Last Airbender? Initially fun and silly, with lots of children-friendly humor, but eventually fleshes out into a beautifully drawn (I mean figuratively, here, in terms of plot and character development though it is a cartoon) show with believable and complex characters.

  2. #2 Patricia
    July 10, 2011

    We must be near the same age (I’m 44). I remember this book vividly, it was one of the favorites we’d have the librarian read to us. Sadly, many schools no longer have librarians, much less libraries…much less this treasure of a book. Remember the video “the red balloon”? Or the video about the woman who lost her wristwatch in the doughnut batter? Maybe not, but this is bringing back lots of memories for me. .

  3. #3 The Tim Channel
    July 11, 2011

    For your information/entertainment/amusement/ridicule or scorn:

    Many atheist men, (and some of the atheist women who love them) are concerned with the direction of the atheist movement now that the warlord Captain Benedict PZ Arnold Myers threw his vast and powerful virtual army of support to the side of the rapidly swelling coalition, being referred to by insiders as the Octopussy coalition..

    Some of the guys sensed the early warning signs. There were whispers of discontent early on, with the imposed addition of lighted make-up mirrors in the unisex bathrooms in the Atheist Freedom Center. It was a bad omen, but proper social decorum, then as now, denounced those who complained. Instead, the men just started wearing make-up themselves. The old adage, “If you can’t beat ‘em join ‘em” was adopted.

    Full post: http://thetimchannel.wordpress.com/2011/07/11/attack-of-the-american-girlyban/

    Enjoy.

  4. #4 Kevin
    July 11, 2011

    @ Abby – Yes! Avatar is absolutely amazing… I’m really bitter they handed the movie over to M Night shamy dude to destroy it’s credibility.

    @ Ethan – I didn’t peg you for a bronie – do you listen to Wait, wait, don’t tell me? They had Bill Clinton on and asked him 3 questions about my little ponies… He got them all right.

  5. #5 frantischek
    July 11, 2011

    Wallace&Gromit is also recommandable, i think it´s made by the same guys as Shaun the sheep.

  6. #6 PeterT
    July 11, 2011

    My kids (3 and 4.5) love Shaun the sheep, almost as much as the “Octonauts” (another UK show). What’s really great though is that my father-in-law loves it too even though he rarely watches TV. No problem when we were thinking of what to get him for his birthday last year – the box set :*)

  7. #7 The Other Doug
    July 11, 2011

    I was always fond of the Encyclopedia Brown stories – each is a short read, but they encourage kids to pay attention to detail and think independently: very important character traits for those of us in the natural sciences.

  8. #8 Jesse
    July 11, 2011

    While I am against banning books of any stripe, I wonder if it would be too much to ask to re-issue the Five Chinese Brothers with different illustrations? To me that would solve the problem.

    No, your kid won’t necessarily grow up to be a racist after reading it, but we really don’t need to show kids any more ethnic stereotyping than necessary, I don’t think. And if the only way the “whimsy”of the story can be conveyed is with those illustrations, then we have a problem.

    (It’s like the old test of whether humor is race-based or racist. If the joke is the people you are talking about, it’s racist. Like jokes about Chinese-speakers’ accents and language — the joke is that they are Chinese. That’s racist. Margaret Cho’s jokes are about family relationships, and not entirely dependent on her mother being Korean).

    And just so I am not a complete party-pooper, I will recommend one book that — if you can find it — is just the thing (even though the illustrations are slightly stereotypical as well). It’s called In Henry’s Backyard and the anthropology and racial origin theories are way out of date. (It was written in 1948). But the message is clear: we are all humans deserving of dignity. I think it is out of print now.

    I also really liked “Schoolhouse Rock” as a kid and it helped me with my math a lot.

    Treasure Island, Robinson Crusoe, Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn were all part of my childhood. The Swiss Family Robinson actually got me interested in natural history. My parents had some cool editions of Grimm’s and Andersen’s fairy tales too, and for years I had in my head a rather different version of “Cinderella” and “Briar Rose” from Disney’s :-) And Andersen’s stuff could be very very creepy. But I went to it repeatedly.

    (BTW while I like Jerry Garcia the music won’t stop. It seems to start again after a minute or two).

  9. #9 Alan L
    July 11, 2011

    The five Chinese brothers in the illustration have pretty much the same shade of yellow as The Simpsons where bright yellow is supposed to represent Caucasians, except that unlike the book under reference that cartoon’s full of ugly stereotypes aimed exclusively at ‘whites’ (Homer and his wife, to name but a few).

    If banning books like The Five Chinese Brothers on the basis of what appears to be a positive and friendly illustration is what now passes for enlightened in the US then that country has reached its terminal stage.

  10. #10 javad
    July 12, 2011

    Nice post!

  11. #11 Julian Frost
    July 13, 2011

    Frantischek @5: You are correct. Both Wallace and Gromit and Shawn the Sheep are made by Arrdman. In fact, Shawn first appeared as a character in the Wallace and Gromit episode “A Close Shave”.

  12. #12 ixbalum
    July 13, 2011

    Alan L, the issue isn’t the particular shade of yellow. And saying “they make jokes about white people” doesn’t cut it either. The Simpsons is produced in a very different situation from the book.

    Not to put too fine a point on it, but a) I never said they should ban the book and b) you really don’t get the difference between the effects of stereotyping and the way people see it? You really don’t?

    A little racism 101: racism is not about who made fun of you last week. It is about power and relationships, and who is the privileged group in a given context. In China, Chinese people are the privileged group, so it’s a different beast when they make jokes about “foreigners” or Tibetans.

    But we are in the US and the Five Chinese Brothers is aimed at English speakers. My question was whether the book stands up without the illustrations, which are stereotypical (and if you bring up “positive stereotypes” I will scream. There is no such thing) and can be very insulting to an Asian person. They hark back a little too closely to some very insulting and hurtful things.

    It’s not about your personal feelings. It’s about power. It’s about historical patterns of culture and privilege.

  13. #13 Wow
    July 13, 2011

    “and if you bring up “positive stereotypes” I will scream.”

    Captain America? Superman?

    Over the internet, nobody can hear you scream.