Thursday, January 5, 2017

Thoughts about Bunny Loves to Learn

Read the previous piece in the series here.

I've not made a secret on this blog that I have a young daughter and that I am invested in keeping abreast of what media she consumes. I have also not made a secret in pretty much any place that I am a lover of books--and it makes sense that a lover of books would urge his daughter towards books, and that those who know both father and daughter would get books for the latter. It was through such agency (thanks, Mom and Dad!) that my daughter received a copy of Bunny Loves to Learn, written by Peter Bently and illustrated by Emma Foster and Deborah Melmon. In it, several young animals--Buster, Sam, Max, and Francine--are assigned by their teacher to dress up as representative historical figures, reproduce a representative object from the time associated therewith, and explain both in a class presentation. Buster, Sam, and Francine quickly choose projects; Max struggles to find one, but is aided by his friends and completes his project. Presentations ensue, and the children are commended by their teacher for their efforts. In all, it is a nice story, one eminently suitable for children in my daughter's age range (she turns three soon); learning is praised, teamwork without shirking is encouraged, and both are desirable.

Why it comes up here, however, has to do with the strange historical compression at work in the text and with the interpretation of the medieval that, while not necessarily inaccurate, is a bit...odd to my eye. The first, the historical compression, shows up in the lumping together of a cloak with a Viking motif, a send-up of a court dress that looks to be from thirteenth- or fourteenth-century Western Europe, Gothic knightly armor, and imperial Roman legionary dress. (It is worth remarking that the core narrative, in which Max finds his way to making a sound presentation with the help of his friends, focuses on Ancient Egypt. It does so under the name of Egypt, rather than Kemet, and it focuses on the stereotypes of pharaohs, mummies, and pyramids, so there are some problems, to be sure.) While each--and more--is worthy of study, the contemporary presentation of them without even a note about their temporal sequence suggests that they are all from the same time, some nebulous, amorphous past rather than an array of culturally and chronologically diverse origins.

The second, the...interesting interpretation of the medieval, appears in what receives attention in the book. Vikings are mentioned briefly, receiving attention from a rabbit who focuses on the aforementioned cloak and building a model langskip; the impulse to battle is noted, but not the social structure or the propensity towards trade. Knights receive more attention, including a full-page spread showing a squirrel talking about visored helmets and shield devices; knightly armor is left bare instead of clad in a surcoat, and nothing is said of the chivalric codes to which knights ostensibly aspired.. That attention is shared with the medievalish princess in which the frog takes interest (and there is some joke to be found about the princess and the frog), and the frequent truth of noblewomen's lives is elided in the comment that princesses were involved in politics. The "core" medieval, that easily romanticized, is presented, although many details are skipped over (some not inappropriately, given the target audience), and a skewed view of the subject matter is presented therefore.

It might be argued that looking so closely at children's books is missing the point. Such an argument might note that if it gets kids to read and imparts some good lessons, that should be enough. And it would not be wrong to make such an argument; it is the case that getting kids to read and encouraging desirable behaviors is a good thing. The fact that I interrogate my daughter's books does not mean I disapprove of them, however. It does mean that I treat seriously what she does, for which I do not think I can be censured. It also means that I consider what kinds of messages are being sent to children like my daughter--and if it is the case that a children's work will necessarily compress things, both for space and for developmental concerns, it is also the case that doing so will necessarily elide some of the complex nuance that makes study of the medieval rewarding. I want my daughter to have an accurate idea of deeper histories, and having things to work with to develop it helps. While there is much to be said for simply getting kids to read and to enjoy reading, there is more to be said for working to get a more accurate, and therefore nuanced, idea of things; it helps those of us who work with the medieval to have less we must correct as we encounter students in the classroom.

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