Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Finally Saying Thank You: A Brief Look At The Giving Tree and Shel Silverstein's Work


In observation of the upcoming holiday spirit that must be a daunting figure in our lives, it seems appropriate to bring up a children’s book that is all about being thankful (wait… is it?)—it’s called The Giving Tree.

(If anyone finds themself unfamiliar with this story, here is a brief synopsis: One upon a time there was a boy who was best friends with a tree, and although trees do not talk, this one sure did. From childhood, the boy grew up playing with the tree, but as the boy grew, he came to visit less, and the tree stayed (as most trees usually stay in one place), always waiting for the boy. The boy would return to the tree, taking pieces that it willingly gave to the boy to help him become a man. Until one day the boy gets old, and all that is left of the tree is her stump, and he sits on the stump without ever saying “thank you.”)

Not only is this book an interesting topic to consider with Thanksgiving right around the corner and reminding us of what we feel gratitude for in certain aspects of our lives, but the NCSCL’s very own Dr. Joseph T. Thomas has a forthcoming book from Make Now Press entitled Shel Silverstein, The Devil's Favorite Pet, which we are anticipating with great earnestness (like a kid on that “one day”).

The Giving Tree, by Silverstein, is a book that lives on the shelves in many households today. And while children seem to still be captured by the pictures and words on the pages, parents reading it to their children today often feel a sense of nostalgia, because it is a book that lives within their own childhoods. However, as much of Dr. Thomas’s work teaches us, Silverstein was much more than just a simple children’s author. In his article, “A Speculative Account (with Notes) of the Development and Initial Deployments of Shel Silverstein’s Persona, Uncle Shelby, with Special Care to Articulate the Relationship of Said Persona to the Question of Shel’s Ambiguous Audience(s),” Thomas suggests that perhaps the children’s poet and author becomes more of a multi-faceted persona when we really discover all of his different types of accomplishments that might have not been as children’s author-y as he has made his name out to be. He was a songwriter, singer, poet, adult comic strip author, illustrator, and, of course, children’s author—the latter formed at his own hand (25). So with such careful attention to his establishment as a child’s book author, what’s with all the fuss over a book like The Giving Tree as anything less than a great children’s book…?

When looking into how this book is being talked about in current online media, one Huffington Post writer paints a vivid picture of how the book scarred her children when she read it to them in her article, “Thanks But No Thanks, Shel Silverstein” (April 2015). Nicole Jankowski writes about how her children went as far as to punch the picture of Silverstein on the back cover because they were traumatized and upset by the story. She even begins to question her own happy childhood memories with the book because of this carnivalesque reaction (a term used to describe children’s more crude and improper behavior when parents are away) of her own children right in front of her.

In another Huffington Post article, “Was The Giving Tree A Chump?” (April 2015), Robert Levy discusses the ridiculousness of parents who find issues with the book, and points out that a common theme of many current online blogs is that The Giving Tree should be kept out of children’s hands. In his article, Levy questions: “How could Silverstein's parable be misinterpreted as a straightforward tale extolling the virtues of selflessness and sacrifice? Does anyone really think Silverstein intended his readers to happily accept that the tree, reduced to a mere stump at the story's conclusion by the boy's relentless taking, should truly be pleased by the boy's actions, and that we should be as well?”

And while there are so many feelings that follow this book over the last 50 years of its publication, there are also a variety of interpretations that also follow it. Most common would be that the tree character is often suggested to be a representation of God, and so some believe that The Giving Tree holds a religious agenda that discretely asserts itself upon the reader. Others say it is a commentary on parenting and how a child will be the person that uses their parents all up, until they have nothing left. Another interpretation suggests that it is a sexist text that weaves a story where men are allowed to use women, since the tree is referred to as a “she.”

But what I find as the most interesting interpretation for the story is that it suggests a hidden commentary on the ways capitalism runs our society. The bond between Silverstein’s art and poetry and the public audience, may even provide an even more curious suggestion to the workings of this book.

And while these popular scenarios hold sad and problematic interpretations of this story, it is undeniable to ignore that it is still a popular story, and its author a topic of contemplation. Thomas notes, “Silverstein is often some- thing of a one-note poet. But we shouldn’t dismiss Silverstein out of hand, nor should we dismiss his aesthetic achievement. Shel’s here, and, rest his soul, he’s here to stay—or at least his poetry is—filling up bookstore shelf space, delighting young readers, and providing an easy target for academics” (Reappraising Uncle Shelby 283).

  • “Thanks But No Thanks, Shel Silverstein” by Nicole Jankowski
  • “Was The Giving Tree A Chump?” by Robert Levy
  • Joseph T. Thomas Jr. “A Speculative Account (with Notes) of the Development & Initial Deployments of Shel Silverstein's Persona, Uncle Shelby, with Special Care to Articulate the Relationship of Said Persona to the Question of Shel's Ambiguous Audience(s).” Children's Literature Association Quarterly. 36.1 (2011): 25-46.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Call for Papers and Upcoming Children's Literature Conferences

Whether you’re knee-deep or neck-deep in final projects or outlining your final papers during this busy semester, there’s always time for some literary scholarship (says the graduate student currently neck-deep in all things literature). To make things a little easier, we’ve gathered a list of future conference proposals and calls-for-papers that includes children’s literature topics. 

The Children’s Literature Society and the American Literature Association

Event: 27th Annual Conference
Dates: May 26-29, 2016
Location: The Hyatt Regency, San Francisco

Panel 1: Children’s Literature Adaptations: Musicals (both theatrical and film).

Children’s literature has had a long history of adaptation transformations—from early Shirley Temple films to comic books and most recently to musicals; e.g., Shrek, Wicked, Once Upon A Mattress, Little Mermaid, Cinderella, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, The Jungle Book, Tarzan, Wizard of Oz/The Wiz, Hansel and Gretel, Into the Woods, Annie. This panel explores the ways musical adaptations of children’s texts change the original tale and are revelatory of changes in social/cultural considerations that include the changing dynamic of the construction of childhood, adults, and family.

  • Please include academic rank and affiliation, as well as AV requests.
  • Send abstracts or proposals (~300 words) by January 15, 2016 via email to: Dorothy Clark (dorothy.g.clark@csun.edu) and Linda Salem (lsalem@mail.sdsu.edu)
Panel 2: Children’s Literature Adaptations—Part 2: Digital Transformations—From TV and Film to New Media

New media has entered the world of children’s literature adaptation in stunning ways. From video games to tablet and smartphone apps to YouTube videos and more, “story” is finding new formats and “reading” has gone from a passive immersive experience to a more interactive one. Multimodal storytelling—unique meshing of “old” media (e.g., print text, TV, film) with “new” media are transforming our understanding of adaptation, creating new formats, genres. This panel explores this new world of children’s literature adaptation, including a bit of the “old world” of media (print/television/film) as it also transforms to adapt to new media. In reflecting on this new world of adaptation, consider for example: What happens to the original story? How is narrative changing? What is the role of reader/writer? Does this new domain reflect changes in social-cultural understandings of childhood, adult, family?

  • Please include academic rank and affiliation, as well as AV requests.
  • Send abstracts or proposals (~250 words) by January 10, 2016 via email to: Dorothy Clark (Dorothy.g.clark@csun.edu) and Linda Salem (lsalem@mail.sdsu.edu)
Panel 3: “Humor and Children’s Literature”—Abstracts (300 words maximum) are encouraged on subjects addressing any aspect of humor in relation to children’s literature by an American author. Panel sponsored by the American Humor Studies Association and the Children’s Literature Society.

  • Please include academic rank and affiliation, as well as AV requests. 
  • Send abstracts or proposals (~300 words) by January 10, 2016 via email to: Dorothy Clark (Dorothy.g.clark@csun.edu), Linda Salem (lsalem@mail.sdsu.edu), and Jim Caron (caron@hawaii.edu) with the subject line: “AHSA/CLS session, 2016 ALA.” 
For further information, please consult the ALA conference website at www.alaconf.org or contact the conference director, Professor Alfred Bendixen at ab23@princeton.edu with specific questions. 

~ ~ ~ 

CFP: The Intersection of Cartoons, Animation, and Youth Media: A Special Issue of Children’s Literature Association Quarterly
“In connection with the upcoming 2016 ChLA conference on Animation, this special issue of ChLAQ will focus broadly and widely on the multimodal and ever-expanding medium known as youth animation. From children’s cartoon shorts such as Steamboat Willy (1928) and Leon Schlesinger’s Loony Tunes (1930–1969); to full-length animation motion pictures such as the work of Studio Ghibli, Pixar, and Nickelodeon; to Homestar Runner, video games, and flip books, if it’s sequential art pit into motion, it’s on the table for discussion.”

Deadline: November 1, 2016 
Website: http://call-for-papers.sas.upenn.edu/node/61774

  • Papers should conform to the usual style of ChLAQ and be between 5,000–7,000 words in length. 
  • Queries and completed essays should be sent to Joseph Michael Sommers via email at somme1jm@cmich.edu with a re: line indicating “ChLAQ Essay) 
Notes: The selected articles will appear in ChLAQ in 2017. 

CFP: Reimagining the Child: Next Steps in the Study of Childhood(s)
Dates: April 22–23, 2016
Location: Camden, New Jersey

Description: Hosted by the Rutgers University – Camden Graduate Student Organization in Childhood Studies.
“The goal of this year’s graduate student conference is to bring together graduate students and other early-career scholars whose work represents a contribution to expanding academic understandings of and approaches to children and childhood. Topics of interest include, but are not limited to: theorizations and discourses of childhood; representations of children in media; relationships between children and technology; considering children in approaches to human rights, ethics, and morality; children’s culture(s); children as social agents; etc.”

Deadline: December 20, 2015
  • Send an abstract (~300 words) to the conference chair, Julian Burton, via email at Julian.burton@rutgers.edu. Include the words “conference abstract” in the subject line. 
  • Please include your name, current level of study, and affiliated institution in the body of your email. 
  • Attach your abstract as a separate document containing no personally identifying information. 

Good luck to everyone, on submissions, upcoming finals, and final papers!

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Thank the Sandman For Your Nightmares

As winter approaches and the semester comes to a panicked frenzy, it is not uncommon to have a nightmare or two along the way. These may often consist of but not limited to: getting a C, D, or F on a paper that you don’t even remember writing, getting the wrong exam but then getting a panic attach because maybe it was you that didn’t study properly what was on the exam, walking into an exam and having no idea where the semester went, and (my favorite) walking into a classroom for the first time and realizing it is the last day of school and everyone is turning in beautifully stacked, thirty-page research papers.

While this tends to be a common occurrence among students, especially at the graduate level, if we lived in a time before we analyzed tales told out loud by the campfire, we would probably be familiar with the old folktale Ole Lukøje, or more commonly known as, the Sandman.

From what we now know of this mythical creature, from a wide variety of originating telling’s, it is the story of the master of dreams and nightmares—a Santa Claus of sorts. The tale usually involves Ole Lukøje coming to sleeping souls and standing over them, bestowing lovely dreams to those who are deemed worthy and nightmares for those who have behaved poorly.

As many folktales became methods of interpellation for children, this specific tale took a variety of forms and still can be seen as a way of scaring children into going to bed when told. Before Hans Christian Andersen published his children’s tale version, E. T. A. Hoffman published his own version in 1816. The difference between the two is drastic: with Hoffman including a Sandman who comes for naughty children and gouges a child’s eyeballs out if they are opened when they are supposed to be sleeping and the Andersen version includes a sweeter but still creepy Sandman who tells stories to a boy over the course of a week. In Andersen’s version, the Sandman tells the boy on the last day that his brother, Death, will be visiting him the next day. Ideas of death were common in early publications of children’s fairytales, which became a way of teaching children that if death finds them, it is merely a way that they will be able to see God sooner. Though Andersen’s version of this tale only implies death, it still holds a few sadistic qualities that are most often glanced over.

If we looked at Andersen’s version, even though he includes “But Ole-Luk-Oie does not wish to hurt them, for he is very fond of children, and only wants them to be quiet that he may relate to them pretty stories, and they never are quiet until they are in bed and asleep,” he also is telling the story of a male mythical creature that comes and stands over sleeping children, forcing them into a dream world. And while this suggests a sort of power dynamic, one that comes from a dominating male creature, the story presents children with a terrifying idea that they give up all control of their own minds while they sleep. The use of terror in this tale therefore produces good behavior—a seduction of sorts into this reward worthy behavior through a use of terror within the child’s imagination. 

So as the dreams start clouding your mind, as deadlines creep upon us, we must wonder what naughty behaviors have given passage for the Sandman to grant us the nightmares that just won't go away.