Much of the continuing interest of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland for adults lies in its humor and its parody of Victorian schooling and manners. Dr. Seuss’s books picked up on its fantastical humor and ran with it.
Dr. Seuss is the pseudonym of Theodor (Ted) Geisel, an artist and author who was born in 1904 and died in 1991. He is best known for his imaginative characters and fantastical children’s stories, like The Grinch Who Stole Christmas, The Lorax, Horton Hears a Who, and The Cat in the Hat. Geisel started his children’s book career in 1937 and published several works (including one of my personal favorites, The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins) before World War II broke out. During the war, Geisel drew patriotic political cartoons and worked as a propaganda artist. Although he often used his work to oppose discrimination, his anti-Japan war cartoons employ racist imagery that complicates his otherwise positive reputation. If you want to read more about his political cartoons and their imagery, this piece in The Atlantic (Links to an external site.) is a good article (reading this is optional). Click here (Links to an external site.) to see a quick video from ABC7 that spotlights some interesting facts about Dr. Seuss and his books. Take a minute to watch it!
There’s actually a literary term for stories where the traditional order of things is temporarily overturned: Carnivalesque. Here is a full definition from the Sage Dictionary of Cultural Studies:
“The carnivalesque is a concept appropriated into cultural studies from the work of Mikhail Bakhtin and his study of Rabelais. The idea derives from the medieval carnival when a degree of otherwise unpermitted freedom was granted to ordinary people to lampoon the figures of authority associated with the church and state. Thus, the carnivalesque involves a temporary reversal of the order of power enacted through the rituals, games, mockeries and profanities in which the polite is overthrown by the vulgar and the king up-ended by the fool. The carnival introduces a topsy-turvy world of reversals of power and authority in tandem with the pleasures of excessive eating, drinking and sexual activity that offend the borders of polite decorum.
“The contemporary use of the term carnivalesque is a metaphorical one that connotes a form of resistance to power and authority from within popular culture. The power of the carnivalesque does not lie in a simple reversal of social and cultural distinctions but rather resides in the invasion of the high by the low that is marked by the creation of ‘grotesque’ hybrid forms. Here the challenge is not simply to the high by the low but to the arbitrary character of the very act of cultural classification by power. This is a challenge attributed by Hall to the very concept of the ‘popular’ that transgresses the boundaries of cultural power (for it is of value though ‘officially’ classified as low). Thus, aspects of spectacular youth cultures such as Punk could be seen as carnivalesque subversions of the order of power.”
— “Carnivalesque.” The Sage Dictionary of Cultural Studies, Chris Barker, Sage UK, 1st edition, 2004. Credo Reference, http://proxymu.wrlc.org/login?url=http://search.credoreference.com/content/entry/sageukcult/carnivalesque/0?institutionId=4260 (Links to an external site.). Accessed 01 Jun 2017.
In The Cat in the Hat (Links to an external site.), the Cat, Thing 1, and Thing 2 bring the reversal of power and authority to the children’s home while their mother (the authority figure) is away. However, as with all carnivals, the reversal is temporary, and the children must return to their usual state when she returns home. Nevertheless, you might consider whether the children (and even the fish) have changed internally.
Junie B. Jones (Links to an external site.) is a recent series of early readers where the protagonist herself is the chaotic element. In fact, her character concerned (Links to an external site.) some adults enough that they tried to have the books banned. But children love these books for their creativity, humor, and sense of freedom.
Even when a children’s book isn’t parodic or intentionally humorous, writers will often create parodies for audiences of adults who remember the original book from their childhood, or from reading it to their own children every night. For example, Goodnight Moon has multiple parodies. The latest is Good Morning Zoom (Links to an external site.) (and actually there have been at least 3 other parodies called Goodnight Zoom this year).
Frog and Toad Are Friends (Links to an external site.), by Arnold Lobel, is a wonderful early reader about two anthropomorphic animals who live near each other and have adventures and misadventures together. Please read the first chapter or two (click on the title), and then read a recent online parody: “Frog and Toad Tentatively Go Outside After Months in Self-Quarantine.” (Links to an external site.) The author has done an amazingly good job of imitating the tone and pacing of the original, while treating current adult concerns in a humorous way. Notice that what’s really being satirized here is our current way of life; the original book is a vehicle for the satire.
Discussion assignment 2
Do you remember reading Cat in the Hat or Junie B. Jones as a child? How did you respond to them: did you like them or think they were funny, or not? Are there any other funny children’s books you can tell us about?
What do you think of the Frog and Toad parody? How does it imitate Lobel’s style? How do we know that the parody is meant for adults? Did any of it resonate with you?
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