Posted April 19, 2012
Most of the time, your brain turns to mush, or you tune out altogether, or every little thing about it becomes an irritant. But what if you pick the best works of art as a starting point and manage to stay away from the dreck?
I guess I should clarify that I’m talking about what happens to the parents of little kids, rather than some voluntary habit! Kids love to experience and re-experience the same books and movies over and over again, which in itself is an interesting impulse. I think it has to do with love of familiarity, but also a feeling of control in the grown-up world that doesn’t necessarily make a lot of sense yet.
This is something that you just have to go-with-the-flow on, as I’ve discovered with my daughter who is nearly two. So the key to maintaining sanity is to get the little munchkin hooked on books or videos that can hold up to multiple readings or viewings. Unfortunately, this is not a criteria that’s obvious on the first go-round! Or one that might be valid for you or your child based on reports from other people. This leads to a certain hazardous element to the process, insofar as ending up with sub-Dr-Seuss reading material can be considered a hazard.
I’ll offer up three titles that have worked for us, with the understanding that your-mileage-may-vary. In the category of more purely educational material, I would recommend the Signing Time series (turns out sign language is actually a good way for little kids to pick up spoken vocabulary as well). For the entertainment side, the two titles I’ll talk about are My Neighbor Totoro and The Sound of Music.
I won’t say much about My Neighbor Totoro, since this is crazy month here at the Gutter, and Totoro is pretty clearly a cornerstone of my regular beat (and I’ve written about Totoro in my roundup of Miyazaki’s movies that I did for Strange Horizons a few years ago). Briefly, Totoro is even better for a little kid than I imagined, and I’m definitely not sick of it yet.
On to The Sound of Music. Frankly, there’s a certain element of the Stockholm Syndrome in my remarks – in the past, I never had a chance to think about this movie or musicals to a great extent, and my general indifference probably had as much to do with ignorance. That has changed upon the umpteenth viewing. To be clear: I’m not talking about showing a 3 hour movie, complete with relatively scary Nazi-fuelled chase scenes, to a 2 year old. Our DVD has a handy songs-only playlist, which clocks in at around the same length as a music CD, and is a perfect running time.
My brain tends to wander, though, after about a dozen or so times through. For example, I never thought about it before, but The Sound of Music is one of the very few “good stepmother” stories in our culture, at least that I can think of. The evil stepmother is a classic trope from fairy tales, but the angelic stepmother? Not so much.
The movie is also interesting to think about in terms of the significance of music to culture and the human brain. For little kids, songs are a key part of brain development, and the fun, kid-focused scenes in The Sound of Music make perfect sense in this regard. The songs are catchy, there are other kids onscreen doing fun stuff like pillow fights, bicycling, and puppeteering, and singing along with mom or dad is apparently pretty satisfying.
For grown-ups, all that stuff is included; additionally, the movie is careful to make the songs advance the story (a number of the songs come back with clever variations – enough has happened that it’s logical and convincing). But also — what is it about music that causes such a big effect on listeners (or those singing along of course)? I would recommend anyone keen on this topic to follow up with Daniel Levitin’s popular books about music and songs. The Sound of Music makes the case for Levitin’s theories about the key role music plays in development of culture.
And I guess that’s the common thread through all of these titles – music. Signing Time teaches kids about sign language through lots of silly and engaging songs, My Neighbor Totoro has a cheerful and catchy soundtrack, and The Sound of Music says it right there in the title. I’m not sure how this applies to books for kids, but for other types of entertainment or learning, if you like the songs, you’ll probably be fine listening or watching lots and lots and lots (and lots) of times.
I’ll end with a look ahead, and a note about ebooks. Next time I’ll be writing about C.J. Cherryh’s Rusalka, but not the version that was published back in the 1980s, but a version she is revising heavily and releasing as an ebook, from her homebrew ebook store. I don’t know about anyone else, but I’m noticing a real surge in ebook buzz, especially of the kind of project like Cherryh’s (or Rucker’s I wrote about two months ago, or the Book View Cafe collective) where writers and readers are drawn together rather directly. More on this next month.