Thursday, April 26, 2012

Sentiment vs. Sentimentality in Children's Books

Sentiment is feeling. It's emotion that's immediate and genuine. But "genuine" is a loaded word. There's no universal measure of what's genuine and what isn't. What is authentic to us, rather than manufactured when it comes to emotions, is purely intuitive. You can talk around what's authentic but you can't define it. You might say to yourself, "I know it when I see it," and there might be some concensus to back you up among people you respect, but that's about the best we can do. So what I'm going to say here about sentiment is  my own subjective view. I can't tell you what sentiment is, but I can attempt to describe, at least on some level, what it isn't, and I can try to talk around it in such a way that at least points towards what I'm trying to express.

Sentiment is Not by Definition Romantic

Sentiment is often associated with romanticism. Intuition, love, aesthetics, are all thought to be romantic ideas, but I would contest this. Romance is idealism, but ideals cannot be achieved, they can only be strived for. People with a literal belief in their own ideals tend to run at windmills, and can never be satisfied with anything they achieve, because what they want is fundamentally intangible. A little romance, and a little idealism is healthy, but too much is self-destructive. Romance and idealism represent sentimentality; they're the stuff of revolutions, and unfortunately, most revolutions don't end well. 

The Prince Charming Myth

Girls often are attracted to the princess archetype. Princesses are special individuals who receive attention for their station and beauty. It's a great romantic fantasy for girls. It does tend to reinforce gender stereotypes, but I don't think it's necessarily a harmful fantasy. What is harmful, is the prince charming myth. 

Prince Charming is charming. He's charming, and romantic, and handsome and, well, not much else really. He's as simple an embodiment of the romantic idea as you can get. He's not a person, he's an object not only to be revered, but to come to the rescue. The fantasy of prince charming is that he will provide everything that the princess needs to be happy. He will provide love. The only problem is, little girls don't quite know what "happy" is. They're still learning how to have friendships. They're still learning how to love. 

There's the love of your parents and family, which, under the best of circumstances, is unconditional, and then there's the love you have for your friends, which is entirely learned. Again, this is an intuitive process, a non-rational process, but it's still a function of the intellect. There are aspects of friendship that contain logical concepts that can be taught in a straightforward manner: to express mutual respect, kindness, generosity--the behavior can be taught, but the understanding behind the behavior comes with time. Love must be modeled, and experienced, and cannot be explained.

So girls are given this false archetype of love, and it's very attractive. Its an archetype of pure sentimentality--it's not an experiential kind of love, but an intangible idea of love, intangible for a very good reason: it doesn't exist. The problem is, many girls never learn the difference. It's an important developmental step for girls to recognize this ideal for what it is. And of course, boys aren't immune either. The heroines in boy stories are objects of beauty, not to be rescued, but to be attained, which is essentially the same thing. This is why I think romantic relationships have no place in stories for early readers. Kids aren't developmentally ready for them, and romantic relationships can be easily misinterpreted by children.

Stories of Friendship and Real Sentiment

This is why stories of friendship are so important in children's lit. Real stories of friendship that contain real sentiment are invaluable to the process of learning how to be a good friend, and how to have good relationships. The best children's stories about friendships, like Winnie The Pooh, Babar the Elephant, and Frog and Toad Are Friends, are not sentimental. The love in these stories is genuine and immediate. It's not a nonexistent romantic ideal, and it's not nostalgia, it's an expression of the understanding that comes with acts of kindness, generosity and mutual respect, and it's an expression that takes place in the present of the story. It's not simply being, but doing. It's not reflecting, but experiencing.

Objects of Antagonism in Children's Stories

Unsympathetic villains, objects of antagonism, are no better than objects of imaginary romantic love. They carry no weight. In their own way, they're a kind of romantic ideal. Bad guys are to be condemned and vanquished, and when kids are still learning about friendships and real love, this kind of condemnation of another human being is just as confusing. They end up confronting the people in their lives, both in person and in media, and thinking, "is this a bad guy? Or is this a bad guy?"  Now there are certainly people that it's best for kids to stay away from--bullies or anyone at all who might cause them harm, but the bad guy archetype is often applied a little too indiscriminately. People are complex. In life, we don't stand at the gate and ask, "friend or foe?" As we grow older, we tend to have complex feelings about people. Kids also deserve this opportunity. Kids deserve to see that there are reasons that people do things, and though some people might behave in a way they don't agree with, it's not always black and white. This is a lesson every bit as important as learning about love and friendship; to empathize with people we don't necessary like or have a connection to.

Sentiment in My Own Writing

If I accomplish anything in my writing, I want to achieve this: to make sure that my characters are presented with sensitivity and insight. That they're people, not objects of idealism or malice. I'm not going to be able to achieve this with every story I write, but when I'm at my best, this is what I will try to offer.

Illustration by Gustave Dore

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