Saturday, October 4, 2008

The Insidious Reach Of The Brand


This morning I took the kids to Preschooler Story Time at one of my local libraries. After the story was read, BINGO was sung, and we colored some hand-outs with crayons, it was time for me to let the kids find some books so I could read to them.

The good news is that they grabbed a lot of books and sat there with great interest while I read, pointing and asking questions, thoroughly engaged.

The bad news is that more than half the books they selected and asked me to read for them were basically non-books: in book form, they were advertisements for Disney's CARS and ALADDIN, and the TV cartoons SPOT, CLIFFORD, and MISS SPIDER'S SUNNYPATCH FRIENDS, which began as books, but which my kids didn't get into until they saw the characters on TV. The books were not particularly creative, smart or fun. The few books we read that had no movie or TV tie-ins were a heckuva lot better, though not exactly the classic children's books I remember from my own childhood. If I'd had more time at the library to browse, it would've been all about MAKE WAY FOR DUCKLINGS and other picture books I remember fondly.

Eventually the kids got ancy to leave; they'd already seen the library-adjacent playground by the parking lot, and needed to get their playground groove on. That was just fine: I've learned well how you've gotta let the kids get their energy out in the morning so they'll be primed for lunch, then tired enough to nap.

But I couldn't help feeling I'd done the kids a disservice introducing them to so many branded characters already. I'm not saying I don't adore CURIOUS GEORGE in movie and TV form (it IS on PBS, and technically educational), but I'm glad that's translated into the kids wanting me to read them actual CURIOUS GEORGE books, some of which I do remember from childhood. I've used TV out of desperation when I needed to shower, make dinner, or just rest for a bit, and I've also watched it with the kids because there are shows and DVDs for kids I genuinely enjoy and want to share with them. I've also read to them since before they "got" what a book was, and spend at least some time reading to them everyday. I just wish the books weren't so tied in to making my kids want to buy merchandise.

My daughter's awareness of the whole Princess phenomena is uncanny. I plead guilty to having taken her to the Disney store in the local mall a bunch of times to kill time and keep her amused, though I really think peers in preschool somehow exposed her to the names of every single Princess in the Disney canon before I'd even gotten her a single DVD featuring a princess. (In fact we only own one such DVD, "THE LITTLE MERMAID," and Thing 2 has watched it once through just one time, refusing to view it again because of the brief presence of a scary shark). Somehow she's gotten Princess-bonkers anway, and has a toy tiara, clothes with princesses on them, the plastic play slippers festooned with Ariel's visage. I guess now that modern Disney heroines aren't shrinking violets, make bold choices, and are partners in their own rescues, it's not so bad for girls to be into princesses. But the whole thing still feels too pre-Feminist creepy for me. (I don't think I was EVER in a princess phase, even when I was cast as one in a James Thurber play at summer camp. I don't even remember identifying with a female character until well into fifth or sixth grade, when I became aware of Mary Richards on THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW and wanted to fling my hat into the air (even though I didn't own one) and make it after all.)

For my son, it's all about cars from the Disney/Pixar movie CARS. He's got a dozen toy cars from the movie, or maybe more at this point (I've lost count). He has CARS stickers, books, shirts, socks, pants and light-up sneakers. He wants to be LIGHTNING MCQUEEN for Halloween, AND when he grows up (even though Lightning McQueen is a car, not a person). Now as movies go, CARS is a pretty good one -- even exposing my kids to the voice of the late, great actor/humanitarian Paul Newman (who plays DOC HUDSON) and the dulcet tones of singer/songwriter James Taylor (who sings a Randy Newman-penned song in the movie). It teaches the value of having friends and helping them when they need help. It has no scary, nightmare-inducing villain (for a movie with DISNEY in the credits, that's huge). And it's pleasant and fun. But the merchandizing tie-ins are, well, endless. I challenge anyone to show up at any preschool in America and find one where the boys aren't clad in at least some CARS wear.

I know it's my fault for giving in to all this and buying the crap. But the thing is, when you don't want a fight in the morning about getting the kids to get dressed, having character-themed clothes means those clothes go on -- and fast. Sometimes the kids seek them out and dress themselves before I even have to ask. The other thing is, Disney, thanks to China, makes the stuff cheap. Now we've probably spent enough on it all, cumulatively, that it isn't really cheap; but only now do I realize the insidious way Disney has lured me into turning my kids into customers.

I'm probably not gonna stop buying the crap anytime soon either; the kids genuinely love it. And what the hell, why shouldn't the kids be reading a book called WINNE THE POOH AND THE HANUKAH DREIDEL, even if I know damn well Christopher Robin and his friends are good English Protestants by origin (somewhere in heaven, A.A. Milne is saying "Oy!"). But what I AM going to do, at least when it comes to reading time, and to buying books or reading them at the library, is try to steer them, as much as I can, to stuff that ISN'T a TV show or a movie... stuff they can imagine coming to life themselves without a team of animators to do it for them. I've probably done a fair amount of this already, but now that I'm more aware, I'm going to try to do it more and more often.

The library had a corner window on which words were etched: sentences lifted from children's books, sentences like, "Let the wild Rumpus start!" and phrases like "Some pig!" Each one brought back a vivid memory for me, and the images that came to mind weren't taken from movies or TV shows. I hope I can share those memories with my kids by turning them on to books for books' sake -- so what matters is the story, not the wearable/watchable stuff it inspired.

1 comment:

blue said...

You should check out Bayard and their series of StoryBoxBooks, AdventureBoxBooks and DiscoveryBoxBooks.
There's lots going on too:
This Month Storybox has guest illustrator Helen Oxenbury featured.

There's a Readathon happening in UK and Ireland - http://discoveryboxbooks.com/readathon.php
There's a Ghost Drawing competition in AdventureBoxBooks assiciated with the Polka Theatre ( http://www.adventureboxbooks.com/competition.php )