Friday, November 19, 2010

Harvesting Minds Roy F Fox

Harvesting Minds: How TV Commercials Control Kids by Roy F. Fox is an academic look at how Channel One News has influenced students in the public school systems where the service is provided.  Specifically, how the commercials presented between the news stories blurs the lines between hard news and the soft sell, with commercials that not only are specifically targeted to the young audience but intentionally look like public service announcements or other non-commercial programming.

And it is easy to target your audience when it is quite literally captive.  Channel One News is streamed via satellite into classrooms where teachers are forced to leave the program running while it airs in the morning.  In exchange for this privilege, the schools receive media resources they might not otherwise be able to purchase for themselves–computers, televisions, dvd players, etc.

Throughout the book, Fox gives examples of students who not only know the commercials but can act them out, verbatim.  These children wear sneakers with labels, munch on candy and soda available in snack machines throughout the school, and can tell you that although they don’t really watch the commercials they have bought something because of advertising they have seen. They interact with one another, repeating tag lines, laughing over funny moments, interjecting clarifications, and even abridging themselves in their enthusiasm.

In other words, they know the commercials.  What they seem to be missing is the driving force behind the commercials.  Some of the students in the text seem oblivious to the fact that there is a media machine behind the commercials they watch.  Instead, they think that Michael Jordan pays Nike for the privilege to be in their commercials because it’s good for his career and when Pepsi creates a commercial that has young people looking at the camera in a confessional manner, explaining their personal problems, it never occurs to these children that the face staring in the camera is an actor.  They believe Pepsi really cares because they show real people talking about real problems.

The inability of these students to critically watch the programming is especially alarming.  Most of the students seem to be oblivious of the various players behind the scenes.  The actors or athletes are seen as altruistic and sincere rather than merely doing a job. There is no conscious awareness of media manipulation or saturation.  Instead, if students feel they have seen a commercial too often, they prefer to have a new commercial rather than simply turn the television off altogether.

As with many academic resources like this book, Fox concludes with some suggestions that can be used by parents and teachers to help young minds to develop the necessary critical skills that will empower them to truly be responsible citizens.  This was, after all, the intention behind our country creating a public school system to begin with.  Naturally the schools that are most amenable to having Channel One News piped into their classrooms are also the ones that are most in need of extra resources.  Unable to afford the cutting edge in technology, the trade is made and the cost is the child’s mind.  Ideally, time would be made in the classroom to put into practice some, if not all, of Fox’s suggestions.  Ironically, the more we invite children to view media with a critical eye, the less influential these things become and Channel One News would become less impacting upon the individual.

In looking up information about Channel One News on wikipedia, I found some interesting information.  Look specifically at how some of the content is commercially sponsored, how quizzes about the news and questions of the day are used to not only encourage students to really watch what is being shown but to also feature a product.  Controversial?  It should be.  Worthy of criticism?  Absolutely.  Anathema to what a democratic educational system stands for?  Without a doubt.  So why aren’t more people raising a voice in outrage?  I don’t know.  Perhaps I am biased against such things because I grew up without a television.  I am appalled to read how these children cannot see through the commercials to their underlying reason for being.  I know that if I were a teacher in a classroom, I’d be hard pressed to not turn the damn thing off myself.  But since that would not be allowed, I could see how I might try to find ways to encourage my students to be more diligent about what they are thinking in response to what they are forced to watch.  At least I’d like to think I would.

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak is one of those rare treasures, a truly literary young adult novel.  Liesel Meminger is taken in by a couple during the early stages of World War II.  During her journey to her new home, her younger brother dies and, at his burial, she finds and “steals” a book on grave digging.  This seminal moment–being left behind by hr mother, losing her brother–define her actions throughout the rest of the novel as she tries to feel her way through a situation that is frightening and incomprehensible.

Death is the narrator and tells the story of Leisel and the people in her life with the dispassionate emotional distance one would expect from the grim reaper.  There are moments where humor comes through and these moments of light, whether expressed through the wry wit of the narrative voice or the experiences of the characters themselves, keep this novel from becoming too horrific.

Ultimately, this book is a celebration of writing and the written word, a reminder that reading has a redemptive and healing quality and that the stories we share are both personal and profoundly universal, if we just take a moment to listen, to hear.

Zusak manages to avoid many of the World War II clichés one finds in novels.  Instead, he creates a world of characters that all have stories of their own, and weaves them together in a way that is reminiscent of the plot intricacies of Dickens and Hugo without any of the tedium.  The individual motivations of the characters are so clearly delineated that you understand every move they make even when you do not agree with them.  And the ending is both tragic and satisfying.

This book left me breathless and is one I will not only want to read again but will buy for my grandchildren.  If I were teaching, it would be a book I’d fight to have in the classroom.  I can’t remember the last time I read a young adult novel I love as much as this one.

(However, let me confess that I wasted half the book trying to understand something I saw at the beginning of the novel.  By the halfway mark I realized that I was still not sure what the strangeness symbolized and, unable to find the meaning in the metaphor, I broke down and looked at’s Look Inside feature only to discover that this “strangeness” that I couldn’t understand was not a metaphor but a printer’s error.  For that reason, I suggest that you buy a new copy or a later edition so that you don’t waste any time trying to understand something that has no more meaning than this: the printer made a mistake.)

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Lost in a Good Book by Jasper Fforde

Lost in a Good Book by Jasper Fforde is the second in an ongoing series of books which, thankfully, stand alone.  No cliff-hanger endings or implied survival of the foe defeated.  Instead, Thursday Next has vanquished the bad guy from the previous book and is now suffering the consequences of her celebrity.  Forced into a media frenzy she never meant to create, she is also under investigation for the changes she made to Jane Eyre.

Once again, Fforde has a great deal of fun with word plays and the occasional literary allusion, although there aren’t quite as many allusions this time around as before.  Or perhaps I was expecting them more this time so I wasn’t as surprised.  In this book, Thursday learns that she has the natural ability to actually immerse herself in a book, interacting with the characters and participating in the novel’s world.  Under the harsh training of Mrs Haversham (a character created by Dickens but who can also come into the real world, assuming Next’s world is at all real), she hones her talent to help save her husband’s life while also trying to discover what is going to cause the entire world to turn into a pink goo in only a few more days.

I’ve compared these novels with Discworld and although these novels don’t make me laugh out loud they do make me smile and even smirk every now and again.  This book lived up to its predecessor nicely and I look forward to reading the third in the series.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Five More Caldecott Medal Books

Duffy and the Devil by Harve and Margot Zemach

This is a charming variation on the Rumpelstiltskin story.  A young girl is hired to spin wool into thread, weave thread into fabric, and make clothing for a wealthy man who eventually falls in love with her because of her craftsmanship.  What he doesn’t know is that the young girl has made a deal with a devil who is willing to do all this wonderful work for three years at the end of which he will take her home with him.  Unless of course, she can tell him his name.

For Further Exploration

  • Read another version of the story, Rumpelstiltskin, and compare the two.
  • If possible, see someone spin wool into yarn.  (Colonial villages or Renaissance festivals are a good resources for finding craftspeople who still do these things.)
  • On a loom, weave your own cloth using yarn or thread.  (There are kits available where your child can make potholders using loops of stretchy fabric.  Or you can weave a paper place mat using colorful construction paper.)
  • Perhaps discuss the idea of choices and consequences, depending on your child’s age and maturity.  In a way, Duffy is rewarded for laziness.  Invite your child to rewrite this story so that Duffy actually suffers some of the consequences for her actions.  It doesn't have to be about her being punished.  Perhaps she learns how to weave or goes shopping and realizes that she has to buy fewer luxuries now that they have to buy clothing, etc.
Sylvester and the Magic Pebble by William Steig

This story is adorable, about a donkey who makes a careless wish and nearly spends the rest of his life as a rock.  The ending is sweet.  

For Further Exploration
  • Have your child create a "wish list" by drawing pictures of things he/she would wish for or by cutting out pictures from a magazine.  (You could even have your child make a vision board.)
  • Better yet, have your child draw a picture of a wish for someone else.  What do you wish for your best friend?  Your sibling?  Your teacher?  Your relatives--grandmother, grandfather, uncle, aunt, etc.?  Mat these wishes and give them as gifts from the heart.  
  • Watch Shrek.  William Steig is the genius behind this charming story about an ogre who finds love, a sort of play on traditional fairy tales.  Of course, you could read the book before you see the movie. 
Sam, Bangs, & Moonshine by Eveline Ness

I truly love the drawings in this book which uses a very simple palette of black and white with accents of red and gold.  I really wanted to love the story as well about a little girl whose vivid imagination and story-telling results in a crisis.  

I found the story too preachy and I don't remember enjoying stories that were moralistic when I was a little girl and I'm assuming other children feel the same way.  Or maybe not.  Maybe I just didn't like it when adults tried to preach to me.

For Further Exploration
  • Have your child write and illustrate a sequel in which the reader learns if Sam and Thomas remain friends.
  • I suppose you could discuss with your child the difference between the real and "moonshine" but I can't get away from what else "moonshine" means and I can't help but think of illegal booze.  It's probably just my being a little weird but the end results are the same.
Drummer Hoff by Barbara and Ed Emberley 

I adore the illustrations in this book and I even like the rhythm of the text.  Unfortunately, I utterly loathe the story it tells of a band of soldiers cooperating to build a cannon which is then exploded.  At first I thought the last page redeemed the content but, upon closer inspection, I realized that some time had passed between the previous two page spread and the final page.

Ed Emberley has a series of wonderful books on how to draw but none of the ones I've seen have the sheer visual impact of this amazing little book.  I just wish I could recommend it.  If I could I would suggest having fun with a coloring book and converting the typically large blank spaces by filling them in with patterns and lines before coloring with bold blocks of red, blue, yellow, etc.  I think that would have been great fun.

The Fool of the World and the Flying Ship by Arthur Ransome and Uri Shulevitz

This is a book I remember from my own childhood.  I chose it because of the pretty pictures (and cover) by Uri Shulevitz and I remember reading it over and over again.  The story is not unlike many typical fairy-tale.  Three brothers, the youngest is a fool.  The czar announces that the first man who brings to him a flying ship may marry his daughter.  The three sons set out to find a flying ship.  Along the way, the foolish son picks up some wanderers who help the son win over the czar so that the boy can marry the beautiful daughter.

I didn’t like that the parents were not as loving towards the foolish son, that the book repeatedly states that the mother doesn’t even love him.  And atheists will be put off by the fact that the story also says how God loves simple folk.

For Further Exploration:

  • Look at other stories where one child is favored over another and notice how this is typically the youngest child.  Cinderella, Beauty and the Beast, et al.
  • Find a traditional story from your own family’s culture.  (If you are Russian, try to find another story to go along with this one.)  Compare the stories to one another and then see if you can find similar stories from other traditions.  Many stories have variations that can be found across cultures and it can be fun to compare these.
  • Take one of the stories you found from your own culture and retell the tale, adding illustrations of your own as well.  
  • Look at a map of Russia and perhaps borrow a book about the history, preferably one appropriate to your child’s age.  If you can, look at illustrations and photographs of the architecture, art, and even costumes of the country.   

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Imperfect Birds by Anne Lamott

Imperfect Birds by Anne Lamott is the third book in what I have come to think of as the Rosie books (Rosie and Crooked Little Heart, which I have reviewed here and here.).  Rosie Ferguson is now a teenager moving quickly into being a young adult, enjoying her last summer of high school before her senior year begins.  New friends, new home, new school have left her with only a few anchors–her mother, Elizabeth, her step-father, James, and their friends, Rae and Lank.

The little lies that Rosie had learned to use to manipulate the adults in her life in the previous novel have now become not only larger but far more effective.  It helps that Rosie’s parents perhaps don’t really want to see what is immediately before their eyes, preferring to trust where evidence clearly says something else is called for.  And Rosie’s self-destructive choices escalate as her desperate cries for help go unnoticed, unanswered, and unrecognized.

Naturally a crisis inevitably comes and the family is forced to face the truth.  Once again, Lamott allows the love they all have for one another to offer healing, even in the face of the unimaginable or hopefully impossible.

James and Elizabeth’s relationship is still strong if matured, less passionate and more settled.  Elizabeth is still so insecure and overwrought with fear that I find her unlikable and James, although his self-righteousness occasionally annoys comes through as an emotional anchor for the women in his life.  Rae and Lank play a smaller role in this novel which mostly focuses on Rosie’s rebellion.  It is her friends who come forward as more emotionally pivotal.  And I have loved Rosie from the first novel but the truth is, she isn’t all that nice in this novel.  She’s a teenager, full of rootless resentment and insecurity that makes more sense than her choices that are the result of how she feels about herself and her life.  I didn’t like her as much as before but I still cared about her.

And there’s always this . . . perhaps a few years from now, Lamott will once again dip into the inspiration that Rosie affords and give us another look into her life.  I definitely want to see what happens with her over the next few years because, as with her other Rosie novels, the conclusion is hopeful if not happily-ever-after.  For this, I am sincerely grateful.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Portrait of a Marriage by Nigel Nicolson

Portrait of a Marriage by Nigel Nicolson is the memoir and biography of his mother, Vita Sackville-West, a turn of the century socialite, daughter of one of England’s elite, wife of an ambassador, and scandalous lover to both Violet Trefusis (nee Keppel) and Virgina Woolf.  Her husband, Harold Nicolson, was also bisexual and the two maintained a marriage of mutual respect and allowed for several discreet indiscretions.  Only when Vita and Violet took things too far, eloping to Paris with one another, did the two spouses step in and insist that the women end their relationship, although it seems to have been unnecessary by the time the men stepped in.

I wanted to read this book after I saw the BBC production, curious about what liberties might have been taken with the story.  An author of novels and poetry, history and biographies, she endeavored to write about her affair with Violet, a highly passionate relationship that began before either of the women were married, and a love that became volatile before it came to an inevitable end.

The book is divided into five parts, the first and third parts the memoir that Sackville-West aspired to write.  The other three parts are by her son, Nigel Nicolson, who quotes liberally from journals, letters, and other primary sources to tell the story of a remarkable marriage.

I won’t go into details about the story for it is one you can easily read abbreviated in wikipedia.  I commend the son for sharing such an intimate story, for allowing the reader a compassionate look at an arrangement between two strong individuals that comments upon social mores while also celebrating the power of love.

What makes this book so interesting is to see who beautifully these two were able to compromise their lifestyles and yet live fulfilled lives.  No doubt, in a more tolerant society, neither of them would have been bisexual and both would have lived openly homosexual lives.  The question is:  Would either or both of them have found as perpetual and pure a love as they shared with one another?  There is no doubt that they did not live as full husband and wife for most of their married life, although there re three pregnancies to vouchsafe that the marriage bed was not celibate.

And I wouldn’t have read this book had I not watched the BBC miniseries, Portrait of a Marriage.  The casting for this drama is stunningly perfect, the various actors so perfectly embodying the personas that it is tempting to forget that these are merely players on a stage, or screen, strutting their stuff.  The acting, the costuming, everything is glorious.

Except for one significant change to the story that I found so utterly distasteful that I had to first see for myself.  Did a man write this script?  No.  A woman did but the script was based on a book written by a man.  Could that explain this vulgar scene?  I hoped not, after I learned that the book was written by the son of the titular couple being portrayed.

Again, it seems silly to say that I want to avoid giving away any spoilers because the story is history, meaning you can research the truth for yourself.  But if you wish to judge the miniseries for yourself, want to compare the text with the film, I suggest you read no further because I simply must share my outrage.  Feel free to return after you have indulged or read on if you are already familiar with both.  Or if you have no wish to see or read Portrait of a Marriage then read on with impunity.

*** Here Be Spoilers***

A rape scene?  Really?  Is this necessary?  I read the book for the sole purpose of seeing if Vita Sackville-West recorded a moment, any moment, in which she rapes her lover Violet Trefusis and this is what I found.  A vague reference to her dragging Violet off and a very passionate “savage” night of love making.

"I took her there, I treated her savagely, I made love to her, I had her, I didn’t care, I only wanted to hurt Denys [Violet's husband], even though he didn’t know of it."  (114)

There is a difference between passion and rape, anger and rape, and just because two people have passionate sex out of anger over their situation and perhaps, to some degree, towards one another, does not suggest that this is rape. Vita says she wanted to hurt Denys, not Violet.  Rape is painful.  Rape is hurtful.  No woman, especially no woman being as candid as Vita is being in her own writing, would ever euphemistically refer to rape as anything but what it is.

And yet the BBC production makes this moment a rape, in no uncertain terms.  I could have even forgiven this had the relationship ended there, on a vicious and terribly destructive note.  I would not have been happy that the screenplay writer chose to add a violent rape into a dysfunctional love story but I have become callous, perhaps, expecting drama for drama's sake especially when the historical facts are simply too boring.  But Vita's relationship with Violet is not boring so the only justification I could see for adding a rape would have been to have this relationship end dramatically.

It does not.  Instead, Vita gets dressed in the morning in the apathetic manner of a post-date-rape aggressor, telling her victim to get out of bed and clean up.  Her back to Violet who is curled up on the bed, she doesn't even look at her lover as she orders her to get up.


Disgusting if it were true.  But that there is no indication that this scene is based on a true event; it is vulgar, perverse, and so insultingly unnecessary as to demand why.  Why was this scene added?

This choice by the screenwriter adds an implication to the relationship that is precisely the type of innuendo one would hope to never witness on or off the page.  When will we stop pretending that adding these scenes is not a homophobic choice?  How can one say something is a celebration of same-sex relationships when, all the while, there is something insidious being portrayed?  I had hoped to see a couple struggling with their sexuality and against society as comrades and even compassionate spouses.  I did not expect nor hope to see a condescending and self-righteous husband trying to control his heartless, narcissistic, and unrelentingly selfish wife.

What disturbs me is that I have seen more than the occasional lesbian BBC production that I thought would be more compassionate and, yet, what I end up watching too often leaves a distaste in my mouth I cannot shake.  If I were on the fence about such things, unsure how to feel about same sex relationships, programs with women raping one another would not make my sympathetic.  Yes, it is foolish and narrow for anyone to watch a drama and project one story upon everyone’s reality.  The truth is, some people do this, think like this, and if one lesbian couple can be so obsessive with one another, have a relationship that is so unhealthy and extreme as to even have rape, then these “some people” will believe that it is something one will find in all lesbian relationships.  And programs like Tipping the Velvet or Amee and Jaguar are only adding fuel to the erroneous flames.

Again, let me reiterate that if this scene had been part of the memoir, although I would have found it distasteful I would have stepped back and admired Vita Sackville-West’s candor.  Because it is manifestly not in her memoir and obviously a perverse addition made by the screenwriter I am disgusted, appalled, and even angered.  It changes nothing.  But I obviously need to find some lovely and loving lesbian movies because I’m tired of this manipulative woman crap I keep finding.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

PAD Challenge November 2010

If you are trying to keep up, so am I.

You can see for yourself on the Poetry Asides Challenge tab up there somewhere.

So far I've written something every day but some are so useless or lost in abstractions that I am not posting them.

Two weeks into the challenge.  How are you doing?