- Creative Children:Characterized and Criticized
Characterizations of creative children or their fictional representatives abound in children's literature. By allowing their protagonists to act out fantasies—either in dreams or waking&mdashmany works encourage children to believe in their own creativity and in the safety of expressing it. However, there are also children's books which, while appearing to offer such encouragement, actually foster the idea that the child's creative capacities should be selectively restrained. Two picture books that illustrate these contrasting attitudes are Edward Fenton's Fierce John and Else Minarik's Little Bear.1
Fenton's story ostensibly encourages the child to act out his fantasies, but its hero John is, in fact, subtly thwarted for his creative role-playing in a way which is very discomforting to him. John is a small boy who visits a zoo one day and discovers that although bears will eat candy and elephants will eat nuts, the lion will eat neither. He just looks fierce and roars.
When John came home from the zoo he said: "I am not a boy now. . . . I am a lion! Now I will roar." And John roared and looked fierce.
"My!" said John's mother. "What a noise!"
"That noise is me," said John. "I am very fierce. Are you afraid?"
"No," said his mother. "I am not afraid of you."
"Why not?" asked John.
"I am busy right now," said his mother. "Here is some candy. Now go and play."
"Lions don't eat candy," John said, and went away.
John tries the same routine on his grandmother, who says, "Must you speak so loud?" and offers him some nuts. "'Lions don't eat nuts,' John said, and went away." John then tries to roar and look fierce for his big brother, who says he is too busy for "baby games," for his aunt, who says, "Dear me. . . . It's John. Are you sick, dear?" and for his sister, who tells him, "Go away now. My doll is asleep." John [End Page 40]
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is about to give up when his father arrives home, so he decides to try once more.
John roared and looked fierce.
John's father jumped right up on tox of the icebox. "A lion!" he cried. His voice was very afraid. "There is a fierce lion in this house!"
John's mother then enters, and when the father tells her there is a lion in the house, she runs and hides herself behind a kitchen chair. John's grandmother comes into the kitchen, is told of the lion, and stands beside the sink, trying to look like a broom. His brother walks in and, when told, runs back out of the house. His aunt hides under the table, and his sister climbs on top of the table.
We might pause here a moment to determine our responses to the experience the story has conveyed thus far. How are we to feel about the family's rejections of John's initial attempts to play lion? Certainly a child learns quickly that his imaginative play does not always evoke reactions from those around him, who are often caught up in their own concerns. Are we pleased, then, when John's father reacts so completely? Within my own set of values, I would have to say yes (although his jumping up onto the icebox does strike me as a bit preposterous), for I prefer stories which encourage a child to be imaginative. At this point, however, the story takes a new direction.
"But where is John?" said John's father from the top of the icebox.
"I think the lion ate John," said John's sister from the top of the table. . . .
"Poor John!" said John's mother from behind the chair. "We will miss him very much."
John's big brother said from the yard, "I wish I had asked John to come and...