Friday, September 6, 2013

Powerful Shadows: Child and Adult Audiences in Where the Wild Things Are

Wayne Booth describes literature as a relationship, an offering of friendship, between an implied author and an implied reader. This rhetorical relationship, however, can have a third party hovering in the background—an eavesdropping or shadow audience, not specifically invoked by the author but privy to the conversation and exerting a greater or lesser influence on both the author and the rhetorical situation.
Sometimes this secondary audience has greater power than the invoked audience in the world at large, which gives the author a practical and potent incentive for attending to it. For instance, as we spoke about in class, a female rhetorician like Virginia Woolf spoke directly to a female audience but had to be aware of messages she was implicitly sending to men as well. As another example, the genre of children’s literature highlights the interactions of a shadow audience with the implied author and implied audience.
Children’s literature presents a world created for and about children where adults are present but often pretend they’re not—a classic case of “pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.” As Zohar Shavit points out, while “by definition, children’s literature addresses children,” in fact “always and without exception, [it] has an additional addressee—the adult, who functions as either a passive or an active addressee of texts written for children” (83). 
Not only do adults write the children’s texts, they also do the publishing, reviewing, promoting, and often buying and award-giving. At each step, adults act as audience with power to grant or withhold approval. As Shavit continues, the children’s writer must court adult sanction to reach a child audience at all (84).
("Keeper of the Gate," from, winner of weekly MYFX Forum Challenge)
Balancing relationships with two audiences who may not have the same desires or interests can get complicated. How does the author attend to and  stay ethical to both? In children’s literature, one answer might be: forget the adults, this story is for the kids. But even if that were practical, as Jill Paton Walsh asks, is it ethical when speaking to children for the author to “[put] down the adult’s burden of knowledge, and experience” (212)—or, I would add, to disregard the concerns of a caring adult audience who has the children’s interest in mind, though viewing it from a more mature perspective? 
One classic story that balances these elements and concerns is Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are. Sendak effectively and ethically attends to both audiences by appealing to the values of a legitimately concerned adult audience while keeping the story firmly within the perspective of the implied child audience. 

So that's the introduction, ending with the thesis, as all good little composition students know. What books have you noticed seemed to be balancing two audiences at once? Are they successful, or does it come out awkward?
Booth, Wayne. The Company We Keep: Towards an ethic of literature.
Mills, Claudia. “The Ethics of the Author/Audience Relationship in Children’s Fiction.” Children’s Literature Association Quarterly 22 (2000): 181-187.
Shavit, Zohar. “The Double Attribution of Texts for Children and How It Affects Writing for Children.” Transcending Boundaries: Writing for a Dual Audience of Children and Adults. Ed. Sandra L. Beckett. New York: Garland, 1999. 83-97.
Walsh, Jill Paton. “The Rainbow Surface.” Suitable for Children? Controversies in Children’s Literature. London: Sussex UP, 1976. 212-15.


Pink Panda said...

Peter Pan does an excellent job of this. The fact that the adults are in the background and the children are in the foreground is less subtle and very obvious- the children fly away, leaving the adults, and go to a land free from Parents. Having recently read it, I connected with Wendy's Mother as she mourned their loss and waited, with the window always open, for them to return. Other books that do a good job of this are Anne of Green Gables- many adults still quote from that book, The Prince, Harold and the Purple Crayon and the Narnia series.

Jen said...

That's a good point, that scene in Peter Pan is something adults would relate to way more than kids. But the story as a whole is still wildly popular with kids--I mean ticking crocodiles, pirates, kids living on their own under a giant tree, c'mon.

Josh said...

Sorry I'm late to this party - haven't checked blogs in a while. On this topic - animated films often address the "shadow" adult audience even more explicitly than in literature. Starting in the early 90s, filmmakers started throwing in, amongst all the slapstick and bathroom humor, all kinds of jokes only adults would would get. Parents usually buy the tickets and have to sit through the movie with their kids. Same reasoning probably applies to a token romantic scene in an action film or a car chase or fist fight in a rom com - appealing to both members of a couple increase the likelihood that both (or either) will watch it. -Josh