Disney and Harriet the Spy

I’ve been in the magical world of Disney for a couple days now.  My feet ache, I’ve met my sun exposure quota for the decade, and my pores are oozing sun block.  But the food is excellent, the company fabulous, and I found a way to make money this week.  I win.

My only real complaint is that the environment is so consistently imposing saccharine, wish-fulfillment magical thinking on me that I feel like I’m being mugged by Walt Disney and force fed sugar-coated, pink pony roofies.  My childhood obsession with the Little Mermaid is no secret, and I’m not ashamed of it, but I have serious issues with the Disney world view, even when you don’t dig into the misogynistic, WASPy, cultural appropriation blah blah blah.  Even on the surface, it’s problematic.  The movie I was into as a kid didn’t have a whole lot to do with the actual movie – I couldn’t care less about coming of age, finding your place in the world, or helping my parents accept that I’d grown into my own person – I wanted out, and badly.  Do me a favor and picture baby Anaea, gussed up in pink Ariel paraphernalia, and cosplaying the entire movie, but in reverse because Sebastian had it right, life on land sucked.  I’ll still be here when you’re done laughing.

The problem with the Disney package is that its so utterly divorced from reality that any halfway observant kid is either going to shoehorn the content into something else, or have their suspension of disbelief utterly shattered.  I think that’s why the Lion King never did it for me – it’s about going back to the bad place you ran away from and having everything work out great.  Uhm…not in any reality I’d ever seen, and there was no way to fix it.

Allow me to take a moment to over share a bit. The last, (probably only) book to make me cry was Harriet the Spy. I read it on the advice of my fourth grade teacher, who made several insightful (pointed) book recommendations that year.

For those of you who haven’t read it, Harriet the Spy is a book about a young girl who is different in that subtle sort of way that leaves you utterly isolated from your peers, deprecatingly-indulged by well intentioned adults, and in her case, fairly neglected by her parents. She wants to be a writer when she grows up, so she keeps a journal where she records thoughts and observations. And her semblance of a functioning social life is shattered when a classmate steals the journal and shares its contents with her classmates. Harriet gets sent to therapy and…I must confess, I don’t remember much past that point, I was too busy feeling utterly traumatized to form memories.  Maybe it did sell out at the end and I’ve blocked it.

You see, I was Harriet.

I remember the parallels as the book opened being terrifying (and wondering what “fink” meant), because it was touching so close to truth, and I was sure I’d get betrayed.  Then it kept right on being honest.  This book connected with me in a way literally no other book ever has, and it’s probably the reason I made it out of the fourth grade. You see, before Harriet the Spy, there was nobody else in all the world like me.  Ariel had been great and all, but sea witches are hard to find these days.  With Harriet, I knew there were enough people like me that somebody wrote a book about it, somebody else published it, and enough people talked about it that my fourth grade teacher in the middle of backwoods nowhere, before the internet, heard about it and suggested I get a copy. This implied that childhood would not, as it appeared to be near doing, kill me.  Maybe if I waited long enough, I’d get a chance to do something desperate and get out.

There were other books in later years that gave me similar validation, a reassurance that I wasn’t original, or alone, but Harriet the Spy was the first, and I spent an hour on my parent’s living room couch, frightened my mother would come in and I’d have to explain why her stoic daughter was a weeping puddle, and frightened that if I went to hide in my room it would prompt her to check on me.  I couldn’t begin to explain to her why that book upset me so much.

Last weekend, Meghan Cox Gurdon wrote in the WSJ about how much grittier YA has gotten in the last forty years.  She’s upset because foul language, rape, incest, drug abuse, and mental illness are upsetting and, by showcasing them to youth in literature, we risk harming them.  She’s lost her mind.  More precisely, she’s out of touch with the audience she ostensibly represents as a YA reviewer.  Maybe she was a happy child who had everything go well for her.  Perhaps ponies and rainbows were all she needed to feel right with the world.  Good for her.  You can still find all of that in YA, and if that’s not enough, I’m sitting in the Mecca of synthesized sweetness and innocence.  She could move here.  I needed Harriet.  And Valentine Michael Smith.  And Dagny Taggart.  I needed things that could tell me I was okay in the world, by showing me a believable world.  Foul language, rape, incest, drug abuse and mental illness…yeah, that sounds like the world to me.  Wishing hard enough?  Sorry, not to this audience.

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