“Grant her the wisdom to choose her right path, free from unkindness and fear.” (Gaiman, “The Blueberry Girl”)
With the unfortunate myriad of social problems impacting the world today, I often think about the topic of socialization. According to the textbook, “You May Ask Yourself,” socialization is “the process by which individuals internalize the values, beliefs, and norms of a given society and learn to function as members of that society” (Conley 114). One of my favorite assignments that I created for my introduction to sociology class is one on children’s books and socialization. The students have to learn about many different psychological and sociological theories relating to the stages of socialization. I make the argument that children often learn a great deal from the media that they are exposed to like children’s books. It’s both educational and fun for adults to go back and look at some of their childhood favorites like “Green Eggs and Ham” and “Where the Wild Things Are” to evaluate what norms and values are being taught to children in this society.
One of my closest friends started dating Andy Runton, the author of the Owly graphic novel series, years ago so I began reading his series due to their relationship. Now, I’m hooked. Although I’m likely biased, I think Owly and his friends have a great deal to add to the socialization of children (and adults). The art is lovely, and the characters communicate through symbols. In fact, one of my favorite symbols in the series is now the compact florescent light bulb used to convey one of the characters having an idea. The main characters is an owl named Owly, who slowly makes friends through the series. The series usually explores feelings of loneliness, friendship, and building community. In terms of sociology, I think one of the strengths of Owly is that it deals with topics like stigmatization, in-groups, and out-groups. It shows how we have to move past our stereotypes to see how the people (or in this case animals) that belong to other groups can be our friends. In-groups are “social group toward which a member feels respect and loyalty” while out-groups are “a social group toward which a person feels a sense of competition or opposition” (Macionis 124). Often, in-groups may become powerful and a negative label, called stigma, may be attached to the out-group. This may lead to stereotyping about the other group or discrimination towards the other group.
For example, in Runton’s most recent book, “Bright Lights and Starry Nights,” Owly and his friend, Wormy, get a new telescope in the mail. Along the way, they face challenges to using the telescope, partially due to their fears of the unknown visitors in the woods that they can hear. The unknown visitors turn out to be a friendly bat population. They help Owly and Wormy learn to use their telescope, although Owly and especially Wormy are afraid of the other at the beginning. I believe that this piece is all about being willing to trust others, even when we’re afraid. In this case, the bats were an out-group, meaning they were seen as an other that was perceived as frightening and potentially threatening. Certainly, children and adults in our culture need to be taught that strangers do not necessarily mean them harm, and individuals from another culture may help us get past group think. Diverse view points can help with problem solving.
Another book I read recently that might at first glance appear to be a children’s story is by Neil Gaiman. This link to Gainman’s blog explains where “The Blueberry Girl” came from. The poem begins as a prayer for a blueberry girl. The art by Charles Vess fits the mood of the poem perfectly. And I can imagine that if I were to ever raise a daughter, that I would want for her exactly what is mentioned in the book.
I love the idea of the child having an adventurous life full of physical activity and travels. Part of the prayer states, “[h]elp her to help herself, help her to stand, help her to lose and to find.” The reason that I love these ideas is that they acknowledge that a girl and a woman’s role in this world should be more than subscribed traditional gender roles. And the book also mentions the pitfalls that many modern girls and women find themselves facing, like “false friends at fifteen” or ““bad husbands at thirty.”
Children’s literature and graphic novels can be an important part of the development of individuals with integrity in our society. When I picked up Maus as a freshman in college more than a decade ago, I realized the importance of graphic novels and art as an important medium to convey important societal ideas. The important questions for us as a society become how can we socialize people to value both community and the individual simultaneously.