Children literature (and cinema) is a very subtle art-form. The most powerful books of the genre are the ones that can only be read in wholeheartedness because they connect us to deep, pure and indescribable emotions: emotions unencumbered by the complexities of society and our mental programs.
The talent of a great children novelist (like Andersen, Saint-Exupéry, Carroll, Disney, Collodi, Sendak, Grimm, La Fontaine and Rowling) lies in their ability to transform the confusion of our times into fine lessons with which children can identify. Though the narrative can take paradoxical, nonsense, dark, or even gruesome tones, the end result is a powerful emotional insight that values children uniqueness while welcoming and approaching them to the world of adults. While the world of former is somewhat timeless and unbounded by cultural differences, the latter’s intensely determined by time and culture.
For that reason, it’s not surprising to find amongst big stories a generational bias.
Charlie Bucket and the Corporate Ladder:
Published in 1964 by Roald Dahl and inspired in his experience of chocolate companies in his schooldays, “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” is the quintessential description of the Baby Boomer generation.
Boomer Charlie grows up in an overcrowded house, in an overcrowded world. Though extremely poor, he remains hopeful in a better future. In an immense stroke of luck, he obtains a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity (a golden ticket), but luck is certainly not enough to guarantee success in his world. The golden ticket is just the entrance to a contest in which Charlie must win over the competition by remaining faithful to his character and obedient to the imposed rules (and the contract he signs). Conversely, the naughty children will be severely punished and, for their misdeeds, will remain deformed to everyone’s eyes. If he succeeds, Charlie will be rewarded with an unknown prize.
Charlie’s relations with the Traditionalist authority figures and social immobility are quite surprising in today’s world. He defers great respect towards his uncles and aunts and turns to them for guidance in figuring out the social conventions that rule his life. He understands the handicap of his social status and is willing to be twice as vigilant and well-behaved in order to access greater spheres. Most of all, Charlie believes in character and that previous generations know what’s best for him: all he has to do is “pay his dues” and society will give him back, and at the end explain him what he has done right.
Max and the Wild Emotional World:
Gen X Max lives in a lonely and wild world in which emotions are difficult to control and understand. He connects to the rebel within him and is punished not physically, but with the psychological parenting that was gaining popularity then: he’s sent to his room to figure out for himself the consequences of his misdeeds. Once there, he lets his creativity fly him to a world of scary figures and scary rules, but in which he manages to be crowned king. He gains respect from the wild things because he “stares longer” and discovers the possibility of leading those “above him” through dialogue and personalized attention (this part is only present in the movie). At the end, Max returns home to a better-managed emotional state and to the discovery of the unconditional love of his mother.
Max is the portrait of a generation of “latchkey kids” that have had the challenge of defining their own path. Because they rebel against authority figures, Xers are in a quest of finding their own leadership: a leadership that is profoundly linked to the right expression and balance of their own conflicting emotions (the wild things within them).
Harry and the School of Unhelpful Adults:
It’s hard to talk about J.K. Rowlings “Harry Potter” saga without thinking about Generation Y. There are so many connections that a book could easily be filled on the subject.
Gen Y Harry Potter is an orphan that is constantly reminded of his immense potential for change and how great he already is (“stars for everyone” culture). Ostracized by his uncles, that themselves behave as children, he sees in a specialized, independent education the opportunity to fulfill his unique destiny and entrusts a respected institution to develop his personal magic.
Much to his surprise, Harry quickly realizes that the institution itself is unequipped to provide him with the keys to fight the immediate threats around him: teachers are immersed in their egos and neurosis, important class programs are often changing direction (“protection against dark magic”) and gatekeepers are there to ensure the rules are respected no matter what (janitor and Dolores Umbridge).
Fortunately, Gen Y Harry believes in his smartness, resourcefulness, courage and ability to lead peers with complementary skills. Though the structure invites to competition between “houses”, he believes in the power of collaboration is unashamed to join the competition to accomplish small projects. Individualized mentoring and coaching (by Dumbledore) is also recognized as an important learning tool: the challenges and main elements of the framework are shared and explained first-hand, after which Harry determines his autonomy during execution. Together, those elements make the most important source of development: peer-to-peer, hands-on learning matters more than theoretical and top-down lectures.
Harry does not hold an overt position of authority defiance. His relationship with authority is determined by mutual respect and quite often the boundaries are blurred by transfer/counter-transfer processes (Dumbledore and Molly Weasley). Authority figures that do not deserve respect are fought off insistently or bypassed without culpability.
He’s however vocal in demanding for change and challenging the rules when they’re inappropriate, when extenuating consequences apply or when out-of-the-box thinking is required to solve a complex problem. Once the best strategy is decided in a peer group, he holds a clear position of “break the rules first, ask questions later”, a common characteristic of Yers individual expression.
Which other parallels can you draw between children stories and generational behaviour?