What do We Communicate to our Children?

I read two books this month aimed at vastly different audiences. One was The Secret Garden, a children’s book by Frances Hodgson Burnett published in 1911. The other was Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, a book for adults written by Gail Honeyman and published in 2017.

Despite being written in different centuries and for different audiences there was one particular theme that ran through both of them. This was: neglectful parents and the effect that neglect can have on what children believe about themselves.

The main characters in The Secret Garden, Mary Lennox and Colin Craven, both have distant parents. Mary’s mother is a socialite who is too busy to bother with her daughter. When Mary’s parents both die, their absence makes little sentimental difference to the already lonely, emotionally stunted girl. Her cousin, Colin, is actually physically stunted because of his father’s neglect. After Colin’s mother dies Mr Craven withdraws from his son. Craven firmly believes that Colin will become a hunchback like himself and die young. Despite having nothing biologically wrong with him Colin appropriates his father’s beliefs and subsequently lives the miserable life of an invalid.

In Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, main character Eleanor is likewise disregarded by a delinquent, powerful mother. Eleanor’s mother is in fact cruel and abusive, the full extent of which is gradually revealed as the book progresses. And into adulthood it is ‘Mummy’s’ voice in her own head that Eleanor simply can’t shake. A voice that constantly tells Eleanor she’s a bad, insipid, useless individual who will never amount to anything. Like Mary and Colin, Eleanor takes on board her parent’s beliefs about herself. And she becomes a friendless, tactless, emotionally immature person.

Happily, there is a positive resolution for all three characters. In each case it is the ministrations of friendship that launches a change. Much else could be said of both books and their tropes and themes. But having read them alongside each other this theme of parental influence on self-belief (or unbelief) is what stood out for me. The books are a sobering example of how parental treatment of, and communication with, our children can have such a powerful and material influence on who they become.

By Brenda Daniels

Festive Season Viewing

Two festive season films releasing today in South Africa are: Ben is Back and Mary Poppins Returns. The former is for adults, the latter suitable for the whole family.

Far from sentimental, Ben is Back explores some of the difficulties that this time of year can bring. Ben (Lucas Hedges), a drug addict,

unexpectedly turns up on his family doorstep on Christmas Eve. While his mother, Holly Burns (Julia Roberts), is very happy to see him, it is obvious that Ben’s sister (Ivy – Holly & Ivy …) and stepfather are far from happy to see him. Ben has caused problems for his family on previous Christmases. After a heated debate the family agree that Ben can stay for just 24 hours – but only if he remains under his mother’s watchful eye for every minute. Thereafter he must return to rehab.

What could go wrong? Predictably, everything does go wrong after Ben goes out in public and has a run-in with former druggy friends. During the fraught 24-hour period that follows viewers get to see the really grim aspects that go with drug addiction: guilt, desperation, crime, lying, remorse, weakness, drug dealing, family love and pain, and even death. The final scene of the film gives a double meaning to the film’s title ‘Ben is Back’. The acting is good. Julia Roberts is especially believable as the loving, tough mother, prepared at once to distrust and to believe in her son. A very good, if sobering ‘Christmas’ film.

Mary Poppins Returns – although not specifically about Christmas – is nevertheless a lovely film that families will enjoy watching during the Christmas holidays. Emily Blunt plays Mary Poppins.

In the original tale based on the book by P L Travers, Mary Poppins arrives unannounced to help the Banks family. In this sequel, Michael and Jane – who were children in the first story – are now grown up, and their parents are dead. Michael is a struggling artist who works in a bank, and is a widower with three children. Jane has followed in her mum’s footsteps and spends her time attending workers’ rights rallies. More than that Michael and Jane seem to have inherited their parents’ absentmindedness and ineptitude. It is the children who are pragmatic and mature. Nevertheless, they are just children and the imminent repossession of their family home is a big problem. It is at this crucial time that Mary Poppins floats down from a gloomy London sky and sings her way into the family. With each song she teaches the children life-empowering lessons and once they have learnt and grown she quietly leaves again.

There is lots of bouncing, flying, floating, adventure, and entry into other worlds. The characters encountered, and the songs Mary Poppins sings, teach the children how to look at things differently, how to use their imaginations, and how not to take things at face value. These life lessons are a little different to the typical Disney message ‘believe in yourself’. They’re more realistic.

Mary Poppins Returns follows very much the same formula as the first Mary Poppins story and may be a little boring in parts to modern viewers. Emily Blunt is just perfect as Mary, though: prim, very self-assured, poised, beautiful and melodious. Mary Poppins Returns is a lovely film with which to end 2018. And the lessons learnt are worth taking into 2019.

Happy viewing this festive season.

The Magic World of Fiction

Tired of your daily diet of news? Want to escape into the world of fantasy? Hamilton Wende’s Arabella, The Moon and the Magic Mongongo Nut and Arabella, The Secret King and the Amulet from Timbuktu are just the right books for you to do that. Wende has created a unique South African tale about a little girl called Arabella who lives both in the real world and in the magic one.

In Arabella, The Moon and the Magic Mongongo Nut Arabella’s happy home life in Johannesburg is tragically altered by the death of her father to cancer. At around the same time Arabella meets some unusual characters who teach her how to enter the world of magic. Wonder of wonders Arabella turns into a butterfly, learns to fly and befriends a bunch of insects in her garden. But even in the magic world there are difficulties and Arabella, together with her insect friends, is called upon to use her newfound powers to defeat a dark enemy intent on taking over the world.

Wende cleverly intersects Arabella’s real world with her magic one, making both worlds credible. In the two realities Arabella is required to learn, grow, be brave, make good choices and deal with adversity. Her adventures in magic are a delightful vehicle for young readers to grapple with their own struggles. The story is full of tongue-in-cheek humour, too. The fearful foe is a hadeda called Ozymandias (after the character in a Percy Bysshe Shelley poem), and one of Arabella’s insect friends is none other than – the normally vilified – Parktown Prawn!

In the second book, Arabella, The Secret King and the Amulet from Timbuktu Arabella’s adventures take her to Knysna where she meets some clacking oysters, slow-swimming seahorses and noble elephants. Wende’s use of animals big and small in his tales has the effect of placing his protagonist in the larger web of life.

In this story, as in book one, Arabella lives in two worlds. Her problems at school and with friends grow steadily worse. At the same time she is desperately needed in the magic realm to defeat a terrible monster called Krakobek. Apart from this crocodile-cum-hyena-cum-scorpion beast, most of the characters in book two exhibit both good and bad traits. In other words, they are relatable to readers.

What is special about the Arabella stories is that they are ‘very consciously South African and non-racial’. Wende uses names and characters that reflect a range of South African characters, and give a deep humanity to all.

‘I had a deep desire to reflect the good things in South Africa,’ said Wende when I interviewed him. I think he has done just that in these two Arabella stories. I’m delighted, as will be fans of the well-received books, that Wende is busy on book three. ‘I owe it to myself to make it a trilogy,’ he said.

Hooray! I look forward to Arabella three, Hamilton Wende! The Arabella books are suitable for tweens, retail at R170 each and can be purchased at all good book stores or online at www.clockworkbooks.co.za.

 

 

Miss Peregrine is Scary and Clever

This children’s movie, which opened in South Africa on Friday 7 October, carries an age restriction of 10. Parents should consider this a good guideline as younger children would certainly be frightened of the story’s long-legged monsters that pluck out people’s eyes, most especially those of children…

Age 10 to early teens is also a suitable-enough age to understand the intricacies and setting of this tale. The adventure revolves around Jake (Asa Butterfield) who is an awkward, modern-day teenager without friends. Jake is quite attached to his grandad (Terence Stamp) who tells him fascinating, true “bedtime” stories. When Jake’s grandad is murdered under mysterious circumstances the old man manages to pass on to the boy an important message before he breathes his last. Jake, accompanied by his unbelieving dad (Chris O’Dowd), travels from Florida to Wales, to try and fathom the cryptic message’s meaning. What follows is an enthralling account of time-travel, children endowed with peculiar, yet special, gifts, and a carer called Miss Peregrine (Eva Green) who keeps her wards safe in a time loop. Jake is welcomed into the crowd of odd children because he, too, has a peculiar and indispensable gift, one he uses to protect the children later in the story. The villain presents himself as Barron (a glassy-eyed Samuel L. Jackson) who seeks immortality through slurping up eyeballs.

I think young viewers may not relate to the World War II setting (Miss Peregrine and her children are stuck in a time loop in Wales that dates back to 1943). Also, some of the action, especially in the beginning, is a little dull. Things improve, though, as the story progresses. Messages of acceptance, the value of loyalty, and finding one’s place in the world come through easily enough. And the cleverness of this child-led story will certainly captivate some imaginative young viewers.

The film is being screened in 2D and 3D.

 

Mr Peabody and Sherman – an animation for adults too

A review by Brenda Daniels

Mr. Peabody & Sherman is a clever, funny, children’s animated adventure film. It contains fun science fiction elements, historic and educational features, and a modern setting with relationships. The 3D format makes for enjoyable viewing.

Based on a 1960s animated TV series, the story features an impossibly intelligent little dog as the title character, Mr. Peabody. Sherman is Mr. Peabody’s (human) adopted son. A scientist extraordinaire, Mr. Peabody has invented a time machine which he and Sherman use to visit past eras.

So we see them making a trip to an anti-royalist France and to ancient Troy and Egypt. They meet famous people like Marie Antoinette, Leonardo da Vinci, and many more. These excursions provide a wealth of education for Sherman, and the audience, and are a source of clever humour adults will pick up on.

Far from being a socially inept genius, however, Mr. Peabody is also into hip hop dancing, sword fighting, cocktail mixing – you name it; he can do it. And when it comes to looking after his son, Mr. Peabody is just as “human” as the rest of us. He worries about Sherman attending school for the first time. In fact it’s on Sherman’s first day at school that the story really begins.

After a rather sorry encounter with a mean school girl called Penny, Sherman and his dad are launched into an exciting adventure. The ensuing action sees them battling a collision of the past and present, dealing with modern school politics and personalities, and facing off the complications in their own relationship.

The film is rated PG and runs for an entertaining one and a half hours. As an adult I thoroughly enjoyed the clever humour and original mix of genres. Older children who like something a little meaty will enjoy the educational aspects, parcelled as they are in adventure and funny relationships. Very little children will miss the meaning in the dialogue.

Mr. Peabody & Sherman opens today, 20 March, at NuMetro cinemas (3D) in South Africa.

Source: Creative Commons

Source: Creative Commons

Source: Creative Commons

Source: Creative Commons