I’ve read two good blog posts recently on using children’s books to help counter the despair people feel about the world today. One is a post over at Steam Powered Classroom, where Gwyn speaks about how children’s books embody the best parts of humanity. She writes that children’s books “serve as the proverbial angel on the shoulder, whispering in young ears stories of kindness, of struggle, of the human condition.” Then there’s a post at Books, Babies and Bows about sharing books about peace as a counter to the depressive nature of world news.
I think back to what I wrote in August about struggling to be available for my kids, to be the happy and dedicated mom they need and yet finding myself lost in despair over the state of the world, and I found a really, really good book the other day, that I think helps a lot with struggling with the despair.
It is a comic book: a two book set of superman comics that I had read mention of when learning about Superman awhile ago, but that I only recently found a copy of. The books are called Superman Grounded. They are a collection of stories about Superman having doubts about his life. He was off fighting to save planets but he missed helping someone here on Earth – someone he didn’t know, someone the media was willing to dismiss as a nutcase, but he doesn’t look at her that way. He’s not sure he’s doing the right thing so he decides to take a walk across America and reconnect with people.
The comic book is blatantly moralistic. Several stories come one after another on the topic of how no one – not even Superman – can save everyone. The theme is hopelessness, and despair, and yet somehow finding hope anyway.
Superman drives drug dealers out of a neighborhood and a kid points out that the drug dealers will just set up shop elsewhere. Superman answers:
“Yes, but they won’t be here anymore, and that’s a step in the right direction. See, in the end, all we can do is look at where we area, at where we’re standing, and say we will not allow this here. Over there has to speak for itself. Because its only when over there becomes here that we can stop this once and for all.”
Then there’s a woman debating jumping from a building, and she says:
“When I graduated high school, I thought – we all thought – we were gonna go off and do great things, we’re gonna change the world, save the world. If someone said, ‘hey, you’re gonna pump gas your whole life,” or “better get used to cleaning up after people because that’s gonna be your whole life,” we’d’ve laughed at them.”
I relate to that woman! I want to scream at the world that this isn’t the way life is supposed to be! I think about the protests year after year for governments to take climate change seriously. I think of the Occupy Wall Street movement and how hopeful it felt when that was getting off the ground, like maybe we were going to have the serious conversations about wealth, power, and poverty that need to happen and how disappointed I was when that fizzled out in a mess of conspiracy theories and infighting. I think of my friends now who still think that boycotting elections makes sense because they believe that somehow revolution is imminent. I think about how little seems to change. There have been times when I have been optimistic and other times when I can see that North Americans are too busy pumping gas and trying to survive to really make those changes.
There’s even a little story within the book that talks about Lois having doubts about what she’s doing. “I tried to be the strong, independent woman with something to say and I end up making my career by standing behind a man. I’m a bad feminist.” The woman she’s talking to asks what she really wants, and she says “I want what you have – I want to be well known on my own merits, and I want to go home at the end of the say to people who need me.” In that story she calls a mother the real superwoman, doing her job and caring for her children but also a bit of conversation around Superman needing Lois, and perhaps in that there is the message that his triumphs are hers too – things that she helps make happen? Later in the second comic book we see her changing the world for the better on her own (actually despite Superman trying to stop her on something).
So how does the comic book deal with the despair? Sometimes they give Superman the good lines – lines about how you can’t save the whole world but you can save one life and that’s enough, or about how Henry Thoreau, thrown into jail for civil disobedience, answers the question “what are you doing in here?” with the question, “no, the question is, what are you doing out there?” There’s a story about domestic violence and child abuse, and when someone tells Superman its good he came along because they needed him to get to the bottom of it he responds “no, it didn’t. All it needed… all it really needed… was someone, anyone, with a pair of eyes, a voice, a phone and ten cents’ worth of compassion.” We’re all supposed to be heroes. We’re all supposed to be doing what we can where we can.
The second book in the Superman Grounded set is more action oriented, (and thus not as appealing to me) but there is an emphasis on that importance of doing things together. Stories talk about Batman and Superman working together, and the importance of working together. Someone sets up a situation trying to test Superman, making him choose between two missions but with the help of someone else he does both. Someone points out to Superman that he inspires others to do good. He accomplishes stuff as a symbol of good and hopefulness. (There’s lots of real life social justice heroes that inspire me… and I’m guessing I’m not alone in being inspired by them.)
I find the comics inspiring. There’s obviously people who don’t share that view and look only at the comics’ problems (though if you click on the link you can see some decent samples of what the comic looks like, in amongst the blogger’s criticism).
I like it because it is willing to try to wrestle with that question of how we try to do good in a seriously messed up world. It’s nice to have books willing to admit the world is messed up and trying to fix it is hard work. I like the book because I think we’re all supposed to want to be heroes. We’re supposed to be here trying to fix the world, and when we struggle with questions about how to make change (like here, here, here and here) that it isn’t because we’re confused about our place on earth. We’re not here just to be pumping gas or cleaning up after other people all our life. We’re here to make changes.
Superman Grounded is not a young children’s book. There is some bad language and mature themes. At the same time, its a very moralistic book. Its probably more suited to teenagers already starting to struggle with the questions of living as an idealist in a messed up world, but my youngsters, exposed to politics as they are tend to ask the type of questions that this book is helpful for discussing. It has some of those characteristics of hope that Gwyn mentions in her post about how writers of children’s books deal with dark themes: “within the war, there is compassion; within the dystopia there is courage; within the loss there is endurance and connection.”