Ask the dust
Over the last few days, I’ve watched A Charlie Brown Christmas repeatedly with my daughter. I don’t think I’d seen it in its entirety for at least twenty years, and I was relieved to find that it held up even better than I had hoped. It’s odder and more prickly, in its way, than the Peanuts specials I remember best—I especially like Lucy’s explanation that Christmas is “run by a big eastern syndicate”—and it benefits in particular from being deeply rooted in the original strips. My favorite line, for instance, comes straight from a strip first published on November 27, 1959. In the special, Frieda complains that Pig-Pen’s dust is taking the curl out of her hair, prompting Charlie Brown to respond:
Don’t think of it as dust. Think of it as maybe the soil of some great past civilization. Maybe the soil of ancient Babylon. It staggers the imagination. He may be carrying soil that was trod upon by Solomon, or even Nebuchadnezzar.
This is a great line, obviously, but my favorite part comes at the end: “Or even Nebuchadnezzar. The idea that Charlie Brown would be especially impressed by the thought of Nebuchadnezzar is delightful, and it’s the kind of thing that would have occurred only to a singular man working alone at his desk.
Recently, I’ve become preoccupied with the problem of how to preserve this kind of idiosyncratic voice in the face of all the larger pressures that threaten to eliminate it. In part, it’s because I’ve been watching a lot of children’s entertainment, which is when those tensions start to feel especially stark. It isn’t unreasonable to suppose that someone who devotes his or her life to writing stories for kids might be fundamentally odd in a way that feels more comfortable with children than adults: when you think of Lewis Carroll, Beatrix Potter, Dr. Seuss, Charles Schulz, and Maurice Sendak, among others, you’re left with a sense of aliens trying to navigate their way through the grownup world. But if you’re in charge of the company—or the big eastern syndicate—that packages and distributes that content, you’re working under very different incentives. You’re wary of giving offense or warping tiny minds in a way that would arouse the ire of their parents; you know that the risks of any artistic experiment far outweigh the potential benefits; and you’re painfully aware that you’re likely to offend somebody, no matter what you do. Hence the insipid caution of so many books, movies, and television shows aimed at kids six and younger. Occasionally, individual and corporate goals will align, as in the early days of Sesame Street, but more often, the companies that worry most about what kids want to see are the most likely to come up with something that doesn’t interest anyone.
And the solution, oddly enough, seems to be to ignore the kids altogether. Disney and his early cohort of animators didn’t use focus groups to figure out what children wanted to watch: they were trying to amuse themselves. Similarly, Chuck Jones and the rest of the team at Warner Bros. were making the cartoons that they wanted to see. A Charlie Brown Christmas was all but made by hand, and many of its elements—the jazz score, the lack of a laugh track, the gospel message from Linus—were included in in the face of indifference or active opposition. Instead of writing down to kids or aiming at a target audience, these artists devoted themselves to art forms, like the animated cartoon or comic strip, to which children are naturally drawn. They thought as cartoonists or animators or puppeteers until they began to intuitively make good choices based on what the medium itself could accomplish. And once they learned to think in those terms, they didn’t need to worry about what the kids would like: anything that fully realizes the possibilities of an animated short or a four-panel strip will engage younger minds, no matter what stories you tell. The real enemies of art, here as elsewhere, aren’t the network notes themselves, but notes coming from people who have no stake or interest in the kinds of stories being told. An animator allowed to think as an animator can’t help but come up with something that will fascinate a four-year-old. It’s when those tricks of the craft are diluted by views imposed from the outside that you end up with something condescending and dull.
In the end, every medium has its own logic, and in some cases, that logic naturally approximates that of a child. (I’m not saying this to minimize the difficulty or sophistication of the efforts involved—only to say that their power is derived from a fundamental affinity to how we see the world at a younger age.) Usually, these are the media that are the most accessible to creative children in the first place: it isn’t hard to get started with cartooning or puppetry, and kids are often interested in them because the materials are readily available. You could even say that this is why they’ve retained the emotional charge of something remembered from childhood: the artists who make their mark with puppets or cartoon characters are drawing on skills that they began to develop at an early age, while novelists, by contrast, are building on something that they acquired later on. There’s plenty of good juvenile fiction out there, but its logic is more adolescent, in every sense of the word. And the best artists of them all, like Schulz, are the ones who make the spectrum of feeling from childhood to adulthood feel like a seamless whole. Charlie Brown and Linus don’t talk like any real six-year-olds would, but if they’re uncannily convincing as children, even to readers of the same age, it’s because Schulz understands how kids talk among themselves, and how their conversations can seem as urgent or complicated as anything adults can say. That honesty clings to them like dust. And as Pig-Pen says: “Sort of makes you want to treat me with more respect, doesn’t it?”