Sunday, 28 June 2015

Fear and Wondering - Clémentine Beauvais

Let me introduce you to the disturbing awesomeness of Wonder Ponder. Wonder Ponder is a small publishing imprint, founded by Anglo-Spanish writer Ellen Duthie, which produces desks of philosophical cards for children. On one side of each card, there’s a picture, on the other, a number of philosophical questions to be asked to the child about the picture. Simple. The first deck of cards is called Cruelty Bites (Mundo Cruel); the second, I, Person (Yo, Persona).

Look at how great these cards are:

Another one features a family eating cat soup. Actually, that’s even the one that’s the cover image for the box of cards:

 On the other side of the cards, the questions are thought-provoking whether one is a child or an adult. Is it less bad to kill an ant than another animal? Is it never OK to force someone to do something they don’t want to do? As with many works of philosophy for children, those are time-old, ageless questions, meant to be discussed or debated but not solved. They are not, in themselves, exceptionally original questions for this purpose, though they are certainly picked well and phrased crisply.

But Wonder Ponder is different, in its daringness, to other works I’ve seen of philosophy for children. The graphic style, to start with. The pictures are decidedly dark, hectic, perturbing. Daniela Martagon’s visual identity is that of a cheeky, misbehaving, imaginative child, who loves drawing scenes of war and desolation, squashing ants with a pen, and retorting ‘why not?’ to those who ask ‘why are you so cruel?’.

The provocativeness is, I think, brilliant. Of course, not everyone agrees, and unsurprisingly Wonder Ponder have received some criticism for the overt violence of some of the scenes. They’ve responded with typical wit:

More interesting than the straightforward haters, though, are the people who, in order to make sense of these merciless cards, have suggested that they in fact promote kind and positive messages: Wonder Ponder are pro-animal rights, aren’t they? They suggest ways of becoming nicer to one another, don’t they?

No, has been Duthie’s categorical reply. In a blog post, (which also contains some close-ups of other cards, and a video) she noted with palpable amusement that many people have tried to reclaim Wonder Ponder cards for their own ideological agendas - but she immediately specified that “we don't have contents we wish to insert in the reader, nor specific "right" values to transmit to them.” All they want is for the adult mediator “to have the guts not to indoctrinate”.

Duthie also states, again and again, that no one from Wonder Ponder will ever provide answers or guidelines for reflection to the adult mediators. To play the game, adults must lay their cards on the table, too; no bluffing allowed, no steering the child into specific perspectives or opinions planned in advance.

But surely, people enquired, Wonder Ponder could at least do a box showing nice things, instead of all this distasteful cruelty? Another no from Duthie, in another remarkably smart blog post entitled ‘Why we’d never do a box on “kindness” or accepting diversity’.

Duthie’s blog post is one of these calm, matter-of-fact pieces of writing whose radical nature only truly sinks in on the second or third rereading. Here’s a bit for those of you who are too tired to click on the link:

“The children's literature market is full of positive models of kindness, generosity and tolerance. Children are fed these messages non-stop: be good, be accepting of others, share.
To understand to what extent children are bombarded with these commandments and messages, check out a 6-7 year old's comment on the scene below: 

-Is it cruel?
-Because he's not sharing it with the baby lions.”

What do you think of Duthie's words? agree? disagree? what do you think this example tells us? that the child is wrong? or right? that society is wrong?

I have a lot of time for didactic, political, committed literature for children - it was my PhD topic, and I enjoyed much of the primary material. And I tend to distrust educational enterprises that insist too much on the freedom they supposedly leave the child. I much prefer an openly committed book with a clear thesis to a benevolently liberal one that doesn’t acknowledge that it has a thesis. 

But in the case of Wonder Ponder, I’m completely on board. Perhaps it’s because of the iconoclastic, deliciously naughty feel of it. Perhaps it's because I like Duthie's coherent, plucky position, displayed both in the cards and in the extra-textual material - online, in her promotion plan, etc. Perhaps it's because I'm always in awe of people taking risks to launch cultural and educational projects like these, especially when they're sure to make at least a few people squirmish. But also more simply perhaps because it makes me want to sit down with some kids, and adults, and play the game with them.

Note: A big thank you to Celia, who got me my first Wonder Ponder box

Clementine Beauvais writes in French and English. She blogs here about children's literature and academia. 


Sue Purkiss said...

As usual, a refreshingly thought-provoking post from you!

Catherine Butler said...

Ah, if only I'd managed to get my children a set of these before they were old enough to stab their own ants!

I like that refusal to point a didactic finger: if we rely too much on the moral satnav of parents and teachers, we will never learn to read the map for ourselves.

Michelle de Villiers said...

That looks great!

Stroppy Author said...

Looks brilliant. Shall buy for the microBint.