If you were a child of the 80s and 90s, you probably saw a few cartoons or animated films that pushed this certain lesson down our throats. And that lesson was “Reading Is Cool”. Which is simply put, a lesson that encouraged kids to put down some form of electronic media (like a video game, movie, TV, etc) and read a book. Whatever cartoon or movie you watched as a kid, there was always that one episode that had this message as moral, whether it was effective or not is debatable.
To see examples where this lesson has been applied in movies, cartoons, and other shows there is a trope for it here sometimes played seriously, other times even parodied.
Today, we’re going to discuss and explore more into this lesson that maybe hadn’t been explored before.
Reading Is Cool Aesop
It’s hard to say where or when this lesson started, but it’s not an old one that a lot of the older generation are familiar with as it started to come about during the use of television becoming more mainstream and affordable in individual family homes.
The main idea was that it was suppose to encourage children to read more and make them intellectual, open-minded, and mentally stimulated. Something that people feared they wouldn’t achieve with video games or movies/TV Shows/cartoons. As if these mediums would be the mind-killers, and as some had been quoted as saying “Turn their mind into mush.” These lessons, can either be executed well and work in the favor of the child or when done poorly turn into a preachy, badly executed “New Media Is Bad” lesson vilifying television, video games, and movies. It depends on the talent of the writer working the Aesop and how they implement it.
As someone who is a booknerd and has grown up in a family that were also big readers as well, I do see the upside this lesson has. Reading is a good tool to expose any child to and has many benefits and qualities that can improve a child’s intellectual, mental, emotional, and behavioral well-being. Not to mention, aside from the educational benefits, if presented with a story or reading material that the person has a deep interest in, they are a good and stress reducing form of relaxation, not to mention a form of leisure activity. That being said, I’m not saying that television, video games, and movies were not permitted in the house, we still watched our favorite shows, I still played my Sega games, and we would sit together order a pizza and rent movies. Sometimes, if the movie was one of those “based on a best-selling book” we would talk about how the book and movie compared to one another. The point is that is sometimes lost on most of these Aesop’s is that there should be a healthy balance between the time you take reading and the other times when you want to watch your favorite television show. There is no need to forgo one over the other. Simply put, you can both equally read your favorite books and watch your favorite mind-numbing TV shows to your heart’s content, don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. There is nothing wrong with it nor nothing bad will happen if you do.
Now, if you’re not familiar with how this concept is used in cartoons aimed at children it’s a pretty basic formula.
1) Child may have a lack of interest in reading to start with. May be engrossed in a tv show or video game usually.
2) Child is sick; injured, confined to a bed where he is out of reach of a video game TV (if the child already has a TV in their room this plot is null and void) in which they start to get bored. If there is no illness weather is involved.
3) Game console or Television set is broken and must be taken to a repair shop for an indeterminate number of days.
4) Child does something in which they are punished by the removal of said Television or Game Console.
That is the set up, the child complains and the parent (sometimes I feel instead of doing it as a lesson does it to shut the little brat up) gives them a book they say they will “learn to like” and eventually the child starts to read the book and sure enough they do like it and continue reading even after the allowance of said Television or Game Console has been restored.
There have been discussion on the absurdity, silliness, and even discouraging of this lesson. But to me, I don’t think the Aesop is bad, it’s a moral with good intentions and has some benefits, its only how it’s executed out determines it. I have seen good and bad examples of this for so long, I thought it would be a good a reason as any to write an article exploring this moral and discuss some of its flaws, conditions, and anything that maybe has been overlooked that should be discussed.
Certain Conditions of The Books The Child Reads Within The Aesop Cartoon
TV tropes mentioned this in their article when they said that:
“Oddly enough, the trope is usually limited to novels, and ignores the value of reading across other media, such as magazines, comic books, manga, novellas, articles and short stories.”
In fact, comic books are sometimes used as a counter-attack of books, placed under the same category as video games and movies. But offer the same amount of reading experience and benefits as a regular book does. One reason maybe because the book being more verbal than visual would make the child have to use their imagination to mentally visualize the actions happening in the story that perhaps the people writing this Aesop believe wouldn’t be experienced reading a multi-paneled comic book. But a child still reading the comic book or manga would still need to use their imagination to fill-in how these actions play out: The way their mind perceives the movements of the comic book/manga characters acting out a scene, or something that a character references in conversation, the child would still have to visual that as well.
The same applies to magazine articles (such as articles that have interviews for example) the fact of the matter is, whether you read anything your mind will automatically visualize what is not seen. It doesn’t always apply to just a picture-less book you’re reading. And the same thing will happen to a child that reads anything not just a mere chapter book. In short, most of these cartoons will usually use non-illustrated works of classic literature as the book the child will automatically read and thus have a change of heart later on.
Which brings us to another issue to explore….
Its Always Classical Literature That is Unrealistic For the Child To Expect to Get Into
There were shows that made this Aesop their running plot theme and none were more focused on that than “Wishbone” a show on PBS that introduces children to classic works of literature through the adventures of a dog and his owner as well as his owner’s friends and family. They would get into a situation that Wishbone the dog would say “This reminds me of something from this book I read/this so-and-so is like the character from this book…” and that would be the segway into the actual meat of the episode – where we get a reenactment of stories from classic literature that we know or might not know yet. The plots acted out would sometimes be condensed, shorten, or even hell bowdlerized just to appease the parental guardians and executors but they were simple enough where the child who wasn’t already familiar with that classic book at least knew the gist of the plot to determine if they wanted to know more of the story or not.
Where am I going with this?
Well, in a lot of other cartoons that do a “Reading Is Cool” Aesop, the book the child is given and learns their lesson from is always a piece of old classic literature regardless if its a genre the child is interested in or not. The child is basically handed this story going in blind, and its the story in its original format.
Take in mind that if you actually sat down and read some of these classic book in their original format as they were written in their time, its a lot of reading comprehension for the child to wrap their head around, depending on the child’s reading level, there is a good reason why publishers that deal with YA literature or modern children’s stories present Classic Literature in simplified formats and trim out the subplots and fancy dialogue; make it easier for the child to understand the story they’re reading and their characters. Think of it as a gateway that introduces the child to a beginner’s level of the book, and then when old enough can master the original work in it’s entirety as intended by the original author.
However, the kids in these cartoons seem to actually master the original book not only easily enough, but in a unrealistic amount of time, and finish the book. Have you tried to sit down and read through the Classic Literature books from front to cover, it take a long time for them to establish the plot and characters, and even then most of us probably (unless we’ve been really dedicated) have ever finished one. Now take a child with a questionable short attention span, impatient amount of energy and expect them to sit down and read a book not fitted for their reading comprehension from beginning to end, it’s impossible. In real life, the child would give up on the book, go outside, or even if they really wanted to read pick out a modern book with easier wording. But in these cartoons, it seems to portray a kind of unrealistic reaction that in retrospect wouldn’t be implausible to emulate in reality.
You Will Like It Because…ITS CLASSIC!
And that brings up another topic: Due to copyright issues, and public domain being a easy way to work around having to pay for permission for the likeness and name of today’s popular young adult novels and authors, Classic literature is always used as the last resort when using a book for the “Reading Is Cool” Aesop. Although, I mentioned before the unlikeliness of children actually getting into Classic Literature in its original format, there is nothing wrong with children being exposed to it at all. However, the way its introduced is bothering in some degrees, as bad examples of this Aesop pass the book to the kid like its a hand me down with no explanation or the child being given a choice in the matter of what piece of classic literature the child may want to read. There are however, good examples where the child finds the book for themselves and expresses a genuine curiosity to reading it and finding out they like it. But, most stories have it start where the parent forces it on the child without any thought whatsoever if the kid will really be interested in it or not.
Mom: “Here why don’t you read something intellectual…Moby Dick!”
Kid: “But mom, I’m really not into stories about Whales”
Mom: “It doesn’t matter its Classic Literature, it will give you something to do other than watch TV.” *pushes the book on the kid and walks away*
Even if this kind of introduction is used, if written well, it can still provide a good way for the child to be interested, maybe they put it aside and work on something else, but after a while, they finally get around to reading it without making it come off as forced or contrived. But sometimes it was attached to one of the examples of a horribly executed moral episode.
The reason that being is that it teaches the child the wrong way to view works of Classic Literature. As either, dull and boring, or that they should be put on a pedestal above other modern books of the same genre because of their sonority and notoriety in literature. Sure, certain works of classic literature have been inspirations for current works that we know and read today, the fact is a child should enjoy the book for the story alone, not because its a “classic”, if the story is good and they like the genre “classic” will have no meaning on how much they enjoy it.
In the “Reading Is Cool” moral episode, the focus is placed more on the child reading Classic Literature than some of the modern day books that would have been popular reads for their age level. Which it seems to ignore or downplay. I never agreed with that, as any child who really finds out they love to read will not be picky in whatever books they will come across. They will enjoy reading Harry Potter, Goosebumps, Babysitters Club, Diary of a Wimpy Kid, and more the same way they would enjoy reading Little Women, The Time Machine, Robin Hood, The Secret Garden, etc in equal measure. Taking away the fact that preference should be on how “classic” it is than focus on the actual story or genre that would fascinate them.
Now we get the fun part every “Reading Is Cool” Aesop episode likes to add….
IMAGINATION….wait, where is my rainbow?
This was the meat and cheese of these moral episodes, the kid reading the book becomes completely engrossed and pretty soon their imagination turns their surroundings into this weird hallucinogenic surreal landscape where they think they are actually there physically. Playing up the stereotype of books being “tickets into another world without the use of planes etc etc”, a lot of shows portrayed this in over the top ways, having the book draw the kind into their world. However with the exception of “U.S Acres” from “Garfield and Friends” where the pig Orson (a take on the writer of “Animal Farm” Orson Welles) will imagine things in the same way but the environment and those around him will become self-aware of the familiar rural landscape changing into that a imaginative land from a certain book or novel. It became a sort of running gag at this point where they could in fact change and alter this landscape by reading and some of the things they did with this became comical.
But that is kinda where these “Reading Is Cool” lessons go so far. The way they portray imagination in these episodes become startling different than if a child was to actually read a story in real life. What is actually happening is the child is visualizing in their head what is happening, and they become focused and engrossed in the story that outside noises happening around them, are tuned out and so it feels like they are off in their own little world, but really that is same with anything we do in our every day lives that doesn’t involve reading. You get the same results working, hiking, cooking, writing, doing work online that really, we get caught up in our own little worlds too without the use of books. Its just these shows like to exploit them more and make them over the top to either pander the child or make the episode attention grabbing. Since, lets face it, most episodes that focus on a moral or PSA are freaking boring.
In reality, what the child is gaining from reading is how to visualize, and open their mind to a book from a different point in history contrary to their own that makes them more educated and opened-minded in other fields, it be in the form of classic literature or a heck even in the “Nancy Drew Mysteries” and as there are good well-intentions from the “Reading Is Cool” moral episodes, parents have to learn that what the show expects child to accomplish reading in the said cartoon episode and what a child gains from actually reading any form of literary media are two different things.