Wednesday, August 03, 2005

It's Just a Plant

In February, at a hearing on harm reduction, a freshman Member of Congress started attacking a member of the board of the Drug Policy Alliance for its support of a book for children about marijuana, called "It's Just a Plant."

I read the book carefully, since I have a 7-year old daughter.

In June, the author asked me to comment

Here's my review:
If genuinely intended as a book to educate children about marijuana, I don't think "it's Just a Plant" succeeds.  The paintings are imaginative, and lovingly drawn. The messages are probably appropriate for children who are ten to fourteen or so, depending on their maturity.  But the messages are packaged stylistically for children who are pre-literate.  The large type, the extensive use of white space, the short portions of text on a page, coupled with imaginative, colorful paintings all are typical of books for children ages 4 to 8 -- pre-school to second grade. The child at the center of the book, Jackie, looks to be about five or six years old. It begins, "Jackie loved to go to sleep at night."  This is an issue for the parents of very young kids -- getting them to go to bed.  But the sophisticated and complex messages about marijuana's effects, its illegality, its medical use, etc., in my view, are too abstract for and irrelevant to 4 to 8 year olds.

On the other hand, the pre-teenagers for whom the messages may be appropriate are likely to find the packaging a complete turn-off.  Visually and stylistically, it is unmistakably a book for the youngest children.  No kid age 10 to 14 is going to find a book in the visual style used for pre-schoolers and earliest readers to be credible.  It would be like asking them to watch Barney the Dinosaur or Sesame Street to get a sex education message. It is almost insulting.

If the messages of the book are too sophisticated for the pre-literate kid, what about the plot or the pictures?  Again, I don't think the book works. Kids at this age are pretty literal, even in the fantasy world. Even in a fantasy, there needs to be an underlying coherence. When one analyzes the many lovely, colorful paintings in "It's Just a Plant," they and the story are disconnected from the reality or literal understanding of most 4 to 8 year olds. 

Let's remember, the foundation of this story is the real world:  real Mom, real Dad, real kid, real doctor, real bicycle, real cops, real marijuana.

In the fourth painting, the child is riding her bike without a proper helmet, although her mother is. There is a problem with verisimilitude here. The child is wearing robes that are certain to get tangled in the chain or wheels of the bike, as they ride along the East River past the Brooklyn Bridge. A careful mom wouldn't allow this.  Two pages and a short ride later, they are in an enormous park or field with a horse and palm tree that is certainly not New York.  A couple of panels later there is a party at which a smoking hookah and a girl exhaling smoke is the center of focus. Then, after a panel back on the bicycle, riding with balloons in a fantasy land, and a visit to the pediatrician's elegant, art-filled office, Jackie and Mom are in the center of the city with a Boston blue T sign at the subway entrance, where Jackie stops and sniffs the air. "I know that smell!" she said... (and all the pot smokers reading the book giggle!). 

Jackie confronts four men outside a fast food restaurant who laughingly tell her all the names they use for marijuana, when two kindly police officers interrupt their friendly lecture to cursorily shake down the men.  The kindly police explain to the surprised child that marijuana is against the law, giving her a sympathetic history of its cultivation, in the course of which the officer says that her grandfather grew hemp and her grandmother sold cakes of homegrown marijuana at her cafe. 

At this point, this story has become so absurd that the suggestion that this book is intended to be taken seriously, by either 4 to 8 year olds, or 10 to 13 years olds, is exposed as preposterous.

The paintings are lovely and very imaginative, and I bet that when viewed when stoned are even more so.  The text sometimes mimics the style of writing used for the earliest readers.  But ultimately the story is a failure. Is this believable as a real story about a real girl and her mother?  Is this a fantasy story?  Is this a narrative to take seriously?  Does the plot hang together?

A book for 4 to 8 year old children is written and designed to be read over and over. 

Is this a story that a parent will read to their pre-literate kid over and over? Only if they want to encourage their child to think a lot about marijuana at an absurdly early age.

Would a non-pot-smoking parent have any inclination to read this book to their child?  I think such parents would be quite turned-off by the "trippy" merriment surrounding this whole "let's discover marijuana" adventure.

The claim that this book is intended to educate kids about the truth of marijuana is hard to take seriously.

I don't think you can defend this book by simply looking at the text and saying that nothing in the text is objectionable because none of the statements about marijuana are false as a matter of fact.

Because almost any parent with a young child who sees this book is going to find that it is inappropriate in message and style for either their young child or their pre-teen child, a legitimate question is, "who is the audience for this book?"

It seems to me the primary audience is pot smokers who would find this a pot-culture affirming artifact like "stoner" games, movies, videos, etc. Mostly, the book is for teenagers and adults who smoke pot to giggle over. It is a coffee-table book for young parent pot heads.

Educationally, there may be a tiny audience that could use this book.  That is, those parents -- who are committed to smoking pot openly in their home in front of their pre-school child -- who have figured out that their child is going to be playing with other children, and is likely to tell them about what goes on in his or her house. For  those pot smoking parents, a book such as this may be a tool to justify their pot smoking to their child, and to start a conversation about why the child should not tell the neighbor kids and their parents or their teachers, about the parents' open marijuana use. 

Even for that purpose, I think the book is unsuccessful. Because the on-the-street pot smokers are not arrested or ticketed by the pot-sympathetic police, the book fails to communicate the seriousness of the consequences to the pot-smoking parents if their child tells people about the marijuana that Mom or Dad smoke. This is confusing: If pot use is okay and normal, why does it have to be kept a secret? 

We teach our kids that their bodily functions are okay but that it is not polite to talk about poop and underpants at the table or with adults. But kids love talking about what they aren't supposed to talk about, they absolutely love it. Kids are terrible at keeping secrets. Tell 4- to 8-year olds they shouldn't tell other kids about Mom and Dad smoking pot, and you can be certain that they will tell other kids. For any parent to believe that they could use this book to teach their children not to talk about Mom and Dad's presumptively "responsible" pot use is likely to lead to a false security and disaster.

There is a need for a resource for pot smoking parents to use in their family to counteract the marijuana demonization that their kids will be exposed to.  But this is not an issue that families are going to introduce at this age level.

There is more clearly a need for a resource for all parents to teach their pre-teen kids about marijuana that doesn't exaggerate harms, or trivialize legal dangers, or legitimize risky forms of experimentation.  Certainly drug prohibition creates a terrible dilemma for parents who want to try bring sense to their kid's world regarding the drugs in their environment. But this is not a problem to address at ages 4 to 8 in this way.

This book can't be defended by looking at the words and ignoring the art and the design. At least half this book is the art. This book is designed to be much more than the text. It is impossible to take the book seriously as a book designed to educate children sensibly about the role of marijuana in our society because it is not in a format that is appropriate to the child's development. Such a book is urgently needed, but this book doesn't meet the need.

Sphere: Related Content

No comments: