Archive for Audience

A Manifesto for Children’s Literature; or, Reading Harold as a Teenager

Those of us who read, create, study, or teach children’s literature sometimes face skepticism from other alleged adults.  Why would adults take children’s books seriously?  Shouldn’t adults be reading adult books?

There are many responses to these questions:

  1. Children’s books are the most important books we read because they’re potentially the most influential books we read. Children’s books reach a young audience still very much in the process of becoming. They stand to make a deeper impression because their readers are much more impressionable.
  2. Adults who dismiss children’s literature neglect their responsibilities as parents, educators, and citizens. What future parents, teachers, doctors, construction workers, soldiers, leaders, and neighbors read is of the utmost importance, if for no other reason than some of us will continue to live in the world they inherit. If books leave such a powerful impression on young minds, then giving them good books is vital.
  3. Almost no children’s literature is written, illustrated, edited, marketed, sold, or taught by children. Adults — and adults’ idea of “children” — create children’s books. It’s profoundly hypocritical for an adult to suggest children’s literature as unworthy of adult attention. Indeed, adults who make such claims are either hypocrites, fools, or both.
  4. Children are as heterogeneous a group as adults are. There is no universal child, just as there is no universal adult. Defining the readership of any work of “children’s literature” is a tricky, sticky, complex task. Paradoxically and as the term itself indicates, “children’s literature” is defined by its audience — it’s for children. It thus a literature for an audience whose tastes, reading ability, socio-economic status, hobbies, health, culture, interests, gender, home life, and race varies widely. Children’s literature is literature for an unknowable, unquantifiable group. The very term “children’s literature” is a problem. Only someone who has never thought about children or what they read could argue that children’s literature does not merit serious consideration.
  5. Children’s literature has aesthetic value. Good children’s books are literature. Good picture books are portable art galleries. If we don’t take children’s literature seriously, then we diminish an entire art form and those who read it. We also prevent ourselves from being able to distinguish quality works from inferior ones — thus neglecting our responsibilities outlined in no. 2, above. This is not to suggest that we can or should all agree on what is a great children’s book. We can’t and we shouldn’t. What we can and should do is care about what makes children’s books bad or good, average or classic, banal or beautiful.

But my focus in this post is less on those preceding five points (or the many other points that could be added) and more on a sixth point: that children’s books have much to give those of us who are no longer children. There are levels of meaning we may have missed when we read the book as a child. There are experiences adults have that grant us interpretations unavailable to less experienced readers — just as children may arrive at interpretations unavailable to adults who have forgotten their own childhoods. In children’s books, there is art, wisdom, beauty, melancholy, hope, and insight for readers of all ages.

Crockett Johnson, Harold and the Purple Crayon (1955): coverWhat inspires me to make this sixth claim is that I have no memory of reading Harold and the Purple Crayon as a child. As an adult, I created a website devoted to the book’s creator, Crockett Johnson, and wrote a biography of Johnson and his wife, fellow-children’s book writer Ruth Krauss. But the book that inspired both website and biography is completely absent from my memories of early childhood.

The book does appear in memories of those memories. In eighth grade, when I had long since “graduated” into reading chapter books, my mother got a job teaching at a private school, thus enabling my sister and I to attend the school for free. Once a week (or was it once a month?), there was a faculty meeting after the end of the school day. During that meeting, my sister and I were left alone in the school library to do our homework. She did her homework. I did not. Instead, I wandered over to the picture books and began reading them. There, I rediscovered Harold and the Purple Crayon, a book I then remembered fondly from my pre-school days. I also realized that there were other books about Harold — Harold’s Trip to the Sky, Harold’s ABC. Had I read these other Harold stories when I was younger? I wasn’t sure. But I knew they were just as enchanting as the first Harold book.

So, at the age of 14 — an age when you might expect a person to be reading Young Adult novels — I began to collect paperbacks of Crockett Johnson’s Harold books.

I don’t know what needs were fulfilled by those particular words and pictures. Perhaps it was the books’ presentation of the imagination as a source of power and possibility. Maybe Harold’s iconic, clear-line style better enabled me to identify with him as he, and his crayon, navigated an uncertain, emerging landscape.

For that matter, I don’t know why, as a freshman in college, I adopted as my bedtime reading A. A. Milne’s The World of Pooh and The World of Christopher Robin. (The former contains both Winnie-the-Pooh and The House at Pooh Corner; the latter collects all the verse from When We Were Very Young and Now We are Six.)

My point is that books “for children” can speak to people of all ages and backgrounds — if we are ready to listen. It’s hard to predict when or why we will be ready to listen. It is indeed dangerous to assume that recommended age-ranges on the backs of books will tell us anything about who may read those books. When I read and re-read the Harold stories at age 14, the books did not then have age ranges on them, though I note that a more recent copy of Harold’s Fairy Tale claims it’s for “Ages 3 to 8.” As Philip Pullman has said of his own work,

I did not intend the book for this age, and not that; for one class of reader, and not others. I wrote it for anyone who wants to read it, and I want as many readers as I can get, and I want to meet them honestly…. For a book to claim “This was written for children of 11+”, when it simply wasn’t, is to tell an untruth.

Exactly.

Books “for children” or “for teenagers” are books for all who are ready to listen to them. They are for all who recognize that art cannot be confined within such narrow labels.

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Little Rebels, Little Conservatives, and Occupy Wall Street

Tales for Little Rebels, edited by Julia Mickenberg and Philip NelThe headline reads “Occupying children’s minds: ‘Radical children’s literature at Wall Street protests.’”  Featured prominently is Julia Mickenberg’s and my Tales for Little Rebels.  After reading the piece (though, not, I suspect, the book itself), one commenter, writing under the name of “forcerecon2,” worrries that Tales for Little Rebels represents “the indoctrination of our children.”  Coming from the left but also opposing indoctrination, Occupy Wall Street organizer Kelley Wolcott writes in response to the suggestion that children of OWS protesters read Tales for Little Rebels: ”I think that we should provide teaching related services that DO NOT have an agenda, and treat children in a respectful way that allows them to explore their own ideas about what is fair or not fair without imposing an adult agenda.”  Though the stories contained in the book are more sympathetic to Wolcott’s point of view than to forcerecon2′s, both statements convey only a partial understand how literature works.

All children’s literature is political — from Dr. Seuss to The Poky Little Puppy to Left Behind: The Kids.   All stories bear the influence of the world in which they were produced; some display that influence more prominently, and others more successfully mask ideological assumptions.  There are no stories “that DO NOT have an agenda.”   Yet, if children’s literature serves a socializing function, predicting its effectiveness on children is a tricky business.  Child readers might embrace the message, or resist it, or … even forget all about it.

It’s true that Tales for Little Rebels does include some stories written by people who wished young readers to adopt a very specific, often quite sectarian, view of the world.  Caroline Nelson’s “Nature Talks on Economics” — one of the stories that inspired the coverage on The Daily Caller and Fox Nation — does harbor such aspirations.  In that tale, revolutionary chick cries, “Strike down the wall!” and liberates itself from the “egg state.”  A lesson about nature becomes a metaphor for revolution.

However, in and of itself, this story provides little evidence that Tales for Little Rebels is a tool of indoctrination.  First, it’s but one of 44 stories on subjects ranging from peace to the dignity of work, from the power of the imagination to opposing bigotry, from environmental protection to finding strength in organizing — stories that would be quite apropos to the OWS protesters, incidentally.  It would be truly remarkable for one story to manage to indoctrinate those who read it.  Taken in context with other literature or read in a socialist family (as “Nature Talks on Economics” very likely was done, originally), it stands a stronger chance — but only if the child hearing the story identified with the values of his or her parents.

Which brings me to my second point: children are not passive beings, empty receptacles which people can fill with ideas.  They’re certainly affected by the culture in which they live, but they’re also capable of thinking for themselves.  Indeed, we hope that some of the stories in Tales for Little Rebels nurture that kind of critical thinking — Ruth Benedict and Gene Weltfish’s The Races of Mankind, which uses science to challenge racism, or Oscar the Ostrich, in which the birds defeat a would-be fascist by taking their heads out of the sand, and speaking out against him.  Though, of course, children may fail to get these messages.  Tales for Little Rebels includes a scene from Revolt of the Beavers, a play in which beavers liberate Beaverland from a tyrant, and redistribute the wealth.  When an NYU Professor of Psychology interviewed hundreds of child audience members about lessons the play imparted, they told him they learned things like “never to be selfish,” and “beavers have manners just like children.”  Not exactly what (I imagine) the play intended to teach.

That brings me to my third point — a point which I’m going to borrow from Philip Pullman, since he’s far more articulate than I am.  Just because an author intends for readers to receive a certain message from a work, there’s no guarantee that the story will turn out as the author intends:

whatever my intention might have been when I wrote the book, the meaning doesn’t consist only of my intention. The meaning is what emerges from the interaction between the words I put on the page and the readers’ own minds as they read them. If they’re puzzled, the best thing to do is talk about the book with someone else who’s read it, and let meanings emerge from the conversation, democratically.1

And that’s the best message to take away from this conversation — and it’s what I think Wolcott means when she encourages “Treating children with respect and allowing them to explore their own ideas.”

Tales for Little Rebels contains a range of opinions from people on the twentieth-century left.  Though Julia and I expected that most of the stories would resonate with contemporary progressives, we also deliberately included some stories that would not (notably “ABC for Martin,” which we nicknamed “the Communist ABC”).  We didn’t want to whitewash history by excising stories that may be embarrassing to those on the left — so, those stories are in the book, too.  But they’re in there along with introductory material that invites readers to think critically about them.  We didn’t create the book hoping that it would encourage everyone to adopt a particular “party line.”  Rather, we hoped that it would encourage readers of all ages to think, to ask questions, and to understand that the world in which they live is not a given.  People can change it.  They can change it.

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1. Philip Pullman, “Intention,” Keywords for Children’s Literature, ed. Philip Nel and Lissa Paul (New York University Press, 2011).

Related content (updated 19 Nov. 2011):

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Children’s Books by Adult Authors

James Joyce, The Cat and the Devil, illus. Roger BlachonThe title of this post is deliberately silly.  Children’s books are written (and edited and marketed and agented, etc.) by alleged grown-ups, and so — as Perry Nodelman points out — there is always a “hidden adult” in children’s literature.  This is one of the central paradoxes of a literature defined primarily by its audience.  ”Children’s Literature” is written by adults, but for children — except that “for children” isn’t entirely accurate because the book has to navigate past many adults before it ever reaches the children, and thus is also written for those adults.  To say that Children’s Literature is “for children” is both true and false.  It’s literature written for a certain adult-defined concept of what “children” are, an idea that varies nationally, historically, culturally, etc.  For that matter, as Nodelman’s The Hidden Adult (2008) notes, childhood itself is paradoxical — “static as well as dynamic, always the same yet a continuing process of becoming different that does not actually result in difference until childhood is finally over” (78).  For a more thoughtful and through investigation, see Nodelman’s book, and the many other people who have expressed this idea more carefully than I.

What occasions my re-statement of this idea is Maria Popova’s post “7 (More) Children’s Books by Famous ‘Adult’ Literature Authors” (Brain Pickings, 25 July 2011) which in turn led me to Ariel S. Winter’s delightful blog We Too Were Children, Mr. Barrie: Being a Compendium of Children’s Books by Twentieth-Century “Adult” Authors Currently Out of Print.  One might argue that Popova’s list is trying to have it both ways: James Thurber, Langston Hughes, and Carl Sandburg are as accomplished writers for children as they are for adults.  Those of us who study children’s literature know that Hughes wrote a dozen books for young readers, and we have read Thurber’s classic Many Moons and Sandburg’s Rootabaga Stories.  But it’s hard to fault Popova here: most people don’t know these facts, and (as noted in the opening paragraph of this blog post), when it comes to children’s literature, the whole audience question is a slippery fish.

Mostly, I want to call attention to Winter’s We Too Were Children, Mr. Barrie.  It includes many books of which I was unaware.  I mean, sure, I know Gertrude Stein’s The World Is Round, and James Baldwin’s Little Man, Little Man. But I did not know about Virginia Woolf’s The Widow and the Parrot, nor Aldous Huxley’s The Crows of Pearblossom, nor a number of the other works featured on this blog.  This is a great idea for a blog, and a useful resource for people thinking about a range of children’s-literature-related questions, such as audience, cross-writing,… and that “hidden adult.”

That is all.

Image credit: Winter’s post on James Joyce’s The Cat and the Devil.

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