Books can encourage children to question rather than accept the world as it is. Literature for young people can invite them to imagine a world where black lives matter, women’s rights are human rights, poverty does not limit one’s life choices, LGBTQ youth know they are loved, indigenous peoples’ rights are respected, the disabled have equal rights and opportunities, refugees find refuge, and climate change does not imperil life on this planet.
This guaranteed session (sponsored by the Children’s Literature Forum) examines children’s literature as a vehicle for social change. Subjects panelists might consider include (but are not limited to): Children as activists, books aligned with social movements, satire or humor as catalyst for change, the repurposing of children’s culture as means of expressing or inspiring adults’ activism. Papers may cover any country or historical period.
Oh, I should probably tell you what it’s about first. Right. It has been described as follows:
With tales of banned bunnies, drunken ducks, and gay penguins, Wild Things! leads the battle against the ignorance, half-truths, and just plain foolishness that afflict so much writing about children’s literature. Punchy, lively, and carefully researched, the book is a must-read for anyone interested in books for the young. So. Stop reading this blurb, and buy the book.
Yes, that’s me, in my blurb. There are other even more notable blurbs, from the likes of Lane Smith, Jack Gantos, Jon Scieszka, Jules Feiffer, Andrea Davis Pinkney and Brian Pinkney.
Since I haven’t yet figured out a way to include the book’s third co-author, Peter D. Sieruta, let me do that here. He passed away a couple of years ago, while the book was in its editing phase. But you can still read his blog.
So. To conclude, the book — which I read an ARC of, last October — is out. Let’s de-romanticize children’s literature! Unleash Wild Things! in your libraries, classrooms, and homes!
As American fast food workers strike for a living wage, it’s worth remembering that this struggle has a long history. It’s also worth teaching some of this history to children, so that they can learn about collective action, and fighting back against the powerful. Julia Mickenberg and I collect some of these stories in the “Work” and “Organize” sections of our anthology, Tales for Little Rebels: A Collection of Radical Children’s Literature (2007), but there are many more such stories out there. Michelle Markel and Melissa Sweet‘s Brave Girl: Clara and the Shirtwaist Makers’ Strike of 1909 (2013) is one of those.
A picture book published earlier this year, Brave Girl tells of newly arrived immigrant Clara Lemlich, who — as Markel’s text tells us — “knows in her bones what is right and what is wrong.” When “no one will hire Clara’s father,” she gets a job as a garment worker to support her family, and quickly discovers what is wrong: companies hire immigrant girls to make clothing, paying them just a few dollars a month. Markel effectively dramatizes the cruel working conditions: “locked up in a factory,” she and the other young women are “stitching collars, sleeves, and cuffs as fast as they can. ‘Hurry up, hurry up,’ the bosses yell. The sunless room is stuffy from all the bodies crammed inside. There are two filthy toilets, on sink and three towels for three hundred girls to share.” They’re also fined a half day’s pay for being a few minutes late, fined if they prick a finger and bleed on the cloth, and fired if that happens twice. With just a few vivid details, Markel’s words and Sweet’s images gives us a sense of the oppressive, stifling working conditions.
“But Clara is uncrushable,” Markel tells us. That’s one of the key messages of the book. Clara is a fighter. Hungry and exhausted, she goes to the library to learn, getting by on a few hours of sleep a night. When the men don’t think that the women are tough enough to join a union and strike, Clara (the book always calls her by her first name, perhaps to create greater intimacy between character and reader) leads them out on strike. Police arrest her, hired thugs beat her: “They break six of her ribs, but they can’t break her spirit. It’s shatterproof.”
Another key message is that collective action creates change. At the book’s climax, Clara calls for a general strike, and in the winter of 1909 leads 20,000 garment workers out on a general strike.
The third important lesson young readers will take away here is that progress is hard-won and imperfect. The garment workers win the right to unionize, gaining better pay and a shorter workweek. However, getting there required them to walk the picket lines in the dead of winter, where they faced police brutality, backed by a legal system indifferent to their cause. In the end, though 339 dress manufacturers agreed to unions, the Triangle Waist Factory — where Clara herself worked — did not. Indeed, two years after this strike, the Triangle Waist Factory’s business practices (such as locking the workers in) killed 146 when a fire broke out in the building.
Amplified by Melissa Sweet’s watercolors and fabric-themed collages, Markel offers a history that should inspire a new generation of activists. So, as you celebrate Labor Day today, remember the unions that made it possible.
Laurie Penny calls Steubenville’s “rape culture’s Abu Ghraib moment.” As she says, “The pictures from Steubenville don’t just show a girl being raped. They show that rape being condoned, encouraged, celebrated.” In calling it the “Abu Ghraib moment” for rape culture, Penny says, “It’s the moment when America and the world are being forced, despite ourselves, to confront the real human horror of the rapes and sexual assaults that take place in their thousands every day in our communities.”
I hope she’s right. I hope people do confront it. To create a change in a culture that condones rape, we need more than hope. We need to act. Here’s what educators might do.
1. Teach Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak or other young adult novels that address rape and its aftermath. (I know there are other novels that would fit the bill, but this is the one I always teach.) And teach these books to high school students.
Anderson’s Speak is a sensitive, thoughtful examination of rape and its aftermath. It also has many moments of dark humor: The book’s protagonist, Melinda Sordino, has an incisive wit. It’s hard to imagine a teenage male (or, really, anyone) reading this book and continuing to think that rape is somehow “OK.” That said, I realize that it’s a lot to expect a single book to change rape culture. So, we should also…
2. Debunk myths about rape. When I teach Speak, I always tell my students the following, often framed by the comment that they probably already know this. But, post-Steubenville, I realize I cannot take that knowledge for granted. Indeed, just last week, a local weekly in Manhattan Kansas (where I live and work) published some breathtaking stupidity on the subject of rape.
So, then, here is what I do. I ask them to define rape, and we debunk the myths.
I ask: Define rape. What is it?
rape myth: the person fails to say “no,” and so silence means “yes”; or “no” may mean “yes” if it’s said in a certain way…
rape: In fact, no means no. Rape is sexual intercourse with someone without that person’s consent. If you have sexual intercourse with someone and you do not have their consent, that’s rape. Two very good examples from the novel: Melinda remembering the party, back in August (133-36); Melinda imagining receiving counsel from Oprah et al (164).
rape myth: that men are at the mercy of their sexual drives and therefore rape when they are overly frustrated or when the opportunity arises. That’s false.
rape is a crime of power, not of desire. Rapists often speak not of their sexual arousal or attraction to their victims, but of their desire to hurt or dominate them.
rape myth: Rapes occur on dark deserted streets between strangers.
rape: In fact, a majority of rapists and victims know each other. Rapes often occur in the home. Many women experience date rape or acquaintance rape. In other words, you’re more likely to be raped by someone you know.
Or, as Mallory Ortberg writes in response to CNN’s (truly bizarre) representation of the rapists as victims, “For readers interested in learning more about how not to be labeled as registered sex offenders, a good first step is not to rape unconscious women, no matter how good your grades are. Regardless of the strength of your GPA (weighted or unweighted), if you commit rape, there is a possibility you may someday be convicted of a sex crime.”
3. “Feminist” is not a dirty word. If you support equal pay for equal work, if you think women deserve equal treatment under the law, if you believe women deserve the right to vote, then congratulations! You’re a feminist! So. Stop apologizing for being a feminist. Stop using the phrase “I’m not a feminist, but….” And when someone uses a phrase like “feminazi,” call that person out. Feminism offers a critique of the power relations between the genders, and argues that there should be a balance of power. This is a good thing. It’s not fascist. It points out that women are human beings — a basic fact which the Steubenville rapists evidently did not know. Their lack of knowledge has now landed them both in jail.
4. Teach Women’s Studies in high school. As punk-rock legend Henry Rollins writes in response to this case, we should “Put women’s studies in high school the curriculum from war heroes to politicians, writers, speakers, activists, revolutionaries and let young people understand that women have been kicking ass in high threat conditions for ages and they are worthy of respect.” He also suggests that high schools teach sex ed, and explain to students what rape is and is not.
I read the other day of a college administrator saying that Women’s Studies should be cut because it doesn’t help students get jobs. I’ve no empirical evidence that his claim is true (and neither did he), but consider this: Women’s Studies can help keep you out of jail. It can make you a better human being. A sense of human decency and lack of a criminal record would be welcome in many places of work.
5. Teach books — fiction, non-fiction — with smart, interesting, strong, three-dimensional female protagonists, and books with thoughtful, considerate male protagonists. This is by no means an exhaustive list, but it is at least a start.
Children’s Picture Books and Graphic Novels
Ludwig Bemelmans, Madeline (1939)
Virginia Lee Burton, Katy and the Big Snow (1943). Yes, I realize that the protagonist is a snowplow, but she’s a she and a hero.
Ian Falconer, Olivia (2000) and its sequels.
Florence Parry Heide, Princess Hyacinth: The Surprising Tale of a Girl Who Floated, illus. Lane Smith (2009)
Ellen Jackson, Cinder Edna, illus. Kevin O’Malley (1994)
Crockett Johnson, Harold and the Purple Crayon (1955)
Munro Leaf, The Story of Ferdinand (1936)
Suzy Lee, Wave (2008)
Suzy Lee, Shadow (2010)
Robert Munsch, The Paper Bag Princess, illus. Michael Martchenko (1980)
Luke Pearson, Hilda and the Midnight Giant (2012)
Antoinette Portis, A Penguin Story (2009)
Antonio Ramirez and Domi, Napi (2004), Napi Goes to the Mountain (2006), and Napi Makes a Village (2010)
Faith Ringgold, Tar Beach (1991)
Chris Van Allsburg, Queen of the Falls (2011)
Bernard Waber, Ira Sleeps Over (1972)
Mo Willems, Knuffle Bunny (2004), Knuffle Bunny, Too (2007), Knuffle Bunny Free (2010).
Jay Williams, Philbert the Fearful, illus. Ib Ohlsson (1966)
Jay Williams, The Practical Princess, illus. Friso Henstra (1969)
Jeanette Winter, Wangari’s Trees of Peace (2008)
Children’s Novels and Graphic Novels
Joan Aiken, The Wolves of Willoughby Chase (1962)
Ruby Bridges, Through My Eyes (1999)
Beverly Cleary, the Ramona books (1955-1999)
Roald Dahl, Matilda (1988)
Barry Deutsch, Hereville: How Mirka Got Her Sword (2010)
Louise Fitzhugh, Harriet the Spy (1964)
Neil Gaiman, Coraline (2002)
Virginia Hamilton, Zeely (1967)
Michael Hoeye, the Hermux Tantamoq series: Time Stops for No Mouse (1999), The Sands of Time (2001), No Time Like Show Time (2004), Time to Smell the Roses (2007)
Polly Horvath, The Canning Season (2003)
Diane Wynne Jones, Howl’s Moving Castle (1986)
Hilary McKay, the Casson Family series: Saffy’s Angel (2001), Indigo’s Star (2003), Permanent Rose (2005), Caddy Ever After (2006), Forever Rose (2007).
Linda Sue Park, Project Mulberry (2005).
Katherine Patterson, The Great Gilly Hopkins (1978).
Sara Pennypacker, Sparrow Girl (2009).
Tor Seidler, The Wainscott Weasel (1993). Seidler’s male characters tend to be introspective, & thoughtful.
Siena Cherson Siegel, To Dance: A Ballerina’s Graphic Novel, artwork by Mark Siegel (2006)
Maurice Sendak, The Sign on Rosie’s Door (1960)
Roderick Townley, The Great Good Thing (2001)
Jean Webster, Daddy Long-Legs (1912)
Vera B. Williams, Amber Was Brave, Essie Was Smart (2001)
Young Adult Novels and Graphic Novels
Louisa May Alcott, Little Women (1868-1869)
Laurie Halse Anderson, Speak (1999)
Avi, The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle (1990)
Lynda Barry, One! Hundred! Demons! (2002). A graphic novel.
Kristin Cashore, Graceling (2008), Fire (2009), Bitterblue (2012)
Suzanne Collins, The Hunger Games (2008)
John Green, The Fault in Our Stars (2012)
James Kennedy, The Order of Odd-Fish (2008)
Astrid Lindgren, Pippi Longstocking (1957)
Linda Medley, Castle Waiting (2000). A graphic novel, repr. with an intro by Jane Yolen (2006).
L. M. Montgomery, Anne of Green Gables (1908) and its sequels.
Terry Pratchett, the Tiffany Aching books: The Wee Free Men (2003), A Hat Full of Sky (2004), Wintersmith (2006), I Shall Wear Midnight (2010).
Philip Pullman, The Golden Compass (1995), The Subtle Knife (1998), The Amber Spyglass (2000). Lyra is a great character, but so is Will.
Meg Rosoff, How I Live Now (2004)
Sara Ryan, Empress of the World (2001)
Marjane Satrapi, Persepolis (2003). A graphic novel.
Dodie Smith, I Capture the Castle (1948)
Virginia Euwer Wolff, True Believer (2002)
Jacqueline Woodson, The House You Pass on the Way (1997)
Jane Yolen, Briar Rose (1992)
Marlo Thomas and friends, Free to Be You and Me (1974)
Jack Zipes, ed., Don’t Bet on the Prince (1986)
As I say, this list is not exhaustive — it’s just a starting point. So, you should feel free to add other recommended titles in the comments section below.
6.Rape culture is a massive social problem. Changing it requires action at all levels of government, and all levels of education. If your senator or representative voted against reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act, publicize the fact that they are part of the problem. For example, in the state of Kansas, Senator Pat Roberts, Representative Tim Huelskamp, and Representative Mike Pompeo all voted against the Violence Against Women Act. We might phone their offices and ask them: Why do you support violence against women? Why do you enable rape culture? How often do you beat your wife? Why do you think spousal abuse should be encouraged?
7. RAINN (Rape, Abuse, & Incest National Network) has two ways you can get involved. 1) Donate to the #Speak4RAINN campaign, which helps rape survivors get the help they need. 2) Students can enter the “How Speak Spoke to Me” Contest. The prize? A visit to your class from Laurie Halse Anderson herself.
[Added point no. 7 & the above video on 5 April 2013.]
Here’s what Julia Mickenberg has to say about the book in her excellent Learning from the Left: Children’s Literature, the Cold War, and Radical Politics in the United States (Oxford UP, 2006), which (not incidentally) introduced me to this novel:
One of the few texts for children from this period that deals very explicitly with the conflict between capital and labor is Henry Gregor Felsen’sstory for young adults The Company Owns the Tools (1942), which he wrote under the pseudonym Henry Vicar. In this story, an honest young mechanic from a small town in Iowa gets a job in Motor City (Detroit), building cars for the war effort. There he receives a humbling lesson in assembly-line mass production, quickly deciding that the only way to maintain any dignity in his work as an individual is to band together with the other workers, despite the company’s harassment of the union and its efforts to divide works along racial lines. The logic of the union is dictated by the logic of mass production, in which each individual unit is essentially the same as any other. As one of the men puts it: “They can do without any one of us, but they can’t do without all of us.” (Learning from the Left, pp. 102-103).
Or, if you prefer a harder sell, here’s what the interior flaps of the dust jacket have to say. The front flap:
You’ll want a front seat at the gigantic struggle between Capital and Labor which young Hollis McEachron finds when he comes up from the country byroads face to face with Big Business — strikes, riots, company police, and union meetings.
If you are employed — if you are an employer — if you are just a spectator on the side lines watching this important development in the functioning of democracy — you’ll want to read this book!
Every man and woman in America today is vitally concerned with this question. Treated as it is here, from a neutral and unbiased viewpoint, each side is focused in its true perspective. Here are characters you will long remember, action you will not forget — a story which concerns you.
The back flap:
BORN on a farm, Henry Vicar, too, finally came to the city to live. So it is not just from his extensive research that he writes the story of Hollis McEachron; it is partly from his own experience. Mr. Vicar traveled widely in this country, Canada, and South America, gathering material and getting opinions from which to write this book. Authoritative in its details, it is also well-balanced in its treatment of the whole problem of relationships between Capital and Labor.
Keenly interested in all of the social problems which affect the functioning of our system of government, Mr. Vicar has made a contribution in THE COMPANY OWNS THE TOOLS which will be appreciated by every thinking American, no matter what his position may be. It is full of keen observations and good, hard-headed American straight thinking from start to finish.
During a research trip some years ago, I copied down both of those jacket-flap descriptions from the copy held by the Special Collections Research Center, E.S. Bird Library, Syracuse University. Thanks to Kathleen Manwaring for bringing it out to show me!
I never met Mr. Aruego, but he did kindly grant Julia Mickenberg and me permission to use his illustrations for Charlotte Pomerantz’s The Day They Parachuted Cats on Borneo (1971) in Tales for Little Rebels (2008). For all such permission requests, I included a self-addressed stamped envelope to facilitate the reply. He returned the envelope, embellished with his own beautiful script rendition of my name.
It seemed as if, even though this was a mundane request, he was going to respond with his full attention. Next to his signature, he added — in beautiful tiny script, on a post-it note — a request for a copy of the book, once published.
His biography is a fascinating one. As we note in Tales for Little Rebels, he grew up in Manilla where, at school, he sat next to and befriended Benigno Aquino — the Philippine leader assassinated (decades later) for opposing Ferdinand Marcos. Though as a young man Aruego trained to practice law, he lost the sole case he tried, leaving the profession after a mere three months.
Aruego’s heart wasn’t in the law. It was in art. Inspired by his childhood love of comic books, he decided to study art in New York City, because he thought of it as the comic-book capital of the world. In the late 1950s, he enrolled at the Parsons School of Design, studying with Leo Lionni — the artist about to gain fame in the children’s book world for Little Blue and Little Yellow (1959), Swimmy (1963), Frederick (1967), and many others.
After graduating, Aruego worked for ad agencies, sold cartoons (New Yorker, Saturday Evening Post, Look), and eventually decided on pursuing free-lance illustration full-time. He married and later divorced artist Ariane Dewey: they co-illustrated over forty-five books together, both before and after the dissolution of their marriage. He also illustrated over a dozen by Robert Kraus, including Whose Mouse Are You? (1970) and Leo the Late Bloomer (1971).
A bit of a late bloomer himself, Aruego created many great children’s books during his over fifty years as an artist. He’s a great example of a person who followed his own path, and, in so doing, found his true talent. Rest in peace, Mr. Aruego. Thanks for leaving us all the gift of your sensitive, detailed, warm, amusing art.
Jose Aruego (paid notice in the New York Times, 14 Aug. 2012)
On April 21, 1950, the FBI’s New York Division reported that Crockett Johnson was one of “400 concealed Communists.” In June, the New Haven office began compiling a file on him. These are the first 15 pages. (Clicking on each page will yield a larger image.)
This (above) is one of the less accurate pages in the file. In 1950, Crockett Johnson was not a “concealed Communist” or even an open one. Also, Barnaby was never written by Jack Morley. At this point, Johnson was writing the scripts for Barnaby and providing rather detailed sketches to guide Morley’s art. So, although the strip’s byline at this point read “Jack Morley and CJ,” it would have been more accurate to credit it to “Crockett Johnson and Jack Morley.” The page is correct, however, in identifying Ruth I. Krauss as his wife, and noting his association with the Independent Citizens’ Committee of the Arts, Sciences, and Professions (ICCASP).
I’ve verified most of the claims on this page, and the FBI is accurate. They fail to note (for example) that the American Committee for Spanish Freedom was supporting the democratically elected government of Spain against the Fascist usurpers — surely the sort of activity that the U.S. government should support. But it’s true that Johnson supported that group; the Win the Peace Conference; the Cultural and Scientific Conference for World Peace; and Benjamin Davis, a Communist who represented Harlem on the New York City Council from 1943 to 1949.
Again, though their assumptions about his loyalty are off the mark, the FBI has correctly identified Johnson’s political affiliations. The Daily Worker issues mentioned do provide the information that the file alleges.
The FBI here have done their homework, once more. Crockett Johnson not only attended William Gropper‘s 47th birthday party (Gropper’s papers, held by Syracuse University, verify that both he and Ruth Krauss were there), but — as noted above — art-edited the Communist weekly New Masses, 1936-1940.
The FBI has here found an entirely different “Ruth Krauss.” This Ruth Kraus is not the Ruth Krauss married to Crockett Johnson. Oops.
Informants’ names redacted. Not all pages in an FBI file contain interesting information. However, sometimes they forget to redact info. — a later page reveals that professional informant Louis Budenz was one of the people who supplied information impugning Johnson’s loyalty. Though Budenz was eventually discredited as unreliable, for a few years he made a good living as a government witness.
Except for his party affiliation, this page (above) is accurate.
I can’t verify the $100 donation, but everything else here checks out.
Crockett “is derived from an old family name relating to the subject,” eh? That’s a new one on me, fellas. Also, Johnson moved to Connecticut in 1942, not 1941. But apart from those claims, the above info. appears to check out.
I picture neatly dressed FBI agents surrounded by stacks of radical newsletters, busily compiling lists of alleged offenses. A rather dull job, but on this page, the G-Men have done fairly well. That said, I can’t verify each and every claim, and it’s worth noting that they’re doing a lot of “guilt by association.” Crockett Johnson and [name redacted] were both at an ICCASP meeting; [name redacted] was also active in the Norwalk Communist Party. The suggestion, then, is that Crockett Johnson may have been also active in the Norwalk Branch of the CP. I have no evidence that he was, though he was definitely a member of the ICCASP, and I suspect that the FBI is correct in placing him at that meeting, and at other ICCASP events.
As noted previously, the report of Johnson’s affiliations with ICCASP and “Win the Peace” are both accurate.
Johnson did indeed support Henry Wallace and the PCA. He also appeared at the event for the American Society for Russian Relief.
These items can be verified. However, as in many of the other items here, the FBI’s interpretation of Johnson’s affiliations is not as strong as their ability to uncover those affiliations (which is quite good). For example, the Equal Justice for Mrs. Recy Taylor Committee (below) was the inverse of the Scottsboro Boys trial: African-American woman (Taylor) raped, but white perpetrators get off scott free. Johnson’s support of equal justice under the law is laudatory, and should be read as such. From the FBI’s point of view, Communists were in the forefront in their support of Civil Rights for African-Americans; so, in their eyes, Johnson’s support of justice for Mrs. Taylor reads as a “red” activity.
As you might expect, I have mixed feelings about “collaborating” with the FBI on my biography of Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss (coming this September). On the one hand, Crockett Johnson’s FBI file displays the dangers of unchecked power, and reminds us why the Patriot Act was and is a reckless idea. On the other hand, the file is a wonderful resource and I am grateful for the FBI’s assistance. Though information in FBI files is not always reliable and their allegations about Johnson’s loyalty are false, their tracking of causes he supported is accurate. I verified everything I could, and the New Haven G-Men tailing Johnson did thorough work.
The entire file runs 114 pages — relatively small, as FBI files go. If I find the time, I may post other pages.
Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss: How an Unlikely Couple Found Love, Dodged the FBI, and Transformed Children’s Literature will be published this fall by the the University Press of Mississippi.
Focusing on literature for younger children published in the last decade—as well as on the incentives and disincentives for writing, publishing, and distributing this literature—we argue here that children’s literature, as well as being a tool of embourgeoisment, has been and continues to be an important vehicle for ideas that challenge the status quo and promote social justice, environmental stewardship, and greater acceptance of differences. We have looked for works that cast aside many of the traditional assumptions about what is appropriate for children, acknowledge pressing concerns of the day as relevant to children’s lives, and refuse to whitewash difficult truths, but which also display literary and aesthetic quality and recognize the cognitive and emotional capacities of children. Such “radical” children’s literature models and encourages activism by children as well as adults, and exposes unjust uses of power. It addresses the reality that the white, middle-class, all-American norm is a myth. Finally, it suggests that it is impossible and unethical to shut children off from the world outside US borders.1
Neither children nor literature for them can be extricated from politics. By choice or by default, children often get drawn into the “adult” worlds of politics, violence, and power struggles. At the same time, children’s literature, though in some ways marked by greater levels of public scrutiny than literature for adults, historically has been a realm for expressing utopian visions and launching subtle critiques of the existing social order. This is so because [End Page 445] of conventions of children’s literature; practices within publishing, libraries, and schools; the meanings attached to childhood; and because individuals and groups interested in influencing the future recognize the need to influence children.2 Just as the word “radical” derives from the Latin radicalis [forming the root], radical children’s books address the roots of many flawed assumptions about children and childhood, as well as the causes of inequality, injustice, and exploitation around the world. (445-446)
1. According to the 2010 census, 20% of the total child population in the United States lives below the poverty line; 7.5 million children are without health insurance. Sixty-eight percent of American fourth graders are less than proficient in reading, and 34% are below even a basic level. Over 14.5 million children, or nearly one fifth of the child population, have at least one parent who is an immigrant to this country; 43% of those children have parents who are not US citizens. White children are a minority in Arizona, California, Florida, Hawaii, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, and the District of Columbia (“Children’s Living Arrangements and Characteristics”; Kids Count Data Center).
2. On the traditions of radical children’s literature, see Mickenberg, Learning from the Left; Mickenberg and Nel, Tales for Little Rebels; Reynolds, Radical Children’s Literature; and Lurie, Don’t Tell the Grownups. Also see much of the scholarship of Jack Zipes; for instance, Fairy Tales and the Art of Subversion.
If you or an institution to which you have access (likely a college or university library) subscribes to ProjectMuse, the Children’s Literature Association Quarterly would prefer it if you accessed it via that route — it may require you signing in if you’re not physically in (say) the library in question. But if you can get it that way, please do. The readership of the Children’s Literature Association Quarterly supports the Children’s Literature Association. I don’t understand precisely how this works, but the more “hits” an article gets, the more revenue for the association. (Academics will already know this, but to my non-academic readers: Authors do not get paid for their contributions. Julia and I have no financial stake in you accessing the article via a subscribing institution or otherwise paying for the article yourself.)
If don’t have access to Project Muse or no library near you subscribes to the Children’s Literature Association Quarterly — in sum, if you otherwise cannot obtain a copy — you may contact me directly. (Email address is at right, beneath “A note on mp3s.”)
For allowing us to use art from their work in the published version of the article, thanks to Shaun Tan, Molly Bang, Groundwood Books (for Alfonso Ruano’s picture from Antonio Skármeta’s The Composition and Gary Clement’s picture from Thomas King’s A Coyote Solstice Tale), Kids Can Press Ltd. (for Stéphane Jorisch’s illustration from Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky), Houghton Mifflin (for the image from Jeanette Winter’s Wangari’s Trees of Peace: A True Story from Africa). Special thanks to Kevin Cornell, Mac Barnett, and Disney-Hyperion for allowing us to use art from Mustache! for the cover. Just published (last month), Mustache! is a humorous book with an anti-authoritarian message. Check it out!
The 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 thatTales 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.
1. Philip Pullman, “Intention,” Keywords for Children’s Literature, ed. Philip Nel and Lissa Paul (New York University Press, 2011).
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