Archive for Radical Children’s Literature

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.


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

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Radical Children’s Literature Now! (video)

Radical Children's Literature Now! -- title slide

On June 25th, Julia Mickenberg and I delivered “Radical Children’s Literature Now!” — the Francelia Butler Lecture at the 2011 Children’s Literature Association Conference in Roanoke, Virginia.  The video for that talk is now on-line.

For more information, see the bibliography we handed out to those in attendance.  Eventually, this lecture will appear on the Children’s Literature Association’s website.

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Radical Children’s Literature Now!

Many folks who attended Julia Mickenberg’s and my “Radical Children’s Literature Now!” lecture today at the Children’s Literature Association Conference in Roanoke asked: “I didn’t get a handout.  Could I have one?”  Since we only made 200 copies, here is that handout.  (The entire lecture will be on the Children’s Literature Association’s website in the future.)

Radical  Children’s  Literature  Now!

Julia L. Mickenberg and Philip Nel

Francelia Butler Lecture

25 June 2011



Question Authority

Mac Barnett, Moustache. Illus. Kevin Cornell. Hyperion, 2011.

Tom Tomorrow (pseud. of Dan Perkins), The Very Silly Mayor. IG Publishing, 2009.


Toby Speed, Brave Potatoes.  Illus. Barry Root.  G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2000.

Andrea Davis Pinkney, Sit-In: How Four Friends Stood Up By Sitting Down. Illus. Brian Pinkney. Little, Brown and Company, 2010.

Doreen Cronin, Click, Clack Moo: Cows that Type. Illus. Betsy Lewin. Simon & Schuster, 2000.

Sharyll Teneyuca and Carmen Tafolla, That’s Not Fair/No Es Justo!: Emma Tenayuca’s Struggle for Justice/ Le lucha Emma Tenayuca por la justicia. Illus. Terry Ybanez. Wings Press, 2008.

Jacqueline Dembar Greene , Changes for Rebecca. American Girls Collection. Pleasant Company Publications, 2009.

Fight Bigotry

Susan Campbell Bartoletti, They Called Themselves the KKK: The Birth of An American Terrorist Group. Houghton Mifflin, 2010.

Kadir Nelson, We Are the Ship. Hyperion, 2008.

Shaun Tan, The Arrival. 2006. Scholastic, 2007.


Antonio Skarmeta, The Composition, ill. Alfonso Ruano. Groundwood, 2000. A Spanish-language version was published the same year in Venezuela.

Antonio Ramirez and Domi, Napi. Groundwood, 2004

Napi Goes to the Mountain. Groundwood, 2006.

Napi Makes a Village. Groundwood, 2010.

Deborah Ellis, The Breadwinner trilogy:

The Breadwinner. Groundwood, 2001.

Parvana’s Journey. Groundwood, 2002.

Mud City. Groundwood, 2003.

—, Three Wishes: Palestinian and Israeli Children Speak.  Groundwood, 2006.

Anne Laurel Carter, The Shepherd’s Granddaughter. Groundwood, 2008.

Jeanette Winter, Nasreen’s Secret School. Beach Lane, 2009.

—, Librarian of Basra. Harcourt, 2005.

Mohieddin Ellabbad, The Illustrator’s Notebook. 1999. Transl. Sarah Quinn. Groundwood, 2006.

Uri Shulevitz, How I Learned Geography. Farrar Straus Giroux, 2008.

Amy Lee-Tai, A Place Where the Sunflowers Grow. Illus. Felicia Hoshino. Children’s Book Press, 2006.

Peter Sis, The Wall: Growing Up Behind the Iron Curtain. Farrar Straus Giroux, 2007.

James Rumford, Silent Music. Roaring Brook Press, 2008.


Davide Cali and Serge Bloch, The Enemy: a book about peace. Schwartz & Wade (Random House), 2009.

Nicolas Debon, A Brave Soldier. Groundwood, 2002.

Walter Dean Myers, Patrol. Collages by Ann Grifalconi. HarperCollins, 2002.

Ahmad Akbarpour and Morteza Zahedi, Good Night, Commander. 2005. Translated by Shadi Eskandani and Helen Mixter. Groundwood, 2010.

Lewis Carroll, Jabberwocky. Illus. Stéphane Jorisch. Kids Can Press, 2004.

Environment / Global Climate Change

Lauren Child, Charlie and Lola: We Are Extremely Very Good Recyclers. Dial, 2009.

Lynne Cherry and Gary Braasch, How We Know What We Know About Our Changing Climate: Scientists and Kids Explore Global Warming. Dawn Publications, 2008.

Charise Harper, Just Grace Goes Green. Houghton Mifflin, 2009.

Megan McDonald, Judy Moody Saves The World. Candlewick Press, 2002.

Jennifer Berne, Manfish.  Chronicle Books, 2008.

Dan Yaccarino, The Fantastic Undersea Life of Jacques Cousteau.  Knopf, 2009.

Claire A Nivola, Planting the Trees of Kenya: The Story of Wangari Maathai. Farrar Straus Giroux, 2008.

Jeanette Winter, Wangari’s Trees of Peace.  Harcourt, 2008.

Molly Bang, Nobody Particular: One Woman’s Effort to Save the Bays. Henry Holt and Company, 2000.

Sara Pennypacker, Sparrow Girl. Hyperion, 2009.

Consume Less

Janet S. Wong, The Dumpster Diver. Illus. David Roberts. Candlewick, 2007.

Jonah Winter, Here Comes the Garbage Barge. Illus. Red Nose Studio. Random House, 2010.

Thomas King, A Coyote Solstice Tale. Illus. by Gary Clement. Groundwood, 2009.

Homelessness and Poverty

Avi Slodovnick, The Tooth. Illus. Manon Gauthier. Kane/Miller, 2009.

Vera Williams, Amber Was Brave, Essie Was Smart.  Greenwillow, 2001.

Elisa Amado, Tricycle, illustrated by Alfonso Ruano. Groundwood, 2007.


Catherine Stier, If I Ran for President. Illus. Lynne Avril. Albert Whitman & Co., 2007.

Lane Smith, Madam President. Hyperion, 2008.

—, John, Paul, George & Ben. Hyperion, 2006.

Kelly DiPucchio, Grace for President. Illus. LeUyen Pham.  Hyperion, 2008.

Chris Van Allsburg, Queen of the Falls. Houghton Mifflin, 2011.

—, Widow’s Broom. Houghton Mifflin, 1992.

David Walliams, The Boy in the Dress. Illus. Quentin Blake. Razorbill/Penguin, 2008.

Harvey Fierstein, The Sissy Duckling. Illus. Henry Cole. Simon & Schuster, 2002.


Pija Lindenbaum, Mini Mia and Her Darling Uncle. Translated by Elisabeth Kallick Dyssegaard.  R&S Books, 2007.

Leslea Newman, Mommy, Mama, and Me. Tricycle Press, 2009.

—, Daddy, Papa, and Me. Tricycle Press, 2009.

Bobbie Combs, ABC: A Family Alphabet Book. Illus. Desiree Keane & Brian Rappa. Two Lives, 2001.

Cheryl Kilodavis, My Princess Boy. Illus. Suzanne DeSimone. Aladdin, 2009.

Marcus Ewert, 10,000 Dresses. Illus. by Rex Ray. Seven Stories, Press, 2008.

Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell, And Tango Makes Three. Illus. Henry Cole. Simon & Schuster, 2005.

[Sex], Death, Disability, and Mental Illness

Nicholas Allan, Where Willy Went: The Big Story of a Little Sperm. 2004. Red Fox, 2006.

Robie H. Harris and Michael Emberley, It’s Not the Stork!: A Book about Girls, Boys, Babies, Bodies, Familes, and Friends. Candlewick, 2005.

—, It’s Perfectly Normal: Changing Bodies, Growing Up, Sex, and Sexual Health. 15th Anniversary Edition. Candlewick, 2009.

—, It’s So Amazing!: A Book about Eggs, Sperm, Birth, Babies, and Families. Candlewick, 1999.

Pija Lindenbaum, When Owen’s Mom Breathed Fire. Translated by Elisabeth Kallick Dyssegaard.  R&S Books, 2006.

Shaun Tan, The Red Tree. 2001.  Simply Red Books, 2003.

Menena Cottin and Rosana Faría, The Black Book of Colors. Transl. by Elisa Amado. Groundwood, 2008.


Allan Ahlberg and Bruce Ingman, The Pencil. Candlewick Press, 2008.

Amy Krouse Rosenthal and Tom Litchenheld, Duck! Rabbit! Chronicle Books, 2009.

Kara LaReau and Scott Magoon, Ugly Fish. Harcourt, 2006.

Jeanne Willis and Tony Ross, Tadpole’s Promise.  Andersen Press, 2003.

Boni Ashburn, Hush, Little Dragon, Illus. Kelly Murphy. Abrams, 2008.

Sylviane Donnio, I’d Really Like to Eat a Child. Illus. Dorothée de Monfried. Transl. Leslie Martin.  Random House, 2007.



  • The Jane Adams Children’s Book Award, established 1953, “given annually to the children’s books published the preceding year that effectively promote the cause of peace, social justice, world community, and the equality of the sexes and all races.”
  • The Pura Belpre Medal honors “a Latino/Latina writer and illustrator whose works best portray, affirm, and celebrate the Latino cultural experience in an outstanding work of literature for children and youth
  • The Coretta Scott King Award, established forty years ago, honors African American authors and illustrator for outstanding inspirational and educational contributions
  • The Stonewall Children’s and Young Adult Literature Award, established just last year by the American Library Association, for LGBTQ books
  • The Schneider Family Book Award honors a  book “that embodies an artistic expression of the disability experience for child and adolescent audiences”
  • The UNESCO Prize is for Children’s and Young People’s Literature in the Service of Tolerance (discontinued in 2003 for budgetary reasons)
  • The Henry Bergh Children’s Book Award “honor[s] books that promote the humane 
ethic of compassion and respect for all living things”
  • The Green Earth Book Award, is given to “authors and illustrators whose books best raise awareness of environmental stewardship, and the beauty of our natural world and the responsibility that we have to protect it”
  • The KIND Children’s Book Award is given by the Humane Society, for “an exceptional children’s book with a humane focus on animals or the environment”
  • The Wilderness Society’s Environment Award for Children’s Literature.
  • USBBY lists Outstanding International Books, and the Cooperative Children’s Book Center’s Choices highlights books on subjects such as Peace and Justice, Labor, Earth and the Environment, (Eco-Reading), Gay and Lesbian Themes and Topics, “Global Reading” (books set in other countries), and Recommended Picture Books Featuring Interracial Families.

THANKS TO: Katie Horning and the staff of the Children’s Cooperative Book Center, Susan Griffith, Patsy Aldana (of Groundwood Books), Betsy Bird (of the NYPL and Fuse #8), Julie Walker Danielson (of Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast), George Nicholson, Mac Barnett, Marcus Ewert, and Elizabeth Murphy (of the Austin Public Library’s Yarborough Branch).

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