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Monday, September 04, 2006

On Children's Literature and a disturbing trend

In today's world, childhood is a very brief episode that too quickly slides into "pre-adult." There are too many (and many too obvious) examples to mention concerning the curtailing of childhood and the headlong rush into adult clothing and activities.

In Let Sleeping Beauties Lie an article by Dorothea Israel Wolfson for The Claremont Institute, Wolfson reviews the The Norton Anthology of Children's Literature: The Traditions in English and castigates the editors who have opted for current political correctness in assembling the works for this anthology. According to Wolfson, "It is not so much an anthology as a postmodernist manifesto."

And more of Wolfson's legitimately outraged review:

As the editors declare in the preface, "In our choice of texts and in our introductions, we have paid close attention to…perceptions of race, class, and gender, among other topics, in shaping children's literature and childhood itself." Practically every text and every author (save for the "emergent") is subjected to a wicked scolding from the editors for its racism, sexism, and elitism. Forget about ogres, witches, monsters, and evil stepmoms; today's villains are gender stereotypes, white males, the middle class, and the traditional family. Retrograde literature must therefore be replaced by a new one, one that is, as it were, beyond good and evil: "In our postmodern age, in which absolute judgments of 'good' and 'evil' are no longer easily made, the distinction between heroes and villains is often blurred."

The editors herald this as a great advance, one they wish to promote by burying the stories under a ton of commentary. To read a children's story out of context, say the editors, is so passé (so childish?): "Discourses such as reader-response theory, poststructuralism, semiotics, feminist theory, and postcolonial theory have proven to be valuable in analyzing children's books." Thus the editors introduce Fun with Dick and Jane by noting that the "world of Dick and Jane was the idealized image of white, middle-class America." The introduction to the chapter on "Legends," which includes The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood and King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, warns that "history has generally been written by the victors and the elites, who tend to view those like themselves—white males, for the most part—as heroes."

In the chapter on "Classical Myths," the editors ponder whether myths are being "kept alive" "by unreflective adults." After all, myths are prone to "strong gender stereotyping—females are passive, males are active.... The protagonists are devoted to a ruthless elimination of the 'other' and to a savagery that is scarcely tolerated" in other children's literature. The genre of domestic fiction—which includes works like Little Women, Anne of Green Gables, and The Bobbsey Twins—"showcased white middle- or upper-class families." But the editors are happy to report that "the genre has come to reflect ethnic, racial and class diversity." Nor are they above offering advice to would-be authors: "still more change would be welcome here."

And yet more:
Fairy tales, which have always dealt with dysfunctional families, especially wicked stepmothers, now take on a hard modern edge by tackling perhaps the last taboo, incest. The Norton Anthology contains ten versions of Little Red Riding Hood, beginning with Charles Perrault's classic and ending with Francesca Lia Block's Wolf (1998). Block, unlike Perrault, isn't satisfied with the sexual undertones and imagery of the original; her heroine is the victim of rape at the hands of her mother's boyfriend ("he held me under the crush of his putrid skanky body") whom she kills with a shotgun at her grandma's house. The editors tell us that this "story shows how a young girl can take charge of her life, while at the same time exposing the sado-masochistic ties that exist in many dysfunctional families."
Well, perhaps, but is this really a story for children? "Once upon a time" used to be a gateway to a land that was inviting precisely because it was timeless, like the stories it introduced and their ageless lessons about the human condition. But this invitation must now apparently read, "Once upon a time when women were powerless and exploited and white male hegemony ruled the world, and when the sky was dark…."
In a strange way, completely unappreciated by the anthology's editors, we have returned to the pre-Lockean age of children's literature. Locke wished to scrub stories clean of horrific images and premonitions of death—not because he was a naïf or a utopian, but because he believed it possible to build a more rational, humane world. The Norton editors break with him on this central issue. They do not believe in the possibility of a more rational world, or even, it would seem, in childhood itself. And so they have more in common with the New England Primer than they dare to admit. They, too, are obsessed with death and the apocalypse, only they don't believe in redemption.

I know...I quoted an awful lot--and still provided a link-- :) You could have and still can go directly to the article and read for yourself, but this trend in children's literature bothered me when my children were young and bothers me even more today. Not that this anthology is intended for children, but it influences those who will teach them...


  1. I'm not sure I could read the rest of the made me angry enough just reading what excerpts you posted! :)

    In my viewpoint some of the ridiculousness of political correctness seems to have been brought to light to the point that it is starting to feel passe...this looks to be the book world's attempt to keep it alive and well.

    I have no problem with anyone taking old stories and reinterpreting them to whatever end they wish. But to do so in any way that is inappropriate for the rape example...and to somehow champion it as okay for children is despicable.

    The original fairy and folk tales were pretty rough and have obviously been sanitized over the years but even the originals left some things open to interpretation.

    I think it is sad that any group championing literature for children feel the need to denigrate the classics. It amazes me that they don't see that many of the modern works that are written with an agenda of trying to promote race, etc. end up being watered down and not worth reading as opposed to true works like To Kill a Mockingbird and others that had a story to tell, not a "let's all get along" agenda.

    That's alot of disjointed rambling there...sorry!!!

  2. It is depressing, isn't it? I don't want to be the kind of censor that we all fear, but I would certainly choose the old fairy tales and the classics over much of the stuff the anthology seems to support (both the bland versions and the "torn from the headlines" examples).

    I enjoy looking at the psychological interpretations of some of the old fairy tales, but I would still prefer the old and often violent versions to the sanitized, Bowlderized, suggestion the editors favor.

  3. I have started a collection of children's literature and none of the things mentioned in the article even occurred to me. I looked for books that were humorous, had a good moral, beautiful artwork, or invited flights of fancy. Pretty much, books that felt good.

  4. Sounds like an excellent way to go about it, Framed. I have a fairly large collection left from my children's books (chosen for the same reasons)and am continuing to add to it because of my grandchildren.

    Maybe "accumulation" would be a more accurate term, as they are certainly not pristine. Some of them look pretty much like new, but others show the effects of many pages turned by little hands.