Teaching American Children's Literature

by Laura Laffrado
Western Washington University

"Everyone knows what children's literature is until asked to define it."
-Roger Sale, Fairy Tales and After: From Snow White to E.B. White

I'll begin by trying to define children's literature, a task as complicated with boundary issues as defining any one canon of American literature. It is probably most useful to define children's literature broadly, as literature that doesn't exclude children, family literature, literature for a number of generations. Such a definition would include the whole range of children's texts, from picture books to novels. American children's literature emphasizes race, class, and gender; mixes canonical texts, noncanonical texts, and noncanonical texts by canonical authors; and contains a rich collection of fields, such as Native American literature, African American literature, and women's literature. Teaching a reconstructed American literature using children's literature provides fertile ground for examination of historical, cultural, and gender issues.

Children's literature has typically been an outsider in literary criticism and study. Though that is changing, critical works on children's literature remain fairly sparse. Similarly, children's literature courses have occupied and to a large extent continue to occupy an uncomfortable place in the English department curriculum, many times, appearing only as a valuable but non- literary shared offering with the education department, designed to train potential elementary school teachers to select such books and teach them to children. When thinking about a literary course featuring children's books, many students and scholars find themselves as strange bedfellows: students expect a course that offers literary analysis of children's books to be easy (what could be hard about children's books?), while scholars expect the texts to resist analysis, to be trivial (what could be hard about children's books?). Traditional defenses for teaching or writing about children's literature are that some texts are "classics," are by well-known authors of adult works, and are useful for demonstrating standard literary techniques such as plot structure and symbolism. While this is true, none of these defenses have made significant inroads into the notion that children's books are less worthy candidates for literary study and analysis.

When scholars have turned their attention to children's literature, it has been to "classic" British texts such as Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking Glass, Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows, or Rudyard Kipling's Kim. American children's literature has been seen (and, I would argue, continues to be seen) as containing fewer "great" works than British children's literature. This is, of course, the same argument that in the past has seen British literature in general as better (read: more intellectual, more elite) than American literature in general. As we continue to examine such judgments, it will be useful to keep in mind that if they are unsound for some American literature, they may well be unsound for all. American children's literature then has been traditionally marginalized in critical, pedagogical, and national models. This makes for exciting exploration of such texts today, both in terms of the works themselves and in terms of the reasons and ways they have been historically relegated to a secondary status. To teach children's literature as a way of reading American History and culture, is, by definition, an act of revision, of seeing American literature differently.

Teaching American literature using a thematic focus on children's literature within a chronological framework opens the curriculum in several ways. Issues of multiculturalism and canon revision are part of American children's literature. Children's literature includes other fields of a reconstructed American literature- Native American literature, African American literature, gay/lesbian literature, women's literature, popular literature, Hispanic literature. Additionally, current questions about the canon of American literature are engaged by children's literature's range of canonical texts, noncanonical texts, and texts somewhere in between. The children's literature course allows teachers and scholars opportunities to blend pedagogical paradigms from various parts of the curriculum with heretofore neglected or devalued texts.

"The great subversive works of children's literature suggest that there are other views of human life besides those of the shopping mall and the corporation. They mock current assumptions and express the imaginative, unconventional, noncommercial view of the world in its simplest and purest form. They appeal to the imaginative, questioning, rebellious child within all of us, renew our instinctive energy, and act as a force for change." Alison Lurie, Don't Tell the Grown-Ups: Subversive Children's Literature

Beginning the course with Washington Irving's "Rip Van Winkle" (1819) and "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" (1820) serves several useful purposes. Students familiar with animated Thanksgiving television versions of these texts are invariably shocked by differences in language, content, and focus between Irving's originals and twentieth-century revisions. This immediate challenge to their expectations provokes introductory discussions of defining American children's literature and examining the ways such texts are manipulated by those who control the means of cultural representation. The rich textual commentary on pre- and post-Revolutionary America seen, for instance, in the changes in Rip's village (first pastoral and isolated, then bustling and political) and in Ichabod Crane's misreading of Cotton Mather's witchcraft texts leads to discussions of Puritanism, seventeenth- and eighteenth-century American history, and literary uses of that history.

Irving's version of American history compares interestingly with any of Nathaniel Hawthorne's first three children's books. Grandfather's Chair, Famous Old People, and Liberty Tree, all published in 1841, recount Hawthorne's versions of Puritan, pre- Revolutionary, and Revolutionary American history as told by Grandfather, the narrator, to his grandchildren. As is true in the adult fiction, Hawthorne's concern is for historical accuracy stripped of nineteenth-century revisionist propaganda and can be compared to Irving's sly and mocking cultural commentary. That Hawthorne is a well-known author of virtually unknown children's books provides students with further insight into the traditional marginalizing of children's literature as we move from Washington Irving (Famous Author of Works They've Heard Of And Seen In Cartoons) to Nathaniel Hawthorne (Famous Author of Works They've Heard Of But Never These Works And Never In Cartoons).

Louisa May Alcott's Little Women (1868, 1869) and Samuel Clemens' Tom Sawyer (1876) move us from views of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century American history and culture to antebellum and Civil War America. The antibildungsroman nature of both novels, seen in Tom Sawyer and Jo March, neither of whom wants to grow up, provides discussions of gender and gender portrayal. In the famous fence whitewashing scene, Tom so strongly wishes to avoid work that he tricks his pals into thinking that work is play, while after a disastrous day of "vacation" the March sisters embrace work as female independence.

Both nineteenth-century American capitalism (the sisters desire material goods in Little Women just as fervently as Tom and Huck desire hidden treasure) and religion (middle-class mother figures promote societal values when Aunt Polly prays over Tom, and Marmee moralizes and gives her daughters Bibles for Christmas) can be usefully connected to Irving's version of eighteenth-century capitalist America seen in "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" and to the rise of the moralizing midddle-class in nineteenth-century America. Though Clemens writes Tom Sawyer after the American Civil War, he rhetorically avoids the war by setting his book in the antebellum South. Little Women, also written after the war, is set during the war, but the novel and its characters are virtually unaffected. Indeed, the greatest purpose the war serves is to keep Reverend March, the absent husband and father, absent and thus preserve the gender-exclusive family. The continued popularity of Little Women and Tom Sawyer and the ways in which the books seem to be both for and not for children continues the course's exploration of the nature and uses of American children's literature.

Jack London's Call of the Wild (1903) and his use of social Darwinism and Nietzschean archetypes provides a good illustration of cultural change from the nineteenth to the twentieth century. London's writing may remind students of the writings of Stephen Crane and Charlotte Perkins Gilman. These similarities combined with his reputation as a hack writer, the "Kipling of the Klondike," as well as his position as the first American writer to become a millionaire through his writings encourage students to confront questions of popular and elite literature. Throughout The Call of the Wild, Buck, the main canine character, observes and adapts in his liminal state between the domestic and the wild. Watching Buck learn to negotiate the radically changed circumstances of his life is as compelling as watching Rip Van Winkle, Jo March, Huck Finn, and a host of other characters who struggle and grow in American literature. Students will be eager to use Buck's transformation to discuss realism and socialism in twentieth-century American culture. They will also see how late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century America's reading of Darwin combined with capitalism, industrialization, and immigration could lead readers like London to define life as the archetypal competition for existence seen in The Call of the Wild.

Like The Call of the Wild, D'Arcy McNickle's Runner in the Sun (1954) explores survival of the fittest, here for the prehistoric Pueblo Indians of the Southwest, much before European arrival. Students will see elements of Native American oral tradition (short sentences, repeated nouns rather than pronouns) in McNickle's writing and will encounter Native American history in his stress on America's pre-European past. The main character, Salt, having just passed the initiation from boyhood to manhood, is forced by circumstances to forfeit his turquoise badge, his sign of manhood. Salt thus finds himself in a liminal state and, unlike Jo March and Tom Sawyer, wants very much to grow up and save his tribe. Salt's progress toward manhood suggests gender and identity issues. Runner in the Sun also promotes historical issues not only of pre-European America but of the termination years of the 1950s and their accompanying hard times for Native American tribes.

Anne Sexton performs historical and literary revision in the reconstructed fairy tales collected in Transformations (1971). Narrated by "a middle-aged witch, me," the seventeen poems, rich in archetype and symbolism, engage issues of sexual identity (the Rapunzel poem begins, "A woman who loves a woman is forever young") and American culture. Students will again be confronted with defining children's literature (Sexton uses Grimm's fairy tales as her models and yet her poems are both for and not for young readers), while Sexton's many cultural references will provoke discussions of feminism, politics, and social change in the sixties. Mildred Taylor's Newbery Medal-winning novel Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry (1976), set in 1930's Mississippi and told from the perspective of nine-year old Cassie, daughter of landowning descendants of slaves, provides for discussion of race, racism, and the American 1930s. Taylor's detailed historical accuracy and use of a contemporary African American voice in her description of events in Mississippi can be compared to Hawthorne's and McNickle's retellings of American history. Issues of gender and race are raised by Cassie's maturation through the narrative.

A wide range of contemporary children's books can conclude this children's literature reading of the American canon. To give just one example, Omar Castaneda's Abuela's Weave (1993), set in Guatemala, follows the transition of a young girl as she learns about weaving and identity from her grandmother. Children's literature, then, like other American literatures, can help us open the curriculum, teach a reconstructed American literature, and so view the texts we spend our lives contemplating from a new, culturally resonant perspective.

Contents, No. XII