His Own Where
The Planet of Junior Brown
Blowfish Live in the Sea
The Making of Joshua Cobb
The Dragon and the Doctor
Challenge to Become a Doctor: The Story of Elizabeth Blackwell
The “Little House” Books
The First Four Years
Since television his largely superseded books as children’s entertainment, it is reasonable to question what function children’s literature now has—or at least what function is intended. I am speaking of those books for children meant to have a beneficent effect on their readers, apart from the pulp aimed at the childish in children which they happily obtain for themselves.
Except for those romantics who see childhood as holy innocence, most of us like a child best when he reveals the potential adult. No child is more charming than when he is witty, rational, compassionate, hard-working, creative, and, above all, civilized—all desirable but having little to do with the natural state of the child. Responsible adults who direct their attention to children spend much of their time, by one or another method, on the process of civilization. Traditionally, children’s books have been one of the methods used to transmit adult values; a bridge by which children cross over to our side.
At some point during the early Sixties, the “consciousness revolution” reached children’s books, an industry which had been known for its control over exactly what its books were instructing children in. But now the word was out. Children had been fed intellectual mush and irrelevant tales. The rush was on to provide them with a feast of reality. Ghetto kids were to have books about slums, absent fathers, and rats that did not talk. Middle-class kids were to be helped to cope with divorce, alcoholic parents, and the anomie endemic to suburban living. That naturalistic literature which had disappeared from the serious world of letters came to a new flowering in children’s books. If we do not tell them about the world as it is, the theory goes, they will not know who they are or where they live.
I am bothered by a nagging doubt concerning this thesis. During the Second World War, when I was twelve or thirteen years old, I lived in a New York neighborhood where people were getting very rich in what was presumably a time of sacrifice. It seemed to me that the war at home meant black market nylon stockings and gasoline, shoes and meat bought without ration coupons. The ambiance was one of “I’m all right, Jack,” conga lines at the Copacabana, trips to Miami, and fifteen-year-old girls wearing beaver coats to school. I may not have known them, but I read about other kinds of people—sometimes in good books, but also in the popular novels of the day which made such perfect older children’s books in their lack of complexity, their simplifications of good and evil. They ranged from The Robe (that dreadful novel about Christ) to Mrs. Miniver. Here and in the movies we gathered our ideas of integrity, sacrifice, bravery.
These sentimentalized figures were our models in an often corrupt reality. And our romantic notions of what life ought to be were encouraged by adults who at least told …