Unchildish Activities

Don’t Tell the Grown-ups: Subversive Children’s Literature

by Alison Lurie
Little, Brown, 229 pp., $19.95

Somebody’s been putting ideas into your head”—there, down the ages, is the voice of authority, in the form of parent, nanny, teacher, when faced with questions that threaten received ideas and their privilege of “Allow me to know best.” That they have been busily putting ideas into children’s heads—ideas of behavior, morality, and the status quo—is quite another story. E. Nesbit hit off the type in her invention (in “The Cockatoucan”) of the nurse-maid transformed into the Automatic Nagging Machine, which ejects little rolls of paper carrying messages like “Don’t be tiresome.”

Now comes a nice reversal. Here is Teacher herself encouraging subversion in the classroom and at home—or at least showing us how many of the best children’s books, approved by authority, carry a hidden charge that may put explosive ideas into a child’s head. Alison Lurie teaches children’s literature at Cornell; she takes children’s books very seriously, but without being overly solemn; she resents the apartheid that keeps them in special sections in libraries and in readers’ minds; and she has a sense of mission to students who have grown up “with no better nourishment for their imaginations than the crude comedy and plastic adventure stories of films and television,” and who “know the classics of children’s literature only in cheap cartoon versions, if at all.”

Subversion is the sign under which she has assembled this collection of her occasional writings about children’s books and authors, from fairy tales to Dr. Seuss; many of them first appeared in these columns:

Most of the great works of juvenile literature are subversive in one way or another: they express ideas and emotions not generally approved of or even recognized at the time; they make fun of honored figures and piously held beliefs; and they view social pretenses with clear-eyed directness, remarking—as in Andersen’s famous tale—that the emperor has no clothes.

So off we go at a gallop, pursuing the familiar—Frances Hodgson Burnett, Beatrix Potter, J.M. Barrie, A.A. Milne, J.R.R. Tolkien, T.H. White, and the less familiar like Mrs. W.K. Clifford and Ford Madox Ford—and sniffing out subversion with all the zeal of a McCarthy witch hunter. There are many kinds. Subversion may be open, as in Tom Sawyer, Mark Twain’s reaction to the improving tales distributed in his youth by religious and educational bodies. His seditious account of his home town was “intended mainly for the entertainment of boys and girls,” he wrote in his preface, so nobody had to take it seriously. Huckleberry Finn was not so labeled and was taken seriously enough to be censored here and there. (Kipling’s Stalky & Co., I would add, was a similarly subversive reaction to the pious rendering of school life in Dean Farrar’s Eric, or Little by Little, and the Christian manliness of Tom Brown’s Schooldays.)

Then there are the secretly subversive writers who found the children’s book an opportunity for putting across their own unpopular or revolutionary ideas. Frances Hodgson Burnett smuggled into The Secret Garden unorthodox notions about religion, psychology, and health. E. Nesbit infiltrated Fabian views into her stories. The king in “Fortunatus Rex & Co.” is the largest speculative builder in the world—and of course a villain. The working-class boy of “The Mixed Mine” is far brighter than the little gentlemen and deserves as good an education—so E. Nesbit cheerfully ends the tale by sending them both to Oxford. Even Kate Greenaway’s idealized little children at play in a rural, paradise can be seen as “a silent protest against what the railways and the factories were doing to the English countryside.” In our day Richard Adams has used the rabbits of Watership Down to convey ideas that went against the prevailing ethos of the Sixties—ideas of courage, honor, and dignity, of creatures “who would risk their lives for others, whose love for their families and friends and community was enduring and effective.” There can, it appears, be conservative subversion.

Pacifism is a message that many writers have slipped past the censoring elder. Munro Leaf’s “Ferdinand the Bull” refuses to fight—and was immensely popular with children in World War II, when pacifism was a dirty word. A.A. Milne’s Pooh stories can be read as propaganda for the peaceable kingdom of animal and child, free from adult authority. In the last book of The Once and Future King T.H. White made King Arthur ardent for peace—and found his publisher unenthusiastic, for 1941 was no time to challenge patriotism. Alison Lurie reflects on White’s fate when his chronicle became the Broadway and Hollywood Camelot—“a glossy travesty, sentimental and pretty where the book was skeptical and passionate”:

It is quite appropriate that John F. Kennedy’s court, often at the time of his reign compared to the musical and film versions of Camelot, turned out in the end to have been a lot more like White’s chronicle, with its flawed heroes, its inspiring public rhetoric and scandalous private revelations—and, of course, its awful end.

Tolkien too questioned conventional views of patriotism and of history as a record of great events and great heroes. His heroes of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, Bilbo and Frodo, are small men who are indifferent to glory or wealth, who succeed “not through superior skill or strength or wisdom but, like the heroes of the old folktales, by the exercise of the small-town, middle-class virtues of simplicity, good nature, ingenuity, and patient determination.” For William Mayne the past is always round the corner—to be read in a landscape or a building—but it is a past that goes against the received view (such as I was brought up with, in books like Our Island Story):

His best books suggest that the history of the British Empire is sometimes not a chronicle of glory and triumph, but a dark and confused record.

Another kind of subversion comes from writers who go back to their own childhood and settle old scores. The boy-narrator of Kenneth Grahame’s Golden Age has a sharp eye for the hypocrisy, stupidity, and sheer boringness of the grown-ups of Grahame’s own childhood. E. Nesbit puts words she would have liked to utter into the mouth of Matilda (in “The Cockatoucan”) who refuses to visit her great-aunt Willoughby:

She would be asked about her lessons, and how many marks she had, and whether she had been a good girl. I can’t think why grown-up people don’t see how impertinent these questions are. Suppose you were to answer, “I’m top of my class, Auntie, thank you, and I’m very good. And now let’s have a little talk about you, Aunt, dear, how much money have you got, and have you been scolding the servants again, or have you tried to be good and patient as a properly brought up aunt should be, eh, dear?

Alison Lurie has unearthed some fairy stories by Ford Madox Ford, written for his much younger sister; she is sure that in The Queen who Flew he was getting his own back on the parents of Elsie Martindale with whom he eloped when he was twenty and she seventeen. The ending, with the queen retiring to the country and marrying a plowman, was a way of saying that love in a cottage was better than a stuffy establishment in London. Barrie too was indulging a personal resentment when he put his feelings about Arthur Llewellyn Davies, the real father of the Peter Pan boys, into the creation of Mr. Darling, incompetent husband and deceitful parent.

In a final chapter, “The Folklore of Childhood,” Alison Lurie considers the subversive words of children themselves, in their tribal games and playground chants. “Everything we might want to protect boys and girls from is already in these verses”—drink, sex, the horror of war:

Look, look, mama,
What is that stuff
That looks like strawberry jam?
Hush, hush, my child,
It is papa,
Run over by a tram.

Here we are in Opie-land, also explored in Alison Lurie’s wonderfully funny Foreign Affairs, the novel about the American lady professor doing fieldwork in the playgrounds of Camden Town.

To this witty and enlightening survey I would like to add a further category of subversion: where a writer (who has no illusions about children being nice and good) has entered into a happy conspiracy with a child to expose grown-up morality. Such writers remember their own need to escape from the drab routines of home and school into unimproving books, “chronicles of disorder” as Joyce called the Wild Westerns of his youth. There is Thackeray, entertaining his daughters with The Rose and the Ring, in which kings, parents, governess, the haughty footman all get their come-uppance. There is Edward Lear (banished to the housekeeper’s room at Lord Derby’s stately mansion) encouraging the children of the house by his limericks and drawings to see life as something absurd. There is Belloc, pretending to his little friends that his Cautionary Tales are “designed for the Admonition of Children” but really saying that he is one of them:

For people such as me and you
Who pretty nearly all day long
Are doing something rather wrong.

And there is Robert Louis Stevenson, whose Moral Emblems, composed with his stepson Lloyd Osbourne, tell a different tale from that of A Child’s Garden of Verses. I quote my favorite:

Mark, printed on the opposing page,
The unfortunate effects of rage.
A man (who might be you or me)
Hurls another into the sea.
Poor soul, his unreflecting act
His future joys will much contract;
And he will spoil his evening toddy
By dwelling on that mangled body.

Child and grown-up can sometimes be on the same side.