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 …

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