Since television his largely superseded books as children’s entertainment, it is reasonable to question what function children’s literature now has—or at least what function is intended.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 us they wanted us to grow up strong and true in a country which was always moral, led by giants, and in which everyone was concerned with the common good. I do not think it would have improved our moral condition to be instructed endlessly in the failings of our country, our elders. When, considerably later, we discovered more of the true nature of things, we became the generation that was genuinely outraged by the distinction between what we had assumed America to be and what it was.
Two of my children, now in their late teens, were educated differently in those progressive schools which (to be somewhat unfair but nonetheless true to their spirit) covered American history in three parts: what we did to the Indians; what we did to the black man; and what we are still doing to everyone else. These daughters of mine seem to be quite unconcerned by it all. They have always known the way the world was, that life is unfair. I think they are glad they are on top of the heap, and intend to devote their energies to staying there. They are sophisticated in a way I never was.
The education of the children of the poor is, of course, another matter. Here the attempt in children’s books has been to raise the level of selfesteem and, for black children, to reproduce a world which was theirs, but had been so unrepresented in children’s books as to make them feel they existed in some limbo off the mainland. But if Dick and Jane in the suburbs did not get to them, neither, I think, did black Dick and Jane and the Rat. Writers, both black and white, are still uncertain about what it is they are trying to transmit to the young—especially to those children over the age for picture books and simple stories.
June Jordan’s His Own Where, a novel for teen-agers written in a kind of poetic idealized black English, is a dreamlike love story in which Buddy Rivers and Angela Figueroa go off to a cemetery to begin a new life together away from that other place where they are nothing. The story begins:
You be different from the dead. All them tombstones tearing up the ground, look like a little city, like a small Manhattan, not exactly. Here is not the same.
Here, you be bigger than the buildings, bigger than the little city. You be really different from the rest, the resting other ones.
Buddy’s father is dying in a hospital after having been hit by a car. Buddy is now alone in the house they together turned into a spacious architectural marvel. Angela’s uptight parents, no-nonsense working people, abuse her so severely that she is sent to a girls’ shelter. “But why,” Buddy asks, “Angela’s parents have to work so hard and long and why they have to live so crowded up they saying nothing. Point no finger. Take no action.”
Buddy leaves school, leaves his father, and runs off to the cemetery with Angela when she returns to the city for a weekend at home. Throughout the book Buddy fantasizes how he could make life better in school, on his block. But they are fantasies of hopelessness. We know, he knows, that getting everyone dancing in the school lunch room will not end in a happy party. And the next day will be just the next day. Buddy and Angela sleeping together in the cemetery, planning to have a baby and to live a pure clean life among the dead, is itself a metaphor of death, much like the cover of the book—a photograph of stone steps covered by fallen leaves leading into darkness.
In old-timey books, this kind of able, intelligent boy would plan to really be somebody important. He would then come back, get Angela, and take her away to live in the real world.
Another book about black urban teen-age life is The Planet of Junior Brown. Here we have two bright and talented boys in trouble. Buddy Clark is homeless; Junior Brown is grossly fat, suffering from his mother’s smothering and his father’s neglect. These boys, too, have stopped going to school, but are being taught mathematics through astronomy in a secret room in the school by Mr. Pool, a janitor who was once a teacher but gave up because “I lost heart…I could no longer teach in so rigid a regime.”
Buddy is a kind of superboy, head of a number of communes of homeless boys who live in abandoned buildings in the city and who are taught by Buddy how to exist as small invisible men leading secret lives in secret places. When Junior Brown is finally driven into a psychotic breakdown, he is taken by Mr. Pool and Buddy to one of the crumbling buildings, there to begin a new life. Again, there is the despairing implication that one can manage life only by laying low in it.
Both Junior Brown and His Own Where have that nightmare quality of a world in which adolescents live always at the edge of breakdown and isolation. They are not unique thereby among books for pre-adults. Pain and depression have become a convention of such books, reflecting their writers’ obsession with what is by now the commonplace vision of life today as menacing and cold.
Paula Fox’s Blowfish Live in the Sea, concerned with adolescent middle-class pain and depression, is—like all Salinger repeats—depressing to read. The story is about Carrie and her older half-brother, Ben, an eighteen-year-old Seymour Glass. But this role is given him a full generation after Seymour Glass, talking to a child about banana fish, became the model for male, late adolescent, sensitive insanity.
Ben lives at home with his bewildered mother and stepfather. He has stopped going to school. He just lets his hair grow long, gives away his possessions, and writes “Blowfish live in the sea” on things. In the course of the novel, Ben meets his real father—a failed alcoholic entrepreneur—whom he has not seen since childhood. Ben finally decides to live with his father, who needs him. Together, they will transform his father’s latest business venture, a seedy motel. A pathetic solution to the need to be needed by a parent.
As adolescence—that state of grappling with the problem of becoming—stretches ever longer, the message being sent in books for “young adults” feeds into the adolescent sense of being surplus. I find in them, lately, almost a tacit encouragement of the notion that because the adult world has no place for the young, perhaps it is better to act out fantasies now.
I remember talking, a few years ago, to a parent whose child was at the same permissive school as mine. I told him that I thought our children would never learn how to do anything hard or that they didn’t want to do. “Maybe they won’t have to,” he said. “None of us has any way of preparing these children for the kind of world it’s going to be—we don’t even know what it’s going to be.” But, really, we knew perfectly well what the world was going to be for the great mass of the young. They were going to need the same old hard work and drive to make it, whatever it was; and they would experience the same old dissatisfaction if the they failed.
There is a different kind of book for younger boys which I would feel rather more sheepish about liking if it were not for my ten-year-old son’s espousal of it as the best book he ever read. The Making of Joshua Cobb is a hopelessly conservative middle-class book about success at boarding school. Joshua Cobb starts out as a good, if disorganized, boy and becomes an even better boy; he gets into some interesting old-fashioned trouble along the way, but is helped along by fair-minded authority figures. At the end, Joshua feels pretty good about himself, having learned some useful things about how to grow up.
That’s all there is, and it’s far too simple for teen-agers, and very unlike true boarding school life today. But, after all, teen-age books are read by a younger group than is indicated by the publishers, and those kids like to think—they really do—that by trying, you can succeed. We have almost knocked the reachable ideal out of children’s lives in our attempts to tell them that we know how rotten it is out there, and that we are too honest to give them pieties. It is not always hypocrisy, however, to give kids the sense that it is possible to shape their own future by some sensible action within the setting of real childhood rather than in the realm of nutty fantasy.
These have all been books dominated by boys. Books for and about girls, with rare exceptions, are of a different order. The adults are not so worried about what to do with girls as they get older, for until now it has been entirely acceptable for women to remain in that perpetual, faintly adolescent state of forever becoming and never getting there. Manhood is not something to which girls need aspire.
The Feminist Press, originally formed to publish “consciousness-raising” pamphlets, has now issued its first two books for children. One hardly need be reminded that most children’s books deny girls active and heroic “role models.” Still, the Feminist Press has not yet been of much service in taking matters into its own hands. Both its books are the sort that only the daughter of a movement mother would read—and then only out of loyalty.
The Dragon and the Doctor is a spiritless, artificial nursery tale whose only reason for being is that the doctor in the game is played by a girl. Challenge to Become a Doctor: The Story of Elizabeth Blackwell, an amateurish exposition of the life of America’s first woman doctor, soars with such language as:
Elizabeth’s first view of Cincinnati was from the deck of the Steamboat Tribune. “What a lovely hillside city!” she exclaimed.
The good intentions of the Feminist Press are evident, and I would hope their efforts will prod real publishers and real writers to examine the outmoded attitudes toward women they are passing on. In any case, I expect we will soon have a spate of feminist propaganda books for children, for feminism is sure to be the new wave in the children’s book industry, which is always a few years behind in bringing news from the grown-up world.
The waves rise and subside, but there is still the problem of bringing useful news from that world. This can be and has been done superbly well in the “Little House” books, a long autobiography of the pioneer childhood of Laura Ingalls Wilder—one of those rare and natural writers for children whose style and attitude allow them to write as they want, and it turns out to be what children want too. Beginning in 1933, eight volumes were published over a decade. They have recently been reissued in paper. The ninth book in the series, The First Four Years, a story of Mrs. Wilder’s early married life on a homestead in South Dakota, has now been published posthumously.
The “Little House” books begin with Laura Ingalls as a small girl in a log cabin in the Wisconsin woods of the 1860s and follow her as she grows up in a pioneer family moving west with the nation through Kansas, Minnesota, and the Dakota Territory. It was an enormously hard life filled with natural disasters, illnesses, failed crops, lost opportunities. But there was also a sense of great satisfaction in being a child with valuable work to do and being able to do it well, to function in the world.
How, in this world, are we going to be able to give the young back their sense of worth?
April 20, 1972