Ever since Alison Lurie published her famous argument to the effect that all great children’s literature was “subversive,” it’s been the rage to claim the status for one’s favourites. I’ve heard Harry Potter called subversive, and Tomi Ungerer’s books, and Junie B. Jones, and heaven knows what else. Now I’m writing a paper on the question. I have some strong sources and some good ideas, but because it’s on my mind I thought I’d throw it out there and see if you all had some thoughts too.
Lurie uses the term subversive to mean books where the characters challenge authority. She loves Tom Sawyer and Alice in Wonderland because they mock pompous adults and encourage an independence of mind in their readers. But – here’s the first question — is that really subversive? Isn’t it the case that our society admires those who challenge authority? It seems to me that we do. And for that matter, so did the Victorians; at any rate both books were widely embraced on publication, and critics do not seem to have felt they threatened the fabric of society.
So the first question is just about this overused word. But the second question is much trickier, namely: does children’s literature ever actually encourage anyone to think for herself? The heroes Lurie mentions all break rules, yes, but they do so in the service of a broader conception of virtue. Tom is courageous and loyal; Alice is intelligent, kind, and polite. It seems to me that what is happening here, and in most children’s novels of the type, is a kind of trick: naughtiness is offered to the reader for the taking, but only if she conforms to more important social norms.
“Books for adolescents,” writes Roberta Seelinger Trites, “are subversive—but sometimes only superficially so. In fact, they are quite often didactic; the denouements of many Young Adult novels contain a direct message about what the narrator has learned. Moreover, books for adolescents have lots of sex. And many dreadful parents. Many photographers. Many schools. Many dead bodies…. Books for adolescents have many ideologies. And they spend much time manipulating the adolescent reader.”
I think that something similar could be said about the less formulaic, more organic great books of children’s literature. Even without a direct message at the end or heavy-handed ideological manipulation, these books are teaching virtues. This is because children’s literature is fundamentally about personal growth. I have a big theory on this, but for now it’ll be enough to say that the crux of a piece of children’s literature always involves the protagonist learning something that will help her mature as a human being. That is why the books are so satisfying to read.
From this point I have two thoughts. The first is: and so what’s wrong with that? What’s wrong with books offering a satisfying moment of responsible realization and resolution? What’s wrong with basic social norms? Why do we seek so hard to find something “subversive” in our children’s reading material? And the second is: if the didactic quality of children’s literature arises from the fact that these books treat the subject of personal growth then maybe, if we do want to find some subversive novels, we should look to the small sub-genre which is about refusing to grow up. On this I also have some strong sources and secondary sources.
Anyone want a footnote? What have I missed?