Subversive childrens literature

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?


5 thoughts on “Subversive childrens literature

  1. My thesis student wrote about a version of this question this year, looking most of all at Through the Looking-Glass. She argues, in essence, that the function of nonsense in children’s literature is to help the child-readers learn to think critically and creatively — in other words, what appears “subversive” or “dangerous” is actually inculcating important, socially-sanctioned skills.

    I think we sometimes forget that education and socialization aren’t necessarily about simple coercion and so on. You have to be taught to value freedom, independence, and the like, too.

  2. Right. Critical thinking is not a “subversive” virtue, just a virtue — one on which our liberal society, which requires debate, thrives. And all the great books teach it — Lurie’s right about that. And therefore she’s also right that it’s possible to make a distinction between books that teach independence and books that encourage obedience and conformity (Sarah Trimmer, back in the day, and — I would add — The Babysitter’s Club, today).

    But what about the fact that these books, which encourage independence and personal integrity, also encourage kindness, responsibility, honour, charity, tact and the like? This stuff doesn’t have anything to do with critical thinking. These are not the virtues that are linked with independence; they are the virtues of social interaction, i.e. precisely of our dependence on one another and the consequent necessity of curbing the ego.

    I think those elements, pretty common in ChL, are the real reason it can’t be called subversive. And I can’t make up my mind whether the effect of all this morality is to impose stultifying conventions or something much more salutary. I guess I would say sometimes one and sometimes the other. But to say this is to weigh the books up in moral terms.

    I think, actually, that that is how we judge children’s books. A “good” one teaches a lesson I like; a “bad” one teaches a lesson I don’t like. But no one wants to admit that this is so. So they go on a hunt for books that don’t teach lessons. Non-didactic children’s books, as if there were any, or as if they’d be any good if there were. And they call their own favourites “subversive,” as if they were un-teaching morality.

  3. It may be interesting to contrast with the literature about “genius”, whereby the childlike tendencies of geniuses are glorified.
    Read “The Sexual Politics of Genius”, link provided at the above entry.

    You know what I most admire about Albert Einstein? A comment by the daughter of one of his colleagues in reply to the question, “You met Einstein. What was he like?”

    She laughed and replied that he never ever did his own laundry or paid for it. He simply went around without socks until some naive soul noticed it and offered to do his laundry for him. What a passive aggressive genius!

  4. Thanks, I will read. I actually have a whole separate rant about how Hollywood encourages us to think of geniuses as social misfits and mentally unbalanced. Einstein maybe didn’t care about clean socks, but he held down a job!

  5. wait, don’t you sort of have to have something before you can subvert it? I mean, if ChL was kinda like a pseudo-beginning wouldn’t the subversive ones act simply as token subversion so we’re ready for it when we actually subvert things? And in that case, isn’t subversion at all?

    But then if what the child does already have to subvert is a large ego-centric stance on the world wouldn’t traditional norms and values all be subversive to that? Playing along nicely, being polite, sharing and not lying all be subversive to the child’s normative viewpoint?

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