Because of my research interests in education, I would guess I am more familiar with the scholarship on children’s literature than many intellectual historians. Most of the work on children’s literature seems to come from American Studiers or from researchers housed in colleges of education, or, increasingly, from the new and growing interdisciplinary field of “childhood studies,” spearheaded by the program at Rutgers University-Camden. I am currently reading a book from the Rutgers Series in Childhood Studies: Michelle Ann Abate, Raising Your Kids Right: Children’s Literature and American Political Conservatism.
One thing about the historiography on children’s literature that leaves me unsatisfied is that there are few compelling notions about why children’s literature is important. That children’s literature is, in fact, important, is inarguable, I suppose, to the degree that it is not argued. Perhaps intellectual historians are better situated to offer answers?
Take Abate’s book, about children’s literature produced by conservatives since the 1990s. She argues that right-wing children’s literature—William Bennett’s The Book of Virtues, Terri Birkett’s Truax (an anti-environmentalist parody of Dr. Seuss’s The Lorax), Tim LaHaye’s Left Behind series for children, Lynne Cheney’s picture books, The O’Reilly Factor for Kids, etc.—needs to be considered as part and parcel of the larger Christian Right counterculture. She writes: “Although children’s literature has often espoused didactic lessons, offered conservative morals, and even contained political themes, the new crop of books for young readers that began appearing in the early 1990s did so in a new and far more overt way” (4). She contends that these recent conservative children’s books contain “the broad spectrum of subjects that comprise the U.S. culture wars…” (4)
Although Abate adds an important component to the rapidly growing historiography on recent American conservatism, she does little to explain the importance of children’s literature, other than to show that adults consider it important. But again, this is common. Even the best addition to this historiography, Julia Mickenberg’s Learning from the Left: Children’s Literature, the Cold War, and Radical Politics in the United States, does little, from my vantage point, to explain why scholars should pay attention to children’s literature. Mickenberg is quite right to say that children’s literature is potentially influential given its vast audience—a “ready market provided by school libraries.” And she provides tons of fun material from leftist children’s book authors, such as by M. Boland, whose “ABC for Martin” (1931) began with the following clever refrain: “A stands for Armaments—war-mongerers’ pride; B is for Bolshie, the thorn in their side.” (Now that’s poetry!) But still…
Like in the history of education, it seems clear that the history of children’s literature pivots from Robert Hine’s oft-repeated quote: “What society wants its children to know reveals what that society wants itself to be.” But this sentiment is about adults. What does reading literature do to children? What do children make of literature? Personally, I think growing up reading literature made me a much more empathetic person, someone much more likely to root for the underdog. Perhaps this was due to the literature put into my hands by my mother, a high school English teacher with decidedly liberal sympathies. Or perhaps this was due to the very genre of literature, the very act of reading literature.
In a recent review of Samuel Moyn’s The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History, Robin Blackburn takes issue with Moyn’s argument that human rights were invented in the 1970s. Moyn contends that using the framework of human rights to explain political or intellectual history prior to the 1970s is at best anachronistic, at worst a teleological cover for imperialistic impulses of humanitarian interventionists. Blackburn finds a good deal to like about this contention, but maintains that not everyone who fought for rights since the Age of Revolution did so in the name of state power and, as such, often did so in the cause of individual, even “human” rights. Blackburn disagrees with Moyn because he explicitly has in mind abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison, who never tied his disdain for slavery to state power. Quite to the contrary, he disavowed the Constitution as a guarantor of slavery. (This seems to come directly from Blackburn’s new book, The American Crucible: Slavery, Emancipation and Human Rights.)
How does this detour into human rights history relate to children’s literature? Blackburn writes:
We can agree that fictitious lineages help no one. Nevertheless, if the first law of history is that the past is always another country, the second is that it is never beyond the reach of the present. Lynn Hunt’s Inventing Human Rights (2007) sees the appeal to subjective ‘rights’ as a product of the new print culture of the 18th century, arguing that the wider identifications encouraged by the novel endowed readers with a new sensibility and sensitivity to suffering. She traces the emergence of a concern with ‘human rights’ as much to the psychology of the novel reader as to the arguments of the philosophers—with Rousseau, as philosopher-novelist scoring on both counts. While the political pamphlet appealed to the reasoning faculty, the novel or poem encourages the reader to imagine herself or himself in the situation of another. It directly aroused sympathy and de-familiarized oppression… The reader could be invited to identify with those unlike themselves.
Does something akin to this explain the recent importance of children’s literature?
Scholars tend to argue that, for most of its history, children’s literature was inherently conservative in its didactic approach to instilling proper behavior. Only recently has children’s literature more openly explored issues that arouse empathy, or the relativistic side of morality. Thus, Abate argues recent right-wing children’s literature is anti-modern in harkening back to a bygone era and that, as such, it fails to arouse empathy.
But if this is true—that conservative children’s literature fails to invite readers to identify with those unlike themselves—then what explains its popularity? What explains the millions of copies sold? I suppose there is one of three answers to this perplexing question. 1) Empathy is an overrated component of recent children’s literature, which does not, after all, act like the 18th century novel. 2) Conservative literature does, in fact, arouse empathy, just not for liberal academics like Abate. 3) American conservatives are decidedly un-empathetic and don’t want their children to evince sympathy for those who suffer.
My guess is some complex combination of all three is at play here. But this leads me back around to my original question: Why is children’s literature important? Is it merely a synecdoche for adult concerns?