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date: 22 October 2017

Radical Children’s Literature

Summary and Keywords

Children’s literature can be radical in its form, its content, or both. At the most basic level, radical children’s literature challenges conventions and norms—about society and, often, about childhood—and it inspires change, especially movements for social and environmental justice.

Radical children’s literature represents a paradox. On the one hand, some of the most enduring works of children’s literature are in some way subversive. Yet because of the persisting ideal of childhood innocence, “radical children’s literature” might be seen as an oxymoron, an impossibility: if it is radical, it cannot really be children’s literature. And yet, not only is “subversive children’s literature” a core thread within mainstream children’s literature, but radical children’s literature has also been an adjunct to nearly every social movement of the modern era, from abolitionism to socialism, communism, civil rights, Black Power, feminism, environmentalism, and gay liberation.

The history of radical children’s literature is tied closely to the history of children’s rights (within whose history the impulse to protect and the impulse to liberate children have sometimes been at odds: with each other, and with the real needs of children). Radical children’s literature, like the children’s rights movement, is both a reaction to “childism,” or prejudice against children, and is also vulnerable to it. Like the romantic ideal of the essential Child, the child subject or object of radical children’s literature is almost always an adult projection, thus liable to serving adults’ needs over those of children.

Within this dialectic, however, children’s literature has been a powerful force of positive change in many parts of the world, responding to and for the most part advancing the place of children in society. This has been the case even in repressive climates and under regimes hostile to change, both because children’s literature has tended to be a marginalized field, controlled by women and not seen as worthy of attention, and because of various institutional factors, from educational policies to children’s book awards that have inadvertently or actively helped promote the production and dissemination of radical children’s literature.

Like the majority of historical children’s literature, contemporary children’s literature remains predominantly an agent of embourgeoisement. Even so, the range of radical children’s literature published, especially in the past few decades—challenging racism, sexism, and heterosexism; promoting environmental responsibility, internationalism, peace, and collective solidarity against injustice and the abuse of authority; and urging children to challenge childism and to imagine other possible worlds—has been vast.

Keywords: children, children’s literature, politics, human rights (or children’s rights), communism, socialism, avant-garde, Soviet, progressive education, children’s liberation

Radical Children’s Literature, Childism, and Children’s Rights

The very idea of “radical children’s literature” is at once a paradox—an “impossibility,” if you will—and a foundational necessity. Children’s literature exists, on the one hand, primarily as an expression of what adults deem appropriate reading material for the young. “From the beginning,” Jack Zipes notes, “pedagogues, clergymen, publishers and government controlled children’s literature and printed books to promote their interests”; so it was that “primer, biblical story, broadsheet, dime novel, almanac, fairy tale, adventure book, romance, nursery rhyme, and pictures joined together to socialize readers in accord with male-dominated cultural dictums of the growing bourgeois, public sphere.”1 Arguably, that pattern has been fairly consistent: educator Herb Kohl, in a 1995 plea for “radical children’s literature,” notes “an almost total absence of books … that question the economic and social structure of our society and the values of capitalism.”2

Kohl’s definition of radical children’s literature may be too limited, and, in any case, his claim is certainly debatable. Nonetheless, his plea affirms Zipes’s point that children’s literature serves mainly as an agent of embourgeoisment. Indeed, the very notion of children’s literature inflected with politics or in other ways challenging convention might seem to conflict with children’s right to be “innocent” of pressing problems of the day or challenging concepts, or with their right to protection from political indoctrination. The assumption or ideal of childhood innocence is so powerfully ingrained, especially within generic conventions of literature for young children, that “radical children’s literature” sounds like an oxymoron. If it is radical, it cannot be appropriate reading material for children.3

Yet many of the most outstanding works of children’s literature have been “subversive” in one way or another, as Alison Lurie argues. “The great subversive works of children’s literature suggest that there are other views of human life besides those of the shopping mall and the corporation,” she notes. “They mock current assumptions and express the imaginative, unconventional, noncommercial view of the world in its simplest and purest form. They appeal to the imaginative, questioning, rebellious child within all of us, renew our instinctive energy, and act as a force for change. This is why such literature is worthy of our attention and will endure long after more conventional tales have been forgotten.”4

Children’s literature can be radical in its content, in its form, or both. At its core, radical children’s literature challenges dominant norms and expectations about childhood (and, by extension, adulthood), society, socialization in general, and children’s reading in particular. Philip Nel and I have argued, “radical children’s literature encourages children to question the authority of those in power. It teaches children to take collective action to effect change, to trust their own instincts, to explore alternative social arrangements, and to use history to understand how and why today’s world has developed as it has.” It “promote[s] social justice, environmental stewardship, and greater acceptance of differences.”5

Kimberley Reynolds claims that radical children’s literature is associated with innovation of all kinds. It entices readers “to approach ideas, issues and objects from new perspectives” through “plot and content” or through “stylistic innovation, new narrative forms, and fresh explorations of the book as a medium.” It includes a repertoire of texts that have “challenged authority, released subversive energies, refused to condescend and preach to readers, and … foregrounded issues to do with language as the medium of meaning,” for instance, through literary nonsense, which, by dismantling the naturalized meaning of linguistic codes can call all received logics into question. Reynolds explores the liberating possibilities of children’s literature for both authors and readers, as well as the plasticity of the children’s literature medium, stemming from the “oneiric dimension of childhood,” or the fact that “the logic of dreams, fantasy, play, and the imaginary, all associated with the young, is seen to be more permeable and plastic than the rationality assigned to adulthood.” Reynolds claims that the very act of “writing for the young” is “replete with radical potential” because of its role in “the social and aesthetic transformation of culture.”6 In terms of the child ideal imagined in radical children’s literature, as Reynolds writes of literature published in Britain for children in the early part of the 20th century, “Radical texts assumed an audience of intelligent, capable, socially aware young readers and set about providing them with the skills, information, and inspiring social visions they would need to find solutions to the many problems confronting the world; problems that would result in two world wars, a global financial crisis, and mass social unrest and protest over this period.”7

A number of scholars have recently explored the ways in which childhood’s close association with the animating impulses of the modern avant-garde has led to the translation of avant-garde aesthetics—perhaps most famously the Russian and Soviet avant-garde, but also Dadaism, Surrealism, Cubism, and Pop Art—into children’s literature, sometimes to radical effect. Children are associated with the general spirit of rebellion that enlivens these movements as well as their futurist orientation (avant-garde literally means “advance guard”). As Elina Druker and Bettina Kummerling-Meibauer write in the introduction to their edited collection, Children’s Literature and the Avant-Garde (2015), “What is manifested in these children’s books is a general idea of progression and change—change in norms and mindsets, and changes that can be traced to movements within arts, education, social systems, and ideologies.”8 In other words, what might be classified as an avant-garde children’s book would probably receive that classification because of its formal visual or textual qualities, but it is likely to reflect radical political influence as well.

Nearly every radical political movement of the modern era, from abolitionism to socialism, communism, the peace movement, civil rights, Black Power, feminism, environmentalism, disability rights, and LGBTQ rights, has found expression in children’s literature. This should not be surprising: children are the future, and any group invested in social change must attend to children. This has been the case even in repressive periods and sometimes under regimes that would seem inhospitable to the publication and dissemination of such work. This is so in part because the field of children’s literature, largely controlled by women and geared toward an audience that is relatively powerless, has often flown under the radar of cultural arbiters. And although public education exists in large part to support and sustain the existing social order, at least in the United States, certain educational practices and official policies have historically helped create markets for books that challenged the status quo.

What radical children’s literature has looked like in different historical contexts and cultural milieux, and how it has come to be published, disseminated, and read by children from a range of backgrounds, is a very large topic. For the sake of coherence, the focus here is on the 20th and early 21st centuries, with an emphasis on the U.S. and on books that are politically radical and, if aesthetically so, can be said to inspire social change by stimulating children to imagine new possibilities. However, even within a framework privileging a U.S. context, the 20th century, and radical politics, some attention to historical precedents as well as international influences and transnational patterns is necessary.

If radical children’s literature can in one way be understood as an essential thread in children’s literature more generally, its history is closely correlated with the history of children’s rights, which simultaneously and sometimes paradoxically have focused on protecting or “saving” the child and on liberating him or her.9 Both the impulse to protect or “save” the child and the impulse to liberate him or her can be seen as reactions against what psychologist Elisabeth Young-Bruehl has termed “childism” or “a prejudice against children on the ground of a belief that they are property and can (or should) be controlled, enslaved, or removed to serve adult needs.”10 However, as Young-Bruehl herself has argued, both child-protection measures and child-liberation measures have also functioned as forms of childism. So, too, does radical children’s literature run this risk.

From Puritans to Abolitionists

The Puritans were among the first to recognize certain rights of children, advising parents that children ought to be able to choose their own spouses, cautioning against overly severe punishment of children, and granting children power to complain to authorities “for redress.” But they were not interested in liberating children. The same law that offers children redress from unjust parents also “prescribes the death penalty for children over 16 who disobey their parents.”11 The Puritans created some of the first works of literature for children and forced them to learn to read at a young age: they hoped the young, by consciously accepting the word of God into their hearts, could be saved from eternal damnation. Puritan children’s literature reflects the authoritarian nature of that society, probably most obviously in the ubiquitous New England Primer, which went through more than 278 editions in its first hundred years, and repeatedly reiterates the authority of God, church, fathers, and teachers: even “Whales in the sea God’s voice obey” and “Foolishness is bound up in the heart of a child, but the rod of correction will drive it far from him.” However, in foregrounding “the book” as a beloved object (“my book and heart shall never part,” children are asked to recite), the Primer, Courtney Weikle-Mills has argued, augured acceptance of the notion that children were independent, rational beings who might form deep relationships with their books and, by extension, might take meanings from them that serve their own interests and needs.12

British philosopher John Locke, whose views anticipated and informed the European Enlightenment with its language of natural rights, “reject[ed] the patriarchal emphasis on subordination.” On the one hand, Locke assumed that children, as human beings, had a right to care and education and “that children must be taught to read ‘as a Thing of Delight.’” On the other hand, for Locke these rights of children imply power and rights to parents in particular and adults in general: Locke claimed parents have a duty not only to protect but also to control children. And if children’s reading is to be, for Locke, a thing of “delight,” this delight is merely what allows reading to function as a tool to teach powers of reasoning.13

The Enlightenment discourse of rights inherited in large part from Locke raised questions about the exercise of authority more generally, so that, for instance, many young citizens of the American “infant nation” imbibed the revolution’s language of independence and equal rights, exhibiting a willfulness that surprised some foreign observers.14 Still, a tradition of literature addressing children and actually encouraging them to challenge the status quo can be traced more directly to Jean Jacques Rousseau and Romantic-era thinkers William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, among others. In contrast to Locke’s image of the child as a “blank slate,” Rousseau believed that children were naturally good, emphasized direct experience in the natural world as the child’s best teacher, and encouraged parents to “let childhood ripen” in their children. Romantic thinkers like Wordsworth and Coleridge took Rousseau’s sanctification of the child to its logical extreme, depicting childhood as “an equally buoyant, exhilarating force being opened to the world” and “child’s play as the source of ever-progressive creativity.” Within “the Romantic discourse of essential childhood,” the Child comes to serve as “both the symbolic representative of the creative mind and the repository of creative power to be reclaimed by the retrospecting adult self.”15

A Romantic view of childhood and the attendant idea of children’s innate goodness can be tied to the development of a juvenile abolitionist literature that played upon children’s moral impulses. Despite its sentimental, often cloying, qualities and the even more problematic fact that abolitionist literature often served to re-inscribe white supremacy, this literature directly challenged what was arguably the most visible social injustice of its day, and it encouraged children to be activists.

Radical Children’s LiteratureClick to view larger

Figure 1. Anti-Slavery Alphabet, Letters A and B.

By permission of the Mississippi Department of Archives and History.

The Anti-Slavery Alphabet, published by the Philadelphia Anti-Slavery Society in 1847, makes this dynamic especially clear: it indicts not only the southern slaveholder but also the northern merchant—“Who buys what slaves produce/So they are stolen, whipped and worked/For his and for our use”—and every white child who benefits from slavery. But as Martha Sledge notes, rather than fostering the white child’s identification with “a Brother with a skin / Of somewhat darker hue” the text reiterates a clear distance between the white child who gets to learn to read and to play, and the wretched, toiling slave, making “Sugar …To put into your pie and tea, / Your candy, and your cake.”16

If the romantics tended to essentialize “the Child” as white and middle class, they also, by emphasizing the wonders of childhood, encouraged the development of a literature geared toward entertaining the young. As Lurie suggests, much of this literature celebrates children who break rules and ignore proper decorum: for instance, Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland (1865) mocked all manner of social convention (including the moralizing pap of children’s primers); Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women (1868) presented an entirely real and loveable female protagonist who adamantly resists female gender norms, and Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn (1884) challenged race relations in the U.S. South.17 These works are often classed as part of the “Golden Age of Children’s Literature” (roughly 1865–1920), when, as historian Henry Steele Commager famously noted, “majors wrote for minors,” and the lines between children’s literature and adult literature were fluid.18 That “Golden Age” is both a symptom and a product of what historians of childhood sometimes refer to as the “Age of the Child,” during which children were acknowledged as individuals with special needs, rights, and gifts.19 A range of movements and institutions arose during this period to serve and protect children, from the medical specialty of pediatrics, to kindergartens, to special training for children’s librarians and reading rooms in libraries, to the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, the juvenile court system, the National Child Labor Committee, and the Children’s Bureau.

These initiatives can be seen as an extension of the romantic impulse to cherish and protect the child. But the romantic Child ideal also has deeply childist implications, reflecting an adult projection of desires and feelings of inadequacy onto children. As Carolyn Steedman notes, “children gained their enormous affective power because there became available more and more ways of seeing their similarity with adults, and of apprehending them as part and as extension of the adult self.” Thus “the figure of the child, released from the many texts that gave birth to it, helped shape feelings, and structure feeling into thought.”20 Inasmuch as child-protection efforts are often repressive in their effect—Young-Bruehl cites the example of 19th-century “child savers” who argued for the value of putting poor children to work—and, as we shall see, child-liberation projects can likewise fail to truly serve children, so all children’s literature, as a projection of adult desire for children, always runs the risk of neglecting the child it purports to address, engage, and empower—thus its further “impossibility.”21

Changing demographic and industrial patterns that rendered children economically “useless” but sentimentally “priceless” at the turn of the 20th century fostered an ideal of childhood as a space of play and education rather than work, and reform efforts to secure all children’s “right to childhood”: a right to proper care, schooling, and a childhood free of toil.22 This demand, in conjunction with the rise of radical political movements like socialism, anarchism, and communism, combined with the development of progressive educational ideals and practices, and the rise of an international avant-garde, inspired a significant body of radical children’s literature. Although mainstream presses published some of this literature, in the United States, United Kingdom, and elsewhere, a range of presses arose in conjunction with radical social and political movements that specialized in radical literature.23

Socialists, for instance, in the United States, England, and elsewhere, established a network of Socialist Sunday Schools and began publishing magazines as well as children’s books to keep workers’ children (and working children) supplied with appropriately revolutionary reading material.24 In the United Kingdom, Socialists began publishing The Young Socialist: A Magazine of Love and Service (later re-subtitled A Magazine of Justice and Love) in 1901 with articles touching on current labor struggles, cruelty to animals, evolution, sex education, and peace, as well as games, puzzles, and lessons in Esperanto, an international language created to foster world peace.25 In the United States, the publisher Charles H. Kerr, which today promotes itself as offering “Subversive Literature for the Whole Family Since 1886,” published books such as Nature Talks on Economics by the Danish-born labor organizer and birth control advocate Caroline Nelson. Drawing upon the feminine tradition of “nature study,” the book uses examples from the natural world to teach lessons about class relations and social injustice. For instance, answering his children’s question about how a bird grows inside an egg, a father explains, “There was a revolt against living any longer in an egg state. It meant death and starvation. ‘Strike down the wall!’ was the cry. And the bird did something he had never done before; he moved his head and struck blow after blow … because he didn’t remain quiet, and say—‘It is no use. I have always been in an egg and therefore always shall be here until I die.’”26

Members of the early 20th-century avant-garde regularly placed children at the center of their programs for both political and aesthetic transformation. Reynolds cites illustrator Esther Averill’s 1930 commentary on the subject: “‘The avant-garde harps on the theme of the child. It has created a kind of religion for his sensitivities and imaginative powers, in which it reads its own better moods. It believes that the dreamlike state of mind in which it specializes and which it interprets with primitive graphic signs, is part and parcel of the child’s daily routine.’”27 One of the first true picture books for children (that is, a book for which pictures are fundamental rather than supplemental to understanding the story), the French Macao et Cosmage ou L’experience du Bonheur (1919; Macao and Cosmage, or the Experience of Happiness), by Édy Legrand, combines avant-garde elements of Art Nouveau, Art Deco, Japonism, and typographical experimentation and also critiques colonialism. “The idyllic existence of the eponymous protagonists, a white man and a black woman, comes to an abrupt end when colonization brings ‘civilization’ and ‘progress’ to their paradisiacal island.”28

The British avant-garde of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, which was generally socialist in orientation, had an important influence on children’s literature and was also strongly influenced by it. Marilynn Olsen discusses John Ruskin’s overwhelming influence on the pre-Raphaelite artists and the British Arts and Crafts movement in general, which produced some of the outstanding children’s illustrators of all time, among them Randolph Caldecott, Kate Greenaway, and Walter Crane: she points, for instance, to Caldecott’s background as a political caricaturist, noting, “his celebrated children’s books contain, in fact, many images that direct criticism at public morals and social customs with illustrative skill that found world-wide admiration.”29 Walter Crane, in addition to illustrating fairly mainstream children’s books such as editions of Aesop’s Fables or Goody Two Shoes, also edited and illustrated The Child’s Socialist Reader, with “The Socialist Ten Commandments,” including “Honour honourable people, respect the rights of all, and do not bend the knee to anyone,” and “Remember that all products of the earth are the result of labour; he who enjoys these goods without working, robs the worker of his bread.”30 The book also contains essays about “The Peasants Revolt,” “Karl Marx,” and “Unemployment.”

An international progressive education movement that drew upon a range of ideas and influences—from Rousseau to the Swiss philosopher Johann Pestalozzi, German educator Friedrich Froebel, Swedish feminist/socialist/educator Ellen Key, John Dewey in the United States, Maria Montessori in Italy, and Janusz Korczak in Poland—mixed with strands of socialism as well as the avant-garde to affect the development of children’s books. Many of these books fostered and celebrated children’s creativity, encouraged their autonomy and inquisitiveness, and emphasized children’s embeddedness in natural and social systems, implicitly or sometimes explicitly suggesting the child’s power to affect change. Lyrical Leftist Alfred Kreymborg’s 1927 book for children, Funnybone Alley, about children living in an idyllic, imaginary section of New York City that sounds like an idealized Greenwich Village, encapsulates the liberatory ethos embedded within a strand of progressive educational thought. Although the children of Funnybone Alley do their best learning outside of school, school nonetheless plays an important role in their lives, and it is an inviting, stimulating, cooperative institution, where the children call their teachers “aunt” and “uncle” instead of “mister” or “missus,” and where the principal’s guiding philosophy is “without self expression no human being is free and without freedom no human being can live.” The children can come late and leave early if they need to, and they can spend their days doing exactly what interests them. As Kreymborg notes, “If Sam felt like writing what he had seen, Bolivar like modeling, Raspberry like painting, Strawberry like singing, Christopher like composing—there was a private room for these needful activities.”31 Progressive education was not inherently radical, nor is much of the literature it fostered, about everyday urban life, how things are made, and how things work. (So too, Kreymborg’s portrayal of a progressive school, while charming, leaves open to question how well those children are being educated.) Yet embracing the ideal of child-centered learning and teaching children about the workings of the world around them—thus giving them power to change it—has radical implications. So it is that a mix of progressive educational philosophy and radical politics sometimes made their way into children’s literature, especially as progressive educators in the United States became interested in Soviet practice.

Progressive educational impulses can be seen as part of a larger trend toward recognizing children as significant social actors with rights and some autonomy. The founding of the Save the Children Fund in 1919 by British reformer Eglantyne Jebb marked the culmination of a humanitarian internationalism that depended upon the figure of the child: George Bernard Shaw, supporting Jebb’s fund and rejecting concerns about feeding enemy children, famously insisted that he had “no enemies under seven.” Jebb’s efforts, grounded in what Molly Ladd-Taylor calls “progressive maternalism” as well as the new internationalism, culminated in the Declaration of Geneva (1924), which was adopted by the League of Nations. While not especially revolutionary, in arguing that “mankind owes to the Child the best it has to give,” the Declaration of Geneva set a precedent for international recognition of children’s rights, including the right to food, medicine, “protection against exploitation, and socialization so as to be able to serve others.”32 A far more radical proposal for the rights of the child, put forth in Moscow in 1918, suggests why Soviet children’s literature would have such a marked influence on radical children’s literature for much of the 20th century. It also presages the terms of what would emerge more broadly in the 1960s and 1970s as the “children’s liberation” movement. It included such notions as the idea that a child is not the property of parents or the state and is a person in his or her own right, that children should have the right to leave their parents and choose their educators, and that children should have all rights granted to adults (including the right to vote), provided they demonstrate the physical and mental capacity to use those rights.33 These proposals were too radical even for the Bolsheviks, as it turned out, but theories and practices the Bolsheviks did adopt reverberated throughout the West and influenced children’s literature worldwide.

For the Soviets, as Lisa Kirschenbaum notes, “‘childhood’ functioned as a means of imagining revolutionary transformation.” In the first decades following the revolution, despite the widespread problems of child homelessness, hunger, and illness, which might seem more pressing than the ideological development of children’s minds, Soviet children were represented as “the vanguard of cultural change.” The Bolsheviks pioneered a number of revolutionary theories and practices that radically re-imagined children’s relationship to parents and the state. Building on radical pedagogical initiatives that predated the revolution, such as Konstantin Venttsel’s theory of “free upbringing,” which, “at least in theory, required the near total subordination of teachers to each pupil’s creative impulses” and “aspired to nurture children’s allegedly natural instinct for labor and to create a model community of equals,” the Bolsheviks “imagin[ed] children as independent, rational, and powerful agents of revolution.” However, they vacillated between efforts to liberate children from adult authority and a “perceived need to regulate the life of the child,” particularly as that meant instilling children with Bolshevik ideology and loyalty to the Soviet state.34

In the realm of children’s literature, these impulses manifested in several ways: for one thing, the seriousness with which the Bolsheviks regarded the matter of educating and socializing young people meant that following the revolution, some of the country’s most talented and well-respected writers and artists began creating children’s books that reflected both the radically innovative spirit of the Russian avant-garde in their form and the revolutionary politics undergirding the new regime. Innovative private presses like Raduga, the only Soviet publisher devoted exclusively to putting out children’s literature, inspired kindred efforts in the Soviet Union, the United States, and elsewhere.35 The children’s literature section of the state publishing house, Gosizdat, established in 1924 and run by Samuil Marshak, became “an especially important haven for imaginative work, both verbal and visual,” attracting outstanding writers such as the poet Osip Mandelstam and the dramatist Evgeny Shvarts as well as artists such as Vladmir Lebedev, who would in turn attract a range of great Russian modern artists to the press.36

Formally, in Soviet picture books, “motifs like the interaction of planes, combination of materials, experimental division of color, and the like” can be understood as part of “a search for a visual poetics socially and psychologically suited to a revolutionary mentality.” Most often the visual style was constructivism, which fit well with what Evgeny Steiner calls the “production book,” a genre of children’s literature dealing with how things are made and how things work. As manifested in children’s literature, constructivism emphasized children’s role as future (and sometimes current) “builders of Communism” for whom machines and other objects used to build the world-to-come would be comrades rather than oppressors.37 Children’s books of the Soviet Golden Age (the 1920s) thus incorporated both avant-garde aesthetics and revolutionary ideology. They were high quality, inexpensive, mass produced, and widely available, and they celebrated children’s role in a modern world organized around the needs and rights of working-class people. This literature also promoted internationalism and challenged imperialism and colonialism, although it did so in ways that reflected the biases of the Soviet regime and Russian people: Africans, for instance, are regularly depicted in Soviet children’s literature as thick-lipped primitives who are grateful to their Soviet liberators.38

Sara Pankenier Weld argues that picture books were particularly suited to the Russian avant-garde, which embraced an infantile primitivism that attempted to replicate the directness and immediacy of children’s own artistic production, while simultaneously exhorting children to play a role in constructing the socialist future. She discusses the way in which “simple geometric shapes … acquire quite dramatic signifying potential” in a book like El Lissitzky’s About Two Squares: A Suprematist Tale of Two Squares in Six Constructions (1922), which enacts an easily understandable revolutionary scene through the interaction of red and black squares.

Radical Children’s LiteratureClick to view larger

Figure 2. El Lissitzky, About Two Squares: A Suprematist Tale of Two Squares in Six Constructions (1922)

Moreover, even as the book directly addresses children, it urges them away from its pages. In an introductory section, as Pankenier Weld notes, “It exhorts its audience: ‘don’t read // take up // scraps of paper / little posts / blocks of wood // stack / paint / build.’ It symbolically commands children to participate in the construction of a better future augured by the red square’s arrival.”39

The constructivist aesthetic in children’s books, drawn from the Soviet example, can be seen throughout Europe and in the United States; for instance, discussing the effect of a 1932 exhibition of Soviet children’s books in Copenhagen on Danish children’s literature, Nina Christensen argues, “Books published in Denmark shortly after the exhibition present variations on the characteristics of the Russian artistic avant-garde. One finds experiments with new visual and literary modes of expression, examples of explicit revolutionary content, and ideas of childhood related to progressive educational ideals.”40 She cites, for example, Jorgens Hjul (1932), published by the left-wing cooperative publishing house Monde, which uses the Soviet technique of photomontage and also echoes Soviet celebration of machines in its sequences highlighting the modern and the new over the old. The book “explicitly and deliberately exposes the child to an aesthetics inspired by contemporary art, design, and architecture. At the same time, the combination of text and images contains a clear political message, and addresses the child as a potential citizen in a state based on left-wing ideology” with text that encourages children to see themselves as part of a collective: “‘You should not speak of “my,” but “our” / community is what we seek/ the world is open, strong and free,/ put on the big great wheel your hand!’”41

To a large degree, expressions of enthusiasm for Soviet children’s books from a swath of American society reflected the two societies’ shared desire “that industrial modernity could and would provide happiness for the masses,” and a shared belief that this utopian vision could be achieved through the proper education of children.42 In his 1919 paean to progressive education, Greenwich Village radical Floyd Dell described an ideal of young people “who know [the machine] as a splendid toy and not a hateful tyrant.”43 This notion is so embedded in Bolshevik ideology that it is expressed as a kind of article of faith in Soviet children’s literature, which made that literature attractive to American moderns as well. Indeed, the popularity of a Soviet school book about the five-year plan, New Russia’s Primer (NRP) by the Soviet engineer M. Il’in, speaks to this: “Contrasting the backbreaking labor and poor working conditions of the present, Il’in describes a future society, with work that is pleasurable and easier (thanks to machines); living conditions that reflect the most advanced technology, architecture, and aesthetics; and leisure that is relaxing and enriching,” and he urges children to help bring that future into being.44 A translation of Ilin’s book, with an introduction by the progressive educator George Counts, was a Book-of-the-Month Club selection and a bestseller in the United States, and although here it was read primarily by adults, the commercial success of NRP in the United States points to shared hope in both the Soviet Union and the United States that engineering, both technical and social, could transform society.

The influence of Soviet children’s literature in the United States is implicit rather than explicit in most cases. For instance, nonfictional or “information” books became increasingly popular in the United States as curricular changes that grew out of progressive education (e.g., the trend toward project-based learning and independent research) made it increasingly necessary for school and classroom libraries to purchase nonfiction books that could be useful in student research. But the elevation of “factography” as an artistic and literary practice in the Soviet Union—documenting the world as it exists in order to provide a comprehensive understanding and a basis for transformation—reverberated in radical circles elsewhere.45 So we see both relatively apolitical “here and now” books drawing upon the vaguely socialist philosophy of progressive educator Lucy Sprague Mitchell as well as American versions of the production book that owe a debt to Soviet practice in their subject matter and/or in constructivist aesthetics. On an even more basic level, efforts to bring children’s “books to the masses” through the Little Golden Books (as well as their British mass market counterpart, Puffin Books) were directly inspired by the Soviet example (incidentally, many of the Little Golden Books were written or illustrated by left-wingers).46

Within the American communist milieu, debt to the Soviet example was more explicit. Multiple children’s books by Soviet authors were translated and published by Communist presses. More generally, debt to Soviet practice and ideals can be seen in the attempt to create a truly radical children’s literature: providing children with tools to understand (and thereby control) the world around them, challenging the values of capitalism, rejecting racism (and sexism), and promoting internationalism. We see an openly radical address in the magazine for children published by the American Communist Party (CPUSA), the New Pioneer, which includes biographical sketches of working-class and revolutionary heroes (from Industrial Workers of the World leader Bill Haywood to Ada Wright, mother of one of the falsely accused “Scottsboro Boys”) to retellings of American history “from the standpoint of the workers and toiling masses” to production stories “describing not simply where things come from and how they are made, but also the exploitation of workers involved in a product’s creation and importation to the United States.”47 Realistic fiction such as Myra Page’s “Pickets and Slippery Slicks,” based on Communist Party efforts to forge alliances between black and white workers during the Loray Mill strike in Gastonia, North Carolina, in 1929, and depicting the friendship of black and white children against the wishes of the white children’s parents, speaks to the Communist Party’s commitment to challenging racial discrimination, and a more widespread belief that racism was learned and could therefore be routed out during childhood.48 Certainly the radicalism of these texts was limited both by the unconscious biases of the books’ creators (e.g., Myra Page’s well-meaning but stereotyped portrayal of the African American family) and by Communist Party dogma and ties to Stalin’s brutal regime (as in entries such as “K is for Kremlin, where our Stalin lives” in a Communist abecedary).49 Indeed, under Stalin’s rule a large swath of the avant-garde that created the Soviet Union’s most innovative children’s literaturewas liquidated.50

In Germany, home to one of the world’s richest traditions of fairy tales, members of the communist movement rejected their Soviet counterparts’ extermination of the fairy tale genre to produce a wide range of anti-capitalist and anti-fascist fairy tales in which the heroes and villains were refunctioned, adapting the tropes of classical fairy tales but shifting the messages and outcomes to favor the disempowered, expose sources of oppression, and offer hope for a better future.51 Citing in particular the work of Hermynia zur Mühlen (whose Fairy Tales for Workers’ Children was translated and published in the United States in 1925), Bruno Schonlank, and Liza Tetzner (also published in the United States), Zipes contends,

[T]hey wanted to depict actual social conditions as experienced by a working-class child largely in urban environments under the influence of modern technology, and they indicated that the poor conditions within the family could not be transformed unless major social changes were made. The narrative point of view is that of the oppressed. The magic and fairy-tale motifs are employed to expose (not disguise) the source of domination and real social contradictions.52

So, for instance, Liza Tetzner’s fairy tales tended not to end in marriage and the reestablishment of preexisting social conditions, but, rather, to show young people taking collective action “as the means to bring about more humane and satisfying living conditions.”53 In Tetzner’s Hans Sees the World (published in German in 1931 with a title that Zipes translates as Hans Urian, The Story of a Trip Around the World and in the United States in 1934), a boy and a rabbit travel widely in search offood, in the process seeing the ways in which people of various cultures and races live and work. In the United States, they discover that the country’s great wealth is dependent on injustice and exploitation, and they encounter a socialist utopia in the Soviet Union.54

Radical German fairy tales as well as Soviet models had an important influence on the development of proletarian children’s literature in Japan, as is evident in the fairy tales by Murayama Kazuko, who would become editor of the proletarian journal for children, Shonen senki, established in 1929 as a supplement to a proletarian magazine for parents, and circulated illegally by a system of direct mail.55 The magazine, similar in form and content to the American New Pioneer, published short fiction and fairy tales, some translated from German, Russian, and English and others published in their original Japanese, along with “puzzles, cartoons, and letters from children around the world.” It also contained “basic Esperanto lessons, poems, songs, and lists of proletarian words and slogans,” with ABC lessons like “F Fart at those stinking bourgeoisie.” As with the New Pioneer and other ommunist children’s literature published by the CPUSA, Japanese proletarian children’s literature also featured anti-racist images and messages of international working-class solidarity.56

During the Second World War, the United States–Soviet alliance prompted the publication of at least a dozen American children’s books celebrating the Soviet Union. The battle against fascism and the “Double V” campaign (calling the battle against racism at home akin to the struggle against fascism abroad) also inspired “intercultural education” programs that fostered the publication of children’s books with minority characters and more radical messages about the hidden history of minorities in the United States. After the war, curricular imperatives in the United States, many initiated specifically to inoculate American children against communism—along with progressive educational practices that created demand for nonfiction children’s books—fostered publication of American children’s literature that challenged the values of the Cold War. Civic education programs, for instance, created a market for books about American history, culture, and society to fill the shelves of school libraries, and left-wing authors like Ann Petry, Dorothy Sterling, Shirley Graham, Milton Meltzer, Emma Gelders Sterne, and Meridel Le Sueur, writing children’s books about strong, black women who challenged the institution of slavery, American Indians who resisted white incursion, and working-class people who fought for their rights, found support for their work even as blacklisting kept them out of other realms.57 Tellingly, just as children’s literature provided a respite from McCarthyism for some cultural workers in the United States, as well as a space for subtle social critique during a repressive era, so it remained, to a degree, a last vestige of social criticism in the Soviet Union as that society became increasingly repressive.58

The National Defense Education Act, launched in the wake of the Soviet satellite Sputnik, created demand for children’s books about science, which had become a kind of specialty for left-wing authors. The CPUSA’s main publishing house, International Publishers, created a special juvenile branch in 1945 called Young World Books, and more than half of those books were on scientific subjects. Despite Young World editor Betty Bacon’s claim that she published these books to show “the dynamics of dialectical materialism”—the fundamental principle of Marxist philosophy—in fact, what makes many books on scientific subjects published in the 1940s and 1950s radical is the attitude of questioning authority that they continuously advocate.59 Scientific books by left-wing authors also regularly featured black characters during a time in which children’s literature was largely an “all-white world.”60

This attitude of questioning authority found expression just as vividly in books that appealed to romantic notions of the liberated child, as in Harry Granick’s realistic but far-fetched story Run, Run! An Adventure in New York (1942). Two ten-year-old children from the Midwest spend several days wandering through New York City, meeting an immigrant in detention on Ellis Island, marching in a May Day parade, and attending a “rent party” with an African American family that has been evicted from their apartment.61 We see it too in the more whimsical books of Ruth Krauss, many written in collaboration with illustrator Maurice Sendak, as well as those of Krauss’s husband, Crockett Johnson. For instance, the child protagonist in A Very Special House (1953) “draws on walls, jumps on the bed, and brings home a lion (who eats the stuffing from the cushions) and a monkey (who leaves ‘little feetprints on the ceiling’) but ‘NOBODY ever says stop stop stop stop.’ The book completely disregards adult authority, encouraging children to think and act independently” in ways that are inimical to traditional rules of decorum.62 Likewise, Johnson’s Harold and the Purple Crayon stories, about a boy who draws whatever he imagines with his purple crayon, suggests children’s power to create their own worlds.63 Several stories by Dr. Seuss have an implicit or explicit political message in addition to their anarchic linguistic play and visual motifs: Yertle the Turtle (1958) clearly aligns with Seuss’ anti-fascist politics (Seuss’s political cartoons for the popular-front newspaper PM consistently targeted and mocked Hitler, Mussolini, and Hirohito), The Sneetches (1953) exposes the illogic of prejudice, the Butter Battle Book (1984) condemns war, and The Lorax (1971) is about as eloquent a plea for environmental stewardship as one can find in the English language.

The slaying of children during World War II and decolonization efforts on the part of countries effectively treated as children on the world’s stage inspired a landmark in children’s rights, the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of the Child, which was finally passed in 1959. It emphasized international commitment to child welfare and protection, including that “discrimination, not only based on race, nationality and religious beliefs, but also on gender, the social position of the parents and family circumstances, should be prevented.”64 The declaration had serious limitations: “there is no recognition of a child’s autonomy, of the importance of a child’s views, the value of a child participating in decision-making, nor any appreciation of the concept of empowerment.”65 Still, the declaration pointed to dramatically shifting views about childhood and the changing place of children in society.

We can see hints of this shift in books from the early 1960s such as Harriet the Spy (1963), which Anne Scott MacLeod cites as marking the beginning of a transformed dynamic between adults and children.66 It is not just that Harriet’s nurse, Ole Golly, tells Harriet that “sometimes you have to lie”; more generally, the ten-year-old Harriet is rude to adults, regularly goes places where she knows she is not supposed to be (and worries only about getting caught), and recognizes adults as worse than merely fallible: they are petty, greedy, distracted, selfish, irrational, and hypocritical. And Harriet feels perfectly within her rights to observe and document adults’ foibles. Likewise, Jean Merrill’s The Pushcart War (1964), a fictional history set in the future, in which pushcart drivers (and children) are pitted against a trucking conglomerate, suggests children’s instinctive alignment with the underdog and against the impersonal, mechanized society that members of the student New Left and counterculture had begun to criticize.

The most visible and far-reaching evidence of a dramatic change came in the new trend toward books featuring and geared toward African American children and created by African American authors and illustrators. Before the mid-1960s, left-wing writers and illustrators, most of them white, posed challenges to the “all white world” of children’s literature through books as well as advocacy. Their efforts were aided by the Council on Interracial Books for Children, founded by a group of white, left-wing writers and activists in 1965 and initially focusing on promoting books by and about African Americans (but gradually becoming a minority-dominated organization and expanding its scope to include books by and about Chicanos, American Indians, Asian Americans, and other minorities, as well as books that challenged sexism). More broadly and powerfully, the civil rights, Black Power, and Black Arts movements helped produce a significant body of work for children by black writers, artists, and activists themselves, with effects that reverberated well beyond the African American community.

As Katherine Capshaw discusses in Civil Rights Childhood, organizations such as the Child Development Group of Mississippi (CDGM), an early Head Start program, and the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) began to translate imperatives of the civil rights movement into both programs and publications for children. Later, black-owned and -run publishing houses created an institutional basis for children’s literature that challenged white supremacy and empowered African American and other minority children. The CDGM’s photographic picture book, Today, for instance, was published in small quantities and “intended as a kind of mirror for the CDGM child, a reflection of self that would help articulate the child’s value both aesthetically and politically.”67 Showing black children in Mississippi going about their everyday lives and utilizing their language (“We climbing up on the posts / We jump down”), Today is a work that Capshaw describes as “locally situated, aesthetically interventionist, and politically audacious.”68 More self-consciously activist were children’s books that emerged from the Black Arts movement (the cultural arm of Black Power), such as a variety of ABC books like Lucille Clifton’s The Black BC’s (1970), and Jean Carey Bond’s A is for Africa (1969): “As the site through which readers learn the building blocks of written language, the ABC book became a vehicle for cultural definition and for opposition to racist representations normalized in conventional English and in traditional pedagogy.”69

Just as the civil rights movement, which took on momentum in the 1950s, inspired a range of movements in the 1960s, from the student New Left to women’s liberation, ethnic nationalist movements, gay liberation, and the environmental movement, so the trend toward “interracial books” can be seen as a tipping point that precipitated a sea change in children’s literature more generally. Certainly, a range of factors contributed to this shift, from the student protests worldwide, to the general breakdown of authority produced by anger against U.S.-led intervention in Vietnam. In the United States, educational policies such as the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, passed as part of President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty, made federal funds available to support school libraries’ purchase of reading materials that dealt with minority, poor, and other marginalized children’s experiences. Likewise, the creation of awards such as the Coretta Scott King award (est. 1970 in support of ethnic and multicultural children’s literature), the Gustavus Myers Outstanding Book Award (est. 1984 for books confronting bigotry and discrimination), the Pura Belpre award (est. 1996 for children’s books on Latin@ themes), and the Dolly Gray award (est. 2000 for “effective, enlightened portrayals of individuals with developmental disabilities in children’s books”), complemented existing prizes like the Jane Addams Book Award (est. 1953 for books that promote peace, social justice, and racial and gender equality).

As Bettina Kummerling-Meibauer notes in a discussion of “Pop Art picturebooks,” after 1968 “taboo topics, such as rebellion against authorities, critical screening of traditional conventions, depiction of war, and environmental disaster, appeared in children’s books.” Kummerling-Meibauer focuses on works published in both France and the United States by Harlin Quist, whose “editorial policy … reacted against the conventions and taboos that governed children’s picturebooks at the time and opened new horizons for the genre” on both sides of the Atlantic.70 Marguerite Duras’s Ah! Ernesto! (1972), a story about a seven-year-old who refuses to go to school because everything he learns there is useless, can be directly correlated with this radical milieu (and also with a growing trend of writers for adults trying their hand at children’s literature). In the book, the larger significance of Ernesto’s position is enforced by “a photomontage depicting a Vietnamese child’s face below an ominous mushroom cloud.”71

Works like this can be understood in relation to both the general youth rebellions of the era and the child-liberation movement that followed on the heels of other 1960s civil rights movements. On the one hand, children’s rights were rapidly becoming the law of the land in the United States and elsewhere: the Tinker vs. Des Moines School District (1969), for example, upheld the rights of children to wear armbands protesting the Vietnam War on first-amendment grounds, suggesting that freedom of speech should apply to children, even in school. But children’s liberationists went beyond popular consensus, demanding for children rights that would still be considered controversial, including the right to any information that is available to adults, the “right to educate oneself” (that is, children’s right to choose what kind, if any, education they want); the “right to sexual freedom”; the right to vote and to participate in the political process; the right to drive (if the child proves capable), and the right to use drugs. Movements like this one throw into sharp relief questions of children’s rights and the tension between empowering children and meeting their basic needs. As Michael Freeman notes, “Sentimentality towards children … is no substitute for the recognition of a child’s entitlement to the right to equal concern and respect. This does not mean the treatment of children as adults.”72 The demands of children’s liberationists have obvious implications for children’s literature: How much do children have a right to know or encounter? And what do they have a right to not know or avoid? And what about children whose life situations and experiences have deprived them of their “right to childhood”? Are they entitled to books that validate and help them make sense of their situation and experiences?

Much of the impetus for children’s liberationists’ demands grew from a critique of the existing educational and social-welfare systems, a critique that emerges vividly in children’s books such as radical elementary-school teacher Albert Cullum’s The Geranium on the Window Sill Just Died but Teacher You Went Right On (1971) and You Think Just Because You’re Big, You’re Right (1976). The former, a bestseller, was illustrated by a range of international artists such as Guy Billout and Lorraine Fox and new-wave filmmaker Jacques Rozier. One two-page spread, for instance, shows gray, petrified children at gray, petrified desks, with petrified plants in the background, and a cartoonish teacher, in bright color, hanging upside down above the rest of the room, opposite text that reads:

Good boys and good girls always listen. / To learn, we must listen. / We must listen all the time. / Good boys and girls never talk,/but they always listen. / We should listen and listen and listen!

To you teacher, / and your words, your words, your words. / Your words, your words, your words, / your words!73

You Think Just Because You’re Big, also illustrated by a variety of artists, picks up on subtle forms of childism on the part of parents who spank children for lying but lie themselves, who shame children for displaying a natural interest in sex, and who prioritize their own lives over those of the children who depend upon them.

This self-evident anger at the perceived mistreatment of children reflected both real injustices perpetrated in underfunded school systems and by beleaguered and preoccupied parents, as well as the sense that “childhood” as it had come to be defined was in decline, or “disappearing” to use the language of a range of books published in the 1970s and 1980s.74 It also reflected a more general loss of moorings in an era of economic decline and rapid social change; indeed, many critics of “kiddie libbers” suggested that the movement created an excuse for adults to abdicate their responsibility to the young. This theme plays out repeatedly in the range of so-called problem novels for young people that were published in the 1970s, increasingly taking on social ills like divorce (Deenie [1973]), drug addiction (Dinky Hocker Shoots Smack [1972]; A Hero Ain’t Nothin’ But a Sandwich [1978]), mental illness (I Never Promised You a Rose Garden [1964]), and even the more general problem of evil (as in Robert Cormier’s dark novel for adolescents, The Chocolate War [1974]). Anne Scott MacLeod contends that this literature is “fundamentally antichild,” because, in essence, it denies children a right to childhood: “The child, as recipient of knowledge hitherto withheld, is increasingly treated like an adult. At the same time, adults, with their open uncertainties, their unwillingness to carry the burden of responsibility, their preoccupation with their own satisfactions, function more like children, or at least like adolescents, than ever before in juvenile literature.”75

Despite these concerns, the children’s liberation movement infused the feminist movements in mostly positive ways. In The Dialectic of Sex (1970), Shulamith Firestone pointed to “shared oppression” experienced by both women and children, and suggested that it was impossible “to speak of the liberation of women without also discussing the liberation of children, and vice versa.”76 Feminists started publishing ventures like Lollipop Power Press, devoted to nonsexist children’s literature, and, like radical Germans and Japanese a generation earlier, refunctioned the fairy tale, creating works such as “The Princess Who Stood on Her Own Two Feet” (1982) by Jeanne Desy and The Practical Princess (1969) by Jay Williams. Perhaps the most famous text, or set of texts, that we would likely associate with children’s liberation are the record album (1972), book (1974), and TV special (1974) Free to Be, You and Me, which grew out of a regular Ms. magazine feature “Stories for Free Children.” (That feature, incidentally, also led to the publication of stories like Lois Gould’s X: A Fabulous Child’s Story [1978], about a child who grows up without knowing or letting others know its gender, as well as the 1982 nonsexist and multicultural collection edited by Letty Cottin Pogrebin, also called Stories for Free Children.) With pieces like “Atalanta,” based on a Greek myth, which tells the story of a bright, independent princess whose father holds a race to choose someone to marry his daughter but finds himself outwitted as Atalanta insists on running in the race herself and ties with Young John, who will only marry her if she’s willing and when she’s ready; and “William’s Doll,” which confirmed heteronormative expectations (young William should have a doll to prepare him to be a father, we are told), but nonetheless challenged gender roles. The Free to Be enterprise was tremendously successful: the book was a New York Times bestseller, the album was nominated for a Grammy, and the TV special won both an Emmy award for children’s prime entertainment and a Peabody Award for excellence in broadcasting.77

The 1989 United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child marked a significant advance from the UN Declaration thirty years prior and showed clear debt to the child-liberation movement in that it stresses not just the “best interests” of the child, but also the child’s right to be heard (Article 12) on all matters concerning him or her.78 This growing recognition of the child’s autonomy does not mean that radical children’s literature has become normalized since that time. Indeed, in the United States, the only country in the world that has failed to ratify the UN Convention, the vast majority of texts published for children continue to uphold the status quo. Market pressures, school policies, self-censorship on the part of authors, and library selection processes continue to limit the publication of books that dramatically depart from convention.

Even so, in the past thirty years or so, the range of books that call the existing social order into question, advocating environmental responsibility and rejecting overconsumption; challenging racism, sexism, heterosexism and other forms of bigotry; promoting internationalism; exposing the unjust exercise of authority; and encouraging children to imagine alternative social arrangements is vast. In addition, this period has also seen the proliferation of “challenging and controversial” picture books, some aimed at a crossover audience of adults as well as children. Such books are arguably radical simply by virtue of the subjects they broach (e.g., death, rape, drug abuse, mental illness, domestic violence). Again, while some critics argue that such subjects are inappropriate for children, others emphasize that children have to confront these things in their actual lives, and literature can help them make sense of their experiences.79

Discussion of the Literature

A number of publishers have made radical children’s literature of one kind or another a specialty, either finding a niche for this work or publishing it out of a sense of social responsibility. Historically, this was the case for British publishers such as Victor Gollancz and Martin Lawrence and U.S. publishers like Charles Kerr and International (with its short-lived juvenile imprint, Young World Books). More recently, Lee and Low Books, an independent American press founded in 1991, specializes in multicultural children’s literature and has been an important adjunct to the #WeNeedDiverseBooks Campaign. The British Andersen Press, founded in 1976, is successful enough that they can publish a number of unusual and demanding books that will not be profitable, and Canada’s Groundwood Books, which receives subsidies from the Canadian government for publishing Canadian authors, is thus likewise able to publish high-quality, engaging books that might otherwise be hard to sell, on controversial themes such as indigenous rights in Mexico (the Napi stories with text by Antonio Ramirez and illustrations by the indigenous artist Domi, both of whom are active in the Zapatista struggle), the Chilean dictatorship (The Composition [1998] by Antonio Skarmeta, with illustrations by Alfonso Ruano), and Palestinian rights (Ann Laurel Carter’s The Shepherd’s Daughter, 2008); and mocking consumer culture as in native Canadian writer Thomas King’s very funny A Coyote Solstice Tale (2009), with illustrations by Gary Clement.80

The contemporary contours of radical children’s literature have received attention on several fronts and continue to be a subject of discussion among scholars.81 A return to Young-Bruehl’s discussion of childism provides a useful framework for evaluating new works as they appear, including, for instance, several recent books that explicitly encourage children to be activists such as A is For Activist (2012), the ABC’s of Anarchy (2010), A Rule is to Break: A Child’s Guide to Anarchy (2011), Girls Are Not Chicks Coloring Book (2009), and Rad Women A to Z: Rebels, Trailblazers, and Visionaries Who Shaped Our History … and Our Future! (2015). Of these, although all well intended, only Rad Women succeeds in addressing and empowering a young audience in developmentally appropriate ways.

Books directly encouraging children to be “rad” or activists are not necessarily more radical than realistic fiction that models alternative social arrangements or exposes plausible scenarios of injustice; or fantasy stories, like the Harry Potter, His Dark Materials, or Hunger Games series, which, through other worlds, expose the abuse of power as well as childism in action and children resisting it (in the process becoming huge franchises and ironically benefitting from the systems they critique). Nor are they necessarily more radical than playful revenge plots featuring mistreated children, like Roald Dahl’s Mathilda (1988), or the more recent Mac Barnett and Jory John Terrible Two series (2015), whose text and illustrations by Kevin Cornell show an obvious debt to Mathilda. Nor, finally, are they more radical than picture books like Chris Van Allsberg’s The Sweetest Fig (1993), which quietly and craftily empowers the literal underdog (as a dog magically manages to change roles with his abusive owner).

Truly radical children’s literature finds a balance between taking children seriously as individuals with agency and will and recognizing the real limits to their power, their ability, and their development. Adults, Young-Bruehl would contend, have a duty to foster children’s physical, psychological, emotional, intellectual, and social development, and fostering one at the expense of another is doing children a disservice. Ellen Key argued at the turn of the 20th century that “success in child training … means to treat the child as really one’s equal, that is, to show him the same consideration, the same kind confidence one shows to an adult. It means not to influence the child to be what we ourselves desire him to become but to be influenced by the impression of what the child himself is; not to treat the child with deception, or by the exercise of force, but with the seriousness and sincerity proper to his own character.”82 More than a hundred years later, her point still holds.

Further Reading

Bieber, Ada. “‘We Shall Overcome.’ Fear, Freedom, and the U.S. Civil Rights Movement in GDR Writing for Youth.” In Angst/Angst, 103–120. Vol. 10 of Limbus: Australisches Jahrbuch für germanistische Literatur- und Kulturwissenschaft/Australian Yearbook of German Literary and Cultural Studies. Freiburg i.Br./Berlin/Wien: Rombach, 2017.Find this resource:

Capshaw, Katharine. Civil Rights Childhood: Picturing Liberation in African American Photobooks. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2014.Find this resource:

Druker, Elina, and Bettina Kummerling-Meibauer. “Introduction: Children’s Literature and the Avant-Garde.” In Children’s Literature and the Avant-Garde. Edited by Elina Druker and Kummerling-Meibauer, 1–16. Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 2015.Find this resource:

Evans, Janet, ed. Challenging and Controversial Picturebooks: Creative and Critical Responses to Visual Texts. New York: Routledge, 2015.Find this resource:

Hubler, Angela, ed. Little Red Readings: Historical Materialist Perspectives on Children’s Literature. Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 2014.Find this resource:

Lurie, Alison. Don’t Tell the Grown-Ups: Subversive Children’s Literature. Boston: Little, Brown, 1990.Find this resource:

Mickenberg, Julia L.Learning from the Left: Children’s Literature, the Cold War, and Radical Politics in the United States. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.Find this resource:

Mickenberg, Julia L., and Philip Nel. “Radical Children’s Literature Now!” Children’s Literature Association Quarterly 36.4 (2011): 445–473.Find this resource:

Mickenberg, Julia L., and Philip Nel, eds. Tales for Little Rebels: A Collection of Radical Children’s Literature. New York: New York University Press, 2008.Find this resource:

Mishler, Paul. Raising Reds: The Young Pioneers, Radical Summer Camps, and Communist Political Culture in the United States. New York: Columbia University Press, 1999.Find this resource:

Perry, Samuel. Recasting Red Culture in Proletarian Japan: Childhood, Korea, and the Historical Avant-Garde. Honolulu: Hawaii/University of Hawaiʻi Press, 2014.Find this resource:

Reynolds, Kimberley. Radical Children’s Literature: Future Visions and Aesthetic Transformations in Juvenile Fiction. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007.Find this resource:

Reynolds, Kimberley. Left Out: The Forgotten Tradition of Radical Publishing for Children. London: Oxford University Press, 2016.Find this resource:

Rothenstein, Julian, and Olga Budashevskaya, eds. Inside the Rainbow: Russian Children’s Literature 1920–1935: Beautiful Books, Terrible Times. London: Redstone, 2013.Find this resource:

Steiner, Evgeny. Stories for Little Comrades: Revolutionary Artists and the Making of Early Soviet Children’s Books. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1999.Find this resource:

Teitelbaum, Kenneth. Schooling for Good Rebels: Socialist Education for Children in the United States 1900-1920. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1993.Find this resource:

Todres, Jonathan, and Sarah Higinbotham. Human Rights in Children’s Literature: Imagination and the Narrative of Law. New York: Oxford University Press, 2016.Find this resource:

Weld, Sara Pankenier. Voiceless Vanguard: The Infantilist Aesthetic of the Russian Avant-Garde. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2016.Find this resource:

Zipes, Jack. Fairy Tales and the Art of Subversion: The Classical Genre for Children and the Process of Civilization. New York: Methuen, 1988.Find this resource:

Notes:

(1.) Jack Zipes, “Second Thoughts on Socialization through Literature for Children,” The Lion and the Unicorn 5 (1981): 20.

(2.) Herbert Kohl, Should We Burn Babar: Essays on Children’s Literature and the Power of Stories (New York: New Press, 1995), 60.

(3.) See David Moshman, ed., Children’s Intellectual Rights, vol. 33, New Directions for Child Development (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1986). Curiously, in other media for children, such as film and videogames, the same rules do not seem to apply. Violence, for instance, is so commonplace as to be unremarkable.

(4.) Alison Lurie, Don’t Tell the Grown-Ups: Subversive Children’s Literature (Boston: Little, Brown, 1990), xi.

(5.) Julia L. Mickenberg and Philip Nel, eds., Tales for Little Rebels: A Collection of Radical Children’s Literature (New York: New York University Press, 2008), 1; and Julia L. Mickenberg and Philip Nel, “Radical Children’s Literature Now!,” Children’s Literature Association Quarterly 36.4 (2011): 445.

(6.) Kimberley Reynolds, Radical Children’s Literature: Future Visions and Aesthetic Transformations in Juvenile Fiction (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007), 1, 14, 10, 16, 1. Reynolds’ definition also encompasses Eliza Dresang’s theory of “radical change,” which interprets innovations in printed texts in relation to digital media. See Eliza T. Dresang, Radical Change: Books for Youth in a Digital Age (New York: H. W. Wilson, 1999).

(7.) Kimberley Reynolds, Left Out: The Forgotten Tradition of Radical Publishing for Children in Britain, 1910–1949 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016), 1–2.

(8.) Elina Druker and Bettina Kummerling-Meibauer, “Introduction: Children’s Literature and the Avant-Garde,” in Children’s Literature and the Avant-Garde, eds. Elina Druker and Kummerling-Meibauer (Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 2015), 8.

(9.) For a recent take on how popular children’s books can be used to teach children about human rights, see Jonathan Todres and Sarah Higinbotham, Human Rights in Children’s Literature: Imagination and the Narrative of Law (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016).

(10.) Elisabeth Young-Bruehl, Childism: Confronting Prejudice against Children (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2012), 37.

(11.) Michael D. Freeman, “Introduction,” in Children’s Rights, ed. Michael D. Freeman (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2004), xi.

(12.) Courtney Weikle-Mills, “‘My Book and Heart Shall Never Part’: Reading, Printing, and Circulation in the New England Primer,” in The Oxford Handbook of Children’s Literature, eds. Julia L. Mickenberg and Lynne Vallone (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 415, 12–13. Benjamin Harris, comp., ed., New England Primer (Boston: Edward Draper, 1777). See also Patricia Crain, The Story of A: The Alphabetization of America from The New England Primer to The Scarlet Letter (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2000).

(13.) Steven Mintz, Huck’s Raft: A History of American Childhood (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004), 58; Weikle-Mills, “‘My Book and Heart Shall Never Part’,” 412; and Ann Palmeri, “Childhood’s End: Toward the Liberation of Children,” in Children’s Rights, ed. Michael D. Freeman (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2004), 151–152.

(14.) Mintz, Huck’s Raft, 73.

(15.) Jean Jacques Rousseau, Emile; or On Education, trans. Allan Bloom (New York: Basic Books, 1979), 94; and Judith Plotz, Romanticism and the Vocation of Childhood (New York: Palgrave, 2001), 10, 12, 13.

(16.) Martha Sledge, “‘A Is an Abolitionist’: The Anti-slavery Alphabet and the Politics of Literacy,” in Enterprising Youth: Social Values and Acculturation in Nineteenth-Century American Children’s Literature, ed. Monika Elbert (New York: Routledge, 2008), 74, 75, 76.

(17.) Of course how radical these particular books are is open to debate: “Wonderland” is understood to be a fantasy; Jo March ultimately marries, has children, and throughout recognizes her domestic duties; and “Nigger Jim” is as much an object of mockery as sympathy.

(18.) Beverly Lyon Clark, Kiddie Lit: The Cultural Construction of Children’s Literature in America (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003), 48.

(19.) David I. Macleod, The Age of the Child: Children in America, 1890–1920, Twayne’s History of American Childhood series (New York: Twayne, 1998); and Joseph M. Hawes, The Children’s Rights Movement: A History of Advocacy and Protection, Social Movements Past and Present (Boston: Twayne, 1991).

(20.) Carolyn Steedman, Strange Dislocations: Childhood and the Idea of Human Interiority, 1780–1930 (London: Virago Press, 1995), 11, 19. Emphasis in original.

(21.) Young-Bruehl, Childism, 282; and Jacqueline Rose, The case of Peter Pan, or, The Impossibility of Children’s Fiction, Language, Discourse, Society (London: Macmillan, 1984).

(22.) Viviana Zelizer, Pricing the Priceless Child: The Changing Social Value of Children (New York: Basic Books, 1985); Carolyn Steedman, Childhood, Culture and Class in Britain: Margaret Macmillan (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1990).

(23.) On radical publishing in Britain, see Kimberley Reynolds, Left Out. Also see Allen Ruff, “We Called Each Other Comrade”: Charles H. Kerr & Company, Radical Publishers, The History of Communication (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1997).

(24.) Kenneth Teitelbaum, Schooling for Good Rebels: Socialist Education for Children in the United States 1900–1920 (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1993).

(25.) Jane Rosen, “The Young Socialist: A Magazine of Justice and Love (1901–1926),” in Little Red Readings: Historical Materialist Perspectives on Children’s Literature, ed. Angela Hubler (Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 2014).

(26.) Ruff, “We Called Each Other Comrade”; and Caroline Nelson, Nature Talks on Economics (Chicago: Charles H. Kerr, 1912), 12–13.

(27.) Reynolds, Radical Children’s Literature, 30–31.

(28.) Sandra Beckett, “Manifestations of the Avant-Garde and Its Legacy in French Children’s Literature,” in Children’s Literature and the Avant-Garde, eds. Elina Druker and Kummerling-Meibauer (Philadelphia: John Benjamins, 2015), 229.

(29.) Marilynn Olson, “John Ruskin and the Mutual Influences of Children’s Literature and the Avant-Garde,” in Children’s Literature and the Avant-Garde, eds. Elina Druker and Kummerling-Meibauer (Philadelphia: John Benjamins, 2015), 34.

(30.) Walter Crane, The Child’s Socialist Reader (London: The Twentieth Century Press, 1907).

(31.) Alfred Kreymborg, Funnybone Alley, ed. Boris Artzybasheff (New York: Macaulay, 1927). Quoted in Julia L. Mickenberg, Learning from the Left: Children’s Literature, the Cold War, and Radical Politics in the United States (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), 30.

(32.) Philip E. Veerman, The Rights of the Child and the Changing Image of Childhood (Leiden, The Netherlands: Martinus Nijhoff, 1992), 88, 157; Molly Ladd Taylor, Mother-Work: Women, Child Welfare, and the State, 1890–1930 (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1994); and Freeman, “Introduction,” xii–xiii.

(33.) Veerman, The Rights of the Child and the Changing Image of Childhood, 81–84, 435–437.

(34.) Lisa Kirschenbaum, Small Comrades: Revolutionizing Childhood in Soviet Russia, 1917–1932 (London: RoutledgeFalmer, 2001), 2, 1, 20, 5, 9.

(35.) Julian Rothenstein and Olga Budashevskaya, eds., Inside the Rainbow: Russian Children’s Literature 1920–1935: Beautiful Books, Terrible Times (London: Redstone, 2013), 26.

(36.) Catriona Kelly, Children’s World: Growing Up in Russia, 1890–1991 (London: Yale University Press, 2007), 88.

(37.) Evgeny Steiner, Stories for Little Comrades: Revolutionary Artists and the Making of Early Soviet Children’s Books (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1999), 11; and Christina Kiaer, Imagine No Possessions: The Socialist Objects of Russian Constructivism (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2005), 199.

(38.) Reynolds, Radical Children’s Literature, 32–33; and Steiner, Stories for Little Comrades, 99–109.

(39.) Sara Pankenier Weld, “The Square as Regal Infant: The Avant-Garde Infantile in Early Soviet Picturebooks,” in Children’s Literature and the Avant Garde, eds. Elina Druker and Kummerling-Meibauer (Philadelphia: John Benjamins, 2015), 114–126; and Druker and Kummerling-Meibauer, “Introduction: Children’s Literature and the Avant-Garde.”

(40.) Nina Christensen, “Rupture: Ideological, Aesthetic, and Educational Transformations in Danish Picturebooks around 1933,” in Children’s Literature and the Avant-Garde, eds. Elina Druker and Bettina Kummerling-Meibauer (Philadelphia: Johns Benjamins, 2015), 175.

(41.) Christensen, "Rupture," 177.

(42.) Susan Buck-Morss, Dreamworld and Catastrophe: The Passing of Mass Utopia in East and West (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2000), xiv.

(43.) Floyd Dell, Were You Ever a Child (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1919), 94–95.

(44.) Julia L. Mickenberg, “The New Generation and the New Russia: Modern Childhood as Collective Fantasy,” American Quarterly 62.1 (2010): 117.

(45.) Devin Fore, “The Operative Word in Soviet Factography,” October 118 (Fall 2006).

(46.) Mickenberg, Learning from the Left, 110. On the politics of Lucy Sprague Mitchell, see Joyce Antler, Lucy Sprague Mitchell: The Making of a Modern Woman (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1987).

(47.) Mickenberg, Learning from the Left, 69–70.

(48.) Myra Page, “Pickets and Slippery Slicks,” in Tales for Little Rebels, eds. Julia Mickenberg and Philip Nel (New York: New York University Press, 2006).

(49.) M. Boland, “ABC for Martin,” in Martin’s Annual, ed. Jean Beauchamp (New York: International Publishers, 1935), 20–21.

(50.) Rothenstein and Budashevskaya, Inside the Rainbow, 27.

(51.) Phillip Pullman, “Introduction,” in Inside the Rainbow, eds. Julian Rothenstein and Olga Budashevskaya (London: Redstone, 2013), 15.

(52.) Jack Zipes, Fairy Tales and the Art of Subversion: The Classical Genre for Children and the Process of Civilization (New York: Methuen, 1988), 152.

(53.) Jack Zipes, Fairy Tales and the Art of Subversion, 155.

(54.) Lisa Tetzner, Hans Sees the World (New York: Covici, Friede, 1934).

(55.) Samuel Perry, Recasting Red Culture in Proletarian Japan: Childhood, Korea, and the Historical Avant-Garde (Honolulu: Hawaii/University of Hawaiʻi Press, 2014), 23, 34.

(56.) Samuel Perry, Recasting Red Culture in Proletarian Japan, 35, 43–45.

(57.) See Mickenberg, Learning from the Left.

(58.) Reynolds, Radical Children’s Literature, 32.

(59.) Mickenberg, Learning from the Left, 227.

(60.) Nancy Larrick, “The All-White World of Children’s Books,” Saturday Review (1965), 63–5; 84–5.

(61.) Harry Granick, Run, Run! An Adventure in New York, ill. Gregor Duncan (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1941).

(62.) Philip Nel, Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss: How an Unlikely Couple Found Love, Dodged the FBI, and Transformed Children’s Literature, Children’s Literature Association Series (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2012), 137; and Ruth Krauss, A Very Special House, ill. Maurice Sendak (New York: Harper, 1953).

(63.) Philip Nel, “‘Never Overlook the Art of the Seemingly Simple’: Crockett Johnson and the Politics of the Purple Crayon,” Children’s Literature 29 (2001), 142–174.

(64.) Veerman, The Rights of the Child and the Changing Image of Childhood, 162.

(65.) Freeman, “Introduction,” xiii.

(66.) Anne Scott MacLeod, American Childhood: Children’s Literature of the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1994), 199.

(67.) Katharine Capshaw, Civil Rights Childhood: Picturing Liberation in African American Photobooks (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2014), 132. Scholars have also explored the ways in which the U.S. civil rights movement has inspired writers for children in other countries. See Ada Bieber, “‘We Shall Overcome.’ Fear, Freedom, and the U.S. Civil Rights Movement in GDR Writing for Youth,” in Angst/Angst, vol. 10, Limbus: Australisches Jahrbuch für germanistische Literatur- und Kulturwissenschaft/Australian Yearbook of German Literary and Cultural Studies (Freiburg i.Br./Berlin/Wien: Rombach, 2017), 103–120.

(68.) Capshaw, 135.

(69.) Capshaw, 175.

(70.) Beckett, “Manifestations of the Avant-garde and Its Legacy in French Children’s Literature,” 229.

(71.) Bettina Kummerling-Meibauer, “Just What Is It That Makes Pop Art Picture Books So Different and So Appealing,” in Children’s Literature and the Avant Garde, eds. Elina Druker and Kummerling-Meibauer (Philadelphia: John Benjamins, 2015), 254–255.

(72.) Michael D. Freeman, The Rights and Wrongs of Children (London and Dover, N.H.: F. Pinter, 1983), 3.

(73.) Albert Cullum, The Geranium on the Windowsill Just Died, but Teacher You Went Right On (New York: Harlin Quist, 1971), 8–9.

(74.) Neil Postman, The Disappearance of Childhood (New York: Vintage Books, 1982).

(75.) MacLeod, American Childhood, 206, 209.

(76.) Shulamith Firestone, The Dialectic of Sex; the Case for Feminist Revolution (New York: Morrow, 1970), 81.

(77.) Leslie Paris, “Happily Ever After: Free to Be…You and Me, Second-Wave Feminism, and 1970s American Children’s Culture,” in Oxford Handbook of Children’s Literature, eds. Julia L. Mickenberg and Lynne Vallone (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 519–538.

(78.) Veerman, The Rights of the Child and the Changing Image of Childhood, 557. Veerman here notes the emphasis on “the child’s opinion,” but human-rights lawyer Jonathan Todres clarifies that the measure more accurately points to “the child’s right to be heard.” Email to author, July 6, 2016.

(79.) Janet Evans, ed., Challenging and Controversial Picturebooks: Creative and Critical Responses to Visual Texts (New York: Routledge, 2015).

(80.) Janet Evans, ed., Challenging and Controversial Picturebooks, 269; and Mickenberg and Nel, “Radical Children’s Literature Now!”

(81.) Mickenberg and Nel, “Radical Children’s Literature Now!”; and Reynolds, Radical Children’s Literature. Also see the list of further reading.

(82.) Ellen Key and Marie Franzos, The Century of the child (New York: G. P. Putnam’s sons, 1909), 109.