Illness and Disability in Children’s Literature

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Illness, disability and disfigurement has a problematic history in children’s literature. What are the main problems, today and in the past, and how might writers aspire to do better?

A BRIEF HISTORY OF CHILDREN’S LITERATURE AND ILLNESS

When you think of classic children’s literature and illness, you’re likely to come up with The Secret Garden.

The Secret Garden […]┬ápresents ideas that could certainly be called subversive, since at the time they were new and of dubious reputation. In this case, however, they are ideas about religion, psychology, and health. Colin’s self-hypnotic chanting recalls the sermons of Christian Science or New Thought, in both of which Mrs. Burnett [the author] was interested. The idea that illness is often largely psychological, and can be cured by positive thinking, permeates [The Secret Garden]. Another new concept is that of the healing power of nature, of fresh air and outdoor exercise. Today we take ideas like this for granted, but Mrs. Burnett grew up in an age when the only exercise permitted to middle-class women was going for walks. The Secret Garden also shows the influence of the new paganism that found a following among liberal intellectuals of the time. It contains a kind of nature spirit in Dickon, the farm boy who spends whole days on the moors talking to plants and animals and who is a sort of cross between Kipling’s Mowgli and the many adult incarnations of the rural [man-beast god] Pan who appear in Edwardian fiction.

— Alison Lurie, Don’t Tell The Grownups: The subversive power of children’s literature

The Secret Garden is a typical example of literature from the First Golden Age of Children’s Literature, which from 1850 until the first world war.

Now we are in the Third Golden Age of Children’s Literature. Children’s stories have never been so accomplished or diverse. Still, there have been expressions of concern lately about the amount of ill-health in contemporary children’s literature. Ill-health is one of modern kidlit’s defining features. Continue reading “Illness and Disability in Children’s Literature”