When looking at the development of children’s literature over the past two and a half centuries (which is about all you get, because children’s literature is a distinct and recent entity) two major movements have been influential:
Romanticism and Modernism in the 18th and 19th centuries
Postmodernism, Surrealism and a bunch of other -isms came later (post-colonialism, feminism, modernism…)
When we give serious attention to children’s literature, we find children’s literature (especially young adult literature) often anticipates movements in adult literature. As one example, The Lovely Bones is YAL started the huge dead narrator trend which eventually found its way into literary adult fiction. Certainly, literature reflects what is happening in broader society as well.
CHILDREN’S LITERATURE IS IMPORTANT LITERATURE
Children’s literature offers valuable insights into how culture changes.
In 1894 Helen Bannerman wrote a book called Little Black Sambo. This is now seen as offensive. At Bannerman’s time it was not [offensive to white people, that is]. The main character outwits the tigers and becomes a hero, so was seen as a positive representation of people of colour.
The Famous Five also reflects outdated views. In a dualistic view of humanity, good people catch ‘bad people’ and send them to prison, because that is what good people do. An interesting feminist subtext runs through the character of George, who is annoyed that the boys are allowed to do things she is not. George became one of the first pin-ups of the feminist movement. In contrast, Anne is confined to the home domain, making cakes, cleaning etc.
A contemporary book such as Sonya Hartnett’s Sleeping Dogs looks at incest and issues which were not covered in children’s literature of earlier golden ages. Children’s literature is immensely powerful because it gets to readers first. Children’s literature shapes who we are.
Peter Hunt is one of the leading commentators on children’s literature today. He is one scholar saying consistently that children’s books are immensely powerful.
Precisely because children’s books are so powerful, they are likely to be very specifically ‘directive’. They might be encouraging a certain behaviour in young readers. Generally speaking, children’s literature is less open to interpretation than adult literature. To balance the vulnerability of children, children’s literature can become didactic.
What does didactic mean?
Teaching in an open and direct way. Moralistic.
While a few dual audience texts do make their way into lists of great literature (e.g. Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland), little else ever does. Children’s literature is not traditionally studied in university English courses.
People seen as The Major Writers — William Makepeace Thackeray, Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath, Ted Hughes, Thomas Hardy, James Joyce, Oscar Wilde — all wrote children’s books as well as books for adults. But those books are largely ignored. Their serious adult books are the ones considered great.
Even today, children’s literature has been seen as the less than. This is where women writers were at in the 18th and 19th centuries — not yet considered worthy of our full attention. [No coincidence that children’s literature has until recently been considered women’s work, alongside anything to do with children.]
The comparison works for volume of output as well. Even in the 18th and 19th centuries, women were writing just as many if not more books than the men. Today, children’s literature is a booming industry but doesn’t enjoy proportional coverage by professional reviewers in major news outlets. The dead white male who writes books for adults is who you’ll mostly be studying.
Peter Hunt concludes that if we can shake free of the idea that children’s literature is intrinsically inferior, we can start looking at the literature properly.
The History Of Thought Which Influences Literature
18th Century thought
The basis of modern science rests on the idea that humans can observe and understand. (Humanism and individualism.)
19th Century thought
A slight change occurred. People realised that amidst this mechanical theory of the world there was no place for emotion in all of this (beauty, hate, horror). So romanticism came about and gave us wonderful music — Mozart, Beethoven etc. — human experience and human emotion provided a balance.
20th Century thought
A couple of things happened. People realised that actually we don’t have all the answers. (The Titanic was a great example of thought prior to this — people actually thought it was unsinkable.) We realised that humanity wasn’t as all-powerful and all-knowing as we thought. Millions of people were killed in WW1, which shattered a lot of views. Then came the Great Depression, followed by the second World War, even worse. And so all the certainties about what the human could do were shattered.
Throw in nuclear weapons and we realised we could destroy the entire planet. We craved a complete change in how we view our world. This led to movements which questioned ‘certainty’.
The Secret Garden is a novel by British-American Frances Hodgson Burnett, originally published in serialised form in America between 1910-11, the end of the Edwardian era in England. We now consider this a story for children, probably because the main characters are children. Surprising to me: this story was originally aimed at an adult readership.
When I think a little harder though, it makes sense that The Secret Garden was aimed at adult readers. If there’s a moral in this story, it’s aimed at parents. At times it sounds like a parenting manual:
Two worst things as can happen to a child is never to have his own way – or always to have it.
The Secret Garden
If we’re going to call it children’s literature,The Secret Garden is an example from the First Golden Age of Children’s Literature, which lasted from 1850 until the first World War. In some ways it’s typical of its time, in other ways ahead of its time.
The Secret Garden utilises a madwoman in the attic trope, though the prisoner is a boy, not a madwoman. The haunted house and grounds are also straight out of a Gothic horror. The Secret Garden is a very clear example of the Gothic in literature. It is also clearly Christian.
I’m reading an abridged version, which is still plenty long. Though some child readers absolutely stan this novel, I don’t persoanally consider it children’s literature. In fact, I didn’t plan on ever digging deep into this novel because it gave me the absolute creeps when I was a kid myself. I was gifted a few copies and they’re still on the shelf. I started reading a few times and never finished. Then, in the year of our Lord 2020, when my own kid was in Year 6 and refused to study White Fang along with everyone else due to the animal cruelty contained within, they were handed a copy of The Secret Garden instead (because child cruelty is more palatable than animal cruelty…) Hodgson Burnett’s classic has clearly found resonance if you can still find class sets hanging around in Australian schools.
Notably, my own kid also despised The Secret Garden and, like me, couldn’t get past the first few chapters. Without whole class guidance from the teacher (who had actually prepped for a unit on White Fang), it was impossible to understand.
As an adult, I have since read a completely different kind of book with a similar name: Nancy Friday’s My Secret Garden, which puts a whole different spin on things.
Arthur Applebee asked a group of pre-school children to tell him the characters of a list of animals. They were more certain of the stereotypical personalities of animals they could only have met in stories, such as brave lions or sly foxes, than of the characters of dogs or cats, where experience of specific dogs and cats came in to complicate the picture. Story characteristics are prepared for reception, so to speak; they’re consistent, they don’t contradict themselves, and they’re dispensed at the pace that understanding demands.
One major task for the children’s storyteller: Getting parents out of the story. Children need to be the drivers of their own narratives. Storytellers have come up with many ways of getting adult helpers and caregivers out of the way.
Here’s another: Give the child a home of their own. Within the world of the story, this play home may function as the permanent home. Or it may be a temporary construction with the safety of real home nearby. Doesn’t matter.
Ships and boats are also useful as second homes. They often end up on islands, where the child is free to do exactly as they wish for a little while before returning home. See Where The Wild Things Are.
Or perhaps the children go camping and pitch a tent. This might be in the back yard.
Then there are forts.
Kids begin to build forts indoors around age 4, Sobel found, then start venturing outside around age 6 or 7 to construct dens, treehouses and other fort-like structures more independently, a practice that continues into their tweens. Metaphorically and physically, building forts reflects children’s growth as individuals, Sobel says; they create a “home away from home,” free from parental control. Forts also foster creativity.
In general, laziness in child heroes is a big no-no. But there is definitely a happy medium so far as children’s book creators are concerned. Once you become so busy that you neglect your loved ones, you’re working too hard.
Many children’s books are about grandparents and grandchildren. In many stories, only the grandparent has time to spend with the grandchild because the parents are too busy working. Perhaps, off-stage, the sandwich generation also busy looking after the grandparents themselves.
English writer William Mayne demonstrated this ideology, explained by Alison Lurie:
Several of Mayne’s books are marked by an alliance between the very young and the very old, who have clear if idiosyncratic memories of the past and speak to children as equals. Middle-aged people, such as parents and teachers, are often preoccupied and uncomprehending. Their interaction with the child characters is practical: they make rules, set tasks and pack lunches. When children and parents (or teachers) speak to each other, the tone is detached and cool — sometimes, indeed, [Harold] Pinteresque.
Don’t Tell The Grownups: The subversive power of children’s literature
Sometimes it’s the animal who is the stand-in for the child, and the child is too busy for the animal.
In Mog’s Christmas by Judith Kerr it is implied Mog’s family is too busy, because they don’t have time to pay Mog any attention. This is seen as motivation for Mog leaving the house and going to sit on the roof in the snow. (I’m going down to the garden to eat worms…)
Sometimes the characters are too busy to ‘stop and smell the roses’ and enjoy nature. They may be punished for their lack of noticing when something they should have seen jumps out to bite them. After that they learn to pay attention to their surrounds. In children’s literature, children are thought to be better noticers than adults. This ideology can be seen in Shaun Tan’s The Lost Thing, for instance, and also in the character development of Fern in Charlotte’s Web.
Edwardo, The Horriblest Boy In The Whole Wide World, written and illustrated by John Burningham (2006), is an excellent example of this modern ideology of ‘good’ vs ‘bad’ children, specifically how there is no such thing as good vs bad, but we’re all a little yin yang and can go either way depending on how we are treated.
By the way, how modern is this ‘modern ideology’, really? Despite being reflected in picture books, it is not reflected in the policies of the Australian government. If it were, we wouldn’t be locking up 10-year-olds for crimes, and until last year, that place was in prison.) Australia would not be deporting ‘New Zealand’ criminals who were brought to Australia as toddlers by parents who never got their citizenship paperwork sorted, if we really did believe that environment shapes the child. We would consider those people, for all intents and purposes, Australian. We would let them stay.
In any case, child audiences love to see child characters behaving badly. Watching children get into mischief is a bit like watching robbers carry out a heist: as audience we never know what they’re going to do until they’ve done it. These characters are intrinsically motivated. They’re the opposite of passive. Interest derives from seeing them get out of their predicaments, or suffering in comedic fashion from their own stupid decisions. (Stupid characters who never learn a thing make great comedic stock.)
The only feelings mankind has inspired in policemen are indifference and scorn.
UN FLIC (Jean-Pierre Melville, 1972)
Today I’ll look at some of the main ways writers and gatekeepers protect the image of the police officer as a patriarchal protector above reproach. This archetype is common in utopian stories for very young children and was especially prevalent in earlier Golden Ages of children’s literature.
The Storybook Policeman is just that — he is a man. Female officers are rarely seen in children’s stories. The trend towards avoiding police officers as saviours coincided with the reality of more female officers, which probably accounts for that. The number of female police officers in Australia has doubled over the last 20 years, but in America remains where Australia, New Zealand and England were back in the 1990s.
The real-world percentage of female officers is irrelevant to the Storybook Image, just as it was irrelevant in America in the wake of September 11, 2001. Susan Faludi writes about this extensively in her book The Terror Dream, but media outlets exclusively chose images of men saving women, even though a significant proportion of the first responders that day were women.
I don’t think there was any task that was performed down there by men that were not performed by women.
Another significant proportion of the public does not want to see women saving men, and won’t believe it even if they do see it. Faludi talks about ‘the myth of cowboy bluster and feminine frailty’, which must exist as a duo in order to make sense.
Not surprisingly, we see this dynamic play out in children’s books from earlier ages of children’s literature, in which children seek the help of kindly and trustworthy police men in times of need. These men stand omnisciently over proceedings and the children are free to roam, knowing that a strong man, the huntsman in Red Riding Hood’s woods, is only a scream away.
When we base our security on a mythical male strength that can only increase itself against a mythical female weakness — we should know that we are exhibiting the symptoms of a lethal, albeit curable, cultural affliction
Susan Faludi, The Terror Dream
In books for children, the policeman is never far away. Roald Dahl deals with this fact knowingly in Danny The Champion Of The World, while at the same time fully utilising the trope:
At this point, pedalling grandly towards us on his bicycle, came the arm of the law in the shape of Sergeant Enoch Samways, resplendent in his blue uniform and his shiny silver buttons. It was always a mystery to me how Sergeant Samways could sniff out trouble wherever it was.
Roald Dahl, Danny The Champion Of The World
The police car always at the ready is not limited to literature for the youngest audience. It’s a trope we see across all forms of storytelling. There are many police related tropes, and you can find them beautifully catalogued over at TV Tropes. In adult story we more often see the inversion — the useless or very human cop. Yet elements of the effective police force are there nonetheless — the willingness for cops to put rape tests forward for testing, the rapidity at which paperwork gets processed, calls returned. Though evil is rife in fictional adult policing, sheer ineptitude is vanishingly rare. Audiences do not enjoy watching ineptitude. We like our heroes and our villains to be agentic, to be motivated, to have a plan. We like to see them carry plans out.
It’s often said that the best cops would make the best criminals — by chance they’re working on the right side of the law. Crime drama makes the most of this. In The Wire, Jimmy McNulty is a good cop because he has an intuitive understanding of what motivates the criminals he’s working with. The audience sees Jimmy himself go against the rules and resisting the hierarchy that exists within the police force.
The Storybook Policeman is also white. This trope is yet another way in which picture books serve white people and their children. A Black parent cannot afford to teach their children that police are the benevolent patriarchs to call in any emergency.
I’m reminded of the episode of British TV cartoon Peppa Pig about spiders. The message: Don’t be scared of spiders. Spiders won’t hurt you. This reassurance served its purpose for children who wouldn’t leave Britain, but did not serve Australian kids at all. Australian kids need to be scared of spiders. The episode was not aired on Australian television. Likewise, the Storybook Police Archetype only works for some kids and remains actively detrimental to others.
When the Storybook Police is made into an animal, we see the identifying features: The hat and the baton.
White parents have been heavily invested in protecting the image of the Storybook Police Archetype. At times, in America, it has reached ridiculous levels. Sylvester and the Magic Pebble by William Stieg depicts police as pigs. For this reason the picture book has been banned intermittently.
How Do Contemporary Authors Deal With Police?
Apart from the very real political issues, there are some storytelling pitfalls to avoid when storytellers bring police into a children’s story which, by definition, should be about kids, with the action driven by kids, and problems solved by kids.
“Why don’t they just call the police?” That’s exactly what a children’s writer does not want the reader to think. Police therefore create a problem for writers similar to the problem of parents and caring adults in general: Why don’t these children tell a parent?
It’s easy enough to get parents out of the way, but aren’t police meant to be on call 24/7? Enid Blyton included numerous policemen in her stories and used them where it was convenient. But sometimes she tried to get rid of them.
Although Blyton tried to get rid of the police, leaving it up to Julian to lead the other children to victory, she didn’t always manage this successfully:
The plot has some small holes, as often happens in these children adventures. For example, once they discover the kidnapped person, the children do not go straight to the police. A reason is given for that, but it did not seem very convincing.
from a consumer review of the Ring o Bells Mystery
Enid Blyton can hardly be called contemporary, so let’s take a look at how Kate DiCamillo deals with police in her Mercy Watson series. The Mercy Watson series is set in 1950s-esque suburbia, functioning as a spoof of domestic bliss. Kate DiCamillo avoids problematic police altogether, but she does it by replacing them with firefighters.
These two firefighters function identically to the policemen duos of Enid Blyton’s era and are called at the end of a story to finish off what has already been set in motion by the child and childlike characters.
To bring rescue teams too early to a children’s story would function unsuccessfully as deus ex machina, and agency removed from the child heroes. For various other examples of how police officers have been used in children’s stories see the following:
Walter The Farting Dog in which a dog farts really stinkily and knocks out two Storybook Burglars. The police arrive immediately to deal with the burglars.
The Tale of Pigling Bland or The Tale of Ginger and Pickles by Beatrix Potter from the First Golden Age of Children’s Literature. In the first example the police officer is roaming the country roads waiting for crime to happen. In the second example, the police officer is a creepy doll.
“Lamb To The Slaughter” by Roald Dahl is regularly studied in high schools. In this story, the trickster murderer fools police officers, who are guided by their bellies. Though there are hints of bumbling policemen in children’s literature, by the time readers have hit the teenage years, their storybook cops are no longer the trustworthy archetypes who always know what’s what. Even in his children’s books, Dahl avoided the Storybook Police Archetype. See Matilda for an example in which police play a peripheral part — they exist to be avoided. Dahl had a mistrust of authority of all kinds, and was a large part of the movement towards subversive, darker middle grade fiction.
Header illustration by Mary Petty (1899-1976), 1943
‘Man Bites Dog’ describes inversion humour. I’ve also seen ‘hat on a dog’ describing the same category of joke, in which the audience laughs because the usual way of things is back to front.
MAN BITES DOG IN JOURNALISM
Journalists also use ‘Man Bites Dog’ to describe stories that are popular because they intrigue via (often humorous) inversion. This is partly why news stories about ‘the first female rugby coach’ or ‘8-year-old codes his own traffic app’ are newsworthy in the first place; these stories are only news because a certain element is unexpected.
For some reason we commonly think of dogs when describing this category of joke. In Harald Skogsberg’s illustration below, a hare chases a dog through the woods. This is comical because for one reason only: in the real world, hounds chase hares instead. The Man Bites Dog gag is a single-layer joke.
In 2002 there was a news story in which a man literally bit a dog. Because the ‘Man Bites Dog’ trope already existed, this was now a double-layer joke.
MAN BITES DOG HUMOUR IN STORIES FOR CHILDREN
Although the hound and hare illustration above includes an audience of adults, children’s picture books are full of man bites dog gags, because preschoolers are yet to understand multi-layered humour such as satire, but will laugh their heads off if they see Dad put on Mum’s hat, for example. In this post I take a close look at the sorts of jokes enjoyed by child audiences at what ages, based on a taxonomy proposed by the co-founder of The Onion.
In order for Man Bites Dog gags to work, the audience needs an internalised schema of ‘expected normality’, and the comedian needs to make use of established norms in order to invert it. By making use of the established norm, the comedian further cements the established norm.
The illustration below is also by Harald Skogsberg, who lived through the 20th century. While a modern audience may not see the humour, it is partly humorous in its intent. A wife scolds a man, who is dressed as a housewife, and is clearly doing the wife expected of a housewife.
There is no better way to cement ideologies than by use of humour. The ideology reinforced within the illustration below: Housework is for wives, not husbands. The image aims to elicit a laugh, but also does the social work of reinforcing the idea that if husbands do their share of housework, they will appear ridiculous to onlookers and lose their status.
This is why Man Bites Dog gags can be so problematic. You might think that contemporary bestselling children’s books are free of the sort of mid-20th century humour depicted in the house husband image above. Unfortunately it hasn’t disappeared.
One of the most quietly problematic examples of gender inversion can be seen in The Day The Crayons Quiet by Drew Daywalt and Oliver Jeffers. If it seems subtle, that’s only because we’re not looking back on our current era with the benefit of enlightened hindsight. Likewise, there are many, many children’s stories in which a man dresses as a woman, reinforcing the gender binary and all the rules around what proper masculinity and femininity should look like. (tl;dr If boys want to wear dresses, they will look ridiculous.)
The huge numbers of people buying The Day The Crayons Quit indicate that most adults are simply not seeing any problems with that book. I’m sure most mid-20th century audiences enjoying the humorous illustrations of Harald Skogsberg weren’t fully cognisant of his ideologies, either.
To tell 20th century audiences that Skogsberg was problematically sexist would’ve been like explaining water to a fish. And to tell
On its surface, Jack Sprat is a nursery rhyme about a married couple with complementary tastes in food. In the 1500s, Jack Sprat was the nick name given to small men. Today you can buy sprats in cans from the supermarket. They taste like salty sardines. ‘Sprat’ describes a variety of small forage fish. The defining features of a sprats: highly active, small and — ironically — oily. Jack Sprat may eat no fat, but his namesake is full of it.
This is in line with modern dietary science, at odds with the rhyme as depicted by almost every single illustrator of Jack Sprat ever — that eating fat makes us fat. It is now thought that a high carbohydrate diet more efficiently lays down adipose tissue.
One exception to the fat wife and skinny Jack is the illustration by Kate Greenaway, in which the couple’s preferences for macronutrients is not reflected in their body mass index. This is because they’re children playing the parts.
Here again we have no Jack, no wife, simply two children imagining the rhyme as they prepare to eat.
WHAT IS THE JACK SPRAT NURSERY RHYME ABOUT?
Importantly the lines began as a proverb and became known as a rhyme after its inclusion in Mother Goose collections published for children. The proverb went like this:
Jack will eat not fat, and Jull doth love no leane, Yet betwixt them both they lick the dishes cleane
There are many theories about the meaning of this rhyme and no one knows for sure:
Jack Sprat could refer to King Charles I, this story being about a conflict between the King and the Parliament during his reign. King Charles I was left financially “lean” when parliament denied him taxation. But with his wife, Queen Henrietta Maria, Charles was free to “lick the platter clean” after he dissolved parliament.
Jack Sprat could also be related to the Robin Hood Legend about King John and his brother Richard I (Richard The Lionheart).
The proverb might be about Prince John and his marriage with Joan, which was ultimately called off.
JACK SPRAT’S SCRAWNY CAT
A fuller version of the rhyme includes a cat.
Jack Sprat could eat no fat. His wife could eat no lean. And so between them both, you see, They licked the platter clean Jack ate all the lean, Joan ate all the fat. The bone they picked it clean, Then gave it to the cat
Below is the most wretched picture book cat I’ve ever seen. Historically, cats were kept as ratters and ate scraps, but in this particular household, there are clearly no scraps. The cat’s tail seems to be suffering from the mange.
On brand as ever, Arthur Rackham’s illustration is creepy and ominous. The cat does not exist. Perhaps it has died of starvation. Shadows cast ominous doubles against the wall. Light comes from an off-the-page source, evoking the mood of art noir.
The illustration below features the brighter colours and comic tone required for inclusion in Nursery Rhymes for young children. There is no cat here, but there is a parrot in a very small cage, which is probably dropping dander and poop into those receptacles below. Many classic paintings from this era feature a bird in a cage inside the house, and I’m yet to learn whether this is a purely symbolic feature of narrative art, or whether people really did keep birds hanging in their kitchens like this.
JACK SPRAT’S PIG
Turns out Jack has a pig, as well. I guess there were scraps and they went into the pig’s swill, because the pig seems to be doing just dandy. Or perhaps ‘Little Jack Sprat’ is a prequel to the more famous poem, showing Jack Sprat as a child (rather than as a small-build man). This poem seems to have originated in the 1800s. Someone clearly liked the name. It does have a ring to it, appealing like Dwight Schrute.
Is the Jack Sprat of the later poem even the same person? Sometimes the Sprat of this later poem is spelled with a double ‘t’, for example in The Little Mother Goose.
Jack Sprat had a pig, who was not very little, Nor yet very big; He was not very lean, he was not very fat; He’ll do well for a grunt, Says little Jack Sprat.
Whoever created the illustration below decided to go with an adult Jack who with his voracious wife is about to eat the pig, served whole on a platter. Even more confronting, this is a piglet, not a pig.