Manual Labour In Children’s Literature

Labor is used symbolically, as a temporary trial through which the young protagonists have to go before they can find their true place in society. The depiction of labor is highly ambiguous: it is a punishment, and even when chosen voluntarily… it is a burden that brings neither joy nor satisfaction. The message young readers will get from these novels is thus somewhat dubious. Labor seems to be a curse, and is in any case a transitional state, lasting merely until the characters have miraculously freed from it. Like the case with so many other dominant themes in children’s fiction, the authors seem to be trying to keep their readers in comfortable innocence about the hardships and anxieties of adult life.

So writes Maria Nikolajeva in The Rhetoric of Character In Children’s Literature


1. How is work depicted in children’s books that you have read lately?

2. Is there a gender difference between who works and who doesn’t?

3. What sorts of jobs to fathers most typically have?

4. We typically spend a third of our days working. But most children’s stories gloss over these hours. Then again, so do mainstream stories for adults: work is generally not that interesting. Nevertheless, children might well absorb certain messages about the nature of work and who does it. What might those messages be?

5. Can you think of any examples of manual labour in children’s literature, classic or contemporary?

6. Work is often used for symbolic purposes: work brings about emotional changes in a character. Can you think of any examples?

7. The profession most likely depicted in children’s literature is teaching. Teachers fall into one of two types. What are those types?

8. Are jobs evenly represented across children’s literature, or are certain types of work more heavily represented than others? Why? Can you think of any unusual but real-world jobs performed by adults in children’s literature?

To discuss the issue of blue collar work and its negative portrayal in society, Sociology Sounds recommends Daddy’s Hands by Holly Dunn.


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