[Paleopsych] NYT: 350 Years of What the Kids Heard

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350 Years of What the Kids Heard
[Connections column by Edward Rothstein appended.]

[I must have read children's books when I was a child, but beyond the 
Winnie the Pooh books and the Alice books, I can't recall any. Speaking of 
Alice, one of the five requirements I have for a wife is that she agree to 
name our first daughter Alice. Sarah agreed instantly, and indeed our 
first daughter is named Alice. The other is Adelaide, and both have the 
same Teutonic root meaning truth.

[The other four are having the same ethnic background (which ensures deep 
commonalities), a love of classical music, a realistic view of the world 
(does not believe in Bronze Age creator gods or political shibboleths 
about planning and equality), and an honesty of appearance (no make up!). 
The woman I married has all five in spaces, AND she remains the most 
feminine person I have ever met.

[She does have a shortcoming and a defect, though. She comes up four 
inches shorter than I do, and her brown eyes are so enormous that her 
eyelids aren't completely closed when she is asleep. her eyelids don't 
close when she is asleep. I can watch her rapid eye movements when she is 


Before Harry Potter there was "Slovenly Peter."

Written by Heinrich Hoffmann and published in Germany in 1845, it
is one of the best-selling children's books ever, translated into
more than 100 languages. And what a piece of work it is. A girl
plays with matches and suffers horrendous burns, on all her clothes
"And arms, and hands, and eyes, and nose;/ Till she had nothing
more to lose/ Except her little scarlet shoes." A little boy who
sucks his thumb has his thumbs cut off by the Scissor Man.

And in the difference between Harry and Peter lies the lesson of
children's literature, said Jack Zipes, general editor of the new
Norton Anthology of Children's Literature, published this month by
W. W. Norton & Company. "These works reflect how we view children,
and something about us," said Mr. Zipes, 68, a professor of German
and comparative literature at the University of Minnesota, in a
telephone interview from Minneapolis.

The anthology joins the 11 other definitive compendiums by Norton.
It is one of the first modern, comprehensive, critical collections
of children's literature. And it is intended not for children, but
for scholars.

"It's a huge event, a real arrival of children's literature in
academic studies," said John Cech, director of the Center for
Children's Literature and Culture at the University of Florida in
Gainesville. Although the academic study of children's literature
is an exploding field, there are only a handful of Ph.D. programs
in children's literature in English departments. One purpose of the
anthology, said Mr. Zipes, is to encourage departments to add

The anthology, 2,471 pages long and weighing three pounds, covers
350 years of alphabet books, fairy tales, animal fables and the
like, and took Mr. Zipes and four other editors four years to
compile. Some stories are reprinted in full, sometimes with
illustrations; others are excerpted.

In it, the editors trace the history of juvenile literature from
what is probably the first children's book, "Orbis Sensualium
Pictus," an illustrated Latin grammar by Johann Amos Comenius
published in 1658, up through works as recent as "Last Talk With
Jim Hardwick," by Marilyn Nelson, which came out in 2001.

Most early children's books were didactic and had a religious
flavor, intended to civilize and save potential sinners - albeit
upper-class ones, since they were more likely to be literate. As
today, publishers were shrewd marketers of their wares. When John
Newbery published "A Little Pretty Pocket-Book," in 1744, he
included toys with the books - balls for boys, pincushions for

It is striking in the anthology to see the way certain forms cross
cultures. Lullabies, for instance, have a nearly universal form,
with elongated vowels, long pauses and common themes of separation,
hunger, bogeymen, death - as if singing of these terrors could
banish them from a child's dream world. One stunning entry is
"Lullaby of a Female Convict to Her Child, the Night Previous to
Execution," from 1807. "Who then will sooth thee, when thy mother's
sleeping," the mother sings. "In her low grave of shame and
infamy!/ Sleep, baby mine! - to-morrow I must leave thee."

The book traces the evolution of various works, including
"Hush-a-bye, baby, on the tree top" from its origins as an
African-American slave song, "All the Pretty Horses." That version
ends with the horrifying image, "Way down yonder in the meadow lays
a poor little lambie/ The bees and the butterflies peckin' out his
eyes/ The poor little thing cries, 'Mammy.' "

The editors write that attitudes toward children began to change in
the mid-18th century. In 1762, in his revolutionary work, "Émile;
or, On Education," Rousseau wrote that children are intrinsically
innocent and should be educated apart from corrupt society, a view
later taken up by the Romantics. In the mid- to late-19th century,
with the rise of the "isms," as Mr. Zipes put it - Darwinism,
Freudianism, communism, Shavian socialism - children were
recognized as people, and their literature became less heavily

Schools were established for the lower classes, and increased
literacy created new markets for books. This was the golden age of
children's literature, of Robert Louis Stevenson, Rudyard Kipling,
Louisa May Alcott, Mark Twain and Lewis Carroll.

Throughout the text, in editors' notes and introductions, are
tidbits about the hidden messages in the literature. "London Bridge
Is Falling Down," say the editors, contains coded references to the
medieval custom of burying people alive in the foundations of

But children's stories, especially fairy tales, have always been
hiding places for the subversive. "The Griffin and the Minor Canon"
by Frank Stockton is a condemnation of cowardice and social
hypocrisy; "The Happy Prince" by Oscar Wilde, a critique of the

In the late 1960's and early 70's, as the anthology demonstrates,
children's stories began to be rewritten and children's literature
was approached in a different way. Black writers like Julius Lester
and Mildred Taylor came to prominence along with Latino and Native
Americans authors. Nowadays, the boundaries between adult and
children's fiction are disappearing. Nothing is taboo. Included in
the anthology are both Francesca Lia Block's story "Wolf" (2000),
about rape, and "The Bleeding Man" (1974), a story about torture by
Craig Kee Strete, a Native American writer.

There is also a hefty selection of illustrations that parents may
remember fondly - Sendak's wild things, Dr. Seuss's goofy animals,
Babar the elephant king - as well as comics and science fiction,
officially bringing those genres into the canon. The book also
includes the full text of the play "Peter Pan," never before
published in the United States, as far Mr. Zipes knows.

Notably absent, however, is Harry Potter. That was because the cost
of excerpting the Potter books was too high, Mr. Zipes said.
Besides that, he said, "the Harry Potter books are very
conventional and mediocre."

"The plots are in the tradition of the schoolboy novel," he said,
citing "Tom Brown's School Days," which was published in 1857.

Mr. Zipes called the Potter books, "the ideological champions of
patriarchal society," adding: "They celebrate the magical powers of
a boy, with a girl - Hermione - cheerleading him. You can predict
the outcome."

Never mind, though. Harry Potter is doing just fine.

Reading Kids' Books Without the Kids


I confess: for me, it's partly personal. I am in a local Barnes &
Noble, looking at a table spread with new releases of books; behind
me are four or five bookcases lined with similar books, all
published in the last few years. I am reading jacket copy.

"Life has not been easy lately for Walker," reads one. "His father
has died, his girlfriend has moved away." And now, his "mother is
going to work as a stripper. What if his friends find out? What if
Rachel finds out?"

Another introduces a clique of high-school girls, one of whom is
"smart, hardworking and will insult you to tears faster than you
can say, 'My haircut isn't ugly!' "

And a third shows a photograph of an eighth-grade girl, eyes open
in shock as she examines a piece leopard-skin lingerie. But the
problem she faces going to a "lingerie shower" for her brother's
ex-girlfriend doesn't compare with the problem of a 12th grader in
another book who is so attracted to her 35-year-old English teacher
that the two "tumble headlong into a passionate romance."

What, I wonder, would Heidi have done in similar circumstances, or
Anne of Green Gables? What would Eleanor Estes's Moffat children
have said if their mom, instead of working as a seamstress making
clothes for others, decided to strip her own clothes off instead?
Did even Judy Blume dream how far her vision of a frank new form of
children's fiction might go?

It isn't just the plots of these books that are jarring. Teen pulp,
which evolved out of children's books and rebelled against their
supposed strictures, appears to take up far more real estate on the
shelves of bookstores than books of more subtle literary bent for
the pre-adult set. The genre also reflects a different set of
expectations about how books are read and why.

Hoping to be reminded of what is being missed, I turn to the
opposite end of the cultural spectrum, to the newly released Norton
Anthology of Children's Literature. It contains, it promises, "350
years of literary works for children" including nursery rhymes,
primers, fairy tales, fables, legends, myths, fantasy, picture
books, science fiction, comics, poetry, plays and adventure stories
by 170 authors and illustrators, all tightly stuffed into 2,471

But here, too, crankiness gets the better of me as I slip the book
out of its case. Only my wariness is not caused by the content. It
has to do with this book's purpose. The jacket calls the anthology
a celebration of literary "richness and variety" in which "readers
will find beloved works." But it is not really designed for readers
in the usual sense. It was edited to be used in college courses.
Childhood, the preface points out, is "a time saturated with
narratives," but this is not a book whose selections are meant to
be read to a child as bedtime narratives, let alone as bedtime
stories. In fact, the binding is too floppy and the book too
weighty to hold up without resting it on a table, and turning its
tissue-thin pages requires mature surgical finesse.

That's fine, of course. Children's literature does need to be
studied; its ideas and evolution need to be understood, and the
greatness of its achievements needs to be recognized. But then
something else needs to be understood, and this is connected to the
problems with teen pulp as well. It has to do with the function of
children's books and the way pre-adult fiction grows out of them.

We can anthologize short stories or philosophical works or essays,
and their purpose and meaning will remain relatively unchanged. But
when children's literature is placed in an anthology that is not
for children, something is altered. The texts are read in a
different way. Why, in fact, do children read, and why are they
read to? Why are books specifically written for readers who are not
yet adults?

Children's books have a sense of multiple perspectives built into
them because of how they are encountered. When a parent reads
"Where the Wild Things Are" aloud, for example, the anger of the
child, Max, his fantasy of mastery and revenge, and finally, his
relief at his welcome home, are given another twist: his personal
drama is not a private drama. The parent reading - the voice of the
story itself - is precisely the authority with whom the child has
waged similar battles. Everything is intensified; the resolution is
also made more comforting, because in the calm moments of bedtime,
the parent's voice reassures.

Even for older children, the parent becomes a textual presence, an
inescapable alternate voice. And by the time the child reads alone,
the books themselves become multi-voiced. Literature for
those-who-are-not-yet-adults is often proposing alternatives,
refusing to settle into a single version of the "real." Lewis
Carroll allows neither Alice to settle into a single interpretation
of what she sees, nor the child reader - or, for that matter, the

Last week at the New York Public Library, Adam Gopnik, who has just
written a fantasy novel for children, "The King in the Window"
(Hyperion), spoke with his sister, Dr. Alison Gopnik, a cognitive
scientist who has studied children's learning. Dr. Gopnik argued
that children read the way scientists work: they experiment with
different ways of ordering the world, exploring alternate modes of

But in an academic reading of children's books this can be
forgotten. An adult may read to discern political and economic
interests, to see what lessons are latent in the text, to analyze
how narrative works, to make connections. Norton has a Web site
(www.wwnorton.com/nrl) in which course curriculums are proposed
based on the anthology. They tend to use phrases like "ideological
constructions" in discussing children's books. One course aims to
"destabilize the totalizing idea of 'the child' and set up
contrasts between male and female, urban and rural, rich and poor."
In other words, it aims to splinter the category of childhood and
focus attention on social strata, gender, locale. The risk is that
literature ends up becoming univocal: each work is seen as an
expression of the particular, and not much more.

But this happens only in mediocre literature, like teen pulp, where
narrow-casting is the marketing norm. Those books are meant to be
close reflections of their readers, mirrors of their fantasies. The
characters are just different enough from the readers to spur
curiosity and sexual interest, and just similar enough to guarantee

A great children's book, though, does not reflect the world or its
reader. It plays within the world. It explores possibilities. It
confounds expectations. That is why the anthology's academic
function makes me wary. The child, with the adult near at hand,
never has a single perspective. Almost anything can happen. And
usually does.

Connections, a critic's perspective on arts and ideas, appears
every other Monday.

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