Don't Trust Anyone Over Twelve

Step into the mystical world of children's literature where subversion is the rule ... no matter what the grown-ups want you to think. Take a look at a tradition of independent thought and pretty pictures as our author reviews Alison Lurie's Don't Tell The Grown-Ups.

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by Hilary Jirka


Lest we forget, we are all ex-children. Of course, if one had been a tiresome, prosaic baggage of a child, like Eustace from C.S. Lewis’s The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, one might long for amnesia. In that book, Eustace is redeemed by unwittingly transforming himself into a greedy dragon and by being restored by Aslan the Lion, lord and creator of Narnia. In part, Eustace’s predicament is due to his having "read none of the right books." If you read only terribly useful books about grain elevators and "fat, foreign children doing exercises in model schools," you will, if you stumble upon a cave of treasure, be reminded only of government taxation, rather than "dragon’s lair" ... and go to sleep.

Alison Lurie’s book, Don’t Tell the Grown-Ups: The Subversive Power of Children’s Literature (Little & Brown, 1991), is manifestly one of the right books. The worth and power of some stories make it so children are their only captors. Lurie re-opens the door to our childhood and reveals that those who write the best books for children not only remember that particular state of being but actually have something worthwhile to say ... and no, it's not what you think.

Part of the sheer pleasure of reading this book is revisiting old favorites, like Peter Pan or Alice in Wonderland, and feeling rather proud that one was a successful convert, um, subvert in one’s youth. Even happier, perhaps, is the discovery that subversion in children’s literature is not a recent innovation but has deep roots in the fairy tales told by common people before being -- ahem -- adulterated for middle-class Victorian children. Lurie critiques, with zest and forcefulness, the ongoing attempts from that day to this to force-feed kids emotionally safe and "realistic" books, or forgettable fairy tales, "in which the energy and excitement and vivid detail of the stories is missing or watered-down."

The funky irony is that Twain, Tolkien, Potter, Barrie, Dr. Seuss -- none of whom were taken seriously by adults because they spoke directly to children (especially Tolkien, the Oxford professor, who lost the respect of his peers once he published his Middle Earth books) -- became more perfect vehicles for protest and subversion as a result of their marginalization. Their enduring works invite us to step outside society’s defined limits while we are in the process of being socialized. As Lurie states poignantly in her foreword: "[Their] very existence implies that what matters is art, imagination, and truth. ... [I]n what we call the real world, what usually counts is money, power, and public success." Many adults I know can recall only titles or authors that have won an award or sold many copies, like the Harry Potter books. In fact, most of the time, children’s classics critique and mock outright the pretensions and values of the adult societies of their times.

To be a true classic, of course, as opposed to an instant one, a book has to have been around a while. Most of the ones Lurie serves up are of Victorian vintage -- a time when stories were meant to improve upon the character of their protagonists and readers alike. But no one is "improved" by Lurie’s selection of authors; rather, as discovered by Beatrix Potter’s Peter Rabbit (who is much preferred by Lurie’s students over dull, tame, Flopsy, Mopsy, and Cottontail), the books in question teach that "disobedience and exploration are more fun than good behavior, and not really all that dangerous, whatever Mother may say." Working against the sentimental view of children as pure little beings, J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan has "charm and innocence ... accompanied by profound egotism and ... unconscious capacity for cruelty." Never-Never Land allows the Darling children "to have exciting adventures and be perfectly safe." The Darlings and the Lost Boys, of course, turn into "common grown-ups" without memory of their time in Never-Never Land or the power to fly. Tolkien’s Bilbo Baggins (The Hobbit) is considered by his neighbors to be unrespectably strange because he goes off adventuring, and by nature maintains his "indifference to glory in battle and great wealth."

Most striking is the extent to which the authors’ own troubled, oppressive, or stormily rebellious circumstances informed their writing as adults. It perhaps should not surprise us that Beatrix Potter was literally kept at home unto adulthood by "unimaginative, ultraconservative parents whose view of what was proper for a well-bred girl ruled out almost every human interest and activity." Or that T. H. White, who wrote The Book of Merlyn about the deeply flawed heroes and bitter end of King Arthur’s Camelot, was a skeptic and a pessimist, a pacifist in England during WWII when "patriotism and optimism" were the only acceptable public attitudes.

Other authors examined are less familiar, but one in particular is an absolute hoot to discover. Edith Nesbit is a riot, an appealingly bohemian, tomboyish Victorian socialist: "[H]er appearance was untidy and striking ... her arms were loaded with silver bangles and her abundant dark hair was bobbed." Faddish and radical, she, not her husband, supported their family with her artwork and writing. The excerpts that Lurie quotes from Nesbit’s magical stories about the Bastable children are pointedly hysterical; Nesbit wrote like, and for, the kind of child she had been -- "bold, quick-tempered, egotistic, and literary." Haven’t you ever wanted to say something like this to an "impertinent" relative?

She would be asked about her lessons ... and whether she had been a good girl. ... Suppose you were to answer, "I’m top of my class, Auntie ... and now let’s have a little talk about you ... how much money have you got, and have you been scolding the servants again, or have you tried to be good and patient as a properly brought up aunt should be, eh, dear?"

Or how about political wit in a kid’s story? Consider the appearance of the Queen of Babylon in Edwardian London, who assumes the workers are slaves:

"Oh no," said Cyril, "you see they have votes -- that makes them safe not to revolt ... Father told me so."
"What is this vote?" asked the Queen. "Is it a charm? What do they do with it?"
"I don’t know," said the harassed Cyril; "It’s just a vote, that’s all! They don’t do anything particular with it."
"I see," said the Queen, "a sort of plaything."

Lurie makes refreshingly clear the value to children of literature that has a point of view -- especially a point of view that not only points out the fallibilities of grown-ups, their thinking, and societal systems, but casts child characters that are also flawed, petty, greedy, passionate, thoughtless, and vulnerable. Human, that is, and partaking of human comedy and tragedy. The illogic and disservice of trying to purge kid’s stories of all troubling emotions, unorthodox views, and social criticism is often presented as necessary to shore up squishy self-esteem or, especially in the last decade, to hide from view the disturbing (to some parents) plurality of modern life.

Lurie casts with Bruno Bettelheim, the psychoanalyst who wrote in defense of fairy-tale literature, and who saw in many drug-addicted, guru-enslaved, occultish, and otherwise daydream-trapped young adults, the natural result of being "prematurely pressed to view reality in an adult way." Lurie continues this line of thought when considering pixiolatry, or the fashionable New Age, half- serious belief in elves, trolls, fairies, and the like. While noting that this too is a side effect of "the overly material and commercial world we live in," Lurie distinguishes between a truly imaginative pursuit of folklore or religious faith and "the shallow glow of good feeling." Or, I think, the pompous superiority of certain sci-fi addicts, hoarding Dungeons & Dragons paraphernalia and escapist novels and treasuring an inflated sense of their own "outsider" status.

Overall, Lurie drives home the fact that childhood is naturally filled with ideas, observations, and especially fears that are not addressed by blandly realistic tales that pass right through us like Olestra. So many of us forget the awe-filled and imaginative nature of these perceptions, dismissing them simply as immature errors -- we have an idea that the beliefs of children are childish. But, like Tinker Bell, "ultimately all characters in literature are kept alive by the belief of readers." Kids who read, and who become reading grown-ups, need to be nourished by stories worthy of their belief.

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