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Books: The Subversive Vision of Best Children's Books

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Don't Tell the Grown-Ups: Subversive Children's Literature

Little, Brown and Company, 34 Beacon St., Boston, Mass. 02108; 229 pp. $19.95 cloth.

By Bernice E. Cullinan

Parents marvel at children's instant memorization of prankish chants that celebrate disobedience:

"On top of the school yard

All covered with blood

I shot my poor teacher

With an M-l6 gun."

In her new book, Don't Tell the Grown-Ups: Subversive Children's Literature, Alison Lurie, the author of such novels as The War Between the Tates and the Puliltzer Prize-winning Foreign Affairs, explains the basic appeal of such verses and identifies similar qualities in children's books of lasting interest.

Books do not exist in a vacuum; they are shaped by the world around them. Children's literature, which mirrors the prevailing view of childhood, is itself a part of the social, philosophic, and aesthetic forces of a given time. By looking carefully at that literature, we can see the values and ideals adults hold for children.

Often justifiably accused of teaching and preaching morals and manners to the young, children's books are filled with messages to stay clean, be sweet, and be good. Of her own childhood reading, Ms. Lurie notes that the great majority of books "told me what grown-ups had decided I ought to know or believe about the world."

But there are other books--in Ms. Lurie's words, the "sacred texts of childhood"--that recommend and even celebrate "daydreaming, disobedience, answering back, running away from home, and concealing one's private thoughts and feelings from unsympathetic adults." Calling this literature "subversive," Ms. Lurie chooses it as her subject because "it will endure long after more conventional tales have been forgotten."

Subversive children's literature, she writes, overturns adult pretensions and makes fun of adult institutions, including school and family. These books mock current assumptions and express an imaginative, unconventional, magical view of the world. They appeal to the questioning, rebellious child within each of us. Children prefer these authentic representations of their inner lives, she says, to shams and lessons masquerading as story foisted upon them.

And she is right, of course. Children are quick to spot a phony and do not hesitate to point out pretentious nonsense. They make fun of hypocrisy and yell out their defiance in playground chants, jump-rope rhymes, and singing games.

"The illusion of adults that children not only should but can be shielded from knowledge of unpleasant realities," Ms. Lurie writes, will rapidly dissolve if they listen to some of children's playground verses. "Everything we might want to protect boys and girls from" is already present in such verses as:

"My mommy lies over the ocean

My daddy lies over the sea

My daddy lies over my mommy

And that's how they got little me."

Or:

"I made you look

You dirty crook

You stole your momma's food-stamp book

Turn it in, turn it out

Now you know what welfare's all about."

While recognizing the playful nature of children's chants, Ms. Lurie, who is professor of English at Cornell University, takes their literature seriously. She brings a scholarly approach to her subject and dignifies it with thoughtful criticism.

This is precisely what authors of children's literature beg for--serious criticism of their work. The noted children's and adolescents' author Richard Peck, for instance, has decried the inane quality of reviews of his work. The brief paragraphs in most review journals give a plot line and a teaser that is frequently copied from book-jacket blurbs. Since Mr. Peck writes the jacket copy for most of his books, he is, in essence, writing his own reviews.

Admirable as her criticism is, it is unfortunate that Ms. Lurie discusses in detail only British writers: two contemporary (Richard Adams and William Mayne) and nine from the past (Kate Greenaway, Lucy Lane Clifford, Ford Madox Ford, Beatrix Potter, E. Nesbit, James Barrie, Frances Hodgson Burnett, A.A. Milne, and J.R.R. Tolkien). She also examines folktales, fairy tales, and street rhymes.

Her penchant for a sociological perspective, particularly a feminist view, shows up in her critique. She looks beneath the surface of fairy tales, for example, to reveal women's-liberation messages hidden there. In the Grimm brothers' original Children's and Household Tales, she points out, "there are 61 women and girl characters who have magic powers as against only 21 men and boys; and these males are usually dwarfs and not humans."

And folktales recorded in the field, she writes, "are full of everything the Victorian editors left out: sex, death, low humor, and especially female initiative." Ms. Lurie prefers the strong women and active heroines who, not surprisingly, peopled the old wives' tales--which are, in a literal sense, women's literature.

Ms. Lurie also probes underground connections between classic fairy tales and contemporary adult fiction. Stock situations and characters from ancient tales "reappear in the novels we read today," she points out. A modern male protagonist, for instance, might be a prince, a poor but ambitious boy, a fortunate fool, a traveling vagabond, or a clever trickster. But the female protagonist is either a princess or "an underprivileged but basically worthy girl who is going to become a princess if she is brave and good and lucky."

The major portion of Ms. Lurie's excellent text is devoted to individual writers. Selecting fascinating biographical details, she weaves4keen insights into her account of the complex relations between writers' lives and their work.

Beatrix Potter, for example, was determined that her books should be made to fit children's hands and not to impress adults. Her sympathy lies clearly with the adventurous Peter Rabbit and the impertinent, reckless Squirrel Nutkin, whose exploits suggest that disobedience and exploration are more fun than good behavior.

In Winnie-the-Pooh, A.A. Milne appears to have been writing about his son, whose name was Christoper Robin, but there are indications he was also thinking of his own childhood. "It was Milne's genius," observes Ms. Lurie, "to have created ... universal types and to have constructed in a few acres of English countryside a world that has the qualities both of the Golden Age of history and legend, and the lost paradise of childhood."

J.R.R. Tolkien seems to have drawn his material from the medieval sagas, with their noisy battles between men and monsters and their simple social and moral structure. The message of The Hobbit, however, was new: "It presented a world in which the forces of evil might at times overcome the forces of good, and the true hero was no longer strong, handsome, aristocratic, and victorious in combat."

In Don't Tell the Grown-Ups: Subversive Children's Literature, Alison Lurie makes a significant contribution to our understanding of literature and its influence on our children, our society, and our lives. Proponents of good literature for children must be grateful for this singular contribution.

Bernice E. Cullinan, professor of reading and children's literature at New York University, is a past president of the International Reading Association and author of several books on children's literature. In 1989, she was awarded the Arbuthnot Award for Outstanding Teacher of Children's Literature.

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