12 Representative American Children’s Books (For Irish Eyes)

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There is a real sense in which our prose is immediately distinguishable from that of Europe. . . . The great works of American fiction are notoriously at home in the children’s section of the library.”


Inis5Near the end of my year of living in Ireland, in June 2000, I was asked by Children’s Books Ireland to give a talk at their annual meeting in Dublin. My remarks were later printed in their journal “Inis” (#5 Summer 2003) as part of a series dedicated to the children’s literature of particular countries—in this case, the United States.


 

 

Attending Catholic grammar school in America in the 1950s, we students of immigrant ancestors were often told by the nuns (most of whom were Irish) a story of St. Augustine. Contemplating the divinity of God, Augustine was walking by the seashore–at the time, I gathered this would have been in Kerry or County Clare. As it was, he came upon a child digging a hole in the sand. When Augustine asked the child what he was doing, the youngster replied that he was putting the ocean into the hole. Protesting that such a task was impossible, Augustine was then surprised when the child turned into an angel who advised him that it was equally impossible for a human to comprehend the divinity of God.

While nowhere as cosmically ambitious, but feeling equally chastened and humbled, I nonetheless take up in this essay Siobhan Parkinson’s invitation to write about Children’s Literature of the United States in 2,500 words. Let me add, then, the first of many qualifications. One of the most familiar features of the poetry of the modern American poet Randall Jarrell is his use of the phrase “And yet–.” This essay, too, is full of such caveats, which are meant to convey the interesting and curious complexity of this endeavor.

Consider, first, the size of the United States. If someone might drive from Belfast to Killarney in, say, six or seven hours, it would take six or seven long days to drive from Boston to Los Angeles. Come up with some factor to describe that geographical difference, multiply the number of Irish authors for children by that factor, and you will have some notion of the number of American authors that need to be reckoned with in this essay.

Then there is the difference between our national literatures. Ask folks elsewhere to identify works of Irish literature and they will mention, say, William Butler Yeats, James Joyce, and Seamus Heaney. Ask the same question about American literature and a difference may soon become apparent: as the great critic Leslie Fielder has observed, “There is a real sense in which our prose is immediately distinguishable from that of Europe. . . . The great works of American fiction are notoriously at home in the children’s section of the library.”

In this essay, I have set for myself the goal of identifying twelve representative American children’s books. I have imagined my task this way: if I was abroad and teaching a course in American Children’s Literature (or if I was corresponding with a teacher abroad who was about to offer the same kind of class), what twelve books would I choose?

The number twelve was chosen for a purpose. In the fairy tale “Sleeping Beauty,” twelve fairies are invited to the christening but trouble comes from the thirteenth fairy, the uninvited guest. Let me apologize, consequently, if I have overlooked a work or if someone’s favorite is missing from this list. Still, here goes:

1. Samuel Clemens’ The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876). For a vision of American boyhood, there is none better than this book by the man who called himself “Mark Twain.” It would be followed by his Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), which is the American classic but a work that fits uneasily in the juvenile category.

2. Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women (1868). This account of Jo March and her sisters is perhaps the best example of the “girl’s book,” a genre that also includes, for example, Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm and Pollyanna. If Tom Sawyer is about boyish pranks and mischief, Little Women is about the interior lives of girls engaged in an almost evangelical struggle with character development.

3. Frank L. Baum’s The Wizard of Oz (1900). This is our Alice in Wonderland but more homely and native in its account of the little girl Dorothy, her dog Toto, Kansas, a scarecrow, a wood-chopping robot, and (because Americans are skeptical democrats) a ruler who is an impostor. The famous MGM film with Judy Garland appears on American television with about the same seasonal regularity that “Willy Wonka” appears on Irish t.v.

4. Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan of the Apes (1914). Swinging out of the book and into the mass market, Tarzan has become one of the most well known figures in popular imaginings. And yet in giving Burroughs’ novel a place in this list, I have had to forfeit to the British a claim on the classic The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett, an author with dual citizenship.

5. Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie (1935). Representative of America’s “regional fiction” and presenting a vision of American homesteading in the West (and the consequent displacement of the Indians or Native Americans), Wilder’s novel is an archetypal story of the pioneer.

In choosing “representative” American children’s books, let me add, I have abandoned other ways such a list might be organized. For example, an essay organized around a history of American Children’s Literature might begin with the famous episode from Parson Weems’ The Life of Washington the Great (1806) where a young and revolutionary George Washington (later the first president of the republic) chops down an English cherry tree or with Washington Irving’s tale “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” (1809) which is a favorite Halloween story. For those interested interested in such a history, I direct their attention to my essay in Peter Hunt’s International Companion Encyclopedia of Children’s Literature (Routledge). For my purposes here, however, I have chosen representative works irrespective of their dates and with no aim of outlining the development or evolution of this genre. 

6. Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are (1963). Here is America’s most famous picture book, our Peter Rabbit. Nearly every American children knows the story of Max and the monsters which begins, “The night Max wore his wolf suit and made mischief of one kind and another . . . .”

7. Dr. Seuss’ The Cat in the Hat (1957). Many American youngsters learned to read via the jangling verse of Dr. Seuss (Theodor Giesel) and his subversive characters, including the Grinch.

8. Margaret Wise Brown’s Goodnight Moon (1947). Lyrical and deceptively simple, this American bedtime book is a universal favorite. And yet, in choosing it, I have had to bump other worthy picture books: Wanda Gag’s Millions of Cats (1928), Ludwig Bemelmans’ Madeline (1939), and Robert Lawson’s The Story of Ferdinand (1936).

Having chosen as my subject 12 representative American children’s books, I see that (in mentioning the picture books above) I have already painted myself into a corner. Except for the purist, for those who feel it is important than children have stories, it may matter little whether they come in print or in some other media. In that regard, the name to reckon with is Walt Disney. In intellectual circles in the U.S. the productions of Disney Studios–from “Snow White” (1937) through “Beauty and the Beast” (1991)–are customarily dismissed in a knee-jerk reflex as a dilution of vivid story traditions and a pandering to the mass market. Outside the U.S., Disney films are routinely criticized as an example of the commercial colonization of children’s imaginations. All of that may be true, but let me suggest an heretical position: we need to squarely face up to the fact that Disney Studios has created a certain canon of children’s stories and their worldwide popularity must, in some way, be a measure of their genuine appeal.

9. E. B. White’s Charlotte’s Web (1952). There is far more than meets the eye in this lovely and folksy story of a friendship between a spider and a pig. In the end, the thoughtful reader may realize its ultimate message: that by means of words, themselves, we can be lifted up a little and saved.

10. Randall Jarrell’s The Animal Family (1965). A kind of Robinsonade, Jarrell’s fantasy talks about a family being created as a hunter befriends a mermaid and they take in a bear, a lynx, and a shipwrecked boy. Lyrical, simple, moving–this small book is a paean to family life.

11. Russell Hoban’s The Mouse and His Child (1967). Another fantasy, this book presents a masterful coincidence of adult and children’s literature–as if Hoban combined in himself and all at once the genius of Jean Paul Sartre, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry and Jean de Brunhoff. A story of refugee animals and clockwork toys, this existential fable is about finding a home and learning how to become “self-winding.”

And yet, in choosing as my subject “12 Representative American Children’s Books” and looking over my list thus far, the question arises: representative of who? In the last few decades, like others elsewhere, more and more Americans have become aware of the ways that the creation of canons has silenced and overlooked the literature of this country’s minorities, especially racial and ethnic minorities. Because I have gathered here works that are widely known and popular bestsellers, it is inevitable that my choices should reflect majority culture at the expense of  minority voices. Let me insert then, if even in an abbreviated form, one more qualification in this essay.

African-American children’s books have their own grand tradition and if one had to be chosen as an exemplar, I would choose Virginia Hamilton’s M. C. Higgins the Great (1974), a touching story of a boy’s awkward growing up in coal-mining country. Latino and Latina children’s books, the literature of America’s Spanish-speaking population, also has its own tradition and here the best exemplar may be Gary Soto’s collection of short stories Baseball in April (1990). Let me also make passing mention of Asian-American children’s literature to illustrate another point.

While welcoming attention to their culture and traditions, “Asian-Americans” have pointed out that there is still something patronizing about the way they have all been lumped together so that no thoughtful discrimination has been made among those whose ancestry is, for example, Chinese or Japanese or Korean or Filipino. Likewise, those in recent immigrant communities (Lao, Vietnamese, Thai, Khmer, etc.) have also solicited a finer discrimination from the reading public and a more thoughtful appreciation of their own cultures. Moreover, this attention to the immigrant experience has also brought with it a new awareness of the history of European immigration in stories that might be classified as Italian-American, Irish-American, Swedish-American, and so forth.

If the reader of this essay now feels a touch of Augustinian vertigo, let me say that this is a feeling shared by this essay’s author. The atomization of American identities sometimes seems an example of infinite regression, and issues becomes even more complex when we consider how intermarriage has created ethnic hybrids; for example, a recent prize-winning book that has been gathering praise is Esperanza Rising (2001) by an author whose name suggests both Mexico and Tipperary, Pam Muñoz Ryan. Identity becomes an even more complex issues when one adds in gender and sexual orientation in the case of children’s authors whose American nationality takes second place to their being, for example, women or gay or lesbian. As dizzying as all this must be, the development and discussion of “hyphenated” American children’s books has, nonetheless, resulted in the most fructifying debates in recent years.

And yet, as I look over the list assembled here, I see it is also heavily weighted towards older books and thin on contemporary offerings. That really amounts to a confession of cowardice. As years accumulate, it becomes easier to see which books will endure because they have been submitted to a tribunal of multiple readers. Recent books lack that advantage, and we are more likely to be in error in estimating the value of our favorites or in overlooking the worth of a book that will be so manifestly apparent to our grandchildren some years in the future. Nonetheless, let me go out on a limb and suggest one recent work likely to endure:

12. Francesca Lia Block’s Weetzie Bat (1989). Set in Los Angeles in an era when Madonna was the new phenom, Block’s book is partly a fairy tale and partly a realistic punk novel. In a touching and off-the-wall way, and thanks to grandma’s wish-granting magic lamp, a new family emerges in a community composed of Weetzie and her Secret Agent Man, the gay couple Dirk and Duck, infants Cherokee and Witch Baby, as well as their Chinese and Jamaican godparents Ping-Chong and Jah-Love.

Of course, assembling a list of this kind is like answering the question “If you could take one book to a deserted island, what would it be?” I believe it was G. K. Chesterton who suggested that the appropriate answer would be a book on boat-building. But Randall Jarrell said his own answer would be more heartfelt: “Can I take one more?”

Feeling the same, if I had room, I would smuggle into this essay mention of: Marjorie Kinnan Rawling’s The Yearling (1938), perhaps America’s most impressive “y.a.” or young adult novel; and William Steig’s impressive picturebook Sylvester and the Magic Pebble (1969) and Chris Van Allsburgh’s Garden of Abdul Ghasazi (1982) and Maurice Sendak’s Outside Over There (1981). Mention should also have been made of Madeline L’Engle’s science-fiction series begun with A Wrinkle of Time (1962); and since sci-fi has been raised, how can it be possible to ignore George Lucas’ “Star Wars” films and the story tradition they started. Jack London’s The Call of the Wild (1903) is also terrific and The Prince and the Pauper (1881) may be Mark Twain’s most well written novel. And yet, if I had still more room, I would also liked to have mentioned (but, of course, won’t) a number of other books–J. D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye (1951), Mary Mapes Dodge’s Hans Brinker (1865), Scott O’Dell’s Island of the Blue Dolphins (1960), Lois Lenski’s Strawberry Girl (1946) and Dorothy Canfield Fisher’s Understood Betsy (1917), and dozens of others–but I see I am approaching the prescribed maximum of this essay with only five words left to spare.

Bailing, bailing at the seashore.

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11. May 2015 by Jerry Griswold
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