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Twinkle, Twinkle, Mighty Tome It’s So Hard to Lug You Home

Reviewed: The Norton Anthology of Children’s Literature: The Traditions in English (College Textbook Edition) (Paperback), Edited by Jack Zipes, W. W. Norton, 2005. 2471 pp., $80.95

As one would expect, the new Norton Anthology of Children’s Literature doubles as a textbook and as poundage for weightlifting. So put away your Bowflex and just buy more Nortons. The sheer size of this collection is impressive, as is the price, and I doubt one could find this much children’s literature in any one book. The editors include alphabet books, primers and readers, fables, nursery rhymes, playground verse, comics, poetry, plays, science fiction, and fantasy and traces the development of children’s literature through 350 years, including Anglo-American literature and the more contemporary multi-ethnic authors and illustrators. There is also a 32-page color inset and numerous black and white facsimiles of book illustrations. It is prepared by leading scholars from the United States, England, and Canada who believe they will “revolutionize the undergraduate curriculum.” Better hold onto your hats.

The editors of The Norton Anthology of Children’s Literature: The Traditions in English tell us about the powerful cultural role of children’s literature: “Children’s literature is life-enhancing, life-changing, and profoundly influential; it provides a new lens with which to see the world.” I couldn’t agree more. There is nothing more delightful and imaginative as children’s stories. Though I’m afraid that since Norton has now given its stamp of approval for children’s lit studies, that lens could get quite blurry. The joy that these college students, for whom the anthology is aimed, once experienced with children’s literature will be crushed by theory and criticism. Ironically, the editors claim “the right of children’s literature to exist in the academic world,” as if children’s literature has been marginalized and would simply cease to exist without its inclusion in the university curriculum. In reality, it has become the “new discipline” on which new careers can be built. Now that the vampires of literary theory have sucked the life out of adult literature, making literature courses a graveyard of “texts” murdered by “discourses,” they can now sink their teeth into children’s literature. The editors explain that their critical perspectives and criticisms are “rooted in the feminist and multicultural movements.” They disparage the work of many authors and artists of picture books and fairy tales as dumbed down and sanitized, claiming there are “more serious approaches” that “include the diverse perspectives offered by advocates of feminism, Jungian theory, Marxism, animal rights, Freudianism, and multiculturalism.” Furthermore, the anthology is burdened with tedious introductions, headnotes, footnotes, explanatory annotations, timelines, and “Text and Context” sections that place the works in cultural and historical contexts.

Though the editors have an agenda, from the beginning the editors are confused. They remark at the difficulty in deciding how to define childhood and what constitutes children’s literature. This confusion influences their decisions regarding what stories and poems to include. According to these editors, children’s literature constitutes anything from ABC books and picture books to stories about sexual reproduction, incest, and rape. Alongside such books as The Polar Express and The Tale of Peter Rabbit, one can read “Wolf,” a story of rape and violence, written by Francesca Block, who writes for teenagers. Supposedly, teenagers are to be considered children. The editors say that children’s literature is problematic because of “the increasing tendency of distinctions between child and adult cultures to dissolve.” They even provide examples of this blurring of “differentiation” since adults and children wear the same clothes (jeans and T-shirts) and read the same books (Harry Potter) and watch the same TV shows and films (films rated PG-13), and eat the same food. Though I may wear jeans and T-shirts and have the occasional bowl of Froot Loops, my culture is significantly different from my child’s. My perceptions and interpretations of books and films will be more sophisticated and mature, or at least they should be. My level of thinking and my concerns are different from my child’s precisely because she is a child and I am an adult.

In an effort to present their ideas as radical and revolutionary and beyond the merely conventional, the editors comment on picture books that have been controversial. They present books that have sperm swimming across the pages, explicit depictions of childbirth, and the violent portrayal of the bombing of Hiroshima. They also support a picture book with a “pop-up penis.” Typical of condescending academics, the editors say these books cause debate “partly because of the unthinking assumption that children’s books are innocent or should preserve some kind of innocence.” According to some hiccup in logic, the editors believe “it is interesting to reflect” that since our children already view sex and violence on TV and in film, then surely these children’s books are tame in comparison and that there is a double standard. Just as children should be supervised as to what they view, they should also be supervised as to what they read. Teenagers have a difficult enough time dealing with matters of sex and the violence of world affairs, much less those who are between the ages of 4 and 8 years old, the listed reading level for all of these books. What is wrong with preserving a child’s innocence? Why is that “unthinking”? Certainly children develop at different speeds, but can, or should, a four-year-old child really understand the complicated nature of sex and childbirth? Why must adults force children to experience the same realities as themselves? Perhaps these professors prefer children as sophisticated and urbane as themselves. I do not envision a utopian society, and I do not suggest condescending to children, but these editors seem to want to eradicate childhood altogether. Forget enchantment. Forget wonder. Instead, let our children dream of vulgarities and atrocities. Ironically, while these professors maintain a pretense to a more cultivated sensibility and viewpoint, the so-called risky choices made are actually timid and morally relativist. It’s easy to include everything. They are simply kowtowing to the liberal hegemony that exists in English departments in universities across the nation.

* * *

The editors include ten collections of poetry in their entirety, and some of them are classics. They are Christina Rosette’s Sing-Song: A Nursery Rhyme Book, Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses, Walter de la Mare’s Peacock Pie, Robert Graves’s The Penny Fiddle, Charles Causley’s Early in the Morning, Lucille Clifton’s Some of the Days of Everett Anderson, Pat Mora’s Confetti: Poems for Children, Marilyn Nelson’s Carver: A Life in Poems, and Grace Nichols’s Come on into My Tropical Garden. Randall Jarrell’s book The Bat-Poet is included as well and consists of poems embedded in a prose narrative. One could even include The New England Primer as one of the poetry collections, which is reprinted in facsimile from the 1777 edition in the section titled “Primers and Readers.” It contains much poetry, such as the well-known rhyming picture alphabet that begins, “In Adam’s Fall/We sinned All.” Such catechism reminds us that not all children’s poetry is sentimental and sunny. There are many dark poems that appear throughout the book.

Several of Robert Louis Stevenson’s poems in A Child’s Garden of Verse, in print since its first publication in 1885, have a dark edge. Consider the section called “Shadow March” from the poem “North-West Passage”:

All round the house is the jet-black night:

It stares through the window-pane;

It crawls in the corners, hiding from the light,

And it moves with the moving flame.

Now my little heart goes a-beating like a drum,

With the breath of the Bogie in my hair;

And all round the candle the crooked shadows come

And go marching along up the stair.

The shadow of the balusters, the shadow of the lamp,

The shadow of the child that goes to bed–

All the wicked shadows coming, tramp, tramp, tramp,

With the black night overhead.

Or consider the final image to the martial poem “Armies in the Fire,” in which a child’s room is transformed by fire and toy soldiers:

Blinking embers, tell me true,

Where are those armies marching to,

And what the burning city is

That crumbles in your furnaces.

From Robert Graves we are offered the entire collection of The Penny Fiddle, which includes some dark poems such as “How and Why”:

How and why

Poets die,

That’s a dismal tale:

Some take a spill

On Guinea Hill,

Some drown in ale.

Of course, the editors provide lengthy introductions warning us that the poems will appear “patronizing,” “masculine,” “sexist,” and “racist.” The sections on “Legends” and “Classical Myths,” for instance, warn us of gender stereotypes and the skewed perspectives of middle- to upper-class white males. The editors question, in fact, if classical myths have been “kept alive in the present postclassical culture only by unreflective adults.” The scholar Kenneth McLeish wrote that classical myths of Greece and Rome were a “metaphorical and poetic way” to bind communities. The editors find this “metaphorical level” “simple-minded” and “distasteful.” Fortunately, we have the editors’ enlightened moral compass to guide us through the shameful morass that is Western culture and literature.

Despite the breadth of the book, there are some omissions and some short comings I would like to address, though this is more niggling than a crucial criticism. Let me emphasize, however, that many of the things I mention may be due to problems with permissions or the typically exorbitant fees that are requested to reprint materials. First, there is no William Blake. No Emily Dickinson. Despite Dr. Seuss’s immense popularity, he is given but two pages. We are given one small illustration by Edward Gorey, who has influenced many artists, including the filmmaker Tim Burton, who has also, by the way, written and illustrated his own wickedly funny book The Melancholy Death of Oyster Boy: and Other Stories, but we are given none of Gorey’s dark poetry, like the grim abecedarian The Gashlycrumb Tinies. The editors provide but one page to Heinrich Hoffman and his collection Der Struwwelpeter (1845) or Slovenly Peter. He had a deep influence on children’s literature and was translated from the German by the likes of Mark Twain. Slovenly Peter, as the editors tell us, “intended to amuse by exaggerating and ridiculing the extreme punishments threatened by the religious writers of the day.” Perhaps the editors should have included “The Dreadful Story of Pauline and the Matches,” a story about a girl, Pauline, warned by her mother and nurse not to play with matches. Here is the result, as one might guess:

So she was burnt with all her clothes,

And arms and hands, and eyes and nose;

Till she had nothing more to lose

Except her little scarlet shoes;

And nothing else but these was found

Among her ashes on the ground.

Roald Dahl, author of James and the Giant Peach and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, as well as Vile Verses, gets but one entry, but it’s a wonderful poem called “Little Red Riding Hood and the Wolf.” Dahl’s version is a revision of the classic fairy tale, and this time Little Red takes matters into her own hands. Unfortunately, there are no entries for Hilaire Belloc and his Cautionary Tales. Shel Silverstein is mentioned as one who has carried on the tradition of nonsense verse, but none of his poetry is included from his popular collections Where the Sidewalk Ends or Runny Babbit. X. J. Kennedy isn’t included, and he has written several books for children, most which are variations on his first collection entitled Brats:

At the laundromat Liz Meyer

Flung her brothers in the dryer.

Round and round they’ve whizzed for years,

Not yet dry behind the ears.

However, there is already a lot of stuff in the book, and we must remember that this a collection “designed to introduce students to the variety and abundance of literary works for children.” Given the size of this book, I wonder how many semesters will be required to complete this introduction. At least students will be afforded one of the editors’ “fresh critical approaches” to reading children’s literature; “Semiotic theory, for example, with its attention to sign systems, could be used to make sense of picture books.” Hopefully, they can make sense of that pop-up penis. Let the revolution begin.

Caveat emptor.

This post was written by:

- who has written 4 posts on Contemporary Poetry Review.

Sonny Williams lives in Dallas, Texas. He edited the anthology Story Hour: Contemporary Narratives By American Poets. He has written a novel, The Escaped, and a collection of poetry, Absinthium.

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