LIT 4334: The Golden Age of Children's Literature

In Kelly Hager’s article, “Betsy and the Canon,” she explores the role of novels in the formation of the canon, and how the novels turn their audience into good readers. Hager uses the Betsy-Tacy series and Alcott’s Little Women as her primary examples, showing how various characters influence what books the protagonists read.  These characters, although fictional, have had a hand in the formation of the canon, through their selections of works for the protagonist.

These selections include such works as, Tales from ShakespeareDon QuixoteGulliver’s TravelsTom SawyerIvanhoeTwenty Thousand Leagues Under the SeaOliver TwistThe Grapes of WrathAnimal FarmPlutarch’s LivesPilgrim’s Progress, and other works by the likes of Ernest Hemingway, Charles Dickens, Thomas Hardy, and William Faulkner.

These works are deemed “acceptable” for young girls to read.  But what most of them have in common is that they were not necessarily written with children as the intended audience, and none of them speak to children as less intelligent than adults–none of them speak down to them.  Why, then, are they “acceptable” reading for young children? Shouldn’t children read books that are for children? Aren’t these all books for adults? The Grapes of Wrath, for instance, has several deaths, and ends with a woman breastfeeding a grown man, and Gulliver’s Travels deals with such subjects as public urination.  I could speak for months on the inappropriateness of William Shakespeare (among the least racy of his credits is the invention of the “your mom” joke).

My argument is that these books are appropriate for children specifically because they do not speak down to them.  They actually prepare children for reading and writing in the adult world, not to mention teaching them how to interact with other people.  The books do not treat children as if they are less intelligent that adults, but rather expect them to learn the reading skills required of an adult–looking up words in the dictionary, using context clues, and, in extreme cases, dealing with adult topics such as death and sex.

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The Goblins: A Close Reading

“They had enough of affection left for each other to preserve them from being absolutely cruel for cruelty’s sake to those that came in their way; but still they so heartily cherished the ancestral grudge against those who occupied their former possessions and especially against the descendants of the king who had caused their expulsion, that they sought every opportunity of tormenting them in ways that were as odd as their inventors; and although dwarfed and misshapen, they had strength equal to their cunning.”

This passage is presented to the reader in the first chapter, eighty-four words that make up a single sentence, which explains the core motivation of the goblins and some of their traits. However, it is not the passage’s literal meaning that requires close attention, but rather its nature and construction, which are continuously used throughout the story. Indeed, the tone that is delivered in this one sentence is a poignant representation of the tone throughout the novel.
The sentence above from The Princess and the Goblin uses two semi-colons, which effectively breaks the one thought into three. Two of these thoughts use commas, but overall the amount of punctuation that breaks up the passage seems slight, or perhaps less than expected when looking at a block of eight-four words. The continuous nature of the passage requires you to slow down the pace of reading and let each word and idea truly sink into the mind of the reader. Likewise, this slowing in the pace is achieved by the word choice and phrasing of MacDonald. For example, “cruel for cruelty’s sake,” “heartily cherished,” and “former possessions,” repeat varying degrees of the “c” and “s” sounds. This repetition adds to the fairy tale and adds to the rhythm. Not only is the wording hypnotic in a way, but the diction is also challenging.

These elements, the syntax and the word choice, further drive the tone and intention of MacDonald’s tale: To tell a story to children. While MacDonald has been quoted to say that he writes for the child-like and not the child specifically, it is still reasonable to say that being aware of whom his story would be marketed towards and the fairy tale aspect of the story, that he would know the story would mainly end up in the hands of children. Many young people would be unfamiliar with several words in just this one passage. This represents MacDonald’s attitude towards children and his unwillingness to speak down to them. MacDonald is not of the school that children’s books should contain only things in them that children previously know.

Perhaps most importantly, this passage illustrates the author’s strong use of the narrative voice. The long sentences, the challenging vocabulary, and almost poetic semblance of the phrases portray a tone of story telling that almost begs to be read aloud. This speaks greatly to the time and also to the nature of the children’s literature, which is delivered from the parent to the child. Many of the sections that I myself read in preparing for this week’s class I read over again, more slowly, imagining myself doing so aloud to my younger brother who is only six. It is in this slowed down version that the tale came more alive and more vibrant. The very nature of the book brings you back to childhood and inserts you into the fantastical atmosphere of the story, making this tale of young Princess Irene both classical and necessary.

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Perpetuation of the Canon Today

The term “literary canon” is widely used in reference to a group of literary texts that are considered the finest or most important representations of a particular place or time period. A literary canon can be comprised of works written in the same country or region or within a specific time period; in this way, a canon establishes a collection of related literary texts. While literary works can of course be classified in many different ways (i.e. by theme, region, time period, topic, etc.), inclusion in the literary canon seems to apply a certain legitimacy or authority to a literary work.

As we saw in Kelly Hager’s article, the canon is largely a product of our literary upbringing, or what we read as children. We are told by our parents, our librarians, and our teachers to read the “classics,” and we do so, therefore perpetuating both their validity and popularity and securing their place in the literary canon. However, with the increased use of technology and media in the 20th century, we have seen a shift in literary influence, now coming not only from books but from television and cinema, as well, though the same end is still met.

For example, Hager describes an instance during which Betsy of Lovelace’s Betsy-Tacy books is encouraged to spend a “splendid” day exploring the library. This sentiment is one that is encouraged in many children’s television programs today, as well. One distinct memory I have from my childhood is the song  sang during the episode “Arthur’s Almost Live Not Real Music Festival” of the popular children’s show Arthur that encourages that encourages kids to explore the classics at their public library, mentioning authors such as Jules Verne, H.G Wells, and Ray Bradbury.

The popular children’s television series Wishbone encouraged children to read the classics, as well. This show featured a talking dog by the same name that often daydreamed that he was the lead character in a classic literary work. Each episode portrayed a different text, and the show drew parallels between the stories’ events and the lives of Wishbone, his owner Joe, and Joe’s friends, making the classics interesting and relatable to Wishbone’s audience.

While the two examples I have provided are specifically targeted toward children, television as a vesicle of canon perpetuation can be seen in shows geared toward adolescents, as well. The clearest example of this I think is the popular show Gilmore Girls that ran from 2000 through 2007. This show was a drama-comedy series about the close relationship between a single woman and her extremely bright daughter Rory, living in the fictional town of Stars Hollow, Connecticut. Each episode featured Yale-bound Rory living her life, always with at least one book on hand. From Little Women to Don Quixote, Crime and Punishment to The Bell Jar, she was constantly shown reading in a corner, on a bus, at the park, wherever she may find herself. This show developed somewhat of a cult following. Soon after, “Rory Gilmore Reading Challenges”  began surfacing all over the Internet, and many girls took Rory’s literary lead and began working through the list.


While the influence of teachers, parents, and librarians on what children and adolescence read has continued and will continue to perpetuate the state of the literary canon(s), it is clear that popular entertainment and media have begun to take on some of this responsibility, as well. I think it will be interesting to see how the dynamics of this continues to shift and change as our culture becomes more and more entrenched in entertainment and media.


The Princess and the Goblin

The Princess and the Goblin is a children fantasy book by George MacDonald although it was primarily for children, the fantasy in the story delight readers of all ages. A lot of people love the story because of it suspense, magic, adventures and the wonder of it worlds.

Irene the little princess decides to take action because of the arrogance and ignorance of her King Papa. Her king Papa remains oblivions that the children of the Kingdom have gone missing. Together with her grandmother, her best friend Curdie, and a little bit of faith, Irene ventures deep into the underworld to rescue the forgotten children in the Kingdom of the goblins. This story proves that faith can triumph over any evil manner. The princess Irene frees the children and teaches the adults a lesson about humility and forgiveness.

A fun fact about this movie is that it was based off a ballet.

Curdie one of the main character acts with a lot of confidence. I love how Curdie is a calm character because no matter how bad things may see he gives you a spiritual believes that everything will be fine.

At the beginning of the book when Curdie meet the princess he mentions about the Goblin but the princess has never heard of it and not the people from the castle either. Here it shows that we live in a fantasy world because since they are real in the story the princess father will not believe in her even if she mentions them. Here the books show that the King does not have that much faith at all.

This book has an incredible atmosphere. The world itself looks like a friendly place where the colors are brilliant and the place is friendly but there is dark in some major parts. In some part of the book you feel lonely, happiness and thread but in the moments of heavy dark atmosphere everything seem like silent allowing the world expressing itself in a dangerous position Curdie and Irene found themselves.

When Irene meets her grandmother I did not find it that exited, it just made Irene really happy because she has a magical great great grandmother. However, the relationships between the fathers and their children its totally different in the book. Curdie father is very considerate with him, the books demonstrate this when there are working in their labors and his father tells him to take a rest while Irene father is always away and never there for her.

Curdie is the first one to discover the Goblin world. The goblins living in the underground must be sad for them because they are miserable down there. Everything is dark and no light or beautiful nature creations but only rocks. It must be sad to live in the underworld if it is like the book describes it. The goblins in the book seem like irritating, frustrated and grating.

This book is interested because it shows how powerful a little Princess can be with the help of her friend Cudie and her grandmother.





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The God-Grandma

In The Princess and the Goblin, there are hints of religious aspects that can be found in the text. Irene’s great-great-grandmother is seen as a cross between a fairy godmother (as we see in past fairy tales such as Cinderella) and an omniscient, god-like figure. The grandmother is always willing to help Irene in times of need (following the godmother archetype), but there is a catch. She only helps Irene when she retains faith in the existence of the grandmother, thus giving her a god-like quality. Even MacDonald’s descriptions of her give her an ethereal suggestion: pale white skin, long silver hair, young yet old, wise, patient yet playful, supernatural qualities, mysterious. It seems that MacDonald attempts to slip in a Christian moral and remind the doubtful that they have to believe what they can’t see—you have to believe in order to receive.


However, I am of the opinion that the grandmother is omnipotent only to a certain degree. Though she helps others besides Irene, like Curdie’s mother, I think it is very easy to argue that she only did so that Curdie could help Irene in the future. If she knew about the flood and had the power to prevent it, why didn’t she? It seems she only cares for the true well-being of little Irene. This could in part be due to sort of loving, familial reason—as if it is to ensure that the heir to the throne and kingdom is kept away from danger. It seems as though her supernatural qualities only seek to aid her in accomplishing that goal. Why else would she choose to live so long, only to live alone where no one can find her while she sits and spins thread? In this sense, MacDonald is inventive with his merging of duel qualities of the grandmother (the god-like and the godmother), while not following the classic archetype normally presented in fairy tales.

Illustration by Jessie Willcox Smithand Arthur Hughes

Illustration by Jessie Willcox Smith
and Arthur Hughes


Fairy Tales and Disney Tales: the Goblin known as Walt

The Princess and the Goblin is an interesting progression for fairy tales as the idea of a female protagonist is not only represented in this text, but the story also implores the idea that the other main characters who greatly affect this story’s development are also women. In class, we were able to spend an ample amount of time highlighting the qualities of five women who demonstrated their influence on the story. Coincidentally enough, this movie, not created though the somewhat less than imaginative mind of Walt Disney, was not very popular with audiences, such as Beauty and the Beast, which was also produced in the same yearWhat does this say about the power that Disney holds over popular culture regarding how an animated fairy tale should be viewed and critiqued? Walt Disney is anything but the model for feminism and as a result, the criticism regarding his chauvinistic tendencies in practically every one of his movies becomes more of a focus even decades after his death.

While I cannot argue that Mr. Disney did not find merit in the fairy tale of Princess Irene, it can be demonstrated through his inability of focusing on strong female protagonists and his display of women in his films, that he could have possibly been deterred from producing a film that was centered on women. In The Princess and the Goblin, the King is absent for majority of the book, and the only other real strong male character is Curdie, who while helps save the Princess, is only a supporting character to the illustrious Irene.

When the movie of The Princess and the Goblin came out in 1991, it was competing with the Disney classic film, Beauty and the Beastand we all know how that turned out. Princess Irene got lost in the castle along with poor Chip in the cupboard and was hardly a thought in the realm of Belle and the Beast.

The author of The Princess and the Goblin, George MacDonald, was beginning a new focus of fairy tales, which included women in a more commanding role; however, as Jack Zipes wrote in his piece Breaking the Disney Spell, Disney has a way of “chang[ing] [fairy tales] completely to suit his tastes and beliefs” (Zipes, 347). Zipes specifically looks at how Disney portrayed the film version of Snow White, but much of what he says applies to practically every movie that deals with a Disney princess. In the Grimms’ version of Snow White there is “the sentimental death of [Snow White’s] mother”, however this just so happens to be left out of Mr. Disney’s portrayal of the film (Zipes, 347). Instead, his story centered on the romance with the Prince, who of course enters on a white horse as Snow’s very own prince charming. Snow White lies lifeless in the end of the film until this man can come rescue her. As Zipes states concisely, the “film follows the classic ‘sexist’ narrative about the framing of women’s lives through a male discourse” (Zipes, 348). “Despite [the] beauty and charm” of the princesses in Disney’s films, “these figures are pale and pathetic compared to the more active and demonic characters in the film” (Zipes 349).

Princess Irene does not fill this archetype of the domestic woman, whose motive is purely as an accessory to a man. She is strong-willed, independent, and uses her title as princess to implore power, rather than subservience. Why then was the film of her journey unfavorable? The answer to this question is certainly perplexing, and unfortunately, I am not sure I will find the answer any time soon. But I feel I am more hopeful than most in thinking that as a society we will all be able to fight back against the patriarchal goblin that Disney has created in order to demonstrate a more balanced approach to the contributions of both women and men in fairy-tales.



The Canon and Child Rearing Today

Upon reading the article “Betsy and the Canon,” I found myself feeling slightly disconnected. While I had experienced the often loathsome summer reading assignments, and was assigned several enticing pieces of literature in the last half of high school, that I would argue are listed as canonical works; I don’t remember being encouraged to read certain novels over others, specifically because they were something suitable for a young girl my age. In elementary school, I recall the reading level system, where certain books were color coded based on difficulty, and each student was awarded points based on how many books he or she read and how challenging they were compared to his or her grade level. However, no teacher ever specifically said ‘read this, don’t read this; beware of trash’ or impressed the idea of the canon onto me until I was at least in middle school, if not beyond.

In the article, Kelly Hager emphasizes the point that we have been noticing upon looking at the fairy tales and these early works of Children’s Literature: that canonical literature for children serves the purpose of impressing proper behavior and shaping the intellect of a fine young woman or gentleman. Kelly Hager mentions reading books such as Little Women and Anne of Green Gables repeatedly, as well as the canonical lists mentioned within those novels, and her article seems to give one a sense that she expects that those reading her article have also read these series and avidly chased down these lists of canonical texts.

While I have read Little Women, most of the books that were mentioned in the article I had never heard of. The authors I am familiar with, but I admit that I have not read many of their works. What then, instructed me on proper behavior? Was it perhaps television shows such as “Sesame Street”? How are children, these days, being taught what is proper behavior? How are they being taught to discern between ‘trashy novels’ and literature of the canon? Is there even as great of an emphasis on one’s need to read such texts over another, outside of English classrooms?

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Brave: Gender Equality

The Princess and the Goblins made me think of one of my new favorite Disney movies, Brave. This book and movie illustrate princesses in a different way than they have previously been seen; they seem to show gender equality. In many of the Disney movies, we see the typical princess that is beautiful and portrays the characteristics of a loveable young woman; and this same thing is seen in books about princesses. They seem to portray the characteristics that were typical of women during that time; however, Brave is illustrating the need for gender equality when it comes to women. The need for gender equality is definitely seen in the famous Disney princesses movies (this is hard for me to say because I real love the Disney princesses); these princesses makes you wonder what does true equality look life for a female character in a fairly-tale world? This same question came to mind when reading The Princess and the Goblins.

Brave seems to be the first Disney movie that shows some type of equality when it comes to that of men and women. Taking place in Ancient Scotland, the film tells the story of a teenage girl named Merida who is not your typical Disney princess. Merida is adventurous, a skilled archer, sword fighter, athletic, independent; which are all qualities that goes against her being a princess. She is just as wild as her younger brothers are. The movie, Brave, allows Merida to find her own identity; she likes to sew but she also likes archery and swordsmanship. These likes show the embracing of tomboyishhness characteristics among young girls.



Irene and Merida both want to be independent and love adventures; they both want to break away from the things that are expected of them because they are princesses. Irene and Merida show want little girls can become if they are allowed to truly find themselves and be the individuals that they want to. Just because they are not the typical princesses, do not mean that they are not good and respectable princesses.

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It’s a Hard Knock Life – For A Goblin

“Now in these subterranean caverns lived a strange race of beings, called by some gnomes, by some kobolds, by some goblins. There was a legend current in the country that at one time they lived above ground, and were very like other people. But for some reason or another, concerning which there were different legendary theories, the king had laid what they thought to severe taxes upon them, or had required observances of them they did not like, or had begun to treat them with more severity, in some way or other, and impose stricter laws; and the consequence was that they had all disappeared from the face of the country…They had all taken refuge in the subterranean caverns, whence they never came out but at night, and then seldom showed themselves in any numbers, and never to many people at once” (Macdonald 3).

Reading George Macdonald’s The Princess and the Goblin and his exposition of the goblin characters, this introduction passage kept clouding my hate for the allegedly villainous goblins. A reading of this text introduces the political and social implications that surround the less-than-favorable relationship between the humans and the goblins and raises the question, at least for me; can you really blame the goblins?

Presenting the landscape of the kingdom and its distinctive characteristic of having underground mines, Macdonald introduces the setting of these subterranean (a big word for a kid!) caves, which later become important locations in the story. In these caves lives a race of beings – described as strange, especially considering they live in the ground. The insertion of the different of their different labes is intriguing; do they each mean something different or are used in different contexts? Macdonald later uses the term “cob” much more than any of these terms – could that be considered a racial slur for the goblins?

Throughout the novel, I kept referring back to the subsequent passage explaining why the goblins “disappeared from the face of the country.” Firstly, no one even really remembers the exact reason why they left, and interestingly enough, they were probably like other people prior to their departure underground. Most of the legends as to why they left trace it to oppressions imposed by the human king, either severe taxes, observances the race of goblins opposed, or maltreatment. Macdonald surprisingly contends that the goblins took “refuge,” a term normally associated with the notion of having been wronged or victimized. The goblins seek asylum in the night and learn to never reveal their true numbers, their population, to the many humans.

This passage reveals the reason why the goblins voluntarily erased themselves from the kingdom – they were an oppressed minority escaping the dominant class and searching for new opportunities. They removed themselves from their suppressors peacefully and silently, and their plans of revolution and desire to return to the kingdom, while obviously unethical, are somewhat understandable. Macdonald, well-versed with how the Scottish were oppressed by the English ruling class, uses the relationship between the humans and the goblins to introduce children to the social and political implications of class distinctions in the 18th century Western world.


Teasing out the “Beautiful” and the “Ugly” in Fairy Tales and Victorian Literature


What is beauty? What does it mean to be beautiful? In today’s world, when we read about a beautiful daughter who was virtuous in a fairy tale we immediately assume, “Wow, what sexist, awful fairy tale and Victorian writers, just because she’s virtuous means she’s automatically the most ‘beautiful’ person on earth. And then of course since her sisters are mean and bad, they are called ‘ugly’. How ridiculous!” With this mindset then, we turn on virtue, we start criticizing it, we start speaking about it in negative ways, we start mocking it.  But is there something more here? What did these authors and tales mean when they bestowed this pronouncement of beauty or  ugliness?

Is this a modern day version of MacDonald’s “princess” theory?


First, for modern readers, what it comes down to is the fact that in our world we have reduced beauty to someone who is physically attractive, someone that looks like a model or actress.  However beauty, like the word love, is a loaded word.  Perhaps what the authors of fairy tales or Victorian writers like George MacDonald are asking us to think about is not the fact that virtues make a person “beautiful” in the way we think of beauty.  Instead acting good, being virtuous, actually having morals, makes a person beautiful.  And it is not a surface beauty, it is a radiance that comes out, it is a joy, it is something intangible and almost imperceptible but we know it’s there.  So although the media and even illustrators choose to portray the “beautiful princess” as the perfectly shaped and attractive girl, I do not think that these authors were working at such a shallow and surface level.  George MacDonald, as a Christian, would have most likely been well versed in Christian thoughts on beauty.  He surely would have been very aware of this passage from scripture, in Paul’s letter to the Philippians, that says:

Thus, with this in mind, MacDonald and others in his line of thought (ie Lewis and Tolkien), are not concerned with superficial beauty; they believed in ideals of the True, the Good, and the Beautiful and that bringing these things into your life and focusing on them could actually make a difference in your life.  That what could happen is if one thinks on what is True, they’ll become a person who is true; if they think on Beauty, they’ll become beautiful; and if they think on the Good, then they will become the man or women that they are meant to become.

Curious to read this and see how it fits in with my propositions in this post…

And what of the mean, evil, ugly characters??  In the same way that we’ve reduced the term beautiful to attractive, we’ve reduced ugly to physically unattractive.  However, I don’t know about you, but I haven’t seen many descriptions of the physical ugliness of let’s say mean sisters in fairy tales.  It is an ugliness that exudes from inside, that taints their being, that mars the way we think of them.  Granted sometimes like in George MacDonald’s The Princess and the Goblin, the goblins are actually physically ugly to represent their bad behavior, but I mean they are goblins, right?! This calls to mind a scene from C.S. Lewis’s first Narnia book, The Magician’s Nephew, in which Jadis, the witch, comes to life inside of the great hall.  The children notice that as they move down the table there is slowly an almost imperceptible change that has come over all of these rulers, and the corruption that they practiced has trickled into their physical appearance (which we should note, could actually happen, trials and hardships, or joys and blessings, have a way of making themselves physically evident in our countenance).  However, the queen, Jadis, is physically beautiful, but her greed, her evilness is evident to the children, and to them she becomes ugly, but no so much on the surface but a burning from the inside.  In this way there is an illumination of the danger in correlating ugliness with physical unattractiveness.

Recently this idea of the utterly beautiful but evil woman has probably been depicted best by Charlize Theron in “Snow White and the Huntsman”