LIT 4334: The Golden Age of Children's Literature

on January 31, 2013 2:55pm

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.


One response to “

  1. azelinski2010 says:

    I agree with you that many, if not all, of the books mentioned in Hagar’s article are what many would categorize as “adult” books. The idea of children reading some of these texts may seem outlandish, but we are looking at it from the perspective of citizens of the 21st century. I think it’s important to note that during the times of Jo March and Betsy Ray, it would not have been uncommon for children and adolescents to be reading these dense texts. As you said, children were not talked down to; they were expected to be able to comprehend a book in the same way as adults were. I see this method of literary education as akin to being thrown into the deep end of the pool.
    Today, we are less likely to give kids texts such as The Grapes of Wrath and Gulliver’s Travels and I think that this trend has to do with the trend in child-rearing, which Hagar discussed in her article- the “move from flogging and will breaking to a more affectionate, albeit emotionally manipulative, program of child-rearing” (Hagar 109). As time has marched forward, adults have handled children with care to greater and greater degrees. This is true not only of disciplinary tactics, but of reading education. We now start kids off with simple books (Pat the Bunny, Hop on Pop) which teach them the bare bones of how to read. They then move on to simple chapter books (Magic Tree House, American Girl) and they steadily progress upward through the literary ranks. But even for the precocious child, Don Quixote may be a bit beyond the typical reading list. Children today are more likely to be handed Winnie-the-Pooh or Alice in Wonderland and still be quite respected by adults for having read such a “classic,” as Betsy would have been for reading Ivanhoe.

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