LIT 4334: The Golden Age of Children's Literature

So Long, Farewell

Throughout both Winnie-the-Pooh and The House at Pooh Corner, Milne repeatedly draws attention to the comings and goings of the characters from the Hundred Acre Woods. This is especially true in regards to Christopher Robin.  Christopher Robin is admired by the other inhabitants of the Hundred Acre Wood.  He is an authoritative figure, seen as the voice of reason in any dilemma.  His character is portrayed as more intelligent than his animal companions.  When Pooh is trying to pass as a rain cloud in order to steal some honey away from the bees and asks Christopher Robin to go home and get his umbrella, then walk around underneath proclaiming that it looks like rain, Christopher Robin laughs to himself because he knows that this is a nonsensical idea.  However, out of fondness for Pooh, he does it anyway.  In addition to helping get his friends out of their individual misadventures, Christopher Robin also serves as a mediator between the animals.  When Owl’s house is destroyed by the storm and he is about to move into Piglet’s house, Piglet is at a loss. What is he going to do? It is Christopher Robin who steps in to smooth things out and prompts that Piglet should live with Pooh.

Christopher Robin’s identity as the authority, the problem solver, and the peacemaker set him up as an idealized child.  No child is ever really like that, at least, not all the time.  So Milne has created in Christopher Robin the ideal child who is always looking out for his friends.  It is in viewing him as the ideal child that the preoccupation with his leaving is significant.  The World of Pooh is a very nostalgic tale.  Milne was writing long after the other Golden Age authors and was in a way regressing back to that time when this sort of whimsical, carefree writing was popular.  Milne was trying to hold onto a time that had passed.  Christopher Robin’s character is like that time for the inhabitants of the Hundred Acre Wood.  When he isn’t around, things go amiss.  Eeyore’s house is stolen by Piglet and Pooh (with good intentions of course),  Pooh and Piglet get stuck in the gravel pit while trying to catch a Heffalump, and Tigger gets stuck up a tree.  Without his guiding presence, the forest enters a state of chaos.

The point arrives, of course, when Christopher Robin’s presence starts to fade.  When Pooh first realizes that Christopher Robin is often unavailable in the morning time, he is a bit dismayed and, try as he might, he cannot provide Rabbit with a satisfactory explanation of where Christopher Robin might be between the hours of eleven and twelve.  In the last chapter, when it comes out that Christopher Robin will be going away, all of the inhabitants of the Hundred Acre Wood know that, from now on, things are going to be different and Christopher Robin implores Pooh that even though he must go away, Pooh must not forget him.  He must move into the next phase of his life, and Pooh and his friends are losing their idyllic child friend.  But they are the embodiment of his childhood, and they will continue on, just as they are, even though he cannot.  So although it is troubling to be losing Christopher Robin, he will never really be gone, because our idealized memories stick with us.

Advertisements
Leave a comment »

Five Children and It: An Overlooked Classic

The term classic evokes a certain feeling; it carries with it an air of prestige, as well as a sense of nostalgia. In order to be a classic, a book must be able to stand the test of time. Often, this requires a timeless quality. However, a book can be rooted in its own time but still endure as a classic if it possesses that often intangible “it” factor which captures the heart of the reader. Edith Nesbit’s Five Children and It is very distinct, specifically in terms of its setting and time period. The world she creates is incredibly real, with the exception of the mythical Psammead and the wishes it grants. As a result of it’s realistic nature, her world is one that does not transcend borders as well as those explored in other classics. For example, Wonderland and Oz are imaginary places where any child, from anywhere, may imagine themselves exploring. In a world that is entirely imaginary, there are still of course going to be nods to the author’s culture and home, but overall there is a lack of identification with any real place. This makes anything possible; anyone can venture to Wonderland. Not everyone can venture to the sand quarry near their quaint home in the English countryside. The poor, caged-in children of London to whom Nesbit refers in her opening pages are cut off from this specific kind of country living. And while they, of course, can use their imaginations, it can be more difficult to place oneself in a place that is so distinctly real. The reality of it all serves as a barrier, the kind that does not exist in getting to Oz. There are also a number of allusions to the time in which Nesbit was living and writing.  The most common form of transportation was a horse and buggy, people started their mornings using wash basins, and any half decent family had servants to look after their children.  However, its specificity, while perhaps off-putting to some, has not stopped Five Children and It from gaining status as a classic, specifically in England. Yet that popularity did not carry over so much into America.

I had never heard of this book before this class. The only other book on the syllabus which I had never heard of was The Water Babies and, to be honest, I did not find that one to my liking. So I became skeptical of this other unknown “classic.” I must admit that I was pleasantly surprised by Five Children and It. Yes, the setting was rather British, and bits of it were a tad dated. I didn’t understand all of the difficulties with the money, knowing nothing about any currency other than that of the good old USA, and I’m sure that there were other bits of the story that went over my head due to differences in cultural capital. But when it comes to the story itself, I was enchanted. The children found a sand fairy, which begrudgingly granted them wishes, and many an adventure ensued. What’s not to like? I feel that the strength of its story and narration eclipse any deficits that may have emerged over the past hundred years.  The fact remains that this book, while a classic in one culture, is very much overlooked in our own. Perhaps its endearing quality didn’t transfer to American audiences, or perhaps the librarians powers of dissuasion really did a number here. But I, for one, really enjoyed this century old book, and would place it on my classics shelf right here in America.

1 Comment »

There’s a New Crib in Town

In the chapter of Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens entitled “Lock-Out Time,”  Peter Pan remembers that once upon a time he had a mother who loved him very much, and he longs to go back to her.  But when he finally makes the decision to return to his mother forever and be “her boy,” it is too late; she has moved on and replaced him with another child.  Peter is devastated, and returns to his new home in Kensington Gardens, where he is happy, but forever haunted by the experience of being replaced.  During his encounter with Maimie, Peter feels guilty when asking her to stay with him in the gardens forever because she thinks she will be able to go back to her mother whenever she pleases and her mother will be waiting there for her, but Peter is finally forced to admit that, in his experience, this is not the case.  Maimie, terrified that her mother has already found a replacement for her, hurriedly leaves the gardens and Peter behind, in order to avoid the trauma of Peter’s life.
Although the extent to which Peter Pan is replaced is not experienced by most children and Maimie’s fears of immediate replacement are a bit irrational, the narrator acknowledges that many of us are familiar with the unsettling experience of a new addition to the family.  In the story, this is explained as “in fairy families, the youngest is always chief person, and usually becomes a prince or princess; and children remember this, and think it must be so among humans also, and that is why they are often made uneasy when they come upon their mother furtively putting new frills on the bassinet” (Barrie 33).  Children like to be special.  They like to be the center of attention, and enjoy being a novelty.  When their position is threatened, kids tend to get nervous.
This theme, or fact of life, has been taken on by many writers since Barrie.  Many modern books for young children take on this conundrum in a very straightforward, didactic manner, such as in Stan and Jan Berenstain’s The Berenstain Bears’ New Baby, one of many in the popular Berenstain Bears series.  Marc Brown’s Arthur the Aardvark, another popular children’s book character, also goes through this life adjustment in Arthur’s Baby.  In both of these books, the only child, who is soon to become a big brother, becomes both inquisitive and apprehensive about the arrival of their new baby sister.  In the end, however, this authors assuage the child’s fears and present the addition of the new baby as a new and exciting thing.

                   
It’s not just young children who have to adjust to a new baby in the family.  In today’s culture, many parents have to deal with their pets’ reactions to tiny humans.  Walt Disney explored this idea in the feature film, Lady and the Tramp. When Lady, a spoiled cocker spaniel, learns that her masters are expecting a baby, she’s curious, but excited.  However, her other dog pals expose her to what a new baby will really mean- she’ll be chained out in the yard for the rest of her days, with no more naps by the fire and no more curling up at the foot of the bed.  (See video below)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0lEYlL163Ng

As popular culture testifies, the addition of a new baby to the family is a timeless issue, which generation after generation of children (and pets) must come to terms with.

3 Comments »

Nothing Gold Can Stay

  

  Both Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland and Looking Glass Land are enchanting, nonsensical places.  Yet throughout the Alice stories, Carroll hints at the fleeting, temporary nature of their existence.  Nothing in these fantasy worlds is ever permanent.  The rules of logic at play are always changing.  At one moment, it makes perfect sense to knock on a door to a house in order to be let in by the frog footman; in the next, knocking on the door is a ridiculous notion which will get you nowhere at all.  And once one travels through the looking glass, things morph and change at the drop of a hat with no attempt made at an explanation, not even an illogical one.  These occurrences are frustrating to Alice, who is used to the rigid, dependable order of the real world, but she does come to appreciate these lands for what they are.  By the end of her first adventure, she has developed a bit of a soft spot for Wonderland. In the final chapter of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, “Alice got up and ran off, thinking while she ran, as well she might, what a wonderful dream it had been” (Carroll 142).  In her childlike state of mind, Alice concludes that these dreamlands are really quite wonderful places after all.
As nice as Alice finds these dreamlands to be, Carroll ends each of his stories in the same way- Alice awakens from her dream.  She is not allowed to stay in Wonderland or beyond the looking glass forever; she is forced to return to her day-to-day life.  Carroll too could not remain a permanent inhabitant of Wonderland, nor could the real Alice Liddell.  In the poems which begin and end each tale, readers are exposed to this melancholy truth.
The poem which prefaces Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland tells the tale of origin of the story which is about to unfold.  Carroll sets his tale “All in the golden afternoon,” which is a fleeting time.  A golden afternoon calls to mind something lovely and pleasant, bordering on perfection.  But no afternoon lasts forever; each one ends with the setting of the sun and the closing of the day.  Within this brief window of time “grew the tale of Wonderland.”  Carroll is aware of the fact that Wonderland is itself allowed a brief window and so closes the poem by pleading “Alice! A childish story take, / And, with a gentle hand, / Lay it where childhood’s dreams are twined / In Memory’s mystic band.”  It is only through the child taking hold of the story and gifting it a place of honor within their memory that it can continue on its golden state.  Within memory, the world cannot touch it and make it less than it was.
In the opening poem of Through the Looking Glass, Carroll tells of “A tale begun in other days, / When summers suns were glowing / … Whose echoes live in memory yet. / Through envious years would say ‘forget.’”  So he feels that the precious tale of Wonderland has been preserved, although “envious years” are urging a maturing child to leave it behind- “Without, the frost, the blinding snow, / The storm-wind’s moody madness- / Within, the firelight’s ruddy glow / And childhood’s nest of gladness.”  The world outside of memory is bombarding the inner child to snuff “the firelight’s ruddy glow.”  But Carroll does not imply that the child surrenders to the attack.  In the poem which closes Through the Looking Glass, he admits that “Long has paled that sunny sky: / Echoes fade and memories die; / Autumn frosts have slain July” but insinuates that the inhabitants of Wonderland have not ceased to exist, for “In a Wonderland they lie, / Dreaming as the days go by, / Dreaming as the summers die / … Ever drifting down the stream- / Lingering in the golden gleam.” Something or someone is still lingering in the soft light of that golden afternoon.  Be that Alice, Carroll, or the reader, it does not matter much.  What matters is only that someone has managed to hold onto that golden quality which slips away so easily.
Many years after the publication of the Alice stories, Robert Frost published a poem, entitled “Nothing Gold Can Stay.”

“Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.”

This poem is an embodiment of the essence of the golden afternoon when Wonderland was created.  It was wonderful, but inevitably could not last.  The golden afternoon subsided to evening, just as “dawn goes down to day.”  Presumably, Alice herself was subject to this cycle as well.  She grew up and had to move on or awaken from the nonsensical fantasy lands of Carroll’s invention.  Carroll is not in denial of the demands of reality, but still proposes a solution: to hold onto anything golden, one must tuck it safely away within the protective walls of nostalgic memory.

Leave a comment »

The Good Fairy- Character Analysis

When Pinocchio first comes across the fairy in chapter 11, she is described as a little girl with “azure hair and a face as white as wax.”  She is not only an object of beauty, but she is kind, patient, forgiving, and maternal.  She is also quite mysterious.  She has no name, and is only ever referred to as “the fairy.”  At various points in the story she is supposedly dead, only to be resurrected later on with little to no explanation.

    

The fairy interacts only with Pinocchio and her animal servants throughout the course of the novel.  She is the master of the animals.  With a clap of her hands falcons, poodles, and snails appear to do her bidding.  These animals act as agents in her plans to help Pinocchio.  They rescue him from hanging in oak trees and let him back into the house after he has been gone for months and thrown in jail.  In her interactions with the animals, the fairy is kind but in command.

In her interactions with Pinocchio, the fairy is still very kind, but she has no absolute dominion over him.  Throughout the story, her objective is to guide Pinocchio on the path of being a good, well-behaved boy.  She attempts to instill this in him in two ways.  She uses the straight forward approach of telling it like it is.  For example, when Pinocchio refuses to take the medicine because of its bitter taste, she warns him that he must take it, or else he will die.  There is no sugar coating of the subject.  This approach shows her trust in Pinocchio to be able to handle certain things if only given the chance.  However, sometimes this trust is ill-placed and Pinocchio does not live up to her expectations.  In these instances, she employs the if/then approach.  For example, if Pinocchio takes his medicine, then he can have the sugar and if Pinocchio helps her carry the jugs of water, then he can have something to eat. This if/then mantra can be seen in her overall message to Pinocchio- if you behave like a good boy and go to school and obey your elders and don’t tell lies, then you will become a real boy.  This approach is a bit more silver-spoon, a little more patronizing than the tell it like it is approach.

The most prevalent characteristic in the fairy’s interactions with Pinocchio is her immense capability for forgiveness.  Time and time again, Pinocchio runs off, abandoning the fairy and his responsibilities in favor of adventure, fun, and leisure.  And yet, every time he returns and shows remorse, she is there ready to forgive him and welcome him back with open arms.  When Pinocchio arrives back at the cottage in the woods after his misadventures with the cat and the fox, he is extremely upset when he finds that the fairy has died.  He feels guilt after all of the good things she did for him even though he was so undeserving and is incredibly remorseful that he was in no way able to repay her love. It is this remorse, this deep emotion that he feels for her that reveals her to him in the Land of the Busy Bees.  When he returns to her house after running off for the second time, she is again forgiving, providing him with a sofa to lie on and regain his strength.  As far as the fairy is concerned, Pinocchio never runs out of chances, so long as he is remorseful.

The fairy’s main role in the novel is that of the mother figure.  She is the only female in the entire book and therefore takes on all of the maternal and feminine qualities.  She cares for Pinocchio when he is sick,  looks out for his future by motivating him to go to school and take it seriously, and loves him unconditionally, no matter how many times he makes the same mistake.  For the reader, she is a reminder that we too must be patient with Pinocchio, even when he is at his most frustrating.

Without the guiding, maternal character of the Fairy, Pinocchio would have been left to his own devices and inclinations.  He would have carried on with the laziness and sloth-like lifestyle of characters such as Lampwick, and he probably would have suffered a similar, sad fate.  The Fairy acts as his saving grace.  She is always there to pick him up and dust him off before setting him on the right path once again.

Leave a comment »

The Water Babies: Out of the Sentimental Canon and Off of the Bookshelves

Charles Kingsley’s book, The Water Babies, is one of many books that, although popular at one point in time, has since declined in popularity and readership.  In her article, “Sentiment and Significance: The Impossibility of Recovery in the Children’s Literature Canon or, The Drowning of the Water Babies,” Deborah Stevenson asserts that although “academics note the text’s historical significance…Kingsley’s book no longer has a place in the sentimental canon; the chain of affection has been broken” (Stevenson 11).  Her distinction here between the sentimental and the academic canon is significant in the discussion of whether or not this book is appropriate for children today.

As we have discussed in class, scholars of children’s literature are uncomfortably aware that they are studying a genre of literature for which they are not the intended audience, and that the true intended audience (children) has no real input in the denoting of texts as part of the academic canon.  Those decisions are made by people such as librarians and teachers, who have pedagogical and didactic ends in mind.  Stevenson’s exclusion of The Water Babies from the academic canon would have implied that the powers that be (the librarians, teachers, and scholars) did not consider the text to be worthy of today’s children.  However, Stevenson specifically qualifies that The Water Babies has been excluded from the sentimental canon, and this exclusion carries with it another meaning entirely.

                                  

The sentimental canon is less isolated from the reactions of actual children to specific works of literature.  For example, perhaps children in the early 20th century read Kingsley’s The Water Babies and took delight in Tom’s adventures in the sea and wished that they too could be cuddled by Mrs. Bedoneasyouwouldbedoneby and corrected by Mrs. Bedonebyasyoudid.  And then, assume that as adults, they attempted to pass on this hodge-podge of morals and nonsense to their own children.  This method no doubt worked for some, but there comes a point when a book of days gone by is no longer relevant to the current generation’s children, and, with each subsequent generation, the possibility of a book once again achieving status as beloved becomes less and less likely.

One of the primary reasons that The Water Babies would not be considered appropriate or worthwhile reading for children today is the inclusion of so many cultural references.  Back when the book was published, children would have known who Kingsley was referencing in his long tangents.  Today’s children would be utterly confused by the references to public figures of Kingsley’s day.  The inclusion of these references has in some ways done Kingsley a disservice, as it clearly dates his work.

Another reason that children today would be likely to turn up their noses at The Water Babies is its obvious moral overtones.  At the time of its publication, it would not have seemed overly moralistic or didactic at all since, prior to its publication, all that existed in the children’s literature market was entirely didactic.  But just because it was a breath of fresh air for children at the time, does not mean that the air hasn’t gone stale since.   Today’s children would be turned off by Kingsley’s clear interjections into the story and the obvious teaching moments found throughout the book.  Instead, today’s children want narratives that are fun and entertaining, and if the adults can manage to get a lesson in there without them noticing it, then all the better.

Because children who once loved this book grew into adults who were incapable of passing on the love of this book to subsequent generations (due to factors such as changing tastes and dated references), Charles Kingsley’s The Water Babies is no longer a staple on any child’s bookshelf.

1 Comment »

Greetings!

Hi! My name is Alexa Zelinski.  I was born in Youngstown, Ohio but grew up in not so far away Jacksonville, Florida.  I love books, cats, and crafts.  But, believe it or not, I am not actually an 89 year old woman- see attached picture for proof. Image I am a third year English major at UF, but am technically a senior by credits and will be graduating in December of this year.  That’s a scary thought, to be honest! I am minoring in both Anthropology and Business and am hoping to get into the publishing business when I graduate- wish me luck.

I’m taking this class because I am following the English department’s “Children’s Literature” model of study and this is the last course on my list! I’m hoping to improve my class participation skills because I’m a rather quiet person so I’m going to try to speak up more.  I am most looking forward to reading Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland.  It was one of my favorite stories as a child.  In third grade, I read Carroll’s original book, and watched every movie adaption I could get my hands on!  Nothing on the syllabus worries me too much, other than remembering to post my blogs on time…

My idea of children’s literature has changed a lot since I came to college and took courses on the subject (Children’s Literature, Literature for the Young Child, Adolescent Literature, and Grimm’s Fairy Tales).  When someone mentions children’s literature, I think of  any book which is read and enjoyed by a child.  Children’s literature doesn’t necessarily have to be read exclusively by, nor does it have to be written specifically for, children.  I feel that children can read books traditionally written for adults, and vice-versa.

Some of my favorite children’s literature texts are J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter (I think this one’s a given for many people in our generation), Ludwig Bemelman’s Madeline, and Kay Thompson’s Eloise.  I may be in the market for some new favorites soon.  Currently, I am working my way (albeit slowly) through 1001 Children’s Books You Must Read Before You Grow Up.  Read all about my progress on my blog, which can be conveniently found right here.

Lastly, when I think of the term “Golden Age,” I think of a time when everything is working in unison- talented authors, engaging stories, a willing audience.  I feel like timing has a lot to do with the creation of a “Golden Age.”  I also think that it is a time that is often looked back on with longing and held to a higher standard, even if the time itself did not always live up to the hype that surrounds it, the designation of a time period as a “Golden Age” carries with it a romantic, nostalgic notion.

Leave a comment »