LIT 4334: The Golden Age of Children's Literature

The Secret Garden and the Garden of Eden

The Garden of Eden is said to be where God created the first humans, Adam and Eve, and they lived there until the “Fall.” During the time of the Fall, God cast Adam and Eve out of Eden for eating the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge, which they had originally been forbidden to do.


The Garden of Eden is linked to the secret garden when Martha tells Mary the story of Mistress Craven and the garden’s history. Martha tells Mary of the lovely and peaceful times that Master and Mistress Craven spent within the garden together. These divine times came to an end with the literal “fall” of Mistress Craven, or when she fell out of a tree and to her death in the garden. After this fall, Master Craven banished himself from the garden and locked it up, so that no one could enter, as Mistress Craven’s death had tainted the beauty and sanctity of the garden. This parallels how Adam and Eve’s (less literal, more figurative) Fall caused them to be banished from the Garden of Eden by God.


Later on, Mary and Dickon reenter the garden together. For them, the garden represents a paradise of beauty and innocence, much like the Garden of Eden and the secret garden originally did for the Master and Mistress Craven. In the garden, the children develop and experience an exceptionally intimate relationship with God. They work to rejuvenate the garden together and seem to become “Adam and Eve,” returning to the garden to right what had been wrong there. The motif of the Garden of Eden adds another dimension to The Secret Garden, and allows the audience another perspective on and another window into the events that take place in the story and, more specifically, in the secret garden itself.


Racial Tensions in Peter Pan Adaptations: Then and Now

J.M Barrie’s Peter Pan has endured in the hearts of both children and adults since he first appeared in Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens. Though this character has served as a classic symbol for childhood and children’s literature, he also indicates a much more racist period in culture and history.


“The Great White Father” was the working title of the original play by J.M. Barrie. This references racist elements of the story Peter Pan and Wendy and of Peter’s character. Though the play’s producer ultimately rejected this title, the term “redskin,” borrowed from United States racial jargon, was still used in the play to specify indigenous populations. The way that Barrie depicts the indigenous characters, too, denotes stereotypically savage behavior of an aggressive tribe out to wreak havoc on the Lost Boys, a group of young white children, when they think the Boys snatched the chief’s daughter.

Interestingly enough, it seems that more recent adaptations have sought to address and correct such blatantly racist implications. The 2003 film adaptation Peter Pan provides one example of this. In the original book and play (and most adaptations) the characters Wendy and Tiger Lily often stand in direct contrast. Even though they are both women, and depicted as weaker than Peter, Wendy is presented as stronger and more intelligent than Tiger Lily, her indigenous counterpart. Tiger Lily, on the other hand, is very helpless and has hardly anything (intelligent or otherwise) to say. In Peter Pan (2003), however, Tiger Lily, played by an Iroquois actress, does not play into this earlier established stereotype. Instead, she is depicted as a fiery, defiant young lady, who stands her ground against Captain Hook. She even contrasts her original damsel-in-distress depiction and actively saves John Darling from a band of pirates.

While there are racial tensions that will never be able to be completely taken out of Peter Pan adaptations without changing the story, recent adaptations, such as 2003’s Peter Pan successfully combats some of the racial prejudices illustrates in Barrie’s original book and play.

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Dumbing Down Dorothy

Like any book-to-movie adaptation, there were significant differences between L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s 1939 film The Wizard of Oz. One of these differences is the characterization of the heroine and main character, Dorothy.

In Baum’s novel, though sweet and somewhat naïve, Dorothy seems to really have it together for someone of the young age that she seems to be presented as being. She is self-reliant, or at least becomes so by the time she returns to Kansas. She manages a band of outcasts. She stands up to the Wicked Witch, and responds to her wickedness with a flash of anger, ultimately leading to the witch’s demise. She rids the world of her wickedness, and indirectly improves the lives of all its inhabitants, especially her three close friends. She cultivates a type of independence and conviction that she can take back to Kansas, apply, and become a strong woman one day.

As a child watching The Wizard of Oz, I was not very partial to Dorothy’s character. Looking back on the movie now after reading the book, my feelings toward MGM’s Dorothy feel even more concrete. She was a typical American farm girl: sweet, innocent and somewhat mindless. She seems older than Baum’s Dorothy, yet acts less maturely. She cries and sings much more often than speaking her intelligent thoughts. Even when she defeats the witch, it is less out of anger and conviction than a reflex to the witch’s holding fire so close to the scarecrow.

I am not sure if the movie characterized Dorothy so differently, or if the choice of actress (though I do love Judy Garland) just made her seem so much older than in the book that her innocence became annoying. Either way, I think that MGM did not do the character of Dorothy justice. They took an entertaining and somewhat inspiring young girl, and turned her into an overly naïve, immature teen.



The Nonsense of Language

In “The Language of Nonsense in Alice, by Jacqueline Flescher, nonsense is said to bear the brand of paradox – “the two terms of the paradox [being] order and disorder” (Flescher 128). She determines that nonsense must be upheld by a foundation of a intentionally structured form, that nonsense cannot be considered such standing alone, but only when distinguished by its departure from the original foundation of order it had been built upon. Though there are ways nonsense can be systematized, two in particular that Flescher notes, the above notion seems to predominantly ring true. I find this extremely interesting, as the method of defining the meaning of nonsense seems synonymous to defining meaning in language.

Language only has meaning in the context of a pre-existing structure of rules and agreements. Literary language can be considered utterance, because it is not occurring within a “real” life context to give it a foundation. Thus, it is given meaning through its relationship to other words within the system of the text, not from some inherent force.

To look at a really basic example, pronouns used in daily conversation are given meaning due to the context and environment of said conversation. Pronouns in written literary language, such as a poem, are only given meaning due to their relationship with other words in the text, and sometimes not at all. Let us look at an example:


In this poem, the author, Shel Silverstein, addresses, “you.” Is “you” the individual reader? A specific other person? The larger audience? There is no way to know whom exactly “you” is addressing, because the meaning of this word is not inherent. We can only assume what “you” can be in that it clearly is not “he,” “she,” “it,” “I,” etc.

Homophones provide another example. In conversation, the words “cell” and “sell” sound the same, and one perceives the word’s meaning through the context of the conversation without ever thinking of which spelling is implied. Without a context though, these two words would both just be utterances, with no inherent meaning attached to either spelling – the words only mean something because we have prescribed a meaning to them through context and intertextuality.

In Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Alice seems to be walking through a world of nonsense. However, her perception of the characters and events that surround her throughout the story are mediated by the “norm” that her entire existence to date had been built upon. She recognizes Wonderland as “nonsense,” because she knows that it is not sense, or what she has learned that sense is. Norms are not inherent, just as meaning in language is not inherent. These are perceived through context, environment, intertextuality, a pre-determined set of codes and conventions and conditioning. Language in itself is essentially nonsense, maybe even more nonsensical than the Wonderland that Dodgson creates.


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.


Fairy Tales: Depicting the Development of Female Gender Roles

          For centuries, fairy tales have permeated many cultures and societies. While these tales often served to entertain children and/or teach them morals, they also serve as reflections of the societies and time periods in which their numerous versions developed, spread, and were transcribed. In particular, the evolution of many tales follows the development of gender roles and expectations of the societies in which they originated. This can be seen in how many popular tales have adapted over time and are depicted in popular culture today.

            In many traditional fairy tales, female characters fell into a dichotomy, filling the role of the heroine or the villain. The heroine was a depiction of the ideal young woman: beautiful, compassionate, youthful, calm, and often naïve. The female villain is depicted as older, often a mother figure (or stepmother), who is cunning, jealous, and downright malicious. This could be seen in tales such as “Cinderella” and “Snow White,” both of which featured a young, beautiful, virtuous young woman at odds with a malicious, jealous stepmother. This dichotomy reflected the common conceptions of women during the time that they were told and transcribed, as women were valued for their beauty, youth, and virtue, while ambitious, scheming, outspoken women were seen as tainted, inappropriate and improper.


Cinderella startled by her stepmother’s reflection as she comes up behind her.


Snow White and her stepmother disguised as an old beggar.

            With the dawn of filmmaking in the 20th century, fairy tales began to appear in a new medium, and eventually became wildly popular. In recent years, we have seen a resurgence of this wild popularity in many different forms, such as film, television, and music, and in adaptations that reflect modern depictions of gender roles. For example, in the 2012 movie Snow White and the Huntsman, Snow White, though similar to film adaptations of earlier films, is depicted as much stronger, outspoken, and motivated, as the audience sees her suit up in armor and fight for the kingdom that was rightfully hers. In another adaptation of “Snow White,” Mirror, Mirror, also released in 2012, the audience watches as an in-control, and clever Snow White feeds her stepmother a poisonous apple originally meant for herself. These films are just a few examples of contemporary adaptations of traditional fairy tales, with more outspoken, clever, and go-getting modern heroines that are much more reflective of the typical woman in our American society today.


Introducing Brittany Fining

Hello, class! My name is Brittany Fining.


          I am a fourth year student majoring in English with minors in Education and Family, Youth, and Community Sciences. My hobbies include reading, running, and spending time with my family and sorority sisters. I am originally from Brooklyn, New York, but lived in New Jersey for most of my childhood before moving to Punta Gorda, Florida just before high school. Upon graduation, I will be moving back to New York City to teach as a Teach for America 2013 Corps member. I could not be  more excited to move back to my favorite city and start impacting students’ lives!

I am really looking forward to taking this course. Since my plan for the past two years has been to teach after I graduate, I have found that taking classes on children’s and adolescent literature and culture have seemed not only most relevant to me, but have also interested me the most. This will be my fifth class offered by Center for Children’s Literature and Culture. This semester, I am looking forward to revisiting many of my favorite stories from my childhood, such as The Wizard of Oz and The Secret Garden, and analyzing them from a new, scholarly perspective.

I have loved reading since I was a small child. My favorite thing about books is that no matter how many times you may read them, they always affect you differently depending on where you are in life at the time that you are reading them. My favorite book from my childhood is The Giving Tree, a picture book written and illustrated by Shel Silverstein. To me, children’s literature refers to books that are primarily targeted toward children. I have learned, though, that often “children’s” books are much more structurally and thematically complex than they seem when taken at face value. To me, the term “Golden Age” refers to the time in our culture when the idea of children was romanticized, and children were treasured. It’s end marked a turning point not only in our literary culture, but our general social culture, in reference to how children were regarded.

I am looking forward to further exploring these texts and  topics throughout this course and getting to know you all better!

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