LIT 4334: The Golden Age of Children's Literature

Winnie-the-Pooh: Christopher Robinson’s Toys

In the children’s classic The World of Winnie-the-Pooh, A.A. Milne created a vast array of characters based directly off his own son’s childhood toys. These toys take on their own characteristic traits in the story that differ from previous works that we’ve read.

Each of the toys, which are animals in Hundred Acre Wood, have personalities that are extremely centered on one direct trait. A study published by the Canadian Medical Journal took these characters and analyzed them according to standards in the DSM-IV and noted that their personalities could notably relate to mental disorders.

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According to DSM-IV criteria by this study, Christopher Robin could be considered schizophrenic because he imagines that his childhood toys are living and can talk. Pooh bear has an eating disorder and obessed with honey, which has led to obesity. Piglet has anxiety, which is demonstrated in his fear of everything. Eeyore has depression and Tigger has ADHD. Owl is dyslexic.  These are all very interesting connections that individuals have made about this story.

Whether it’s fictional or factual, such connections made about this story only show that the story of Winnie-the-Pooh have endured the test of time and become an interest to the minds of both children and adults. People have been influenced by these characters because of their ability to relate to real human traits. Unlike the perfect children of Five Children and It, the egotism of Owl and the impulsiveness of Roo and Tigger are all characteristics that children show in their everyday lives. When these children grow and become adults, they remember how they related to certain characters in this story and still feel a sense of nostalgia that sometimes appears in collections of Winnie-the-Pooh paraphernalia or tattoos.

This makes The World of Winnie-the-Pooh not only a part of the classical editions to children’s literature, but also a part of the sentimental canon. Its story and all of its adaptations still continue to be relevant today. As for the “mental disorders” shown by the characters of this story, we can only guess whether or not these statements are true. However, the truth is that Winnie-the-Pooh is a character loved by many even today.

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Five Children and It: A Close Reading

Five Children and It“Grown-up people find it very difficult to believe really wonderful things, unless they have what they call proof. But children will believe almost anything, and grown-ups know this. That is why they tell you that the earth is round like an orange, when you can see perfectly well that it is flat and lumpy; and why they say that the earth goes round the sun, when you can see for yourself any day that the sun gets up in the morning and goes to bed at night like a good sun as it is, and the earth knows its place, and lies as still as a mouse” (3).

In this short passage found in Five Children and It, Edith Nesbit reveals one of the most undeniable truths about the construction of children and the basis of children’s literature. Through the omniscient voice of the narrator, Nesbit suggests that children are the only ones capable of believing the miracles contained within children’s literature and adults take advantage of this.

It is interesting to note that she speaks in second person to the child reader as someone who understands both the adult world and the children’s world wholly. Although it is obvious that Nesbit is an adult, she refuses to speak from the side of the “grown-up people.” This accomplishes two objectives.

First, Nesbit draws in the child reader and engages them personally by acknowledging that the child reader has certain knowledge that even adults lack. This is seen in the phrases “you can see perfectly well” and “you can see for yourself.” By making the child reader a “you,” Nesbit is addressing the entirety of the realm of children and gives the child reader a dimension of power over the adult realm because they can obviously see with their eyes the miracles that grown-ups fail to see. This is an interesting element of children’s literature that is not unique to Nesbit but can be found in the narrations of classic’s such as Water Babies and Peter Pan. Authors of children’s literature have utilized the second person effectively because it makes the child reader more interested and personally connected to the story. It enables them to feel like an important figure in the book. Nesbit makes use of this knowledge wonderfully in this passage.

The second point that Nesbit makes by making the narrator speak neither from the adults nor the children is allow the children’s negative energy to be directed away from the narrator and towards “adults.” Perhaps as a writer of children’s literature herself, Nesbit did not believe that she was secluded to the realm of grown-up people and thus did not suffer the same faults. Either way, by making the narrator a separate entity, Nesbit gains the child reader’s trust and becomes a creditable person. This paves the way for the rest of the book in which the child reader, already flattered from the narrator’s compliments, is more likely to believe the narrator’s comments and take them with a grain of salt.

A final interesting note about this passage is that Nesbit suggests that adults take advantage of the minds of children in the statement “children will believe almost anything, and grown-ups know this.” I believe that Nesbit was actually calling out writers of children’s literature and those adults who were in charge of deciding what was proper for children’s literature. I think this is evident in Nesbit’s utilization of an unorthodox magical wish-giving character the Sand-Fairy. Instead of following the example of the children’s literature authors before her, Nesbit created the image of the Sand-Fairy as a strange-looking, grumpy, and often unwilling character. Furthermore, her children are definitely not the image of perfection characteristic of the Victorian era. Instead, her child protagonists are more characteristic of children of the Edwardian era, which were represented as more raw-natured, mischievious, and trouble-making kids. As mentioned before, Nesbit as the narrator did not take her stand with the grown-up people because she felt they could not possibly be able to write for children the most effectively because they themselves could not believe the miracles that exist in their stories. For these reasons I think that Nesbit was making a jab at the adults involved in children’s literature.

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Peter Pan in Popular Culture: An Icon for Children and Adults

Though many children and adults may not be familiar with the exact story Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens, most are definitely aware of the character of Peter Pan. Regardless of what inspired J. M. Barrie to create this ageless boy, it is clear that Peter Pan has become a popular figure worldwide.

However, a comparison between how the original character is described with how he is depicted in popular culture today suggests that Peter Pan has taken a completely different role in modern society. Barrie writes that the original Peter “escaped from being a human when he was seven days old” and that the reason he stopped being able to fly was because “he had lost faith.”  This is quite different from modern depictions of Peter Pan, who is famously seen in the 1953 Disney movie Peter Pan as forever twelve, wearing the hallmark green outfit, and being able to fly thanks to his trusty fairy sidekick, Tinkerbell. Though these are considerable differences, the real question to answer is how Disney’s Peter Pan has become a completely different character with different meanings in modern society.

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Though the increased popularity of the Peter Pan clad in green may be attributed to the availability and novelty of the animated film, I believe that his role as an icon can be credited to several other factors. The infant Peter Pan in Barrie’s novel was a realistic portrayal of the devilish side of children that the Victorian era denied. Being a rough and rowdy boy with the only intention of playing, having fun, and staying young forever was a testament to how real young boys acted. However, the Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens can be most favorably directed to exact that: young boys.

The modern day idea of Peter Pan taken from popular culture’s Disney film encompasses a much broader audience with present day themes. Specifically, both children and adults, male and female, find themselves associating with this Peter Pan icon. First of all, most can agree that it is easier to relate to a twelve year old on the brink of puberty than an infant of seven days. Second, he is actively portrayed as a lovable boy and a symbol of the younger years where adult responsibilities had not yet taken over. He is used as an icon of the freedom of childhood, and even commercialized for children. This can be seen in the popular brand of peanut butter named after this character. Furthermore, while Barrie’s original story contains themes of gender roles, popular culture expresses the character of Peter Pan with more acceptance to all children. These features are what make the modern character of Peter Pan more available to everyone, and also the icon of childhood.

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Altogether, Barrie’s character Peter Pan has become an icon of childhood in the modern day. His portrayal is often linked to freedom, fun, and a nostalgic glimpse of childhood but is definitely remembered for these positive elements and not for the truth behind Barrie’s Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens where Peter would have liked to become a real boy again but was replaced and so was exiled to childhood forever. While some could argue if the modern day Peter Pan icon is a sign of disrespect to the author, the only concrete truth is that Peter Pan is kept alive in the minds of young and old as the boy who will never grow up.

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Looking-Glass Chess

The Looking-Glass world that Alice enters in Through the Looking-Glass (And What Alice Found There) is undoubtedly a creation from the logical mind of Charles Dodgson. It is described as having “a number of tiny little brooks running straight across it from side to side, and the ground between was divided up into squares by a number of little green hedges, that reached from brook to brook.” This description is obviously a chessboard, which is a theme throughout the story. Alice encounters all of the pieces in the chess game that help her, a pawn, to reach the other side of the board and become a queen herself within 11 moves.

Being a thorough man, Dodgson included a picture of the chessboard in the Looking-Glass world of the moves that are made in the story in the exact order they take place.

Looking-Glass Chess

 

Alice begins her journey upon meeting the Red Queen at the forefront of the white piece’s side of the chessboard, who then allows her to be a pawn for the white team. The Red Queen tells Alice, “you’re in the Second Square to begin with: when you get to the Eighth Square you’ll be a Queen.” In the above picture we can see Alice begins as a pawn in the second square for move number one. Next, Alice “ran down the hill and jumped over the first of the six little brooks,” which puts her in the Third Square. After this sentence, we see three rows of asterisks, which are used throughout the story to signify that Alice has moved into the next square.

Alice then rides an unusual railway that jumps across a brook, sending Alice into the Fourth square, which is the home of Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum. After their discourse and poems she meets the White Queen, and she follows after her across a brook, which takes her into the Fifth Square. To her astonishment, the queen becomes a sheep, and the surroundings become a small shop of goods. She suddenly realizes she’s on a boat and rows through this square. At the end, she’s in the small shop again and she jumps across a small brook in the shop into the Sixth Square.

In the Sixth Square, Alice has a pedantic lesson with Humpty Dumpty, who teaches her the imaginative aspect of language. Leaving him, she meets the White King and his soldiers and encounter a problem regarding Plum Pudding and a group of strange animals. After leaving the Lion and Unicorn behind, Alice enters the the Seventh Square.

In the Seventh Square,  Alice is almost taken by the Red Knight. However, The White Knight comes to her aid, takes the Red Knight, and accompanies Alice to the edge of the Eight Square.

At this point, Alice jumps across the final brook and suddenly is crowned a queen. This is not the end of the game though.

Alice then attends her own coronation dinner. The Red Queen and all other attendants aggravate Alice to the point where she throws a tantrum. In her fury, Alice grabs the Red Queen and shakes her, taking the piece and winning the game.

Thus, in eleven total moves, Alice moves across the chessboard as a pawn and becomes a queen. She then takes the Red Queen and wins the game. The only issue, which even Dodgson confesses, is that the sides take their turns out of order. However, the actual moves can be mapped out and recorded as Alice journeys across the Looking-Glass world. Such a complex scheme truly proves Dodgson to be a logic-loving and mathematical genius because one can read this novel through the distant view of a chessboard.

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The Fairy With Azure Hair

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When Pinocchio attempts to escape from his veiled assassins, he reaches a white cottage that is answered by a girl with “azure hair and a face as white as wax.” Upon seeing the pitiful condition of Pinocchio, this fairy resuscitates the marionette and teaches him an important lesson.

Collodi describes this fairy in different ways throughout the book, but the one characteristic that prevails is her azure hair. She always has an air of beauty, mystery, and patience with her. She also shows signs of being omniscient because she knows all of Pinocchio’s actions without ever physically being with him. 

Pinocchio initially disobeys the fairy until it almost costs him his life. At this point, he listens and obeys to the fairy’s wise command to the best of his ability. However, being the young rascal he is, Pinocchio always ends up in trouble for not completely obeying the fairy’s words. She can be thus seen as a maternal figure, although she initially tells him that they will be like siblings.

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Interestingly, there are no passages about the fairy’s interactions with any other character than Pinocchio. She states that she has called for Geppetto to live with him, but we never read of her actually talking to Geppetto. Also, the Talking Cricket claims a goat with azure hair gave him the cottage by the sea, but we never see this occurring either. This leads to the idea that maybe the azure fairy is similar to the great grandmother in The Princess and the Goblin because she does not appear openly to everyone. Instead, she gives advice to Pinocchio and watches him from afar. 

From the outset, Collodi describes the fairy with endearing terms, making her appear to be a heartwarming, motherly figure who watches over Pinocchio as a mother hen watches her chicks. She shows him patience and forgives him repeatedly, while also making him learn a valuable lesson each time. She could be closely tied to a religious aspect because she teaches him about important morals in life that Pinocchio must learn to become a “real”  boy. When he finally obeys her commands and lives up to his responsibilities at the end of the book, she grants him riches, his father youth, and magically changes him into a real boy. This is similar to the idea that following the Christian path will make one happy, spiritually rich, and ultimately give them an afterlife.

Thus, this fairy with azure hair is necessary to help Pinocchio grow into a mature boy. With her direction, Pinocchio changes himself from a reckless, rash boy into a responsible boy who can provide for his family. Although Pinocchio has Geppetto as a father, it is the fairy who teaches Pinocchio all of the important life lessons. When he shows his selfless attitude in the final chapter of Pinocchio by giving his fifty pennies to the snail for saving the fairy’s life, she grants him the greatest gift of being a real human boy.

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The Water Babies: A Guidebook for the Growing Gentleman

In The Water Babies, Charles Kingsley writes to children, particularly boys, about the story of Tom and his decisions in life that ultimately cause him to become a well-rounded and good adult. Kingsley instructs children through the utilization of many small lessons, which can be found throughout the book. For each encounter that Tom faces, there is a simple lesson to be learned for young boys.

In analyzing The Water Babies as a teaching tool, it is important to note that Kingsley wrote this story for a particular age group in the early 1860’s. Featured in Macmillan’s Magazine, this children’s story was an educational piece directed to Kingsley’s main audience: children. However, it is obvious that young girls are not included in this audience because Tom is a boy and his adventures are similar to situations that young British boys would likely encounter.

As for the actual lessons, Kingsley cleverly puts them in the text through Tom’s encounters with people and animals. For example, one of the first morals in the story involves religious salvation. The Irishwoman teaches Tom that those who wish to be clean will be. In this case, Kingsley is writing about the necessity of young boys to have the right heart that seeks to be spiritually clean. The feeling of wanting to be clean will enable them to reach salvation, just as it did Tom, who then left his fleshly body behind and became a water baby.

Another notable lesson is where Tom saves his lobster friend from a trap. This unselfish act of kindness is the trigger that allows Tom to see the other water-babies because it is necessary for Tom to have the right attitude. The lesson for young men is to do good to others in order to be a proper gentleman.

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Tom helping the lobster out of a trap.

A third lesson to be noted is when Tom must help Grimes, his mortal enemy, in order to become a human man again. The moral is simple because Kingsley is admonishing young men to help all people and have the right attitude to them, regardless of who they are and how many flaws they may have. Only when Tom realizes this can he have the chance as a totally grown and mature man.

Therefore, the obvious audience for this story when it was written was young British boys. However, since it’s creation in 1863, both the adults and children have changed drastically. Now, parents are not likely reading The Water Babies to their young children. Instead, the audience of this piece of children’s literature is for academic scholars, including university students. It appears that The Water Babies is important to analyze because of the many themes associated with it. Also, Kingsley was one of the very first authors to come up with this particular type of literature and much can be gleaned from studying his writing methods. Thus, the audience of The Water Babies changes as time moves on.

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