LIT 4334: The Golden Age of Children's Literature

Humor in Winnie-the-Pooh

A Good Thing To Do?

One of my favorite things about reading Winnie-the-Pooh was A.A. Milne’s obvious comedy-writing background. Throughout the entire book the tone was so witty and tongue in cheek (and it didn’t feel too forced, like it could have ended up feeling) that I, as an adult reader, never felt bored or unaccounted for while I was reading.  The jokes are ones that adults can easily laugh at but would force children readers think about why they are funny instead of just providing cheap entertainment (for example, “his grandfather had two names in case he lost one”). There were also many great puns, and I can always go for a good pun (of which there were many (for example, a sustaining book to entertain Pooh while he is stuck in Rabbit’s hole but also to be replacement for nourishment while he tries to get skinnier so he can squeeze out of the hole)). There was a sort of air of more mature jokes being made at the expense of the child-like characters in the book, but it was never in a very harmful way. Usually it happened when a character misunderstood what a word or idea was: “’What does ‘under the name’ mean?’ asked Christopher Robin. ‘It means he had the name over the door in gold letters, and he lived under it.’” This humor absolutely made this book for me. It was my favorite that we read all semester because it felt very whimsical and unique but at the same time almost wisening. I love that A.A. Milne seems to poke a little bit of fun at the didactic morals that most children’s books interject by capitalizing the lessons the reader might think the characters should learn from certain misadventures (for example, “A Good Thing To Do”) and then completely passing them by/making no big deal about them. It forces the child reader to decide what lessons to take to heart and allows them to create their own lessons.

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Five Children and It’s Instruction

In the introduction of Five Children and It, Quentin Blake emphasizes E. Nesbit’s (or Mrs. Hubert Bland’s) focus on entertaining the child reader instead of bettering or instructing the child reader. Blake says,“I suspect that the main purpose of many books written in the nineteenth century was to improve their young readers; with E. Nesbit, by contrast, you feel that she was eager to tell you something interesting and entertaining” (v). This concept is one we’ve seen some other writers in this class try to adopt as well.

I read the introduction after I finished the novel, and I literally laughed out loud when I came to the sentence above because throughout the entire book, I could only focus on the author’s attempts at concealing her instruction. The entire premise of the book is that a few children siblings have access to any wish they want and are repeatedly punished when their wish is too extravagant or impractical. Then, the next day, they have another chance to make a better thought-out wish. The Psammead, the fairy-like creature the children stumble upon that grants their wishes, outright says, “I can’t think why you don’t wish for something sensible – something to eat or drink, or good manners, or good tempers” (167). If that isn’t explicit direction to the child reader, then I don’t know what would be.

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I also saw the same types of little snippets of instruction about how to be a “proper British child” in this book as I did in books like The Water Babies. The narrator proposes in Five Children and It that“…it was quite right that [the baker’s son] should be taught that English boys mustn’t use their feet when they fight, but their fists” (170).

This book just strengthened my opinion that children’s literature is impossible without trying to moralize or instruct the reader (not that I’m trying to give a bad rep to children’s lit authors, I believe the same of adult literature authors).

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Peter Pan and Feminine Gender Roles

Peter Pan is a childhood figure that we all grow up loving. The desire to remain innocent and fancy free overcomes us all and, boys and girls alike, imagine themselves as Peter Pan—adventurous, daring, and free of consequences. But the way J.M. Barrie portrays females in his lesser known work “Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens” (and even in Barrie’s more famous work “Peter and Wendy” Peter Pan has or leads all the adventures while the female characters fawn over him with none of their affections or considerations returned) implies that Barrie might think girls are ill-equipped to be a Peter Pan figure; that all women are fit for is to keep on the heels of heroes.

Even on a Peter Pan Statue in the real Kensington Gardens, females are depicted falling at his feet.

Even on a Peter Pan Statue in the real Kensington Gardens, females are depicted as falling at his feet.

On the very second page of text in “Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens,” Barrie characterizes the qualities that are to be punished in young boys: “disgraced… if they have been mad-dog or Mary-Annish. To be Mary-Annish is to behave like a girl, whimpering because nurse won’t carry you, or simpering with your thumb in your mouth, and it is a hateful quality; but to be mad-dog  is to kick out at everything, and there is some satisfaction in that” (4). In characterizing the qualities of young femininity as “hateful” and the qualities of young masculinity as creating some “satisfaction,” Barrie right away points to which sex more aptly fits into the title character role of fearless child rebel. Indeed, one boy is even punished for being too feminine by being forced to go out to the park dressed in his sister’s clothes. Similarly, when a female finch questions the powerful male figure of Solomon, ruler of the birds on the island Peter Pan is stuck on, Barrie characterizes her as speaking out of turn or being annoyingly persistent: “Kate was her name, and all Kates are saucy” (23). In fact, Barrie’s characterizations of the female characters are all very similar. When Peter wishes to return to his mother, “he never doubted that he was giving her the greatest treat a woman can have” (37). When the narrator is describing Maimie, the girl for whom the fairies first built the Little House in Kensington Gardens, he says that “when she was batting, she would pause though the ball was in the air to point out to you that she was wearing new shoes. She was quite the ordinary kind [of girl] in the daytime” (42). Barrie again and again reinforces an image of femininity as focused on nurturing and vanity; as more comfortable in the home than on Peter Pan-esque exciting adventures.

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The Princess and the Goblin and Christianity

Irene’s grandmother is perhaps the most interesting character of George Macdonald’s The Princess and the Goblin. For most of the story the reader believes that the only one who knows of her existence is Irene. She is characterized as omniscient/godlike, as a sort of shape-shifter (she appears as an old woman, a young woman, and a bird). She is beautiful…but old… but timeless. She also has magical healing powers, spins a thread that leads Irene out of danger, and knows how people are going to act and react to things. It is very easy to look at the grandmother as a representation of a Christian god (or god-like figure, maybe the feminine goddess Sophia?) especially when you consider Macdonald’s own religious history.

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With the interpretation of Irene’s grandmother as God (or another Christian figure), it is interesting to look at the other women in this story. Curdie’s mom is of a lower class (she is the wife of a miner—Scottish folklore always glorified the humble working class) and is characterized as domestic and a loving mother. She is also responsible, trusting, honest, wise, and full of common sense. Her opinions and beliefs have weight among even the men of the family. When Curdie tells his mom the stories Irene has told him about her grandmother, she scolds him for not believing Irene and tells her own story of when she was rescued in the woods by a bright light that guided her home. She emphasizes that if he does not have an explanation for something, he cannot know that what someone else believes is false. Lootie, on the other hand, is of a higher class (she is the nurse of the princess Irene) and is also characterized as domestic and a loving mother-figure. Lootie is, however, a sort of foil to Curdie’s mom in every other way: she is irresponsible (getting lost in the woods and sometimes losing track of Irene), nervous, skeptical, proud and a bit foolish. She is a people-pleaser and is always worried about losing her job. She scolds Irene for “telling stories” about her grandmother and when the Irene asks her grandmother about Lootie she says that Lootie will not believe in her.

It is very easy to imagine these two women characters as representative of the believer and the non-believer of God and of Christian morals.

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“Snow White” and the Not-So-Antiquated Notions of Femininity and Sex

Many fairy tales portray two women at odds with each other: a virtuous, innocent young woman being victimized by a cunning, ambitious older woman. We are meant to root against the older woman who can think for herself and the naive (usually blonde) young woman wins every time. This is especially evident in The Grimm’s “Snow White,” where a dark, evil witch attempts to kill the pure, young girl so that the witch will once again be the fairest woman in all the lands.

When we read fairy tales, we write off these disturbing notions of ideal femininity (innocence and virtue over ambition or wit) because of the social norms of the time that they were written, but Disney is still creating movies with these two dichotomous feminine roles and women who are eternally childlike, obedient and one-dimensional are beating out women who are ambitious and daring even today. The entire time I was reading “Snow White,” I imagined Taylor Swift (who won over both Lady Gaga and Beyonce at the Grammy’s in 2010) in my head.

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There is still that deep dichotomy in modern culture and it is used to oppress women through a sexual double standard, establishing extremely rigid rules for female sexual behavior while allowing male sexual behavior to range from abstinence to promiscuity without similar social judgment.

The wide appeal of Taylor Swift seems a desperate attempt to infuse our increasingly socially liberal country with a palatable conservative ideology by means of a complacent, repressed feminine ideal. The insistence on conservative role models over the often-criticized oversexed women of pop music means girl-bashing boy-crazy rain-soaked anthems sung by a woman valued for her “purity” over her intelligence or even her talent.

While we like to believe that these “antiquated” notions about the ideal woman are, if not gone, at least being challenged today, we still find ourselves dressing up as Disney princesses and humming Taylor Swift songs under our breath. We still root for the girl in the bleachers over the cheerleader.

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HI GUYS—I’m Emily!

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I am a vegan and a lover of tea and acoustic music and a Netflix addict and a bleedingheart liberal. I am also a writer: I write a little fiction and a little poetry and it is my goal to keep expanding as a writer. I was born and raised in Orlando, FL. I wish I could say I grew up, like any respectable Orlando child, in theme parks, but any moment I didn’t spend in the gym—I was a competitive gymnast for 12 years—I spent with my nose in a book. I graduated high school with an IB diploma, started college at UCF, lost my motivation, spent a couple weeks misbehaving at friends’ colleges, bounced around a couple community colleges, found my motivation, and ended up an English major (and Education minor) in my 3rd year at UF. I have a boyfriend named Zach who was my best friend in high school and is the captain of the UF quidditch team. I read a lot. Right now I’m reading “Coming Through Slaughter” by Michael Ondaatje and Tina Fey’s autobiography “BossyPants” (She hates cruises too. We are meant to be. Don’t tell my boyfriend).

This class obviously fulfills a requirement for upper-division English classes, but I’m also so excited to be revisiting stories and adventures from my childhood. In many ways, I’m still a big kid. Many of these books, while in their time written for children, seem more fitting in contemporary times for young adults, and as an aspiring high school English teacher I would love to have the background of exploring what makes them so classic and timeless in case I ever choose to cover them in my own teaching. I am especially looking forward to re-reading Peter Pan—it’s been too long—because the fear of growing up seems perfectly applicable at this point in my life as I attempt to become more financially independent and as I watch my friends get married. eeeek.

My idea of “children’s literature” is the typical one: colorful words and images on pages of all shapes and sizes exploring characters and places of great imagination. The section in the Barnes and Noble in Orlando with a reading circle area decorated as a wooded path comes to mind. Dr. Seuss, one of my all-time favorite children’s authors, comes to mind. Last semester I took Literature for the Adolescent with Professor Ulanowicz and I enjoyed every minute of it. In that class we explored the adult author’s voice in young adult fiction and many other ideas, but we never really explored in depth what makes a work of children’s’ or young adult literature worth canonizing. When I hear the term “golden age of children’s literature,” I think of works that are classically timeless. I think of works that, despite being written long ago, are ones that we will always be able to escape into.

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