LIT 4334: The Golden Age of Children's Literature

The Secret Garden: A Tale of Healing

Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden is a children’s classic that has charmed both children and adults alike since the date of its publishing in 1909. Throughout the work, Burnett illustrates the link between location and health or well being. Mary Lennox, the novel’s protagonist, travels from the far away land of India where her parents perished due to a cholera outbreak. In the novel’s beginnings, taking place in India, it is noted that Mary is quite an ugly child with her skin having an almost yellow tint and thin hair. It is also noted that she possesses a poor demeanor. She is waited on hand and foot while in India due to distinct class differences between herself and her servants, therefore, she never quite received any discipline. With her parents’ constant absence from her life, in addition to their deaths, she experiences an atmosphere of trauma, neglect, and bitterness in India. Throughout the work, India is associated with a negative state of being

During her stay in England, her servant Martha and grounds keeper Ben treat Mary kindly. Through these figures, Mary is disciplined and discovers the transforming abilities of Mother Nature. In her isolation, for she was unaware of any other children at the manor, she learns about plants and gardens, and much like the plants she grows in her secret garden, she grows into a more pleasant individual with a kind heart. She realizes the healing nature of her outdoor activities, and soon encourages her sickly cousin Colin, who is bedridden and bitter, to venture outside just to see the plants growing and the birds singing. In their encounters with Dickon, Martha’s younger brother who is gifted with a closeness to nature, Colin and Mary learn how to be children free from bitterness and full of wonder. Throughout the work, England, especially its moors, are associated with a hearty well being. Though Colin has been living in England all his life, he is deprived of the outdoors and therefore, deprived of a normal and healthy childhood. Through Mary, he is healed and soon stands on his own two feet after being sentenced to a wheelchair for many years.

Mary, Colin, and Dickon in the Secret Garden.

Mary, Colin, and Dickon in the Secret Garden.

The Secret Garden is a story of healing, with both the protagonist Mary and her cousin Colin experiencing a great change due to an exposure to fresh air and nature. Throughout the work, location is key to the characters’ health, with India and the indoors being associated with sickness and England as encouraging to one’s health and well being. This dichotomy is clearly seen in Mary Lennox’s 180 degree transformation from yellow, thin, and sour to pink, fat, and jolly.

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Peter Pan: the Replacement Child

J.M. Barrie and one of the Llewelyn Davies boys

When one reads any Peter Pan works by J.M. Barrie, one may note dark undertones for a tale that is depicted as lighthearted and encouraging of the free spirit. Much of Barrie’s own experiences contributed to the work and it is said this is the reason for any of his works’ peculiarities. Barrie was described as childlike, no taller than 5’4” and almost incapable of real adult relationships. This fixation on childhood may be in part due to the loss of his brother David, who died two days shy of his 14th birthday in an ice skating accident. David was his mother’s favorite child (or so we think), and Barrie spent much of his childhood dressing in David’s clothing and trying to console his mother of her loss. Barrie began to fill the shoes of what is known as a “replacement child.” In most cases, a replacement child is a child born after the death of a sibling, however, when David died, expectations for his life and future fell onto Barrie.

One can draw a few parallels between Peter Pan and David, as Peter does not grow up and David is barred from adulthood in his death. Peter & Wendy opens with the famous line, “Every child grows up, except one.” David, who died at 14, is frozen at that age in childhood. He will never be thought of as a grown man or adult, but forever as an individual untouched by the experiences of adulthood. Many people often ask why or how Peter gains the ability to fly, and one may argue that he is in fact a ghost thus having the ability to fly to “other worlds” such as Neverland. Peter Pan also buries young children in Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens and leads the lost souls of children in Peter & Wendy. These roles have very much to do with the dead and perhaps Peter performs these duties because he feels partial to dead children, as he is one.

Peter Pan is a mysterious figure in children’s literature that has intrigued and fascinated people always. We all experience a sense of never wanting to grow up and this has allowed Peter to remain such a prevalent character in literature, movies, and other works. Though his origins are unknown, one thing is certain: Peter and his stories are peculiar. Peter Pan works have a few minor creepy details and this may be attributed to Barrie’s childhood experiences especially given the loss of David and having to replace him in order to console his unstable mother.

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The Wonderful Wizard of Oz: Anthropomorphization and the Human Identity

ImageIn much of children’s classics, animals are attributed human qualities such as the ability to communicate creatively through language and are often given much importance through significant character roles. Among these classics is the greatest of all: The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum. In the novel, Baum toys with the idea of what exactly it means to be human by assigning personalities and emotions to inanimate objects such as a scarecrow and a pile of tin and rust. Baum transforms them from inactive objects and into characters with feelings, goals, and dreams. Baum explicitly addresses that these beings are not entirely human by indicating one is missing a heart and the other a brain (which are quite necessary to be alive and well), yet maintains their identity as pseudo-humans by conveying they, too, cry and experience things much like we would. Baum also experiments with anthropomorphization in giving a lion, an animal of the jungle, qualities such as “cowardly” or “brave” and the ability to speak in addition to his roar. Throughout the novel, these three nonhumans are contrasted with Dorothy who is clearly a human girl, perpetuating their differences and yet simultaneously illustrating we are not all that different.

ImageThe Tinman and Scarecrow, two characters constructed out of materials far from the animation of life, are each given significant roles in Baum’s novels despite their lack of humanity in the most technical sense. The Tinman, who claims to once be human, lacks a heart, which is necessary for life and ventures to Oz to request one from the Wonderful Wizard in order to feel emotion. Though lacking a cardiac system, the Tinman is far from heartless, often crying over dead beetles and the loss of brief acquaintances. In the Wizard’s “granting” of the Tinman’s humble request, we can see that a heart may not be entirely necessary to define the human condition, as he has the ability to feel before the acquisition of his gift from the Wizard. Much the same can be said for the Scarecrow, who is stuffed with straw and possesses a painted on face. He claims to lack a brain, in addition to lacking everything else that is necessary to be considered a human being. Despite not having a heart and brain, the Scarecrow and Tinman are the most human of all characters, often keeping in mind the feelings of others, especially Dorothy’s.

ImageThe Cowardly Lion is not very different than many of the other animals portrayed in classical children’s literature. He talks much like a human, yet can also roar like a lion of the jungle. Much like Kipling’s The Jungle Book and his classic Mowgli stories, Baum takes an intimidating beast and adapts its nature to be more appropriate for children, almost transforming a carnivorous lion into a cute and cuddly companion deserving of love and sympathy. Much like how the Scarecrow and Tinman compare to Dorothy in their lack of humanity, the Cowardly Lion is juxtaposed with Dorothy’s small dog Toto who barks yet cannot speak.

The Tinman, Scarecrow, and Cowardly Lion are arguably protagonists as important as Dorothy herself throughout Baum’s novel. In their origins, they draw one’s attention to the human condition and what exactly it means to be “human.” Though it is a question often explored in the genre of science-fiction, such thought provoking issues indicate an overlooked complexity in children’s literature.


Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland & Its Emphasis on Consumption


Caterpillar from Disney’s rendition of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland has been regarded a sensation since its publishing in 1865 and is often revered as the the work that began the genre we know as Children’s Literature today. Though the tale is whimsical and lighthearted, it involves some materials that adults, especially parents, may find inappropriate. One may recall the hookah smoking caterpillar sitting atop a mushroom that causes Alice some trouble, eventually causing her to question her own identity. During her encounter with the caterpillar, she is advised to consume a bit of the mushroom to adjust her size, as she remarked her size was constantly changing and not appropriate for her journey. This consumption of mushrooms may be referring to hallucinogenic mushrooms.


A scene from the Disney film also described in Carroll’s original tale 

The novel is centered around the phenomenon of consumption, whether it be drugs, food, or drink. Such explicit mention of drug use makes the tale seem inappropriate for children. It is often rumored that Lewis Carroll himself was under the influence of hallucinogens or psychedelics, perhaps LSD (Lysergic acid diethylamide), during his authorship of the work. Many of the drug references come directly from Disney’s film version of the book rather than Carroll’s original work on which the movie is based; the film includes more substance abuse than the children’s book, including a walrus smoking cigars and bizarre scenes that depict characteristic behavior of drug abuse such as Alice’s encounter with the talking flowers and the rapid changing from night to day.  For this reason, it is rumored that each character represents a certain drug, much like it is rumored that each character in Winnie the Pooh represents a personality disorder. tumblr_lc4edpi17I1qas2h4o1_500Alice in Wonderland is often associated with drug abuse, with many referring to Alice’s adventures as an “acid trip.”  Popular culture’s obsession with Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland has become a cult-like practice in which each character or scene is associated with a different substance, though this is ironic because the work, in addition to the film, was clearly intended for children yet so heavily loaded with drugs.


Here are some other images associating characters with drugs:



Brave and The Princess and the Goblin: Scottish Girls with A Determination to Defy Gender Norms

As I was reading George Macdonald’s The Princess and the Goblin, I couldn’t help but notice the similarities between the children’s story of 1872 and the Disney film that was released recently entitled Brave. Both young girls share a Scottish heritage and have an intense craving for adventure along with a strong sense of self. Their defying of gender roles seems very ahead of its time given that MacDonald was writing The Princess and the Goblin in the 1800s, where a woman’s abilities often went unrecognized. As Irene’s character becomes revealed, we realize that she is much more than a little Scottish girl who just so happens to be a princess, but rather she possesses a wisdom beyond her years and courage that would be limited to men in armor at the time that MacDonald was writing. In the Disney film, the female protagonist, Merida, also possesses great courage and endeavors to defy her parents’ decision to marry her off.  The peace of her father’s kingdom depends upon this marriage, but her happiness becomes her first priority so she runs away into the woods and turns her mother into a bear. A similar plot involving marriage is included in The Princess and the Goblin, in which the goblins plan for their prince Harelip to marry Irene in order to attempt “peace” between the two kingdoms against the princess’ will.  Though Irene is unaware, Curdie, the male protagonist (and her future husband) realizes their plan and saves the princess. The two girls are also very sheltered and the discovery of self often takes place in the wilderness and away from the home. These females serve as strong role models for girls and though they may not accomplish all their goals alone (we have to give Curdie some credit!), they surely do not sit idly much like the character archetype assigned to females in works of the time.

Here is a link to the trailer for the Disney film Brave:

Princess Irene and Curdie

Princess Irene and Curdie


Merida of the Disney film Brave

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Women in Fairy Tales: Heroines or Damsels in Distress?

A simple story can tell us much about life long ago. Fairy tales are often looked at as a source for histories of several cultures. In folklore, one can see societal views, rituals, common practices, as well as gender roles and the appointment of duties or qualities to a certain sex. Snow White tales are prime examples of a fairy tale that tells us much about gender roles and what is expected of women embedded in the tales’ plots. These tales remain popular despite their implications and are often referenced in popular culture, often in movies and shows such as those made by Disney and the TV series Once Upon A Time.

Though there are many versions of the Snow White tale, such as “The Young Slave” and “Lasair Gheug”, the tale depicts Snow White as the ideal woman: innocent and kind. The queen, though malicious, should be admired because of her cunning and plotting. If one puts her thirst for revenge aside, the queen can be seen as having an extraordinary mind, in direct contrast with Snow White who is described as a “dumb bunny” by Anne Sexton. .In the story, Snow White is still revered as perfect despite her blind trust and disobeying of the dwarfs’ orders of not opening the door. In addition, in some variations of the tale, upon arriving at the dwarfs’ house, Snow White is allowed to stay as long as she cleans up after them. Due to the implied thoughts on women in the tales, it surprises me that such a tale remains popular (i.e. the famous Disney movie Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs). In an age where a woman’s rights are emphasized and gender roles defied, it is interesting to see such archaic views still popularized. Despite Snow White’s weak character, in the series Once Upon A Time, Mary Margaret who is Snow White, acts as the protagonist and perhaps strongest character on the show. In the series, she slays dragons and rescues her husband Prince Charming on several occasions. Perhaps this is a modernized variation Snow White, in which she rescues herself and depends on no one, thus reflecting contemporary views on women.

Disney’s Snow White clearly embracing her helplessness.

Once Upon A Time’s Mary Margaret (Snow White) with a bow & arrow obviously taking things into her own hands.

Introductory Blog

Hi there, I’m Heather! I’m a second year accident-prone and occasionally awkward English and Linguistics major from Miami, Florida. I’m a herpetology assistant at the Museum of Natural History on campus and I’m an assistant director of Social Media in Student Government Productions. I was originally a Zoology major but decided to change my major once I realized 1) I hate math and chemistry and 2) I understood every reference in the English Major Armadillo meme. I love Star Wars, pugs, LOST, and traveling (I’m working on going to a national park every summer; I’ve got Yosemite and Denali down).

As an English major, I have a particular interest in (you guessed it…) literature, especially children’s lit. I’ve often been described as a child at heart and perhaps this is true. My favorite movie is Disney’s Peter Pan and my favorite book is Burnett’s Secret Garden. Therefore, selecting this class was a no-brainer (though I did have to stalk ISIS for about 12 hours straight).  When I was a kid, I spent most of my time reading (perhaps this is why I am the way I am) and I often found myself enjoying books more than anything else. With that said (or rather, written) I’m definitely looking forward to Burnett and Barrie, but I’m interested in the entire list of works as a whole. I’m also looking forward to further developing writing skills, as there is no such thing as a perfect writer. I’m also looking forward to this class because my best friend back home is in the process of writing a children’s book published by Scholastic. To popularize the book before its release, her and I are taking a cross-country tour through the US and Canada in the summer along with some folks from Scholastic. I’m sure this class will definitely enrich my experience and of course, my enjoyment of her book (which is actually a series!).

Children’s literature is absolutely timeless and allows one to re-experience the glories of childhood as well as immerses the reader in a world that is much more magical than our own. Lighthearted and whimsical, children’s literature creates a new experience for adults and perpetuates the magic of imagination and fantasy. It allows childhood to extend far beyond the years before double digits. Though I have never taken a course on children’s literature, I am looking forward to a new experience and I hope I won’t be disappointed. With a course called the Golden Age and a syllabus that is reminiscent of years long ago, one cannot go wrong.


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