LIT 4334: The Golden Age of Children's Literature

The Peter Pan Stories: Appropriate for Children Today?

From the Disney adaptation of “Peter Pan”

Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens and, later, Peter and Wendy both present the well-known tales of Peter Pan, the boy protagonist and hero who never grew up.  His story is arguably one of the most famous of the ones we’ve discussed in the class thus far and has really made a large impact on our society.  These stories were huge successes not only at the time that they were published but perhaps even more so in our contemporary society through several adaptations.  However, as we are well-aware, time changes as well as ideologies and the mainstream society’s views on different things, and it calls to the forefront the question of whether or not this text is still suitable for children today.   I believe that this is a question worth further examining.

I feel that there are many points in the text that are worth questioning, such as Peter’s explicit disregard for reality, the fact that he essentially kidnaps other children from their homes to take them to another land, and the troublesome adventures that often lead the characters to danger and sometimes near-death.  In today’s society, where the protection of children is at the forefront of national media and parents are fearful of letting their children wander outside without supervision, these legal and parental guardians may not want their children learning the stories of other children who were whisked off and away via flight to Neverland, where they could battle pirates and crocodiles with the somewhat poorly influential new boy.   However, with these little concerns put to the side, I think that the bigger picture can be looked at that this is one of the most influential and entertaining stories ever written for children.

This text provides something that many others do not—the glorification of what childhood actually is.  J. M. Barrie suffered from several mental, physical, and emotional hindrances, which led him to live in a childlike state for the entirety of his life.  He wrote these stories as an outlet to provide himself a means of living vicariously through his main character in order to preserve the beauty of childhood.  I think that any reader can find this through his words and learn to love the purity and adventure that comes with childhood.  The Peter Pan stories are essentially a glorification of childhood and the craziness and entertainment that can come with allowing yourself to venture off to a newly created world in your imagination.  I don’t believe that parents should worry as much about their children trying to fly off to other worlds and should instead focus on the building of their children’s imaginations.  Childhood essentially only comes once for us, and we need to relish in it.  I think that these stories really allow us to do so.  While it is probably not suitable to live variously through the characters to the extreme that J. M. Barrie did, I do not believe that there is any harm in allowing any individual of any age in any era to read these stories and be led to their own vision of Neverland for a new and exciting adventure.

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Everyone Grows Up Eventually—Or Do They?

J. M. Barrie is an individual whose childhood did not end with the progression of his age or rather, arguably, ever.  Like the character of Peter Pan, he attempted to live a very whimsical life seemingly unscathed by the harsh realities of the world around him.  He tried to appear as if he was never consumed by many of the qualities of adulthood and viewed many of life’s greatest complexities in the same way that a young child would.  This could explain why his marriage to his wife reportedly persisted unconsummated or why he developed such a strong, playful relationship with the Llewelyn Davies boys.  Aside from the belief that Barrie could have written many of his stories for children, I believe that a stronger argument can be made that he was expressing his own inner desires to live the life of Peter Pan in both Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens and later Peter and Wendy.  This could explain why the themes of endless childhood and escape persist so strongly throughout his stories.

J. M. Barrie playing “Neverland” with Michael Llewelyn Davies

Barrie’s childhood life could be considered to be extremely traumatic by many.  His brother, David, the favorite of his mother, died at a young age, which reportedly affected him so greatly that he became a victim of psychogenic dwarfism—a disorder which could have accounted for his small stature for the rest of his life.  Barrie reportedly attempted on numerous occasions to fill the void in his mother’s life that was created by David’s death to partial avail.  The theme of being replaced or not truly prized by his mother can be seen in one of Peter’s returns home from Kensington Gardens in Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens.  However, I believe that the trauma of a life not fully recognized by his mother may have been what was truly too hard to handle perhaps even more so than his own brother’s death.  The character Peter Pan is first introduced as an infant who escapes from his home on an adventure to Kensington Gardens, a place filled with magic and fantasy.  As a reader, I believe that this portrays Barrie’s desire to escape to the Kensington Gardens and, later, Neverland that he described in his books—an opportunity to live a magical and forever-childlike life away from the problems associated with reality.

J. M. Barrie appears to have an obsession with childhood.  Readers can see Peter’s eternal childhood as either a blessing or a curse, but I believe that Barrie truly envied this quality of his most famous creation.  I believe that his inner feelings appear through much of the text, and it seems as if he views childhood and youth as a blessing and the consequential growth into adulthood as a curse.  In Peter and Wendy, Barrie states that Wendy knew she needed to grow up at one point in her life after one of her conversations with her mother and that this realization often comes after the age of two, which he defines as being the beginning of the end.  The claim is true that all children eventually must grow up no matter how hard they try to fight it.  However, J. M. Barrie made an interesting case for the opposition.  With the stature and emotional or even mental capacity of a child, he may have succeeded in temporarily elongating the length of his childhood through the creation of a character and story that he could live vicariously through—the story of Peter Pan.

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There’s No Place Like Home—Even if Home Certainly Isn’t Made of Emeralds

L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz presents the story of a young orphaned girl named Dorothy Gale who lives a seemingly mundane life on a farm in the dry plains in Kansas.  Although her exact age is unclear, it seems obvious throughout the story that she is still quite young and fairly immature—a result of her age, not to be mistaken with a more derogatory connotation.  She is a product of her environment, which is presented to the reader as not being highly desirable.  As a result of being orphaned, she is raised by Uncle Henry and Aunt Em, who are assumed to be an actual aunt and uncle but could simply be a foster family taking care of the child.  Needless to say, aside from her prized pet dog, Todo, there do not seem to be many sources of happiness in her life, which could arguably make anyone wish for an interesting adventure or escape.

The more popularized film adaptation of this story enlisted Judy Garland to portray the role of Dorothy.  I feel that she brings the role of a hopeless young girl blissfully wishing for an escape from reality more to light, namely in her singing “Over the Rainbow,” a song describing escaping to a place where “bluebirds fly” and dreams that you “dare to dream, really do come true.”  In reading the story, we find that the young girl meets other characters, who are also seeking a change in their current lives.  Dorothy seeks an escape while the Cowardly Lion seeks courage, the Tin Man seeks a heart, and as a result, love, and the Scarecrow seeks brains and consequently intelligence.  The three travel together until they find the Wizard, who can make all of their wishes come true as long as they withhold their end of the bargain in getting rid of the Wicked Witch of the West.  They put themselves in immense danger in trying to do so, until eventually Dorothy, in a tantrum resulting from the theft of a prized silver shoe that was gifted to her prior in the book, exterminates the witch using a bucket of water conveniently placed near her.

Judy Garland

Judy Garland as Dorothy Gale in the 1939 film adaptation of “The Wizard of Oz”

The interesting thing about this story to me is that while the other three characters seem to receive what they originally wished for, Dorothy’s final wish at the conclusion of her journey is to simply go back to her home in Kansas.  Could the adventure filled with anthromorphic animals, unknown creatures, witches, wizards, magic, flying monkeys, and wishes have been too much for a young girl to handle?  Could Dorothy have received much more than she bargained for in venturing from the plains of Kansas to the Emerald City in the Land of Oz?  As a reader, I believe the answer to these questions is, “Yes.”  Dorothy Gale is a young girl who seeks a change in the life she is living, but later realizes that perhaps the comfort of an uninteresting life is more desirable than the peril of adventure.  She receives a glimpse of the Land of Oz, perhaps through mere imagination or a dream rather than an actual journey, and seeks to visit again, but eventually wishes to be back in Kansas.  To me, this seemed like an appropriate end to the story of a child, as while most of us sought some sort of adventure in life and our imaginations definitely aided this process, oftentimes no matter the circumstances, there really is no place like home.

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Wonderland: Not Why, but How?

Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland tells the tale of a young girl seemingly on the routine path to being taught via the conventional society of the time to transform into an elegant and proper young women.  Although this seems to be a bit like many of the other fairy tales and children’s literature of the time, the protagonist quickly finds herself in Wonderland, where all convention and societal norms are displaced by pure nonsense.  To some, an appropriate question concerning the events that happen thereafter would be, “How?”  How did Wonderland come to be?  How did Alice end up there?  How did the creatures of Wonderland become this seemingly senseless society as governed by our traditional views of what society should be?  However, I believe a better question that we could be asking ourselves as readers to the author is, “Why?”

Why was Wonderland created? I believe that Wonderland in this story represents childhood.  It allows for the prolonging of that sense of purity exhibited by young children before they grow up.  Several scholars such as Rousseau believed that children had an innate sense of goodness that remained untouched until the corrupt society around them shaped them into the “civilized” citizens that they wanted them to become.  In a traditional society, questions have answers.  Animals do not talk.  Court hearings are conducted in a dignified manner.  Croquet is not played with flamingos and hedgehogs.  However, Wonderland represents the beauty of all that is not a traditional society.  It represents a colorful and unlimited imagination, which all children have the ability to possess.

A prime example comes when the Hatter presents Alice with his infamous riddle, “Why is a raven like a writing desk?”  Although Lewis Carroll was eventually convinced to provide an answer to his displeased audience, the protagonist originally does not know the answer to the riddle, and when she implores as to what it is, we as readers find that the Hatter is unable to provide one.  This provides an opportunity to delve into one’s own imagination to conjure up the various possibilities concerning the similarities between writing desks and ravens.  A societal staple such as a school system is not there to provide an explanation.  Whereas conventional societies teach children their multiplication tables and scientific facts based on research and the common answers, “Because that’s the way it is” or “Because I told you so,” Wonderland serves the purpose of allowing a child to figure out what they would like the answer to be.  Perhaps two multiplied by two does not have to equal four in Wonderland because there are no educational staples to teach its inhabitants that it is so.

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Artist’s depiction of Alice at the tea party with the Hatter and the March Hare

Wonderland is an escape.  It takes us back to a childhood where we were all on journeys of discovery through the daily occurrences of our lives.  Our imaginations allowed the possibilities of talking caterpillars and mice.  Why would playing cards paint white roses red for the simple pleasure of a Queen?  Well, a child may ask, “Why not?”  This story can take an adult reader back to a time when all things were possible in our minds.  Opening this book and exploring the nonsense that is its contents could equate to an adult reader metaphorically falling down a rabbit hole into their own Wonderland—a place where both nonsense and nostalgia meet.

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A Modern Day Feminist and the Goblin

George MacDonald’s The Princess and the Goblin presents the tale of a young princess in a kingdom under siege by malicious and conniving goblins.  Like many fairy tales of the time period and similar to many that we have studied in the “Golden Age of Children’s Literature” class, Princess Irene is a young female protagonist who possesses many qualities representative of purity and femininity.  She is a young member of a royal family known for her beauty—notably her long, golden hair—and is placed under many restrictions by her caregiver, Lootie, that prevent her from making many mistakes that young women could often find themselves making at such an age.  However, this novel took a turn in a new direction in that it presented additional female characters who each possessed almost entirely different characteristics from the next.  The text delivers descriptions of just as many female characters as it does male characters, which displays a shifting view towards feminism in children’s literature.

Each of the female characters throughout the tale is presented in a manner that represents their various traits and qualities.  This gives the plot of the story a more dynamic quality that readers may not have seen in fairy tales prior to this time.  The princess is no longer a damsel in distress in desperate need of salvation by a male hero.  She is a cunning, while simultaneously polite, young lady who overcomes the struggle for her father’s kingdom by defeating the wicked goblins who have arranged for their Prince Harelip to marry her without consent.  She does this using the help of a seemingly god-like character brought to the story as her somewhat omniscient great-great grandmother.  This brought to the modern, global culture a wise, female character often represented in Scottish literature.

1920 illustration from "The Princess and the Goblin" by Jessie Willcox Smith

1920 illustration from “The Princess and the Goblin” by Jessie Willcox Smith

I feel that the portrayal of these various female characters in such a dynamic manner truly made this story what it was as an outstanding tale.  It represents a shift in literary culture that allowed female readers to relate to the characters in stories and consequently feel empowered by their daring adventures.  I believe that male authors such as George MacDonald represented the powerful female figures in their lives through their literature, which led to a trickle-down effect in female empowerment.  The young girls reading these fairy tales undoubtedly felt empowered by strong, heroic, female protagonists, and consequently felt empowered to live fruitful lives with more independence than they had in the past.  These women then began writing and told more tales of heroines to inspire young girls of their time, who grew up to be even more independent and even arguably rebellious.  I feel that stories like The Princess and the Goblin paved the way for feminist literature, which planted the roots for a more tolerant society that eventually grew into the predominantly egalitarian structure that we know today.

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Fairy Tales: Symbolizing What’s Relevant

Fairy tale origins arguably display a clearer sense of a historical period and its ideological traits of highest importance better than any other texts.  The symbolism masked behind stories of regular, everyday individuals encountering unusual situations or magic can explain to a reader vividly the state of the specific society and its social structures.  It was stated throughout our text’s introduction at various points that fairy tales were often used as an oral tradition in which families and close-knit groups would gather round to alleviate the anxiety of a stressful work day while simultaneously entertaining each other and teaching valuable lessons to children about morals rooted in fantastic stories of similar characters encountering magical creatures and adventure.  Maria Tatar also warned readers to not become too preoccupied with uncovering symbolism seemingly blanketed across various generations as said symbolism could fluctuate in its relevance to a specific culture or time period due to differing interpretations and relevance.  This specific facet of the tales interested me in that many occurrences and resulting lessons may remain stable through various generations although readers will find that characters will symbolize the most important aspects of the specific time period from which the text was gathered.

Maria Tatar stated in her novel The Classic Fairy Tales, “Some versions of Little Red Riding Hood’s story or Snow White’s story may appear to reinforce stereotypes; others may have an emancipatory potential; still others may seem radically feminist.  All are of historical interest, revealing the ways in which a story has adapted to a culture and been shaped by its social practices.  The new story may be ideologically correct or ideologically suspect, but it can always serve as the point of departure for debate critique, and dialogue” (Tatar XIV).  The classic tale of “Snow White” by Brothers Grimm tells the story of a young, beautiful girl who falls victim to the jealousy of her father’s wife.  The evil queen plots to end the girl’s life so that she may remain as the most beautiful woman in the kingdom, but ends up falling victim to Snow White’s clever plan to punish her for her wrongdoings.  Despite this, Snow White seems to maintain her sense of beauty, dignity, and, most importantly, purity throughout the story, which was representative of the expectations of women, and more specifically, young girls, of the time.

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Walt Disney’s interpretation of the classic Brothers Grimm character

In our contemporary society where issues of equality—whether it be gender, racial, sexual, etc.—reign supreme in the realm of social significance, we find that fairy tales are being recreated in the vision of authors who support the changing ideologies.  A more modern Snow White developed by Rupert Sanders in his film Snow White and the Huntsman displays a courageous young female who doesn’t necessarily adhere to societal rules or roles.  She wears armor rather than dresses as she fights monsters and beasts until she eventually returns to the kingdom to murder the Queen and reclaim her thrown.  This is obviously a result of a society shaped by feminist views and gender equality as the main character serves more as a strong and independent heroine rather than a damsel in distress.  I feel that this is one of the most crucial interpretations of Tatar’s novel that we can gather—fairy tales are classic tales passed on through generations but cannot remain unchanged as they gather cultural relevance and are shaped accordingly based on the need for certain lessons of morality incorporated into the upbringing of that society’s youth.

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Rupert Sander’s vision of Snow White depicted by Kristen Stewart.

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Introducing Kevin Griffin

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     Hey y’all!  My name’s Kevin Griffin and I’m a 4th year student majoring in Anthropology with two minors in English and Spanish from Fort Lauderdale, Florida.  As I enter my final semester at the University of Florida, I’m gearing up to graduate in May and then move to Nashville, Tennessee, where I’ll be teaching Elementary English as a 2013 Corps Member of Teach For America.  Academics have been and continue to be my main priority to which I dedicate the majority of my time, but I also like to spend time reading, writing, working, staying fit, surfing, listening to music, and becoming involved with a plethora of campus organizations.

     There are several reasons for my wanting to enroll in this class.  I’ve taken various English courses throughout my life and especially at this university that have given me a very diverse knowledge of different writing techniques and genres, but one that I have yet to explore is one that was a crucial part of my life for so many years—Children’s Literature.  I believe that this is a genre that isn’t often glorified for how truly important it is in everyone’s lives, and it is not often given the credit that it deserves for shaping so many of our moral values and guidelines concerning the adults that we would eventually grow up to become.  With one upper-division English course remaining in my tracking audit for graduation with the successful completion of the minor, I knew that this would be the one class that I would enjoy taking above others to extend my knowledge of the subject into a new and unexplored realm.  I think that it’ll be a difficult feat to overcome in that we’ll have to explore texts that we’ve previously read in a new manner becoming of a college-educated adult, but I am willing to meet this challenge with sheer excitement as I rediscover stories such as The Jungle Book, Beauty and the Beast, and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

     When I think of “Children’s Literature,” I imagine climbing into a tree house in my backyard, opening up a book with several eye-catching pictures, and being taken on an adventure courtesy of the author’s writing and my imagination filled with the perfect blend of fantasy and reality.  Please check out http://www.magictreehouse.com and read the entire series if you didn’t catch the allusion to a traveling tree house filled with adventurous children.  I think of reading completely fictional yet impressively creative stories of talking animals and magic that somehow shaped me into the person that I am today.  I imagine a younger version of me reading great stories from authors such as Dr. Seuss or Shel Silverstein.  I imagine myself begging my parents to get me the Harry Potter books as each of them were released in the United States so that I could travel back to Hogwarts alongside my favorite trio to fight bad wizards and learn the lessons taught by the various professors and mentors the three encountered. These stories are far-fetched enough to catch the interest of a young reader with a growing and impressionable mind; however, the maintain a level of educational value that can teach a young reader the differences between good and evil or right and wrong.  I’ve never taken a class centered around the subject before, but I can only imagine that the “Golden Age of Children’s Literature” refers to the most well-represented and elite time frame during which the most popular children’s stories were written and shared with the world, although I cannot entirely conceptualize the exact content of this age and what designates a story as belonging to the Golden Age at this time.

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