LIT 4334: The Golden Age of Children's Literature

winnie the pooh: character development

As we discussed in class on Tuesday, one of the things that makes Winnie the Pooh so universally appealing is its potential for identification with the characters. Each of the main players in A.A. Milne’s vignettes is distinctly different from the others; while certain characters share certain traits, they are, for the most part, each very singular. Milne does a great job of flushing these differences out, even including favorite foods, favorite activities, and catch phrases for each of the animals. Likely, such distinct personalities have led, in part, to the conclusions drawn by some regarding the “disordered” natures thereof; however, it is likely that any personality, when taken to an extreme, can be linked to some type of disorder.

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With such clear and vivid character definition, it is easy – and extremely appealing – for readers to choose “their” character; an animal with which they identify the most, and is a hyperbolic (and animal) version of themselves. For me, that character is Piglet: small body, big heart, scared of loud noises and the dark. Piglet is a favorite for many, owing in part likely to his aesthetic appeal (small, all in pink, chic striped tunic) and in part to his unfailing kindness and desire to help others.

However, while Piglet appeals to me (and to many) for personal reasons, I also think that some of the most poignant moments in the text (and, relatedly, some of the most oft-quoted) are ones that he and Pooh share together. For example, one of my favorite moments – and one that i feel stands alone, even without the rest of the story) is when Piglet and Pooh have just finished with the great flood. As they are walking together, this exchange occurs:

“Pooh?”
“Yes, Piglet?”
“Nothing,” said Piglet, sidling up to Pooh from behind. “I just wanted to be sure of you.”

This moment is a perfect microcosm of the universality that makes Winnie the Pooh so great, and so classic. We can all identify with these sentiments, even though we are not stuffed animals and do not live in the woods. We relate.

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Socialist Themes in Five Children and It

As we discussed in class on Tuesday, Edith Nesbit (as well as her husband) was an active proponent of socialism. Well-known in political circles, Nesbit was never secretive as to her political alignment. It is somewhat unsurprising, then, that her most well known novel, Five Children and It, contains many themes of and allusions to socialism and the “socialist agenda”.

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Some of these moments are concrete and explicit, however subtle; as we mentioned in class, the litany of “grown up” wishes is clearly one that favors at least some degree of socialism or a welfare state. While this likely went over the heads of young readers, it is often those messages that resound most lastingly; because we cannot remember them to consider them, they go unchallenged in our lexicons.

An interesting example of a “socialist” wish that went awry is the children’s wish for their mother to receive all of the jewelry of another wealthy lady – clearly, this reallocation of wealth is one of the fundamental tenets of socialism. However, this wish ends in drama for the children and the adults that they depend on; this negative outcome is not one that one would believe a socialistically inclined author to orchestrate.

However, even more than these moments I believe that the entire message and idea of the book is based around socialist ideals and practice. The children are often seen to be making wishes for others than themselves, and ultimately, their final wish is one for the Psammead himself. This idea – of using one’s fortune to help those who have no fortune – is a part of a fundamental socialist ideology. While it is not one of the concrete ideals that she mentions (mandatory second education, for example), it goes beyond the mundane and captures the essence of what socialism is designed to be.

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Peter Pan – More than Just The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow UP

In discussion of Peter Pan, both literary and casual, there is an understandable focus on the themes of youth and a reluctance to reach maturity. Indeed, with Peter himself the quintessential “boy who would not grow up”, it certainly is a message worth exploring, and worthy of its inextricability with the work. However, believe that there are other themes in J.M. Barry’s work that are at times overshadowed by this emphasis on “never growing up”. This inequity of focus has somewhat skewed the message of the books, and, without an examination of possible author intention, there is a great potential for misinterpretation.

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One theme, for example, that I believe to be under-discussed is that of loyalty. Peter has a fierce loyalty to his friends and adopted “family”, and in that way he is made to be more than simply a selfish and immature young man. While Peter is definitely both of these things, one must also consider that he has to a degree been made these things by his circumstance and lack of familial security. These deficits of course mirror Barry’s own life (with specific regard to a feeling of abandonment and neglect by his mother), and run much deeper – and are certainly causational – of a fear of growing older.

Peter Pan also captures those themes of youth as more than simply innocence, but as a curiosity and a fire for life that – according to Barry – are somewhat dimmed upon reaching maturity. Peter is not inclined to stay young in order to eschew responsibility but rather to capture for longer its excitement and wonder. These messages, far from encouraging hedonism or selfishness, merely encourage curiosity and imagination. In a retaliation to the Victorian notion of children as young adults, Barry allows them to have a childhood free of adult anxieties and hang ups.

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The Nostalgia of “The Walrus and the Carpenter”

In the past couple of weeks, there has been – naturally – a discussion of nonsense that has stemmed from our study of Lewis Carroll’s two Alice novels. With Carroll’s extensive employment of nonsensical concepts, scenarios, and even words, it is, of course, essential that we do this – however, I think that much of the value in his work lies not in the nonsensical but rather the familiar found therein. Specifically, the two poems in Through the Looking Glass, “Jabberwocky” and “The Walrus and the Carpenter”, are appealing to many for their seemingly inherent evocation of nostalgia and youth.

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One of the things that I first asserted in our discussion of nonsense was something similar to what I am asserting here: that the value of many children’s works – and of nonsensical works in particular – is their cultural cache and familiarity. For example, the opening lines of “The Walrus and the Carpenter” (The time has come / the walrus said / to talk to many things) are almost universally recognizable among English speakers. Even those who have not read either Alice in Wonderland or Through the Looking Glass will recognize these poems, often unaware of their source or context. Is the value or appeal, then, in Carroll’s words to be found in the symbolism or subtext of the poems? Perhaps instead, it is merely the lyrical and rhythmic appeal of his verse; this, too, is where I believe the appeal of nonsense in general lies.

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There is room here, too, for the discussion of “the canon of sentiment”; how many of us were excited to read Alice merely to flesh out the context for a story we are so familiar with? While sentimentality and cultural iconography are not entirely conflated, they are certainly borne from similar impulses – and certainly non-academic, in the way that we would traditionally select a work for canon.

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Pinocchio: Lost in Translation?

In this week’s class, the reading of Pinocchio brought up a discussion of translations of literature, and of the problems that arise therein. I think that this issue is an incredibly important and complex one, and that so some degree, it is under-considered – especially in the Children’s Lit canon. While there are some obvious issues that present themselves  (for example, the shark or whale debate in Pinocchio), other, less tangible meanings are “lost in translation.”

 

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One of the things that I think is the most important to talk about in this discussion and one of the most difficult to quantify is the subtle connotations and cultural affixations of words that, necessarily, are lost when a work is translated. Even for bilingual individuals, who have an intricate understanding of both languages, conveying the meaning of a word from one language to the next is often difficult or even impossible. By extension, even a translator fluent in both the language of the original text and the language of the translation will have to make some linguistic sacrifices.

Another translational issue that often arises in literature is the loss of word play and other poetic devices. If, for example, an author has used alliteration, it is likely very difficult for that alliteration to be replicated post-translation. Puns are similarly difficult to translate, because homonyms and spelling differ, of course, from language to language. While these discrepancies do not generally alter the story or plot, they do change the tone of the text – and often the perceived intention of the author as well.

In Pinocchio, many of these translation problems are revealed and implemented. Although I am not fluent in Italian, I am certain that a person who was would read the original text and the English translation as somewhat discrepant from one another. While it is likely that these issues are not tremendously problematic for the overall story, as literature scholars we must consider them with the gravity that they deserve.Image

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Fairy Tales and Alternative Families

In studying fairy tales, there is certainly no lack of revealing and fascinating themes to discuss. Both culturally informative and literarily significant, fairy tales provide ample fodder for academic discussion of their text.

Of all of these themes, however, the one that most stands out to me is the recurring representation of alternative family members (particularly stepparents) as evil or intentionally harmful. Stepmothers in tend to me presented as antagonists, directly working against the protagonist in the central conflict of the story. Often, it is a young princess who is the victim of her stepmother’s wickedness; from “Snow White” to “Cinderella”, across geographically and culturally divergent interpretations, princesses battle with their fathers’ spouses for life and love.

This trend is one that presents a very telling trepidation and resentment towards replacement parents. Not only are the portrayals of stepparents incriminating of the parental figures themselves, but also they criticize the “natural” parents for their passivity, poor choice in mate, and failure to protect their own children. Far from merely an indictment of the struggles a child goes through in readjusting to a new family, fairy tales with this strain of commentary indict both stepparent and parent as falling short in parental responsibilities.

Another very interesting aspect to the stepparent trend in fairy tales is the way that Disney films (and other modern retellings) do not edify this particular unpleasant aspect. While details of violence and certainly of sexuality have been largely eliminated for a more child-appropriate audience, stepparents, even in modern versions of stories, maintain their vilified roles and evil agendas. In a modern age where the concept of “family” is in constant evolution, and a traditional nuclear structure is increasingly rare, it is remarkable that these figures are still positioned as intruders and wrongdoers. While sexuality is censored and violence tailored, it is still acceptable to treat alternative family solutions as harbingers of doom.

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Introduction – Athena Kifah

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Hi! I’m Athena, a fourth year  English Major/ Education Minor here at UF. I’m from New Smyrna Beach (which is near Daytona) and I like my town a lot – even though I never really want to live there again. I like the ocean, diet coke, ice cream, butterflies, good TV and sleeping.

This is my fourth children’s literature course (counting Grimm’s fairytales), and they have been, by far, my favorite classes at UF. I’m an education minor and plan to go into guidance counseling, so it’s a particularly interesting and applicable subgenre for me. While I love the opportunity to delve into childhood classics (and to discover those books that were classics for others), I particularly enjoy considering the ways in which these literatures affect those first learning to read (or whether or not they do at all).

Out of the texts in the syllabus, I am most looking forward to Peter Pan – one my all-time favorite stories. I think it is so beautifully heartbreaking that Wendy and Peter share such an adventure and yet at the end of the story, Wendy grows up and Peter forgets all about her (spoiler alert). We think of this as Children’s literature and likely it is but can children truly appreciate that kind of loss and separation? Or are children more able to understand it than even we are? 

“Golden Age”? What a tricky moniker. It’s difficult and controversial to canonize in any genre and in such a fledgling one as this, perhaps no truly definitive classifications can be made. I think also that children’s literature is so highly generationalized – our affinities for our favorite childhood stories are so necessarily tied up in nostalgia and some vague concept of home. “Golden Age”, perhaps, is more accurately affixed to the idea of childhood in general, to those fleeting “carefree” and “easy” years.

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