LIT 4334: The Golden Age of Children's Literature

Malnutrition and Imaginary Meals in Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan

Upon looking for sources for my paper, I stumbled upon an article that talked about how hunger and malnutrition are represented in Alice in Wonderland, as a commentary on the famines of the Victorian era. According to the article, Lewis Carroll included the tiny pieces of food, about the place, to express that Alice is essentially scrounging for her meals. She is lucky to stumble upon something, but is often left looking about for more food to return her to normal. In the Victorian era, there were enormous food shortages, causing the price of food to be raised to an intolerable level. As a result, meals became hard to come by. Considering Lewis Carroll saw this occurring, and experienced it himself, he felt the need to use it as a theme in Alice in Wonderland, and seek a solution for it.
At one point, in the novel, Alice meets the caterpillar, smoking atop a giant mushroom. When leaving, he tells her that one side will make her small, and one side will make her big. Alice then attempts to regain her original size, and upon doing so, realizes the value of the mushroom. From then on, Alice stores the mushroom pieces in her apron, thinking that she can use them as needed. This mushroom is thus Carroll’s solution for Victorian society–to find food in nature.

In Peter and Wendy, the lost boys complain about having to occasionally make believe their dinners. I personally found this to be one of the most pitiable situations in the book, and I was curious as to why J. M. Barrie might have written such scenes. After reading about the high price of food in the Victorian era, I wondered if perhaps Barrie was also making a commentary about the Edwardian era, through Peter and Wendy, by expressing that, due the food shortages, little boys and girls sometimes had to imagine they had meals. The Edwardian era, however, was described as a golden age between the Victorian era and World War I, hence I am led to believe that the food shortages improved. What I did read was about a Poor Law that was implemented, which gave relief funds to unemployed women, but not to unemployed able-bodied males. As a result, if one was married to an unemployed male, one was cut off from funds, as well. Upon reading this, I wondered about the financial situation of the Davies boys, and if the imaginary meals were an idea thought up by Barrie to quell their growling stomachs, rather than that of society as a whole. Children often play make believe, when it comes to tea parties, but in Peter and Wendy there is an obvious expression that these boys are hungry, despite having nothing,

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Anthea the Feminist

During my research for my final paper, I came across a great article on The Five Children and It entitled “E. Nesbit’s Psammead Trilogy: Reconfiguring Time, Nation and Gender” by Michelle Smith. Among her discussion of other social issues presented by the three books, Smith points out that Anthea’s incessant mothering of her siblings seems to be at odds with Nesbit’s personal “unconventional femininity.” As we discussed in class, Nesbit was an intelligent, socially involved woman, so the narrator’s assertion that Anthea was “meant to be a good housekeeper some day” seems awfully backwards (15).

 

Anthea in ten years. Well, this was 1902, probably five years.

Anthea in ten years. Well, this was 1902, probably five years.

Smith, however, argues that Anthea’s mothering is actually the source of her strength of character. I found this assertion convincing. She thinks the most clearly, has strong moral convictions and an empathetic temperament. She is the favorite of ‘the Lamb,’ which implies that her patience and quality of care are superior to her other siblings. This hyper-feminine personality seems to encourage her siblings to rely on her, and she wastes no time in expressing her opinions on the right and moral path of action in each of their adventures. Being a child, she lacks complete responsibility, but she makes up for it in quick-wittedness. This mature temperament is not due to age – Anthea is actually younger than Cyril.

 

"Mom-substitute, what should we do?"

“Mom-substitute, what should we do?”

This “feminine shift in the parameters of heroism” allows Anthea to remain feminine and motherly while still being the hero. To me, this is extremely forward-thinking for a novel published in 1902. Feminism is by no means a recent development, but women who choose to cultivate femininity and domesticity, especially by being housekeepers like Anthea, do still suffer accusations of being anti-women. The more women who choose to become educated professionals, the more work we do towards bridging the divide, but this doesn’t mean that the 1950’s housewife aesthetic is inherently against the equality of women – it’s just a different lifestyle choice. This statement has become mostly accepted at present, but during Nesbit’s time, women were still working towards the right to vote: Nesbit’s display of a woman who was feminine and heroic without sacrificing for either was undoubtedly ahead of her time.

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Final Paper: Children’s Books for Adults?

For my final paper, I plan on examining how children’s literature is often written for two audiences: children and adults. In stories such as Alice in Wonderland, “Little Red Riding Hood,” and Pinocchio.

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ImageLewis Carroll’s Alice novels can definitely be enjoyed by both little kids and adults alike. The whimsical nature of the text and the fancy of Wonderland appeal to children – it is a brand new world filled with magic, imagination, and adventures. Little kids can relate to Alice as she explores the wonders and awes of the new world. At the same time, the novels, especially Alice through the Looking Glass, are written in a manner that is filled with logic, politics, and even drug references. In this sense, adults can appreciate the subtle humor and adult themes. This website explores the theme of logic in the story.

In addition to Alice in Wonderland, fairy tales also have two audiences. Most notably, the story of “Little Red Riding Hood” contains adult imagery and themes that are most definitely not appropriate for little children. Many versions of the story involve the notions of a girl losing her virginity and the idea of male predators. However, little children will most likely not pick up on these mature themes and only take away the simple moral of the story – don’t talk to strangers.

Pinocchio also contains both adult and children’s themes. Little boys and girls are enthralled by the many adventures of the poor puppet who never seems to have success. They both pity and root for Pinocchio at the same time. Collodi also incorporates a political agenda throughout the novel. As we discussed in class, Collodi strived to unite Italy as a nation. Through Pinocchio, he advertises the importance of public education, family, and a career. Adults reading the story to their children will pick up on these references and hopefully adopt new attitudes. Image

Overall, children’s literature authors often incorporate adult ideas in order to appeal to both children and adults alike. In doing so, adults find entertainment and pleasure when reading this stories to their kids or if they are feeling a sense of nostalgia to their own childhood. I hope to further explore these adult references for each piece of literature and possibly get personal feedback from adults as to why children’s books still appeal to them.  

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The Double Edged Sword: Wishing in Five Children and It (Theme Analysis and Criticism)

Be careful what you wish for…

Five Children and It is a seemingly simple story that shows why people cannot always get what they wish for and if they do, it carries unexpected problems. This theme, however, is a very interesting theme to tackle in a children’s book, especially since children are the demographic most likely to wish for unrealistic things. Children also usually do not weigh the pros and cons of situations and only work toward their idealized goal. In the novel, this idea materializes through the five children’s various wishes, ranging from wanting to be beautiful to wanting to be rich. However, each wish carries unforeseen consequences that always results in the wish providing more harm than good.

“What do you weirdos want now?!”

In my opinion, I think Nesbit included this theme as the ultimate moral of the story. Although morals are often presented at the end of children’s books, I think it was very intelligent of Nesbit to repeatedly convey the moral through different yet similar scenarios. However, I found the execution of the theme to be lackluster. As an adult reading this, I found the constant failings of the children’s wishes to be evident of the theme by the second or third chapter and the following chapters were too repetitive. I think the story would have been best served as a short story to present the characters and theme succinctly and would have avoid the tedium of the book. However, I can see why a child would enjoy the repetitive nature of the book. Nesbit cleverly finds new ways to ruin the wishes and that type of suspense appeals greatly to younger readers.

I don’t even know if I would approach this guy…

Another interesting dimension of the theme is that it does not present the idea of “being careful of what to wish for” as well as it could. Throughout the novel, the Psammead grants the wishes of the children. Although he could be interpreted as a microcosm for the larger idea of wishing for unrealistic goals and objects, I think including the character only aids in presenting the theme to children and fails on a thematic level. On a larger level, using the Psammead downplays the theme a bit because the consequences that often stem from the wishes are completely unexpected and random. Although this can play into the idea that wishing for some things yields completely surprising and undesired consequences, I still think the execution of the character’s ability to grant wishes compromises the theme. I do think the character works wonderfully in entertaining and making the idea more accessible for children, which I think is the greatest strength of the work.

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Kids Will Be Kids…

When reading The Five Children and It, I personally enjoyed how much the kids were depicted as real children with real desires. We have previously discussed throughout the course of how much children were idolized as little innocent beings that had almost angel-like qualities. They were unrealistic because their characters were written by an adult who desired for children to act a certain way. Nesbit on the other hand flipped the Victorians on their head with this novel. She received much critique for portraying the children in her novel as real; which in today’s world seems slightly ridiculous, but she was breaking the mold.

When it came to the wishes of the kids, their wishes were very real for what a child might want. I picture the Victorians expecting children to wish for perfect manners, the ability to read as many books as possible, or to always be obedient to their parents. But Edith Nesbit accurately sees children for who they are, and that’s big dreamers with realistic expectations. The children keep asking the Pssamead for food, which if I was to put myself back in my 8 year old state of mind, I would have asked for the same thing! Especially if I was hungry enough! Also, the wish to fly made perfect sense when climbing in to the mind of a child.

In other words, the change from the Victorian era to the Edwardian did wonders for children’s literature. No longer was the child expected to have morals constantly thrown at them, but they were able to be a child and enjoy their life. Edith Nesbit was one of the firsts who started to embrace that and show adults that a child’s life should not be perfection and lessons but fun with some learning.

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Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery?

This week a topic that has struck me as interesting is the concept of borrowing and/or being inspired by other authors.   In Edith Nesbit’s Five Children and It we see lots of references to other stories as well as general plot lines that she borrows from other authors.  The Last of the Mohicans is used to inspire the children to wish for Indians to exist.  Even though Nesbit’s works are filled with borrowed ideas and she is referred to as “the great borrower” does that make her work any less original.  Nesbit herself is said to have been a source of inspiration for many authors, including C.S. Lewis.  J.K. Rowling herself has been quoted as saying that she pulled inspiration for others authors and Greek mythology.  Most fantasy authors will say that J.R.R Tolkien was there primary source of inspiration and that without his land of Middle Earth they would not have been able to do what they do.  Having seen all these examples I think it is pretty acceptable to say that it is all right for authors to borrow or look towards these pioneers in their fields since without these precursors in their particular genre they would not have written their own works.

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Having said this though I would like to examine the world of Fanfiction.  Fanfic is when writers… aspiring writers? … use others movies, books, video games, etc. to further the story that has been created.  For this blog I explored some Fanfiction sites and there is an enormous amount of stories ranging from topics about an alternate ending to The Hunger Games to stories about the children of the Golden Trio in Harry Potter.  Some of the stories are lackluster continuations or alterations while others seem to have nothing to do with the original text except for the character names and world.  Since I am not a Fanfiction reader I can only assume the spectrum that truly exists on these sites.  However, I do feel I can make an opinion about how I feel towards the idea of Fanfiction, which would be to let them do it.  These sites are huge and have such a large fan base that perhaps it is not a bad thing to let these people continue on a little longer in these fictional worlds they love.  On the other hand though I do think that it is important to consider how the author’s feel about Fanfiction.  George R.R. Martin the author of the series A Song of Fire and Ice has said how much he detests Fanfic and how he feels it is plagiarism to an extent.  I would normally think he is overreacting but with recent events that have gone on I think perhaps he may have a point.  Stephanie Meyers’ Twilight Saga was the inspiration for one Fanfic writer’s stories.  E.L. James’ has recently gained the spotlight for her trilogy Fifty Shades of Grey, which is a novel version of a Fanfic story she has based off of Meyer’s Twilight series.  This seems to be a little to close to copying someone else’s works for me.  Which raises the question, where is the line between inspiration and direct imitation?

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Origin Mythology in Children’s Stories

     I have always thought it was really interesting to read about the origin of the world or explanations of phenomena that does not match today’s scientific facts and theories.  In the Water-Babies, the reader was exposed to an alternate state of life and what life was like “under the sea.”  In Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens the explanation for where babies come is that they are born first as birds on an island of birds and then fly to their future homes to become babies.  This explanation is just as valid as the stork baby story when adults make up untrue explanations for children.  I’m not sure why adults seem keen on telling children more fantastical and unreal versions of the truth, as we have learned in class through reading Golden Age literature and specific cases like Lewis Carroll entertaining children with enchanting lies, but they do.  These lies become stories, and these stories go on to be published works.

An example of one of these quite interesting stories is the explanation for fossils in Five Children and It.  The Psammead, the wish-granting sand fairy, imparts a lot of “historical” knowledge to the children who find him.  The Psammead is several thousand years old and supposedly from the time of Pterodactyls and Megatheriums, the time of dinosaurs.  Apparently he used to grant wishes for Megatheriums to be eaten, but whatever of them was not eaten by sunset would turn to stone.  This applies for any wish that produces an object.  As soon as the sun sets, it turns to stone.  Thus, this story implies that the dinosaur remains, fossils, we find today are the results of, for lack of a better term, wish leftovers.

Megatherium

I delight in this kind of pseudo-mythology in literature, and I wonder why this form of fiction is popular and frequently embedded in novels and stories.  I mentioned before that I am not sure why adults enjoy these kinds of “re-tellings,” but they do provide a source of entertainment.  Adults constantly lie to children about life—babies coming from storks, fairies, the Boogie man, and most notorious, Santa Claus.  If we think back, a lot of these fantasy elements have been used over time to protect children and direct their behavior, such as Santa Claus watching over all children in order to reward the good ones with presents on Christmas, and this helps to make children behave properly more often.  However, what benefit or advantage does this fake history of fossils told by the Psammead have?

I believe that these fake histories provide background for the story.  If the Psammead had no “concrete” history and was just a mysterious being, it lops him into a group of flat characters.  Histories, even fake ones, flesh out characters and even if the genre is fiction, make the characters seem more genuine and real, with real not necessarily meaning as from our reality.

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Why We Love Five Children and It

It is safe to say that we all, at the very least, have enjoyed our reading of Nesbit’s Five Children and It. As we discussed in class, there may be an argument that Nesbit’s treasure chest of ideas were savaged from other writers’ works, and therefore may be perceived as “unoriginal.” Whether or not someone comes to this conclusion, Five Children and It remains a fun-filled children’s story structured with moral-encompassing instances and situations, all intertwined with adventure and imagination; broadly speaking, this is why we love and enjoy Nesbit’s story so much, but there are a plentiful more reasons why.

What this book does good at — if not best — is constructing one’s intolerance for wishes. Just about every wish the children make ends up putting them in troublesome circumstances in which they then must find ways of hiding or suppressing the wished items, which is necessary in preventing very real consequences such as jail time, death, starvation, etc. By the end of the story, the reader — like our heroines — is exhausted due to the children’s constant struggle to cover up the unintended results of their wishes (all while dealing with having to stay fed). In a genre of fiction where a child would dream of being submerged in a reality where some one/two/three wishes have the possibility of being granted, ‘wish granting’ in Five Children and It becomes one’s seemingly worst nightmare, thus Nesbit does well in suppressing the reader’s tendencies of wishful thinking.wishing

The ‘consequences associated with wishing’ is a successful lesson to be learned in Nesbit’s story, and it is the main motif that the story builds upon, thus allowing the development of the children’s many adventures (inevitably providing for a some 200-page story). But what this motif further offers us are underlying values, such as the importance of family (as seen in the instance where the Lamb is suddenly wanted by everybody, and is nearly kidnapped from his siblings on several occasions — if it had not been for their smart thinking; the children soon realize how important their brother is to them in hindsight to his ever being lost) and further the value in necessity over greed (as demonstrated when the children seek beauty, riches, and wings, among other things, and then suffer in the absence of food; nutrition being the most fundamental, vital, and important item for their well-being — rather than unnecessary items of greed).

Nutrition

Therefore, it is not just the adventures in Five Children and It that we love and enjoy so much, it is also the building upon (or the learning experiences surrounding) these central morals.

Nevertheless, it is the adventures that we first and foremost love, wouldn’t you agree? And how wonderful they are! Mighty appealing to any child, I might add: the unorthodox inclusion of a monster-like fur-ball-of-a-fairy that speaks perfect English and once lived in the dinosaur age; the children’s becoming as beautiful as the day, but then going unnoticed by all those closest to them; their becoming rich with money that the townspeople, as they later learn, are unlikely to accept in transaction — also arising suspicions that could put them in jail; the children’s being granted beautiful wings and flying over rooftops only to fall victim to hunger and winding up stuck atop a church after losing their wings to the sunset; their defending a home-made castle from an invasion of colorful medieval warriors brandishing an assortment of deadly sharp weapons; Robert’s becoming of a giant and joining a fair as to make a short-lived profit — then having to devise a plan with Cyril in order to escape unharmed and unnoticed due to the giant-magic diminishing at sunset; and so on and so forth.

Giant

What makes this so appealing to a children audience?

Primarily, the very ambiguity, excitement, and thrill associated with the aspect of adventure. Also, the reader’s relatability and connection with the text (in this case, a child audience).

A child is neither completely good nor completely bad, which is quite evident in the characters of our heroines who exhibit thoughts, feelings, and emotions on both sides of the spectrum. Nesbit’s perception of a child is much different to that of the Victorian ‘ideal’ child; Nesbit details a more realistic version of the child — a common literary practice in the Edwardian period that begins (roughly) in the year 1901; it so happens to be that Five Children and It was first published the year after, in 1902, thus it could be argued that Nesbit had set the stone for (or aided in the development of) the Edwardian-Era image of the child.

With that said, the child reader is more likely to relate to our heroines if the characters are, in fact, actual (rather than perceived) children, increasing the legitimacy of the story — as if the story itself was written by a child. And as I noted above, a child is at most only ‘mostly good,’ and the adventures that entail our (cunning) heroines who, like actual children, steal, lie, sugar-coat, manipulate, fight, and escape trouble, among many other things, become believable in the sense that their involvement in fantastical matters are almost overlooked because they, themselves, are not the least bit made up. As we discussed in class, Nesbit gives fantasy a realistic reality by including close-to-home places and conventions of society; this, combined with the presence of ‘actual’ children rather than the ‘ideal’, makes this story evermore believable — enjoyable — to a child audience. When fantasy is made every effort to be written as believable, we, the readers, are more likely to submerge ourselves into the framework of the story, and forget most — if not all — of our knowledge of reality. Isn’t this why we read books in the first place? For an escape of  reality with characters and places we can relate to on an emotional, relatable level? This holds true even for the child reader of a children’s book.

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There are perhaps a hundred or more reasons I could formulate as to why Five Children and It is such an enjoyable read to all who come across it. Personally, and quite obviously, I have enjoyed this book very much so, and I am privileged to have been given this opportunity to discover its many morals and adventures, and to behold the most realistic portrayal of children I have seen yet. I will, most certainly, be reading this to my children one distant and delightful day.

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Politics in Five Children and It

E. Nesbit’s Five Children and It was probably one of the most frustrating books I have read in class thus far.  I so desperately wanted Robert, Anthea, Cyril, Jane, and Lamb to get what they wanted from Psammead.  However, every wish they wished for went so wrong!  The incompetence of the “fairy” drove me crazy.  It was almost as if Psammead was exploiting the small, innocent children, which would not be too much of a stretch considering Nesbit’s political background as an active socialist.  I believe that the relationship between Psammead and the five children is representative of the type of system that she opposes.  A socialist economy is supposed to directly satisfy the peoples’ economic demands and needs.  Although Psammead was granting the wishes of the children, every wish ended up terribly wrong:  the children wish to be beautiful and they get shut out of their own home, they ask for wings and they get stuck on top of a church, they ask for a castle that becomes mobbed, and they ask to meet real Indians which ended up being a near death experience.  Psammead, who represents the economy, is the incompetent, undesirable system that Nesbit rejects; she advocates for a socialist economy where the people, like the five children, would actually get their needs met.  Also, to add to this discussion about the parallels between Psammead and the five children and politics, the fact that Psammead is not the typical beautiful, idealized fairy contributes to this reading.  Psammead, like the system Nesbit rejects, is ugly, jaded, and not polite.  Perhaps Nesbit is trying to show the ugliness of this particular type of politics as compared to the bright, innocence of the children, who stands for the people of the society who keeps getting exploited and taken advantage of by this ugly system.  Besides this parallel between the characters and the socialist system and the people, Nesbit interjects her own two bits of politics throughout the book as well.  Although Five Children and It was a frustrating read, I liked the fact that Nesbit tried to make the novel as educational as possible, even if she was indirectly, and sometimes directly, pressing upon her socialist views and opinions.

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Character Analysis: The Psammead

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The Psammead, in my opinion, is the most fascinating character among the texts that I’ve read thus far in LIT 4334. It is depicted as a very grotesque looking character, but through the monstrous appearance there is an amalgamation of nuances that add to the interesting nature of the Psammead. It is described to have eyes like a snail, ears like a bat, a body like a spider, hands and feet like a monkey, and whiskers like a rat. All these descriptions make me think that the Psammead has unparalleled senses, specifically sight, sound, and touch, and this unique trait adds to the unworldly persona of the Psammead. The fact that this is the only Psammead left in existence speaks to the special opportunity that the five children experience. The Psammead has distant memories of events that have long transpired, but can remember them with proficiency. This truly is a sentient beast to a high extreme. In the very beginning of the book, it is told that Psammead is used to granting wishes that are mundane and boring, but the wishes that the children ask the Psammead for are too unfamiliar and too fantastic, that the old standard of wishes being set to stone if unused after a day no longer applies.

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The Psammead interacts with the children through a series of wishes, which it grants. The children ask to be beautiful, to be rich, to have wings, to be allowed in the castle, and to give a wealthy woman’s jewelry to their mother. All of these wishes are materialistic and only cause a degradation of self because they are all complacent wishes, which I believe is why they all cause something to go wrong with each wish. The Pssamead is sort of like a theological or supernatural entity that answers prayers, as it were, but for some unusual reason is portrayed as an ugly, grotesque monster instead of a seraphic being. The Psammead tires of their wishes, and tells them no longer to ask for any more wishes, but the Psammead tells Anthea that the wish she had of all the children being able to see it again will be granted. This wish will/ is granted most likely because it is selfless and is in some sense directed toward the Psammead, causing it to feel appreciated and loved.

Without the Psammead in the text, the story would be utterly nonsensical and without a cohesive plot. The Psammead is the very central character of this story. It is the nucleus of the cell that is the entire text. Without its ability to grant wishes, the children would not have had the adventures that they did, and would not have gone grown as children.

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