LIT 4334: The Golden Age of Children's Literature

The Secret Garden: Appropriate for Children Today?

The Secret Garden is a novel that focuses on the differences between India and England, expressing that children need to be raised in a good environment in order to become well-behaved children and experience a childhood. It is a book that focuses on the beauty and healing properties of the natural world, but is it appropriate for children to be reading, today?


On one hand, The Secret Garden encourages the reader to step outside, enjoy the fresh air, and explore the beauty of one’s garden. It entices the reader to watch life blossom before one’s eyes, and educates the reader on the basics of gardening. Considering how technology has given children plenty of entertainment and distraction, in doors, I feel that this book would be worth reading to a child, in hopes of helping that child step outside and explore the possibilities of imagination and free play. While the book fails to teach a child how to imagine a new world within one’s head, considering Mary does not possess such faculties, it does show a child that the mere act of skipping rope can be worth pursuing. As a result, perhaps children of today should be reading this, due to the fact that it exposes them to a world that they may not have previously thought was worth venturing into.
On the other hand, The Secret Garden expresses several negative thoughts about the vibrant and beautiful culture and country of India, which increases the potential for racism and closed mindedness about the exotic world. The Secret Garden expresses that India is a sandy country, that is too hot for activities, and is full of ‘blacks’ who are expected to serve Europeans. Considering how diverse the population of America is, today, such messages may be ill-received by families of foreign nationality, and may only lead to more reasons for bullying between Caucasians and other ethnicities. It is possible that, should the child pick up on such propaganda within the book, a caucasian child might believe that individuals of a darker skin type are meant to treat him or her as a superior, and may resulting treat those children as inferior. Such messages pave the way for segregation and discrimination, so one must wonder if it is worth the risk.
Is it better to read the book, in order to encourage children to explore the great outdoors, or should this book be saved for when children are old enough to understand that the messages in the book about class and race are from an earlier era?

 

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Is the Secret Garden appropriate for children?

As a child I was never very good at reading the books my parents, or my school, wanted me to. While they plied me with classic children’s literature I would turn up my nose, happy instead to be left to my Magic Tree House books. Happy that I was reading, my parents would generally let me be but my school was sure that my classmates and I could benefit from reading ancient books that were supposedly classics and more suitable for me to read.  But how can you determine if a text is suitable for young audiences? Is it classifying a text based on its use of difficult vocabulary? Or perhaps some themes are better suited to certain ages. In my experience children will read whatever they want, and somehow books that we don’t deem “suitable” for them will always fall into their hands. Often the books we want the younger audience to read fall along the wayside, abandoned for books that children are actually interested in reading.

Ahhh childhood memories!

For instance, when I was a child I was given a copy of The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett. It was a beautiful book and my mom was pleased to tell me that it was a classic, the seemingly golden standard for children’s literature. I avoided that book like the plague. It seemed boring to me; a girl finds a garden, big whoop! After reading the book now I regret not reading it when I was younger. The Secret Garden is full of wonderful imagery, from descriptions of the English moor to the depiction of a surly young girl learning to become a better person. I found myself smiling at references to other children’s literature books I’ve read; such as the new portrayal of a sweeter, less mischievous Peter Pan through the book’s Dickon. It is full of lessons that every child should be exposed to; lessons ranging from the importance of being polite to the people around you to knowing exercising will make you healthier. This is a story of growth, love and acceptance where 3 strange, misfit children become friends and through that friendship become normal, happy and healthy kids. If I had to choose an age for which this book would be most appropriate, based on the content matter and language, I would say any child from eight to 12 would enjoy it. Getting them to read it, however, would be a whole other story.

While The Secret Garden does have many great qualities, such as the ones I mentioned above, it is still over a hundred years old and in many ways not geared to be a children’s book, at least for modern American audiences. When I finally read the book I did enjoy it but I noticed a few off putting things, not in the least a few heavily racist conversations and an overall message that Britain is the exemplary place to raise children and grow up. There is a repeating message in The Secret Garden that England is superior to all other countries and that if you want your children to be happy you should raise them there and let them run wild on the moor. As this is an older British novel it may be hard for some of the lessons from the book to impact young readers. In my opinion it is simply out of date and in some ways incompatible with the American mindset. I do think that there is merit in this book though so if you have the option to recommend this book to a child you should.

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Peter Pan: Appropriate for Children Today?

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J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan or Peter Pan and Wendy has been classified as a children’s novel during its initial release, however, for contemporary readers it can be read by young adults. Most children would recognize the character of Peter Pan through the animated Disney films and the wide variety of film adaptations of the novel. The novel during the time was undoubtedly considered a novel for children despite the violent scenes and dark undertones. For children today it may be a little too much for them to handle, especially with the rise of parental concern and censorship. Children ranging for ages 5-9 would probably be better off watching the interactive animated show, Jake and the Never Land Pirates, which is based on the Peter Pan franchise. Once a child is a little older and less sheltered they may be allowed to read the original novel considering it still provides elements and themes a child would love.

Some portions in the novel that may concern some parents may include the actions and personalities of some of the characters. For example, there is a location in Never Land known as Mermaid’s Lagoon where mermaids sing songs to entice and attract potential victims in which they then drown for their own amusement. Then we have the notorious Captain Hook, who dedicates his life to get revenge on Peter Pan for literally cutting his right hand off and feeding it to a crocodile. To a child today, they would most likely view Hook as the obligatory antagonist whose sole purpose is to oppose the hero, Peter Pan. However, there is more to Hook than just the character with the role of the dastardly villain, in fact he can be interpreted as an intimidating adult who is obsessed with finding and killing a mere child. If the hook for a right hand was not enough, the pirate seems to have psychopathic tendencies throughout the novel. Although it may be an exaggeration, Hook may be too scary of a character for young children considering he is not a comedic buffoon as his Disney animated film counterpart. He even attempts to kill Peter Pan by switching his medicine with poison. Moreover, if Hook is not a nightmare inducing character for a young child then perhaps being devoured alive by a crocodile would seal the deal.

Aside from some dark moments in the novel, the overall story is perfect for any child who has a sense of adventure. Considering Peter Pan and Wendy was initially in the form of a play, the novel incorporates some interaction between the characters and the readers. Children are able to relate to these characters or at times even look up to them as possible influences. Barrie’s writing style compliments the interests of many young readers and it can be certain that contemporary young readers would get the same feel from the novel as children did throughout the early 20th century. In fact, the novel can be read by both male and female readers as it includes elements of action, adventure, and a small hint of romance. Overall, Peter Pan and Wendy can be an interesting read for a contemporary younger audience; however, perhaps those under the age of 8 may have to wait a little longer to get a better grasp of the novel and handle some of the dark themes that were acceptable during the Golden Age of literature.

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Peter Pan in Kensingston Gardens is Suitable For Children

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Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens is a very well known text that has been successful for over a century. It is a quick, yet enjoyable read for any age group, but I believe its appeal is more skewed toward children around the age of 7 to around the age of 12. It is a text that seems in the perfect position to be read after a child has grasped the fundamentals of reading, and want to adventure out into a book of greater length and plot development. In terms of aspects of the text that make me feel Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens is appropriate for children, the very premise that Peter Pan is only seven days old is a big reason. He is not mature, so it seems easy for a child to suspend his or her beliefs and go along with the story.

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Also, there is a complete absence of any sense of sexuality in this story. For example, Peter Pan meets a girl named Maimie Mannering and within a short period of getting to know her, he asks her to marry him. He skips any sense of intimacy, potentially because he lives with an idea of living eternally. He also has a complex that causes him never to have the desire to grow up, and this is a very good indicator as to why he eschews any semblance of affection with Maimie.

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The progression of the plot is very straightforward, and while the language is not the most elementary, it is still able to be interpreted from a young audience. The use of the second person throughout the text is such an effective manner of involving the audience, especially children, because it provides a sense of an invitation to go along the journey with the characters, instead of simply reading about other peoples’ adventures. The use of pictures also contributed to the text to be directed towards children, as a whole. The pictures were very excellent ways to depict the essence of what was being said in the text, in case children had misunderstood or just needed a pictorial schema of what was occurring.

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The Water Babies: Out of the Sentimental Canon and Off of the Bookshelves

Charles Kingsley’s book, The Water Babies, is one of many books that, although popular at one point in time, has since declined in popularity and readership.  In her article, “Sentiment and Significance: The Impossibility of Recovery in the Children’s Literature Canon or, The Drowning of the Water Babies,” Deborah Stevenson asserts that although “academics note the text’s historical significance…Kingsley’s book no longer has a place in the sentimental canon; the chain of affection has been broken” (Stevenson 11).  Her distinction here between the sentimental and the academic canon is significant in the discussion of whether or not this book is appropriate for children today.

As we have discussed in class, scholars of children’s literature are uncomfortably aware that they are studying a genre of literature for which they are not the intended audience, and that the true intended audience (children) has no real input in the denoting of texts as part of the academic canon.  Those decisions are made by people such as librarians and teachers, who have pedagogical and didactic ends in mind.  Stevenson’s exclusion of The Water Babies from the academic canon would have implied that the powers that be (the librarians, teachers, and scholars) did not consider the text to be worthy of today’s children.  However, Stevenson specifically qualifies that The Water Babies has been excluded from the sentimental canon, and this exclusion carries with it another meaning entirely.

                                  

The sentimental canon is less isolated from the reactions of actual children to specific works of literature.  For example, perhaps children in the early 20th century read Kingsley’s The Water Babies and took delight in Tom’s adventures in the sea and wished that they too could be cuddled by Mrs. Bedoneasyouwouldbedoneby and corrected by Mrs. Bedonebyasyoudid.  And then, assume that as adults, they attempted to pass on this hodge-podge of morals and nonsense to their own children.  This method no doubt worked for some, but there comes a point when a book of days gone by is no longer relevant to the current generation’s children, and, with each subsequent generation, the possibility of a book once again achieving status as beloved becomes less and less likely.

One of the primary reasons that The Water Babies would not be considered appropriate or worthwhile reading for children today is the inclusion of so many cultural references.  Back when the book was published, children would have known who Kingsley was referencing in his long tangents.  Today’s children would be utterly confused by the references to public figures of Kingsley’s day.  The inclusion of these references has in some ways done Kingsley a disservice, as it clearly dates his work.

Another reason that children today would be likely to turn up their noses at The Water Babies is its obvious moral overtones.  At the time of its publication, it would not have seemed overly moralistic or didactic at all since, prior to its publication, all that existed in the children’s literature market was entirely didactic.  But just because it was a breath of fresh air for children at the time, does not mean that the air hasn’t gone stale since.   Today’s children would be turned off by Kingsley’s clear interjections into the story and the obvious teaching moments found throughout the book.  Instead, today’s children want narratives that are fun and entertaining, and if the adults can manage to get a lesson in there without them noticing it, then all the better.

Because children who once loved this book grew into adults who were incapable of passing on the love of this book to subsequent generations (due to factors such as changing tastes and dated references), Charles Kingsley’s The Water Babies is no longer a staple on any child’s bookshelf.

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The Water Babies: A Guidebook for the Growing Gentleman

In The Water Babies, Charles Kingsley writes to children, particularly boys, about the story of Tom and his decisions in life that ultimately cause him to become a well-rounded and good adult. Kingsley instructs children through the utilization of many small lessons, which can be found throughout the book. For each encounter that Tom faces, there is a simple lesson to be learned for young boys.

In analyzing The Water Babies as a teaching tool, it is important to note that Kingsley wrote this story for a particular age group in the early 1860’s. Featured in Macmillan’s Magazine, this children’s story was an educational piece directed to Kingsley’s main audience: children. However, it is obvious that young girls are not included in this audience because Tom is a boy and his adventures are similar to situations that young British boys would likely encounter.

As for the actual lessons, Kingsley cleverly puts them in the text through Tom’s encounters with people and animals. For example, one of the first morals in the story involves religious salvation. The Irishwoman teaches Tom that those who wish to be clean will be. In this case, Kingsley is writing about the necessity of young boys to have the right heart that seeks to be spiritually clean. The feeling of wanting to be clean will enable them to reach salvation, just as it did Tom, who then left his fleshly body behind and became a water baby.

Another notable lesson is where Tom saves his lobster friend from a trap. This unselfish act of kindness is the trigger that allows Tom to see the other water-babies because it is necessary for Tom to have the right attitude. The lesson for young men is to do good to others in order to be a proper gentleman.

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Tom helping the lobster out of a trap.

A third lesson to be noted is when Tom must help Grimes, his mortal enemy, in order to become a human man again. The moral is simple because Kingsley is admonishing young men to help all people and have the right attitude to them, regardless of who they are and how many flaws they may have. Only when Tom realizes this can he have the chance as a totally grown and mature man.

Therefore, the obvious audience for this story when it was written was young British boys. However, since it’s creation in 1863, both the adults and children have changed drastically. Now, parents are not likely reading The Water Babies to their young children. Instead, the audience of this piece of children’s literature is for academic scholars, including university students. It appears that The Water Babies is important to analyze because of the many themes associated with it. Also, Kingsley was one of the very first authors to come up with this particular type of literature and much can be gleaned from studying his writing methods. Thus, the audience of The Water Babies changes as time moves on.

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