LIT 4334: The Golden Age of Children's Literature

Why I Do Not Consider The Water-Babies a Work of Children’s Literature

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It is well-documented that Charles Kingsley wrote The Water-Babies for his youngest son in 1863. While one of his goals was to instill a moral theme, the Golden Rule, for his child to abide by, I, for one, do not think that children should be the intended audience for this text. I feel this way because the text is rife with contradictions and assumptions. The majority of children are unable to garner the true meaning of this text by simply reading the words.

Contradiction seems to be the most observable theme of this text. While it causes chaos from the reader’s end, it is only stabilized by the very neutrality of Tom’s character. There are contradictions of evolution versus Christianity, and influences of good and evil, all of which are complete oppositions. The contradictions presented are more subtextual than overt. For example, the whole world of “water-babies” can be interpreted as a metaphor for an afterlife, yet within the afterlife, the creatures are subjects to evolution. I, for one, do not believe religion and science can coexist because they challenge each other.   Also, Mr. Grimes, Tom’s master, is a malicious figure who seems to indoctrinate Tom with a sense of “evil is right”. However, while Tom’s mind is still malleable, he encounters the Irishwoman, an amalgamation of different characters in one, who represents themes of goodness and purity. These ‘lessons’ are subjected to Tom, who is a perfect example of a tabula rasa, a blank slate, because his unique upbringing caused him to be a perfectly unadulterated figure.

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Kingsley takes a very unusual and questionable position in this text. He assumes that the reader is ‘untouched’ and liberated from ‘commitment’.  That’s very rare to find at his time period, because most children are indoctrinated, in a sense,  to be committed to some ideology, mostly Christianity.  For example, as he narrates the story, he speculates about mere existence. He mentions that anything conceivable that is not visible or tangible, cannot be dismissed or that it cannot be contrary to Nature.  Judging solely off this, it seems as if this text was perfectly written for an Agnostic, which practically a very infinitesimal amount of children are aware of that word or the meaning of it. While I strongly agree that children are very efficient at questioning, they are incapable of deep introspection and contemplation of lifelong questions.

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It is because of Kingsley’s wide use of contradiction and assumption, that this text cannot be classified as children’s literature.  While I appreciate the equal level of deliverance of Christianity versus evolution, I feel that both are subjects that are more appropriate for a certain maturity for appropriate contemplation and evaluation. This text seems very thought-provoking for an adolescent or adult because of the grander meaning of the text instead of what is physically written. That is why I feel this text is best classified under speculative fiction, because of its combinatorial essence of scientific elements and supernatural aspects.

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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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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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Introductions

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Hi, my name is Kenna Galloway! I’m a second year English major and have no idea what I want to focus on, so I’m just taking as many diverse English classes as I possibly can. Although I have to admit, children’s literature holds a special place in my heart.

In this class, I’m hoping to once again do something I thoroughly enjoy—look over and analyze works that I once read simply for entertainment. Last semester this involved dystopian young adult novels, and this semester it will be books I enjoyed as a child. My grandmother was a teacher and instructor of teachers for many years; she filled my childhood with books and stories and introduced me to a love of books that I still have today. Winnie the Pooh was one of the first chapter books I read on my own in elementary school. So, if I had to pick I would say I am most excited for the week we read this. The Pooh books by A.A. Milne are also, not surprisingly, my favorite children’s books. When I was eight I had the opportunity to see the real stuffed animal inspirations that belonged to Milne’s son, Christopher. You can see what they look like in an article about the exhibit at the New York Public Library here. Nothing on the syllabus worries me, but I am less excited about The Water Babies, The Princess and the Goblin, and Five Children and It, simply because I have not read them before.

To me, children’s literature is simply literature that is written for and read by children. Although I have not yet taken a class in children’s literature, I am taking two this semester. Along with this class I am also taking ENL2930 Children’s Literature, which is a much more general overview of children’s literature, past and present. It will be interesting for me to compare these two classes and compare the information I learn from them. The “Golden Age” to which this class refers quite obviously refers to a golden or plentiful time in which children’s literature was being produced, in quantity and quality. I’m very excited to learn more about this, how the state of the world in this “Golden Age” affected children’s literature, and how it provoked a growth of the genre.

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