LIT 4334: The Golden Age of Children's Literature

Five Children and It: A Close Reading

Five Children and It“Grown-up people find it very difficult to believe really wonderful things, unless they have what they call proof. But children will believe almost anything, and grown-ups know this. That is why they tell you that the earth is round like an orange, when you can see perfectly well that it is flat and lumpy; and why they say that the earth goes round the sun, when you can see for yourself any day that the sun gets up in the morning and goes to bed at night like a good sun as it is, and the earth knows its place, and lies as still as a mouse” (3).

In this short passage found in Five Children and It, Edith Nesbit reveals one of the most undeniable truths about the construction of children and the basis of children’s literature. Through the omniscient voice of the narrator, Nesbit suggests that children are the only ones capable of believing the miracles contained within children’s literature and adults take advantage of this.

It is interesting to note that she speaks in second person to the child reader as someone who understands both the adult world and the children’s world wholly. Although it is obvious that Nesbit is an adult, she refuses to speak from the side of the “grown-up people.” This accomplishes two objectives.

First, Nesbit draws in the child reader and engages them personally by acknowledging that the child reader has certain knowledge that even adults lack. This is seen in the phrases “you can see perfectly well” and “you can see for yourself.” By making the child reader a “you,” Nesbit is addressing the entirety of the realm of children and gives the child reader a dimension of power over the adult realm because they can obviously see with their eyes the miracles that grown-ups fail to see. This is an interesting element of children’s literature that is not unique to Nesbit but can be found in the narrations of classic’s such as Water Babies and Peter Pan. Authors of children’s literature have utilized the second person effectively because it makes the child reader more interested and personally connected to the story. It enables them to feel like an important figure in the book. Nesbit makes use of this knowledge wonderfully in this passage.

The second point that Nesbit makes by making the narrator speak neither from the adults nor the children is allow the children’s negative energy to be directed away from the narrator and towards “adults.” Perhaps as a writer of children’s literature herself, Nesbit did not believe that she was secluded to the realm of grown-up people and thus did not suffer the same faults. Either way, by making the narrator a separate entity, Nesbit gains the child reader’s trust and becomes a creditable person. This paves the way for the rest of the book in which the child reader, already flattered from the narrator’s compliments, is more likely to believe the narrator’s comments and take them with a grain of salt.

A final interesting note about this passage is that Nesbit suggests that adults take advantage of the minds of children in the statement “children will believe almost anything, and grown-ups know this.” I believe that Nesbit was actually calling out writers of children’s literature and those adults who were in charge of deciding what was proper for children’s literature. I think this is evident in Nesbit’s utilization of an unorthodox magical wish-giving character the Sand-Fairy. Instead of following the example of the children’s literature authors before her, Nesbit created the image of the Sand-Fairy as a strange-looking, grumpy, and often unwilling character. Furthermore, her children are definitely not the image of perfection characteristic of the Victorian era. Instead, her child protagonists are more characteristic of children of the Edwardian era, which were represented as more raw-natured, mischievious, and trouble-making kids. As mentioned before, Nesbit as the narrator did not take her stand with the grown-up people because she felt they could not possibly be able to write for children the most effectively because they themselves could not believe the miracles that exist in their stories. For these reasons I think that Nesbit was making a jab at the adults involved in children’s literature.

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Close Reading of a Peter Pan Passage

“‘I think I shall go back to mother,’ he said timidly.

‘Good-bye,’ replied Solomon Caw with a queer look.

But Peter hesitated. ‘Why don’t you go?’ the old one asked politely.

‘I suppose,’ said Peter huskily, ‘I suppose I can still fly?’

You see he had lost faith.

‘Poor little half-and-half!’ said Solomon, who was not really hard-hearted, ‘you will never be able to fly again, not even on windy days. You must live here on the island always.’

‘And never even go to the Kensington Gardens?’ Peter asked tragically.

‘How could you get across?’ said Solomon. He promised very kindly, however, to teach Peter as many of the bird ways as could be learned by one of such an awkward shape.

‘Then I shan’t be exactly a human? Peter asked.


‘Nor exactly a bird?’


‘What shall I be?’

‘You will be a Betwixt-and-Between,’ Solomon said” (16-17).

This passage from J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens, when analyzed, is found to supply us with a general portrayal of the entire novel. We see a boy named Peter Pan who, at first, longs for his mother, then realizes he can’t ever again fly. We further get a general idea of Barrie’s style of writing — the reader is also addressed directly using the word “you.” Finally, Peter Pan also learns from the very wise bird, Solomon, that he is neither human nor bird, but rather a “Betwixt-and-between.”

Firstly, we see an unsure Peter Pan; a little baby who’s only 1 week old (which is absurd — I shall get into that shortly) and has recently flew away from his mother’s company, already regretting his departure. Indeed, in the passage above, Peter Pan is very willing to go back, if only he was able to fly. Of course, Peter Pan lost faith in his ability to fly so he is never again able to do so. This, of course, is a powerful message that shows the empowerment of self-confidence and how crucial it is to be sure of yourself if you ever wish to conquer and accomplish your aspirations — or even your flaws. This is described earlier in the text just after Peter Pan flew from out his window, “It is wonderful that he could fly without wings, but the place itched tremendously, and–and–perhaps we could all fly if we were as dead-confident-sure of our capacity to do it as was bold Peter Pan that evening” (13). How beautiful is this? To be a child reading this line, the child would be consumed by wonder, amazement, and inspiration. Because I’m grown up and have been told repeatedly by others that I can’t “fly” among other things, the inspirational impact this line has on me is minimized, but I can only imagine its limitless impact on a young, fresh mind.

peter pan flying

Throughout life, more specifically in school, a child — any child — will be faced, one time or another, by people who tell that child that he or she cannot aspire to do certain things or be a certain somebody, and eventually the child will start questioning his or her own abilities, potential, and capacity. This is another reason why the Peter Pan series is such a classic; Peter Pan may be told now, by Solomon, that he will never again fly, but inevitably Peter Pan succeeds at just that and much much more! A book is a collection of mere thin pages and ink imprints, but the worlds that are detailed will take any reader on an incredible adventure that defies all the ifs and buts we are faced with in reality; another reason why fiction writing, in particular children’s literature, is essential to our society.

From this passage, we also get a feel for Barrie’s inclusion of the reader as a character in the story. he does this with the line, “You see he had lost faith,” which tells us directly (evermore emphasizing the importance of faith) and also asserts that this story is for “you,” and that this story was written by many of “you.” As we see in chapter 1, “The Grand Tour of the Gardens,” the narrator/writer of this novel is also a character in the story, “[The Kensington Gardens] are in London, where the King lives, and I used to take David there nearly every day” (3). The use of the personal pronoun, ‘I’, declares substance to the narrator, thus the use of ‘I’ and ‘you’ reenacts a sort of story telling involving a storyteller (I) and its audience (you); a situation where a child feels comfortable and delighted to have, perhaps a parents, sharing to them a story. Barrie further captures the heart and attention of the child reader through his inclusion of David as a character in the story; though, he is the most relatable character because David is also joining in on the listening of the story — Barrie even taking it one step further by having David as an accompanying storyteller in which the story manifests from both the adult narrator’s perspective and that of a child’s (David),

“I ought to mention here that the following is our way with a story: First I tell it to him, and then he tells it to me, the understanding being that it is quite a different story; and then I retell it with his additions, and so we go on until no one could say whether it is more his story or mine” (13).

Mother and Daughter Reading Together

The intended audience being a child reader, thus the inclusion of a child’s voice in helping tell the story gives it more authenticity than most other texts of children’s literature.

Finally, as we see in the passage above, Peter Pan learns from the very wise bird, Solomon, that he is neither human nor bird, but rather a “Betwixt-and-between.” Peter Pan is seemingly incapable of declaring his identity. This absence of identity is discussed in this week’s assigned essay, “The Riddle of His Being: An Exploration of Peter Pan’s Perpetually Altering State,”

“Peter Pan changes shape and position so often that he is uncertain about his identity. Wendy is the first to ask Peter Pan what he is but he cannot answer. His responses to Wendy’s question are vague and abstract” (McGavock).

This brings me back to Peter Pan’s absurd age of only 1 week old. This also brings me to many questions such as: how is Peter Pan so intelligent at so young an age? How is he able to speak nearly perfect English so fluently? How does he know braveness but not fear? Such observations baffle me, and I am forced to categorize such as the work of fiction; not to be questioned. It is believable that because of his young age that he is unable to see himself as human when he was so recently a bird, but these matters of self-identity and self-discovering are usually associated with teens and young adults who are trying to find out who they are (it was only until recently until I discovered such myself!). Poor Peter Pan, I wish him all the best, but for a boy of 1 week old who will never grow up… I pity him; though, I envy all his faith through his adventures — and many at that.

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There’s No Place Like Home

“No matter how dreary and gray our homes are, we people of flesh and blood would rather live there than in any other country, be it ever so beautiful. There is no place like home.”

This quote from L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz reveals on of the major ideals of his novel: the importance of home and family. Although Dorothy’s home setting is gray and dull, what matters most is being in a place of love, warmth, and family. Many people would not like to call Kansas their home. It is a place filled with cyclones, cracked land, and colorless skies. Yet at the same time, it is also an area filled with love, caring, and happiness.


When Dorothy is transported to the land of Oz, she is immediately amazed by the bright colors, beautiful flowers, and friendly little people. She meets new comrades along the way who provide for and protect her from the various dangers. Although Dorothy makes loyal friends and enjoys the beauty of Oz, she still dearly longs to return home to her family. The beauties and wonders of Oz are not as important to Dorothy as is being back with Aunt Em even though Kansas is gray and colorless.


Through Dorothy’s desire to return home, Baum teaches readers a very significant lesson – simply being with family and loved ones is more important than materialistic ideas, such as beauty and splendor. Children learn that being in an environment of kindness and concern is what matters most in life. In addition, Baum also incorporates the dangers of a strange land to teach children that what may seem like a better life in a new world may in fact present more dangers and harm. I definitely that Baum’s theme of the importance of home permeates among children. The movie version successfully incorporates this theme. As a young girl, I remember dressing as Dorothy on Halloween and reenacting the clicking of the ruby slippers scene. The phrase, “There’s no place like home,” as stuck with me ever since and I still recognize the significance of my being with my family.

Here is a video of the scene from the movie.


Alice in Wonderland Close Reading

This was not an encouraging opening for a conversation. Alice replied, rather shyly, “I hardly know, sir, just at present– at least I know who I was when I got up this morning, but I think I must have been changed several times since then.”

This quote is originally introduced after the caterpillar asks Alice who she is.  Although Alice has gone through many size and perspective changes throughout the day, most people would still have a firm grasp on who they are as a person.  When Carroll introduces this idea, it’s a very childish one.  It speaks to when Alice contemplates whether or not she has turned into another person, namely Mabel.  This idea is the kind of twisted take on reality that Carroll utilizes throughout the entire novel, one that children can relate to and find meaning in that may go over most adults’ heads.
Alice’s confusion is partly due to the warped sense of reality that is present in Wonderland.  If she can change sizes and travel from wonderful place to place easily, then why could she not change who she is as a person?  At the same time, she uses the words “at present,” acknowledging that later on she may have  a better grasp on her situation and her idea of self.  She goes on to say later in the passage that she cannot explain herself because she isn’t herself.  This idea suggests that she not only feels different, but actually IS an entirely different person, be it Mabel or anyone else.
She compares this transformation to that of a caterpillar turning into a butterfly.  This comparison shows that her change is not just negligible, it is an actual evolution from one state to another.  This idea suggests that maybe when she leaves Wonderland, she will have transformed into her next stage of life, that of an adult.  As long as she is in and believes in a Wonderland, she can remain a child, but the more that things seem ridiculous to her and the more that she desires to get out of Wonderland, the more mature she gets and the further she gets into her ultimate transformation.

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The Goblins: A Close Reading

“They had enough of affection left for each other to preserve them from being absolutely cruel for cruelty’s sake to those that came in their way; but still they so heartily cherished the ancestral grudge against those who occupied their former possessions and especially against the descendants of the king who had caused their expulsion, that they sought every opportunity of tormenting them in ways that were as odd as their inventors; and although dwarfed and misshapen, they had strength equal to their cunning.”

This passage is presented to the reader in the first chapter, eighty-four words that make up a single sentence, which explains the core motivation of the goblins and some of their traits. However, it is not the passage’s literal meaning that requires close attention, but rather its nature and construction, which are continuously used throughout the story. Indeed, the tone that is delivered in this one sentence is a poignant representation of the tone throughout the novel.
The sentence above from The Princess and the Goblin uses two semi-colons, which effectively breaks the one thought into three. Two of these thoughts use commas, but overall the amount of punctuation that breaks up the passage seems slight, or perhaps less than expected when looking at a block of eight-four words. The continuous nature of the passage requires you to slow down the pace of reading and let each word and idea truly sink into the mind of the reader. Likewise, this slowing in the pace is achieved by the word choice and phrasing of MacDonald. For example, “cruel for cruelty’s sake,” “heartily cherished,” and “former possessions,” repeat varying degrees of the “c” and “s” sounds. This repetition adds to the fairy tale and adds to the rhythm. Not only is the wording hypnotic in a way, but the diction is also challenging.

These elements, the syntax and the word choice, further drive the tone and intention of MacDonald’s tale: To tell a story to children. While MacDonald has been quoted to say that he writes for the child-like and not the child specifically, it is still reasonable to say that being aware of whom his story would be marketed towards and the fairy tale aspect of the story, that he would know the story would mainly end up in the hands of children. Many young people would be unfamiliar with several words in just this one passage. This represents MacDonald’s attitude towards children and his unwillingness to speak down to them. MacDonald is not of the school that children’s books should contain only things in them that children previously know.

Perhaps most importantly, this passage illustrates the author’s strong use of the narrative voice. The long sentences, the challenging vocabulary, and almost poetic semblance of the phrases portray a tone of story telling that almost begs to be read aloud. This speaks greatly to the time and also to the nature of the children’s literature, which is delivered from the parent to the child. Many of the sections that I myself read in preparing for this week’s class I read over again, more slowly, imagining myself doing so aloud to my younger brother who is only six. It is in this slowed down version that the tale came more alive and more vibrant. The very nature of the book brings you back to childhood and inserts you into the fantastical atmosphere of the story, making this tale of young Princess Irene both classical and necessary.

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Grrr(l) Power: Becoming the Animal in “The Tiger’s Bride”


At the mention of “The Tiger’s Bride” by Angela Carter last Tuesday, our class let out a groan. On our first reading, it seems that we all missed whatever Carter was trying to communicate in this modern retelling of Beauty and the Beast. However, upon a closer inspection of the tale, especially the last passage of the Beauty character’s transformation between pages 64 and 66, the tale resembles the common tale type more closely than we realized.
The narrator’s wish for independence from her sleazy father is an easily understood motivation for remaining in the castle. In a fairly symbolically simple phrase, the narrator comments that she will “wind up” her robotic maidservant and “send her back to perform the part of my father’s daughter” (64). The narrator then proceeds to strip naked, preparing to acquiesce to the Beast’s request.
The Beast’s desire to see her naked rather than a proposal of marriage seems too sexually forward for this usually repressed tale. It is especially disturbing considering the Beast lacks any human features, even relying on a servant to speak for him. However, the narrator speaks of undressing like the shedding of her humanity, rather than preparation for any sexual encounter. It is “not natural for humankind to go naked,” as she comments (64). She feels pain as she undresses, as if she was “stripping off [her] own underpelt” (64). Already speaking in animal’s terms, she has begun her transformation.
She clothes herself in the robe made of rats as she makes her way to the Beast to fend off the “lacerating winds” in the corridors, rather than for modesty’s sake. The robe itself is made of animals, allowing the narrator to protect herself without interrupting her desire to be truly naked. She also wears the earrings made of the Beast’s tears, finally accepting his gifts.
As the Beast begins to lick her “skin off,” his purring shakes the “foundations of the house” (66). Civilization seems to be crumbling around her as she completes her transformation into animal. Finally, the diamond earrings turn back into teardrops. The magical transformation of his tears to diamonds, then given as jewelry, seems to be the Beast’s attempt to bridge the divide between their species, transforming his gifts into gifts appropriate for a human. The transformation of the earrings back into tears shows that the narrator has completed her passage into the realm of the animal.
The Beast’s desire to see her naked can now read much closer to a marriage proposal. By asking her to remove her clothes, he was symbolically asking her to relinquish her humanity so that she could transform into a Beast, and thus become his animal bride. Rather than become human together, the narrator chooses to leave her unhappy life as a human with her father and “shed all the skins of a life in the world” (66).

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The Tiger’s Bride

“He dragged himself closer and closer to me, until I felt the harsh velvet of his head against my hand, then a tongue, abrasive as sand paper. ‘He will lick the skin off me!’ And each stroke of his tongue ripped off skin after successive skin, all the skins of a life in the world, and left behind a nascent patina of shining hairs. My earrings turned back to water and trickled down my shoulders; I shrugged the drops off my beautiful fur,” (Carter, 66).

In the classic story of Beauty and the Beast, by Jeanne-Marie Leprince De Beaumont, the innocent and virtuous Beauty falls in love with the Beast for his kind nature, in spite of his beastly appearance. As a result, the beast’s curse is lifted and he transforms into a handsome prince. In the case of Angela Carter’s “The Tiger’s Bride”, however, the Beauty not only gives up her innocence, by showing her naked body to the Beast, but the Beast is not a kind man by nature, but a swindler who won the Beauty in a gamble with her father.
In the woods, when the main character sees the Beast, a tiger, shed his disguise and reveal his true form, she expresses feeling as if her chest ‘ripped apart,’ (Carter, 63).

Here, for the first time, the Beauty appears to show sexual attraction to the Beast, rather than mere love for his character. She is attracted by his beastly form, not in spite of it. Upon shedding her clothes, and bearing her nakedness for the first time, the Beauty experiences a sense of freedom, the shedding of social constraint and expectation to clothe oneself and restrict oneself within a certain form. She essentially sheds the disguise that society forces one to wear, to be chaste and virtuous, to appear acceptable.


At the end of the tale, the girl is allowed to return to her father, having done her deed and paid her father’s debts. The girl decides to remain in the Beast’s estate, however, and sheds her clothes, walking naked into the Beast’s room. Here, instead of the Beast transforming into a human, the Beauty’s human flesh is shed for that of a fur coat, as she transforms into a beast, herself. At this moment, is it as if Angela Carter is expressing that humans are in fact the beasts, and the purity and innocence that we seek can only be found in the animal kingdom. Not only are there no social constraints in the animal kingdom, but the act of sexual attraction and action are simply natural, and necessary, rather than seen as something to restrict or deny, especially in the case of an unmarried young woman. By shedding the form of humanity, the Beauty and the Beast are able to be truly free, without any need for virtue, charm, or civility. They have instead returned to the purity and beauty that is nature.

Source: Carter, Angela. “The Tiger’s Bride.” The Classic Fairy Tales: Texts, Criticism. Tartar, Maria. New York: Norton, 1999. 63, 66. Print.