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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Racial Tensions in Peter Pan Adaptations: Then and Now

J.M Barrie’s Peter Pan has endured in the hearts of both children and adults since he first appeared in Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens. Though this character has served as a classic symbol for childhood and children’s literature, he also indicates a much more racist period in culture and history.

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“The Great White Father” was the working title of the original play by J.M. Barrie. This references racist elements of the story Peter Pan and Wendy and of Peter’s character. Though the play’s producer ultimately rejected this title, the term “redskin,” borrowed from United States racial jargon, was still used in the play to specify indigenous populations. The way that Barrie depicts the indigenous characters, too, denotes stereotypically savage behavior of an aggressive tribe out to wreak havoc on the Lost Boys, a group of young white children, when they think the Boys snatched the chief’s daughter.

Interestingly enough, it seems that more recent adaptations have sought to address and correct such blatantly racist implications. The 2003 film adaptation Peter Pan provides one example of this. In the original book and play (and most adaptations) the characters Wendy and Tiger Lily often stand in direct contrast. Even though they are both women, and depicted as weaker than Peter, Wendy is presented as stronger and more intelligent than Tiger Lily, her indigenous counterpart. Tiger Lily, on the other hand, is very helpless and has hardly anything (intelligent or otherwise) to say. In Peter Pan (2003), however, Tiger Lily, played by an Iroquois actress, does not play into this earlier established stereotype. Instead, she is depicted as a fiery, defiant young lady, who stands her ground against Captain Hook. She even contrasts her original damsel-in-distress depiction and actively saves John Darling from a band of pirates.

While there are racial tensions that will never be able to be completely taken out of Peter Pan adaptations without changing the story, recent adaptations, such as 2003’s Peter Pan successfully combats some of the racial prejudices illustrates in Barrie’s original book and play.

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After reading the essay on canonization I was prompted to consider whether or not I would place/want to include The Water Babies into the canon. For me it was not whether or not the book is lacking interest, it has more to do with the content within the book.  The Water Babies promotes gender roles, racism, and social hierarchy.  These are outdated concepts that should not be continually given to children.

There are some very good lessons to be obtained by a child reading The Water Babies, such as “do not be lazy because your life will not turn out the way you may have hoped” and “treat others the way you want to be treated” are two very good lessons within this story.  However, racism is incredibly prevalent within the novel.  The chimney sweep Tom is called a “dirty black boy” while he is still working for Grimes.  This is a time when Tom is still dumb and has not learned the lessons, which will make him a more productive citizen.

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Even today we still hear the instructions, “boys will be boys” and “act like a lady.”  These phrases give allowances to boys for things such as being dirty, making a mess, fighting with other boys, and being loud and crazy.  However, oftentimes if a young girl were to do any of the above-mentioned actions she would be told to “act like a lady.”  As much as people like to think that things are equal and we do not apply the pressures of gender roles upon children still, this is not the case.  We are still priming boys to be tough and for girls to be quiet, submissive housewives.  This is seen in The Water Babies in several instances.  Ellie is a clean, quiet, young lady who is given a task to proof herself by teaching Tom.  Whilst, Tom is given the task of traveling all the way to the other end of nowhere where he encounters quite a few dangerous obstacles.  The gender roles being reinforced within the story could cause the children reading this book to fit themselves into these gender roles instead of following their own personality.

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The social classes are highlighted through the caste system Kingsley creates within the animals that Tom encounters.  Some examples of a social hierarchy can be seen first with the salmon.  Within different kinds of fish that we see the salmon are the kings of the fish and that trout are a species of fish that a salmon could be killed for if they decided to intermingle.  Also, the otter mother has a higher position since she will only eat food she deems worthy of her.  This promotes the idea of social classes to young children ,which causes difficulties with allowing children to be seen as worthy.

Perhaps, The Water Babies has a few good morals that young children can benefit from getting but it could also be at the cost of equality and self expression. The story is outdated, with references to things that children nowadays would not understand and with too many injustices against peoples other that the standard “white, British male.”   Therefore, it may be a good thing that The Water Babies is a story that is becoming forgotten.

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