LIT 4334: The Golden Age of Children's Literature

The Gateway as a Trope

In much of Children’s fiction, the Child is transported to a fantastic land by means of a gateway of some kind.  C.S. Lewis’s “The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe” possesses one of the most literal and iconic of these gateways: the wardrobe.  narnia-wardrobe_1112147726

The rest of the series also possesses such portals or gateways:  a magic ring in “The Magician’s Nephew,” and a portrait in “The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.”   C.S. Lewis was not the first to use this mechanism, though.

In L. Frank Baum’s “The Wizard of Oz,” the twister transports Dorothy from Kansas to Munchkinland.

 

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Peter Pan and Wendy fly to the second star to the right.  Alice gets to Wonderland through means of the rabbit hole, and even in “The Water Babies,” Tom is transported when he falls in the river.

In modern times, the gateway has become a ubiquitous means of transporting the protagonist into a fantastic world, and has even departed the realm of Children’s Literature.  A machine turns a paraplegic into a nine foot tall blue man with a hair tail.  A girl travels through a tree in the middle of a labyrinth in Spain.  An entire team travels through an alien portal to various other worlds.  A man is transported by a church bell to 1920’s Paris.  Neo takes the red pill.

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Why has the portal to another world become so ubiquitous?  Perhaps it is because it is a simple way to show a distinct change between the real world and the fantastic one.  But perhaps it is because the  portal allows for the suspension of disbelief–once you go through the portal, anything can happen.

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The Water-Babies To Be Read By Children? Come On Now…

Let us be real. Charles Kingsley’s The Water-Babies may have centered on the entertaining of a child’s imagination, but within this literature there are numerous points to be made, prejudices, opinionated societal viewpoints, and many other subliminal messages (among very obvious messages) that the average child would not even begin to understand or even have the competence to know whereof to begin–yet alone the average adult.  Many of these messages are signaled to ethnic groups such as blacks or Irish, or “professionals” in the areas of education and medication. Such can be seen when Kingsley satirizes the doctors of his day in response to Professor Ptthmllnsprts’s sudden mental illness, “So all the doctors in the county were called in to make a report on his case; and of course every one of them flatly contradicted the other: else what use is there in being men of science? But at last the majority agreed on a report in the true medical language, one half bad Latin, the other half worse Greek, and the rest what might have been English, if they had only learnt to write it.” Here he shows the clumsiness of “men in science” and how they are always out to disprove one another in argument, using their ridiculous and complicated medical language, in which he further satirizes by presenting the reader with a sophisticated fabrication of long jumbled words to describe the professor’s illness–satirizing onwards by having My (His) Lady react in a shocking manner in response to the sophisticated medical vocabulary, then having Sir John “write to the TIMES to command the Chancellor of the Exchequer for the time being to put a tax on long words.” But it didn’t end there, for Kingsley went on to list all of the “stupid” and endless “remedies” that could have been used by doctors in hopes to cure the Professor’s illness; of course, none of the cures accomplishing the slightest of anything, which is of course one of Kingsley’s arguments. Eventually, the only successful cure became none other than writing–where the Professor begins writing about the moon being made of green cheese and birthing babies.

green cheese moon

Although I found many parts of Kingsley’s rant-like rambling (aforementioned above) quite entertaining and comical, it still yet seems to be no commonplace for Children’s Literature. Sure, the images of a nonsensical medical diagnosis with extensive vocabulary, an assortment of absurd remedies for treatment of the professor’s absurd condition, and a moon made of green cheese with millions of crawling babies all does seem quite normal for a children’s story and the entertaining of a child’s imagination; but, the path towards each image is, at times, unclear and too astray for a child to understand–yet alone an adult. The reader comes upon the scene of Tom (as a water-baby) being seen, clear as day, by the skeptical professor and the faithful Ellie, and thus a fairy manipulating the professor’s mind as to not reveal speculation of the water babies’ existence. With these images being quite clear to any reader, Kingsley persists with one of his “moments”, as I call them, where he elaborates on some social characteristic or, as in this case, a satirical allegory. Now, a child reading this will most certainly enjoy the images that are presented thereof; yet still may be so far off topic as to where the reader forgets how things even led up to, persay, a scientific explanation as to why babies could not exist on the moon, ” …It cannot be cold enough there about four o’clock in the morning to condense the babies’ mesenteric apophthegms into their left ventricles; and, therefore, they can never catch the hooping-cough; and if they do not have hooping-cough, they cannot be babies at all; and, therefore, there are no babies in the moon.”

…I rest my case.

Anyhow, another segment of the story that evermore convinces me that The Water-Babies isn’t designated towards an audience befitting children is another one of Kingsley’s “moments” of stray thoughts heading closer and closer into oncoming traffic (as I like to relate it). Here, Kingsley engages the reader upon the idea of the Water-babies. He neither tries to approve or disprove of them; though, he surely tries to legitimize the idea, but still reminds the reader of such superstitions that do arise in any and all fairy tales, “Don’t you know that this is a fairy tale, and all fun and pretence; and that you are not to believe one word of it, even if it is true?” But his argument is that, even though told as a fairy tale, water-babies may still thrive and dwell upon our world; nobody can readily discount the possibility of water-babies existing in all actuality. His reasons for so, I believe, are not all completely fit for being read by children, as they would be lucky to understand even half of his argument–which persists for an incredible ten paragraphs or so. First, he goes on about well-known professors and how, however much they know of nature, cannot disprove something that has not yet been seen or discovered (and he certainly emphasizes the word ‘cannot’, and how vile it is to make such a judgment): “And therefore it is, that there are dozens and hundreds of things in the world which we should certainly have said were contrary to nature, if we did not see them going on under our eyes all day long.”

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He continues to go on about how little seeds can grow to big trees, how an elephant at first discovery would go against previous  conceptions of “comparative anatomy”, how “flying dragons” were thought to only be myth and legend until skeletal remains of pterodactyls began appearing in dig sites, and how almost all that lives and dwells on land has a similar or almost exact comparison in water or in ocean. Then, he goes on about transformations found in nature such that as the butterfly, and how a human could, in all possibility, submit to the same transformations–such that as a land-baby’s metamorphosis into a water-baby.

All in all, I feel that Kingsley goes into too much depth when writing The Water-Babies. In contrast, the Brothers Grimm’s fairy tales would have only spent at most two lines on the legitimacy of such a creature, as to make quick sense to a child and thus commit more time and detail to the actual story and its plot. Nevertheless, I find The Water-Babies to be a fantastic story and a unique glimpse back into historical perceptions, values, and descriptions of the natural world. Although I wouldn’t recommend this story to be read by “land-babies”, I highly encourage young and old adults alike to read this story–so long as they’re willing to succumb to such scattered thoughts and impressive imaginings as Kingsley’s.

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For the Future Educators…

Our class discussion on Tuesday really sparked some provoking thoughts in my head as to my future as an educator. I keep finding myself coming back to the discussion of what is appropriate to teach a child? What is appropriate to let them read? What morals should we allow them to understand and practice? All of these things I am going to be applying to my practice of teaching within this next year. So that’s just it; did Charles Kingsley have the right idea about mixing science, religion and imagination in his novel The Water Babies?

When I think about my future classroom, I think about having a well-rounded environment that provokes creativity, challenges the mind and also helps the children shape their future. Thus, I believe it is appropriate to mix a variety of topics into teaching children. We might think that because they are younger and have less life experience that they should not be exposed to a mixture of elements at one time because they could become confused. But if that is the case, then we are just like the parents that Kingsley was making fun of. Why shouldn’t we introduce religion and science? The theory of evolution does not fit with the teachings of the Bible, but that does not mean that religion lacks science. And the same goes with the realm of magical beings. They might not exist but why would we try and take away the imagination of a child? My tone may be harsh, but really think about these questions. Even if you are not to be an educator, you might have children one day. Would you want to limit their thinking?

The Water Babies is a great narrative to teach children many lessons. Tom started off as the unfortunate chimney sweep who ended up as a mystical water baby with a life much better than the one he had before. To a child, that is magical and mysterious. Kingsley makes learning fun in his novel. I know that when I stand in front of a classroom of eight year olds, they are going to be much more interested in learning about sea life and science through a book like The Water Babies then reading from a dry text book. I believe that by thinking the way that Charles Kingsley did when writing this novel, those of us who are becoming teachers can try to incorporate some of his methods into our own.

So really I am trying to get our class to think further about the discussion that was presented on Tuesday. I feel that the questions we asked were things we do not think about on a regular basis, but maybe we should. Think of yourself as a future teacher and would you be afraid to combine things like science, religion and imagination into your classroom and the minds of your students?

 

 

I also found this clip on YouTube that is from the 1978 version of The Water Babies movie! Its cheesy, but still makes what we read in class come to life! Hope you enjoy!

 

 

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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: Tom’s Coming of Age

An interesting diagram that can be interpreted as the wavering nature of coming-of-age.

In our lives, we grow, develop, and mature both mentally and physically every day in a variety of ways. Because of this, readers of literature naturally gravitate towards works focusing upon character development and evolution. A particular sub-genre, the coming-of-age story, usually chronicles a young boy or girl as they face external and internal conflicts and how those develop and mature their personalities and world-views. In Kingsley’s The Water-Babies, our protagonist Tom morphs into a water-baby and learns more about his faults and how to correct them over the course of the story, and by the conclusion both literally and figuratively transforms into an adult.

When Tom begins his journey, his demeanor reflects a quintessentially immature young boy, reflected by his habits of agitating innocent animals, prioritizing himself over others, and disobeying the rules of his adult figures. In most coming-of-age stories, the protagonist gradually learns how to sympathize, understand, and rationalize. Although Tom’s maturity slowly grows, he tends to retreat back to his poor behaviors, even after experiencing pivotal moments in his life. Early in the story, Tom initially fails to find any other water babies. After saving a lobster from a fisherman’s trap, the water babies greet him and introduce him to their home and adult figures, who congratulate him upon his refined sense of empathy. However, later in the story Tom steals sweets from Mrs. Bedonebyasyoudid, (a loving, generous adult figure) a clear sign that he has yet to truly mature. This regression indicates the difference between Kingsley’s coming-of-age story and the multitude of stories written by other authors; Kingsley suggests Tom cannot mature through one event and must continue to compromise morality in order to truly reach a point of complete ethical sensibility.

Who could steal from this loving woman?!

Another interesting difference in Kingsley’s coming-of-age story is how Tom ultimately matures as an adult. In most coming-of-age stories, a conflict’s conclusion that naturally occurs within the story serves as the impetus for the protagonist’s realizations and subsequent maturation. For Tom, he is ordered to save Mr. Grimes in order to grow from a boy into a man. Although he saves Mr. Grimes and learns more about himself and his capability to empathize, the fact that it was a dictated rite-of-passage from one of his adult figures diminishes the impact of his growth and implies that Tom would have never developed unless placed under the guidance of an adult figure. He also literally becomes a full-grown man at the conclusion of the story, a not-so-subtle indication from Kingsley that Tom has indeed matured. Most coming-of-age stories usually have the child only figuratively mature, but Kingsley probably included the detail to make the premise more apparent to younger readers.

In the end he gets the girl!

Overall, Kingsley’s unique approach to the coming-of-age story through Tom showcases a respectable understanding of the sub-genre and serves as a fitting guideline for children and parents alike.

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