When Marxism Is Kids’ Stuff

Against the Current, No. 179, November/December 2015

Julia L. Mickenberg

Little Red Readings:
Historical Materialist Approaches to Children’s Literature
Edited by Angela Hubler
University Press of Mississippi, 276 pages, $60 hardcover.

REVIEWING EDITED COLLECTIONS always seems so daunting — and here is no exception: 13 chapters, plus an introduction, making it almost impossible to do justice to the essays. But in this case I felt like I couldn’t refuse to do it, not just because I knew I wanted to read the book but also because I felt a kind of professional responsibility to be able to say something about it.

Luckily the collection is very good, and consistently so: a testimony not just to the book’s contributors, but also to Angela Hubler’s efforts as an editor. Her excellent Introduction clarifies terminology and makes a strong case for the value of historical materialist approaches to children’s literature.

Hubler introduces concepts like alienation, reification, ideology and commodity fetishism, especially as these terms have been employed by Western Marxists such as David Harvey, Fredric Jameson, Raymond Williams and Louis Althusser, then surveys Marxist critics who have engaged children’s literature, among them Jack Zipes, Ariel Dorfman and Herb Kohl.

She emphasizes the importance of feminist historical approaches to children’s literature, citing scholars such as Lynne Vallone and J.S. Bratton. And she practices the analysis she preaches, not just pointing to the fact that many works for children have the effect of naturalizing poverty and the class system, but also citing statistics on the number of children living in poverty in the United States — a society in which the myth of classlessness still has tenacious staying power — and pointing to “neoliberal economic policies that have shredded the social safety net at the same time that real wages have eroded.” (xv)

All this is a useful entry point to the essays that follow. Mervyn Nicholson’s “Class/ic Aggression in Children’s Literature” focuses on what children’s literature scholars have long referred to as the Golden Age of Children’s Literature, roughly from the end of the Civil War to 1920. He reminds us that this same period was the era of rapid industrialization and incorporation.

Nicholson suggests that the rapid expansion of capitalism entered what Jameson would call the “political unconscious” of children’s literature from this period, not in a singular way, but as an inescapable part of life during this era. He draws on Elisabeth Young-Bruehl’s work Childism: Confronting Prejudice Against Children, which suggests that prejudice against children is based on the idea that they are property, not unlike pets or other animals (who frequently appear as surrogate humans in children’s literature).

Nicholson’s Marxist analysis feels a little ham-fisted as against Hubler’s more nuanced discussion (“capitalism is inherently hostile to children” [3] and “capital is to labor as adult is to child” [26]). However, getting past generalizations like these, which merit further explanation than Nicholson gives them, his essay is otherwise thoughtful and compelling, with especially good analysis of Alice in Wonderland, “a profoundly radical book.” (11)

He notes Alice’s “two educations” — one that comes from her social conditioning, and the other from her own observations, which keenly record the ways in which “the powerful live by consuming the less powerful.” The arbitrary injustice of the legal system is much like the croquet game in Wonderland, he observes: “you think you know the rules but actually the rules are always changing, changing, that is, according to the wishes of the rulers.” (11, 14)

Precious Medals and Labor Revisited

The majority of other essays in the book focus primarily on one or two texts. The exceptions are Carl F. Miller’s “Precious Medals: The Newbery Medal, the Young Readers Choice Award (YRCA), and the Gold Standard of Children’s Book Awards;” Cynthia McLeod’s “Solidarity of Times Past: Historicizing the Labor Movement in American Children’s Novels;” Jana Mikota’s “Girls Literature By German Writers in Exile (1933-1945);” and Ian Wojcik-Andrews’ “A Multicultural History of Children’s Films.”

Miller’s essay takes as its starting point Kenneth Kidd’s 2007 essay on the Newbery Medal, “Prizing in Children’s Literature,” which explores the uniquely important role of prizing in children’s literature, especially in the case of the prestigious Newbery Medal, an arbiter not just of quality but also of sales.

The Newbery inverts the argument made by Pierre Bourdieu in Distinction “by repeatedly demonstrating that the highest culture within children’s literature is the best business.” (67)

By turning attention to the YRCA, Miller finds evidence of what John Guillory identified as “a ‘popular’ aesthetic of the dominated.” (68) Works that “would be practically impossible to include in any canon of high-culture children’s literature” have received the YCRA, such as Danny Dunn and the Homework Machine (1961), an old favorite of mine, whose author Jay Williams (I knew from my own research) was active in the communist movement.

As Miller’s work implies, we need to go beyond the Newbery to assess “quality” in children’s literature.

Cynthia McLeod took a sample of 53 works published between 1976 and 2009 that depicted the contemporary or historical labor movement. Her findings are striking: First, the vast majority of these books focus on the past. Second, most of the books that portray labor struggles of the past show union members in positive terms, “standing up for workers’ rights against employers willing to exact retribution against union members in the form of their livelihood or even their lives.” (100)

Many of these books portray strong, feisty women and highlight immigrant cultures of the past. In contrast, “unions in the contemporary novels set in the late 20th and 21st centuries are more often portrayed as angry mobs, instigating violence and intimidating those who oppose them.” (98)

Moreover, in the novels with contemporary settings, union members are shown fighting to hold on to what they have but “none of the novels explain how union membership can itself result in higher wages and an improved standard of living.” (100).

That McLeod finds a striking “disconnect with the contemporary labor movement in the United States” (105) is not surprising given the tendency of children’s literature to avoid challenging existing class relations. But she does argue that there are powerful class critiques and pro-Labor messages to be found in historical fiction for children.

Girls’ Stories and Film Worlds

Jana Mikota’s essay discusses a range of girls’ stories by German writers in exile during the period of the Third Reich. She suggests that these writers had a significant influence on the direction of children’s literature published in Germany in later years, paving the way, as she puts it, for “a firm sociocritical and political girls’ literature.” (152)

Discussing novels by writers including Adrienne Thomas, Liza Tetzner and Kurt Held, Mikota contrasts the strong, principled, independent female characters, acting in solidarity with their neighbors, with depictions of girls in National Socialist children’s literature, in which girls were “likewise militant, but neither free nor independent; rather, they were subordinated and directed to their maternal role.” (159, 164)

Her discussion of Liza Tetzner’s Mirjam in Amerika (published in Switzerland, where she was in exile), particularly struck me, both because I knew of Tetzner’s Hans Sees the World, a radical fairy tale published in the United States in 1934 (Mikota doesn’t mention Tetzner’s Communist background), but also because in Mirjam in Amerika (never published in English), Mirjam is shocked by American racism and is criticized for becoming friendly with the African-American elevator boy in her building (she is white).

Naomi Wood’s essay, “Children’s Literature as Political Activism in Andhra Pradesh,” similarly focuses on efforts by a marginalized group to create a body of children’s literature that challenges dominant norms. The setting in this case is South-Central India, where activists have been writing “Different Tales” to “recognize children’s often complex status with regard to family, case, school, work, and history” (170-1) as against the bulk of Indian children’s literature that depicts and caters to the small minority of children in the upper class.

Ultimately Wood suggests that “Different Tales shows children willing to see what is not seen, say what is not said, and acknowledge the lives they actually live rather than the fantasies outsiders construct about them.” (187)

Ian Wojcik-Andrews’ “Multicultural History of Children’s Films,” not surprisingly, fails to do justice to such a capacious topic in a single essay (he promises to reveal “the relationship between multicultural children’s films, history, and critical theory from a Marxist perspective” [194]).

He does offer some provocative insights into both little-known and well-known films. For example, under the category of Asian-American films, he compares the obviously racist D.W. Griffith’s Broken Blossoms: Or, The Yellow Man and the Girl (1919) to a 2010 remake of The Karate Kid, finding the latter in essence as racist as the former.

He also highlights more positive images of Asia and Asians in Empire of the Sun (1987) and Grave of the Fireflies (1988). In the category of African-American films, he contrasts Disney’s The Princess and the Frog (2009) to Akeelah and the Bee (2006), which unlike Princess “historicizes Akeelah’s dreams of winning the Scripps National Spelling Bee by using the contemporary setting of South Los Angeles and the concept of public education.” (205)

Justice and Love

Jane Rosen’s essay on the British periodical The Young Socialist (from which Little Red Readings’ wonderful cover image is drawn), while focusing on a single periodical and its history, touches on numerous texts contained within the magazine. Founded in 1901 as “A Magazine of Love and Service,” in its first year its subtitle changed to “A Magazine of Justice and Love.”

Rosen’s essay offers a deeply-historicized account of an attempt on the part of several branches of the British socialist movement — the Independent Labor Party, the Social Democratic Federation, and the Clarion Fellowship — which were concurrently beginning a program of Socialist Sunday Schools, to provide suitable reading material for socialist children.

Rosen touches on key players and themes in the magazine’s development, and offers an especially interesting discussion of how fairy tales were incorporated into the magazine. She cites a story appearing in 1902 called “How Fairy Stories Are True” in which “Wisdom, Love, Kindness, Honesty, and Work appear as good fairies. Bad fairies include Ignorance, Selfishness, Cruelty, Falsehood, and Indolence.” The author of this story makes clear that “these vices are in us all.” (141)

Rosen also offers a fascinating discussion of how Young Socialist handled Britain’s Defence of the Realm Act (DORA), passed during World War I (similar to the Espionage Act passed in the United States in 1917) to forbid anything that might be seen to weaken morale or impede the war effort.

What’s striking is how the magazine managed to continue promoting a position that was basically pacifist: “Opposed to militarism and conscription and aware that the war was being fought for economic reasons, the editors supplied a periodical that reflected these concerns and supported its scholars who were involved in the war machine, either fighting or working in munitions.” (144)

Roland Boer’s essay, “Bloodthirsty Little Brats: Or the Child’s Desire for Biblical Violence,” seems somewhat hastily named, for instead of focusing only or even primarily on violence, it more broadly considers the appeal to children of Bible stories that celebrate the underdog.

Like fairy tales, Boer says, Bible stories are imported from a realm outside of childhood, and like fairy tales they contain utopian potential that Ernst Bloch, Jack Zipes, and others have identified: “Even watered down, moralized, and made palatable for children, they cannot be completely contained. They carry with them a revolutionary surplus that persists, especially in their portrayals of the downtrodden and unlikely hero with whom children, or indeed any oppressed group, can identify.” (224)

Anastasia Ulanowicz’s “Shopping Like It’s 1899: Gilded Age Nostalgia and Commodity Fetishism in Alloy’s Gossip Girl” examines the ways in which the popular novels and TV series suggest a nostalgia for the opulence experienced by a small minority during the Gilded Age. The television and book series also utilize a turn-of-the-century literary form (sensational fiction focused on cultivating female desire) and mode of literary production (reminiscent of publishing empires like the Stratemeyer Syndicate).

The imprint of the series’ creator Cecily von Ziegesar, who like the protagonists in the series went to an elite girls’ school and grew up on the Upper East Side, lends an air of authenticity to what was in fact produced by multiple, anonymous authors.

Most troubling for Ulanowicz is that “by presenting its characters as undisputed heirs to earlier quasi-aristocratic claims, the series effectively erases the memory of historical movements… that challenged the entitlement preserved by an upper-crust, white, Anglo-Protestant ruling class.” (51)

Flight or Fight for Change?

Sharon Smulders’ “‘We Are All One’: Money, Magic, and Mysticism in Mary Poppins” considers the relationship between author P.L. Travers’ “philosophical radicalism, grounded in anti-materialist belief” and Travers’ conservative politics. (76)

Considering factors such as Travers’ problematic discussions of racial and ethnic minorities as well as class, Smulders suggests the “essential paradox at the center of Mary Poppins” is that even as the novel exposes “the deficits of materialist logic” with its imaginative flights of fancy, the children’s many “encounters with the urban poor inspire no awareness of their own privilege, becoming instead occasions for imaginative flight or eating things . . . or buying things.” (87)

Similarly, Daniel D. Hade and Heidi M. Brush in “‘The Disorders of Its Own Identity’: Poverty as Aesthetic Symbol in Eve Bunting’s Picture Books” point to the fact that while Bunting’s works often feature impoverished children in difficult conditions, like much social reform literature of the early 20th century, rather than bringing attention to the structural reasons for these conditions, they aestheticize poverty and highlight the ways that people cope with difficult situations rather than the possibility of creating real change.

The final two essays in the collection deal with the radical potential of science fiction/dystopia and fantasy. Hubler’s own “Utopia and Anti-Utopia in Lois Lowry’s and Suzanne Collins’ Dystopian Fiction” points to the dramatically different ways in which dystopias function in Lois Lowry’s popular text for children, The Giver, as compared to Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy.

While “both promote individual resistance to totalitarianism,” Lowry in refusing to “‘make political statements’” wrote a book that “paradoxically suggests that the attempt to create a truly free society is futile.” (231) By contrast, Collins’ dystopia contains strong utopian elements: Unlike the extraordinary individuals who show moral resistance in The Giver, Collins “offers the hope to readers that a better society can be created through the collective efforts of ordinary people.” (241)

Justyna Deszcz-Tryhubczak’s “Ursula Le Guin’s Powers as Radical Fantasy” applies William J. Burlin’s discussion of “radical fantasy” to Le Guin’s work for young readers. She argues that Powers “dramatizes the conclusion that any feasible and worthwhile utopian project should involve both collective efforts to introduce transformations and continual thoughtful choices preventing the likelihood of dystopia.”

Acknowledging that not all fantasy has the potential for subversion, Deszcz-Tryhubczak concludes, “undoubtedly, Powers is an example of a text criticizing what Le Guin calls ‘the lazy, timorous habit of thinking that the way we live now is the only way people can live. It is that inertia that allows the institutions of injustice to continue unquestioned.’” (260)

Indeed, this entire collection encourages readers to think critically about how an attitude of maintaining or questioning and challenging the status quo is communicated through literature for children.

November-December 2015, ATC 179