So this is what the last weekend of Spring Break feels like… Well at least time slowed down enough to get in a good reading. No, that doesn’t mean binge reading the rest of the Hunger Game Series or seeing what this Insurgent thing is all about. It was just enough time to take a trip back into some childhood classics that Jerry Griswold talks about in his latest edition of Audacious Kids: The Classic American Children’s Story (2014). If one holds any interest in discovering what children’s literature is all about, this text, can definitively overcome the desires to indulge in other silly Spring Break festivities.
Griswold’s book was a fantastic and insightful piece of literature that discovers the mapping of what children’s literature really holds, beyond what many were first able to see. It was revolutionary for its time and still continues to be through this newest edition. While Griswold’s work on American childhood classics, between the years 1865 to 1914, was enticed by a sort of psychoanalytic theory, as he suggests, it is merely a starting place for the child character from these text to discover more about the American society and culture. Children’s literature is a part of the American identity and even American history as a “pervasive notion of ‘America-as-Child’ shaped the way Americans saw themselves and their history” (27). It’s no wonder these children’s classics ensue those feelings of nostalgia unlike any other. Even Sunday-School books are considered children’s text and remain a collection of formulaic and didactic stories. The Golden Age of American children’s literature, however, really allows space for a “… literary boom [of children’s text to] reflect the era’s particular attention to The Child” (6). Here is the time where picture books rose and allowed more controversial topics to be covered in a more complicated way to engage parent readers and children in a new way (1-11).
Children’s stories are unique in the sense that they open a space for complete freedom to mask large social issues and discretely reach all parents who read to their little ones. In a space where the image of a mighty king may be ridiculed by a child character and the adult is left with a more independent minded approach to social constructions, but the adult is also left with the inquisitive young mind listening to the story that may ask some curious questions. At the heart of many American childhood classics, a message calls to its audience intrinsically cultivating positive thinking, a psychology often replaced by religion. For example, this can be seen through Pollyanna’s positive shenanigans all over town that ends up being a “contagious and redemptive effect in her community” (33).
Both introductions, the original and the 2014, are included in this intelligent work opening the doors of discovery and uncovering a thread found throughout these childhood classics. Some of the famous works include: Pollyanna, The Secret Garden, The Prince and the Pauper, The Wizard of Oz, Tarzan of the Apes, and not to be forgotten, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. Even though the list continues, what is most fascinating, are the similarities Griswold highlights as a “basic plot” that creates uniformity into the childhood classics of this era. This “basic plot” begins with a child who is separated from his or her parents at a young age, leaving the child orphaned. Once orphaned, the child begins a journey in which he or she must explore a different socio economic lifestyle. Then, the antagonist adult figure enters the story and begins treating the child badly or creating tension for the child, forcing the child character to work to overcome the antagonist, who is often a parental figure of the same sex. Once this pragmatic situation is resolved, the child character encounters a combination effect of his/her past life to the life they now harness, creating a new and present life as a meeting ground between both worlds, and ultimately leaves the antagonist ultimately apologizing to the child or dying (16-30). Griswold provides various examples to support this claim, making it seems uncanny to never have noticed it previously.
Griswold truly expands on what he defines as “The Three Lives of the Child-Hero” and analyzes the psychological appeal that this “basic plot” holds a deeper level of influence and awareness. Griswold adapted the Oedipal connection these stories contain, where variations of the “lost child” expose the process of growing up as psychologically complicated. The search for identity can now be defined as the adaptation of two lives when analyzing these children texts and their characters. Today the “lost child” in many YA novels is left dealing with the end of the world he/she knows, and the main character’s struggle, while still combating authority, is capturing the evidence that children’s text can create a unique and continuous “phenomenon of stories shared by the young and old [as] a hallmark of our own era” (11-15).
With clever chapter titles like: “There’s No Place But Home,” “Ur of the Ur-Stories,” and “Imposters, Succession, and Faux Histories,” this book is a perfect read for anyone harvesting curiosity into the realm of children’s literature. These chapters will introduce complex ideas into childhood favorite tales, so the next time you come across the latest kid movie, you won’t be able to resist searching for the moral indications of the children of our current era.
- “If historical and regional books emphasized verisimilitude and facts, another kind of fiction sent America’s young readers spinning in the opposite direction of fantasy,” and three of these texts which stand out are: Charlotte’s Web (1952), The Phantom Tollbooth (1961), A Wrinkle in Time (1962).
- “Oedipal emotions are a normal part of every child’s life. They involve not only an antagonistic relation with the same-sex parent but also a special affection for the opposite-sex parent. It is not surprising, consequently, that the child-heroes of American children’s books often find a special helper in an adult of the opposite sex…” (25).
- “What cannot be ignored is how much the land of Oz is a reflection of actual circumstances in the United States at the turn of the century… as in fairyland… Immigrants believed that streets were paved with gold, only to discover, perhaps, that they were really made with yellow bricks” (44).
- In Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, “the nocturnal floating of the raft [connects to the dreamlike and unconscious by] the powerful unconscious flow of the river, Huck’s essential passivity as wide-eyed floater and voyeur, an atavistic and irrational world of superstitions and freakish happenstance, a story full of disguises and lies and revelations and childhood memories… seems to have a description of the very essence of the dream state”(59).
- In Tarzan “Burroughs’s ‘doubtless’ and ‘unquestionably’… is nothing less than a return to the Ancestral, the Source… And that means loincloth nakedness! ... And that means apocalyptic truth! Frank admission that, at bottom, we are basically animals… beneath politics and good manners lie sex and the wish for dominance… And that means freedom! ... from office politics and civilized bureaucracies. Here is unchecked and untrammeled egotism…” (129).