Monday, December 10, 2018

Serious Nonsense in Children’s Literature

         According to Linda Salem in her essay on Edward Gorey’s personal library, “Nonsense evokes discomfort and tension in audiences. Ridiculous, paradoxical, and unpredictable, it is at the same time meaningful and meaningless. It disturbs and tricks readers’ expectations” (232). The genre, then, encourages a reconsideration of the familiar by causing the reader to feel uneasy about the subject of the literature at hand. Dr. Seuss’s cautionary tale, The Butter Battle Book (1984), teaches its readers about tolerance and respect. John Hursh quotes Thomas Fensch: “While [Seuss’s] book received significant criticism when first published, it also received considerable praise. Writer and illustrator Maurice Sendak remarked: “Surprisingly, wonderfully, the case for total disarmament has been brilliantly made by our acknowledged master of nonsense, Dr. Seuss. . . . Only a genius of the ridiculous could possibly deal with the cosmic and lethal madness of the nuclear arms race” (n.p.). By subverting reasoning, the text cautions its readers against immorality.

While Dr. Seuss may have received a balance of criticism for his tolerance and demilitarization message in The Butter Battle Book, Michael Ian Black was accused of being an immature American for his childish nonsense book, A Child’s First Book of Trump (2016), which was meant for adults. Black’s rhymes coupled with Marc Rosenthal’s illustrations are reminiscent of Dr. Seuss’s nonsensical, artistic style. The text, according to the July 5, 2016 New York Times article, was a “. . . perfectly timely parody picture book intended for adults that would be hysterical if it wasn’t so true.” In genuine nonsense form, the piece cautions its readers against sightings of the “Americus Trumpus” (n.p.):

So what shall you do with a Trump running wild?
The answer is all up to you, my dear child.
Run away screaming? Or maybe you fight?
Reason and logic will only incite it.

You can cover your ears or run up a tree,
But the best thing to do is . . . (n.p.)

Adults (the intended audience), however, found the piece immature and indicative of sore “losers.” Kayla Welch commented on the New York Times article on November 7, 2017:

This book is the perfect example of why our country – namely the left – is so immature. I’m a libertarian, I voted as such, and yet I cannot understand this immaturity from people who have the right to vote.

Your side lost, so did mine. Grow up and please do not instill such immaturity in your child. . .

Another commenter, Jason Powell, responded on November 6, 2017 by saying “Written by the haters for the losers. Don’t read this to your kid if you want the child to be an achiever.” The comments these adults make point to several issues, but the question of the child audience is probably easier to consider in such a short discussion. How does one determine the criteria for a child audience? What are the criteria for children’s literature as a genre? Certainly, this text could entertain a child as well as Little Red Riding Hood.

Children know the difference between right and wrong. They know the difference between moral and immoral. In a CNN video published to YouTube on March 4, 2016, some confident children respond to news clips of the “Americus Trumpus.” When Trump complains that a million-dollar loan from his father was not very much, one young person responds mockingly: “It hasn’t been easy for me, but I’m filthy rich.” Another young person responds to Trumps comment about Rosie O’Donnell by saying, “If he’s going to be rude to ladies, he shouldn’t be a president.” Is it not possible, then, that children can handle discussions about complex topics in the literature written for them?


Works Cited

Black, Michael Ian, and Marc Rosenthal. A Child's First Book of Trump. First ed., 2016.
"Children react to Donald Trump." CNN. 4 March 2016.
Clark, Dorothy., and Linda C. Salem. Frontiers in American Children's Literature. 1st unabridged. ed., Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2016.
Hursh, John. "Exploring Civil Society Through the Writings of Dr. Seuss: International Law, Armed Conflict, and the Construction of Otherness: A Critical Reading of Dr. Seuss's The Butter Battle Book and a Renewed Call for Global Citizenship." New York Law School Law Review, 58, 617 2013 / 2014. Accessed December 9, 2018.
Seuss. The Butter Battle Book. Random House, 1984.

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

The Lasting Effect of Diversity Talks in Education

           For educators to ask young Black person, someone who is not often represented in canonical literature, to divulge the title of the book that had the greatest impact on them as a child can be a sort of loaded question. As a Black person who grew up in South Georgia, it was especially challenging for me to recall reading texts such as The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, or To Kill a Mockingbird and remember the old let’s take turns reading this aloud as a class exercise. Imagine for a moment sitting in class with a white teacher surrounded by mostly white students and hearing “It was fifteen minutes before I could work myself up to go and humble myself to a n*****[1]; but I done it, and I warn’t ever sorry for it afterwards, neither. I didn’t do him no more mean tricks, and I wouldn’t done that one if I’d a knowed it would make him feel that way.”[2]  Imagine being on the receiving end of curious stares when a white classmate reads “Well, if they like it, Tom, all right; but I don’t want to be a king and have only just a given name, like a n*****.”[3] Imagine the confusion a child would feel hearing a classmate read the following passage aloud as if it’s normal conversation: “Suppose you and Scout talked colored-folks’ talk at home it’d be out of place, wouldn’t it? Now what if I talked white-folks’ talk at church, and with my neighbors? They’d think I was puttin’ on airs to beat Moses.”[4] My teacher in those classes did not take the time to highlight the objectification of the human beings in these texts. She in no way reached out to those of us who were obviously uncomfortable. She did not handle this potentially pivotal moment in a way that would invite the Othered beings in the class into the conversation. We, like the Othered characters in the texts, remained in the margins.
These novels, set in what most simply refer to as The South, normalize referring to Black people as “n******” and “colored folks.” Situating these novels within their historical context is important to discussions about the literary canon because doing so exposes the pitfalls of American culture. According to Randall Kennedy, “. . . regardless of Twain’s intentions, Huckleberry Finn (like any work of art) can be handled in a way that is not only stupid but downright destructive of the educational and emotional well-being of students”[5] Texts such as these reveal issues not only with race, but also with issues of gender, class, and nationalism to name a few. Often times, the discussions about what is wrong in these novels stop at how freely the authors use derogatory language, but there are much bigger issues that are often ignored in mainstream and academic discourse about the works. Let’s have a discussion about how the novels illustrate how white children learn about race and racism. Let’s have a discussion about how the novels depict children’s indoctrination into classism. Let’s have a discussion about how these novels are the Southern bildungsroman. So yes, they are painful to read but they definitely should not be burned or banned because that is like throwing the baby out with the bathwater. These problematic texts illustrate a part of American culture that many want to pretend did not happen. But it did happen. It happened to people who went on to have children of their own, and those children are now living with a different version of the same issues. What novels are they reading? Do they see themselves represented in their assigned reading? What will they learn about how America sees them when their classmates are asked to read aloud?
Fortunately, educators, scholars, publishers along with children’s and young adult authors are making great strides in building a catalogue of scholarly and fictional works that call out canonical works. Dr. Ebony Elizabeth Thomas, for example, discusses the complicated nature of “race talk dilemmas” in her article, “‘We Always Talk About Race’: Navigating Race Talk Dilemmas in the Teaching of Literature” (2015). Thomas notes that “Reading literature that wrestles with both the history of race in the United States and contemporary race relations encourages a critical view of social and cultural reproduction (Bourdieu & Passeron, 1990), with the ultimate intent of creating ethical and literate citizens (Alsup et al., 2006)”6. We all play a role in the development of discourse and the subsequent discussions about intersectional identities. Fortunately, there are a great many more diverse books ( being published from the perspective of various American identities and this gives us all an arsenal of texts to be taught in place of or preferably in conjunction with canonical and banned books. Most importantly, these texts provide an array of identities that reflect the lives young people in America today.

Check out the following links for additional resources:


[1] Kennedy, Randall L. (1999). Who Can Say "Nigger"?...And Other Considerations. Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, (26), 86-96.
[2] Twain, M., & McKay, D. (1948). The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (Illustrated junior library). New York: Grosset & Dunlap.
[3] Twain, M., & McKay, D. (1946). The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (Illustrated junior library). New York: Grosset & Dunlap.
[4] Lee, H. (1982). To Kill a Mockingbird (Warner books ed.). New York: Grand Central Pub.
[5] Kennedy, R. (2002). Nigger: The strange career of a troublesome word (1st ed., Black thought and culture). New York: Pantheon Books.