Through the ages, children's books have been used to entertain, educate, socialize and indoctrinate. People often disagree (strongly and loudly), however, about whether a given book is educating or indoctrinating. Brooke spoke with Philip Nel, who co-edited a new anthology called Tales for Little Rebels, a review of radical children's literature from the 20th century.
Oddisee - "Chocolate City Dreaming"
October 1st marked the end of the American Library Association’s annual Banned Book Week. Lately it’s gotten some resistance from conservative critics who claim that the ALA is bullying parents who care about the kind of material their children might encounter in a library.
Through the ages children’s books have been used to entertain, educate, socialize and indoctrinate, as in A Guide for Childe and Youth, an alphabet book from 1667. The entry for A, “In Adam’s fall, we sinned all.”
In 1935. The Communist Press’ International issued another alphabet book in which “A is for armaments, war mongers’ pride; B is for Bolshie, the thorn in their side.”
Philip Nel co-edited a new anthology called Tales for Little Rebels, a review of radical children’s literature from the last century. I asked him if he had a favorite in the collection.
One that I really, really like is The Day They Parachuted Cats in Borneo. What happens is that in order to get rid of these malaria- spreading mosquitoes on Borneo, they kill them with DDT. Unfortunately, it also kills everyone who preys on the mosquito, from the rats to the cats who eat the rats. And when the cats died, right, the rat population boomed. And so –
- they literally parachuted cats on Borneo [LAUGHS] to take care of the rat problem. And it’s a true story.
It’s actually one of the first books like that, The Day They Parachuted Cats on Borneo, Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax, both published in 1971, the year of the first Earth Day, really right at the avant guard of environmentally conscious children’s books.
They made a movie out of The Lorax.
Now, listen all of you
I am the Lorax,
I speak for the trees
That was the Lorax.
He spook for the trees!
It’s one of Seuss’ most controversial books because it upset some people in the logging community. In fact, the North American Wood Floor Manufacturers Association — I think that’s the name - produced their own anti-Lorax book called Truax, in which you have a kindly white blogger named Truax –
- and an angry brown environmentalist named Guardbark.
And the two face off and – Truax explains how loggers actually take good care of the environment and cutting down lots of trees prevents forest fires and, and so on.
As you’ve noted, when the books become explicit or attached to political positions, like environmental protection, they can really freak out the cultural conservatives of their day.
There was a play called The Revolt of the Beavers that came out in 1936, which The New York Times review called “Mother Goose Marx.”
And The Saturday Evening Post said it would encourage poor children to attack rich children? I mean, was it that intense?
No. It’s about a bunch of beavers who are oppressed, and a couple of kids find their way into their country, with the assistance of one of the leader beavers who has been exiled, lead a revolution.
I don’t think you care about the other beavers at all. They’re sitting over there eating scraps of their own clothes while you stuff your face with all the bark you want!
So does anyone know if the kids got the message that their role in society ought to be as outside agitators?
[LAUGHS] We don’t. And, in fact, when a professor of psychology at New York University interviewed hundreds of child audience members, they told him that what they learned was never to be selfish and that beavers have manners just like children.
For a single book to suddenly turn a child into a Communist, that would be quite a feat.
[LAUGHS] Consider the Harry Potter books.
They create these worlds where there are certain principles at work. Do these fall in the category, do you think, of radical books?
I think of them as political books. The central villain is a bigot. Voldermot believes that only, quote, unquote, “pure blood” wizards and witches deserve full rights in society.
The good guys, Harry Potter, Dumbledore, Hermione, Ron, etc., don’t believe that. So, I mean, the central political message in Rowling’s books is really an anti- discrimination message. Is it radical?
I don’t know.
In some ways, the most radical moment in the books is when Hermione forms the Society for the Protection of Elfish Welfare, which incidentally is a failed enterprise –
- in part because she doesn’t understand the group whom she’s trying to help. Rowling is a political writer. She worked for Amnesty International when she was younger, and that definitely informs her view of things. But, radical?
So every few years we hear about some new book that may warp the mind of young readers.
I’m never in favor of banning books, but do you think we have something to be concerned about?
The impulse to regulate is not a bad impulse. The impulse to regulate led to reform movements, to ban child labor, to give children free education. That’s a good thing, to protect children, right?
The flip side is that a better way to deal with books that concern you is to read them with the children and talk to them about what they mean, because it’s your job to help children deal with the troubling aspects of the world in which they live.
And I think if you respond to that simply by saying let’s ban it, you’re really abdicating your own responsibility.
Phillip, thank you very much.
[LAUGHS] Oh, you’re very welcome. Thanks for having me.
Philip Nel co-edited a new anthology called Tales for Little Rebels, a review of children’s literature from the last century.
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