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ISR Issue 56, November–December 2007


Children’s books and the Left


IN THE age of No Child Left Behind, childhood is a time to master standardized tests and prepare for a life of conformity. But for the Left, childhood has long been seen as a time when we can first begin to question the world around us. And as Julia Mickenberg argues in her recent study Learning from the Left: Children’s Literature, The Cold War, and Radical Politics in the United States, the Left has been an important influence on children’s books in the United States.

Mickenberg shows that despite Cold War hysteria, children’s literature was so trivialized that it often slid under the censors’ notice. Thus, leftists who were blacklisted from teaching and writing jobs were often able to become children’s book writers, illustrators, editors, and distributors. Many of these people consciously formed political networks with one another inside the industry. Although marred by a confused interpretation of the Communist Party’s 1930s Popular Front period, which had a major influence on many of the writers she studies, Mickenberg’s book is a fascinating history.

Most intriguingly, she argues that children’s books are an underexplored link between the Old and New Lefts, as many 1960s activists grew up influenced by books penned by radicals of the 1930s and 1940s.
This history helps to explain why, today, many progressive themes remain staples even of children’s books that aren’t explicitly political: non-conformity and the need to question arbitrary authority, the importance of standing up for one’s principles, and human equality. Because there are many more brilliant kids’ books than there is room here to mention, the ones below are chosen to highlight some larger themes about the field.

Books for very young kids

The most famous political book for preschool to early elementary-age kids may be Dr. Seuss’s Butter Battle Book, which parodies the Cold War with a conflict over which side of the bread to butter—ending with both sides poised at the brink of mutual destruction. A 1986 study found that very young kids didn’t identify the nuclear weapons analogy, but I suspect that the value of stories with social themes for this age comes later, as kids look back on the books they liked.

The Paper Bag Princess is another widespread favorite. Princess Elizabeth is kidnapped by a dragon—but does she really need snobby Prince Ronald to save her?

Si Se Puede! is the story of the 2000 Los Angeles janitor’s strike, told in English and Spanish. The message and the art are great, although the decision to tell the story without any antagonism makes it less compelling than it might have been.

In Click Clack Moo: Cows That Type, Farmer Brown’s cows type up their demands and go on strike. This book sets up its sequels with the same funny illustrations, including Duck for President, in which the farm animals start to wonder: Who appointed Farmer Brown, anyway?

For slightly older children, one of my favorites is The Streets Are Free. Kids in Caracas, Venezuela, organize to demand a playground and think they’ve won, until the mayor breaks his promise. But the resulting cynicism, captured in wry illustrations, is overcome when the kids and their families realize that together they can make their own playground.

And then there is the eponymous Ferdinand, the original conscientious objector—a bull who would not fight.
Of course, there are also books that are only political because the right wing makes them so, like And Tango Makes Three. The target of 2006’s biggest organized censorship campaign, it’s the true story of two male penguins who hatch an egg together.

Books for older children and young adults

The challenge for political children’s literature is to tell a story without didacticism or the trendy sensationalism of today’s “issue books.” The best books for young people take their readers seriously enough not to sugarcoat hard situations, but aren’t shocking for the sake of it. They’re driven by story and character, but politics inform the stories those characters live. A recurring theme in many of the best kids’ books is the question, how much can people really change their circumstances?

The central dilemma of Mildred Taylor’s Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, which tells the story of a Black family in the Great Depression rural South, is whether and how to resist in what seem like impossible circumstances. The Logan family must learn to survive, even when this means making compromises they don’t like. But, as Cassie Logan learns from her family and from her own drive for self-respect, they also need to know when it’s time to stand up and fight back.

Sherman Alexie’s semiautobiographical The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, told in a wry voice interspersed with comics, shares some striking similarities with Roll of Thunder. One of the most painful passages in each is when the protagonist stands up to more powerful white kids, risking their wrath—only to find the white kids genuinely puzzled at their anger. Alexie doesn’t shy from detailing the cruelty and destructiveness of life on the “rez,” but he’s always clear that poverty and racism are the problem. An unexpected benefit is the way the book challenges the way homophobia distorts friendships between straight male teenagers.

Another excellent book exploring the tension between individual and collective action is Katherine Paterson’s Lyddie. Lyddie, a Lowell mill worker, is changed for the worse by the competition for wages before it changes her for the better. Her eventual solidarity is hard-won.

Kids’ books and movements

One of the ways left-wing authors raised explicitly political themes during the Cold War was by writing historical fiction. In the 1950s and 1960s, this dovetailed with conscious efforts by writers to improve the portrayal of Blacks in children’s books, which ultimately had a huge impact on the genre. Today, there are a great many children’s books about Harriet Tubman. In the mid-1950s, there were two: Dorothy Sterling’s Freedom Train: The Story of Harriet Tubman and Ann Petry’s Harriet Tubman: Conductor on the Underground Railroad.

Freedom Train, appropriate for kids in the late elementary school age, is clearly written by a serious leftist. In an early passage, Harriet is stunned to learn from an older slave that there are white abolitionists. When she asks if they will end slavery, the older slave replies that they’ll help, but the slaves must free themselves. The book’s discussion of Tubman’s tactical inventiveness helps readers pose the question, “How would I do that?”

Petry’s more literary book is appropriate for middle- and high-schoolers. A strength is that it conveys a strong sense of earlier slave revolts’ influence on Tubman. Petry emphasizes Tubman’s personal and spiritual life much more than Sterling does. Sterling’s and Petry’s books also diverge over Tubman’s relationship to John Brown, with Petry presenting her as far more critical of the Harper’s Ferry uprising. Despite their differences, these two classics helped pave the way for a new subgenre of antiracist historical children’s literature.

As much as children’s books were influenced by the civil rights movement, they have been influenced by its demise as well. While antiracism remains a core value of children’s literature, some books about African Americans—including some very lauded ones—reflect some of the conservatism and moralism of mainstream Black politics today. We can see this tension in three books that have received Coretta Scott King awards, the most prestigious honor for books about African Americans.

At one end of the spectrum is the heavily promoted and popular The Skin I’m In. While it has a message of overcoming prejudice, the book’s main lesson seems to be that “good” kids need to be careful not to be led astray by the “bad” ones—and that if they stay on track, corporate success awaits them.

This kind of setup—a good kid in trouble for the company he keeps—plays out to much better effect in Walter Dean Myers’s Monster. Sixteen-year-old Steve is on trial for felony murder for allegedly serving as a lookout in a robbery. The brave choice Myers makes is that—while he never directly tells us what happened—you gradually get the sense that Steve isn’t technically innocent. Yet reading his story, you can’t believe he should be considered guilty. Since Monster accurately portrays the brutality of jail, it will be disturbing for some readers. I recommend it for teenagers.

The conservatism of some African American books is one reason to love Christopher Paul Curtis’s Bud, Not Buddy, which follows 10-year-old Bud in Great Depression-era Flint. It subtly and hilariously sends up Black conservatives in the character of Bud’s foster mother, who treats him cruelly when she decides he doesn’t want to be “uplifted.”

Of course, other struggles for liberation have had an enormous impact on children’s literature. A book that captures well the impact of the women’s movement is Paula Danziger’s Can You Sue Your Parents for Malpractice?, first published in 1979. The main plot is a love story that is well-told but not much different from today’s best teen romances. The difference comes in the family drama that unfolds in parallel, as fourteen-year-old Lauren’s older sister decides she doesn’t want the traditional life their mother has. To their father’s consternation, her mother decides that maybe she doesn’t want all of that life, either.

The gay rights movement was a necessary precursor to the flowering of books about gay teenagers today. A new one I like is Nancy Garden’s Hear Us Out! Lesbian and Gay Stories of Struggle, Progress, and Hope, 1950 to the Present. The book integrates a short essay on each decade with two short stories about gay teens growing up in that era.

Another book that seamlessly integrates political awakening into a personal story is Judy Blume’s Tiger Eyes. This 1981 young adult novel is the story of Davey’s grief over her father’s murder, but it is also the story of her growing anger at the hypocrisy of her soft-spoken aunt and uncle, who are obsessed with “safety” even as they work at the Los Alamos nuclear weapon facility. This is a well-drawn commentary on the 1980s turn to “law and order.” It was presumably influenced by the No Nukes movement that developed at the time.

The 1980s also saw the development of a right-wing movement, however, and with the New Right came a series of attacks on a wide range of books for young people—particularly those dealing honestly with girls’ sexuality. That explains Judy Blume’s position as the second-most censored children’s book author since 1990, especially for her books that include teenage sex, masturbation, and menstruation. Her constant battles with censorship led Blume to edit a volume of short stories for readers in the middle-school range, Places I Never Meant to Be: Original Stories by Censored Writers. It includes works from many of the authors discussed in this review.

Books for today

While libraries have been pressured to drop Blume’s books, one of my favorite recent books had to fight just to be published. Although it has won several awards, Elizabeth Laird and Sonia Nimr’s A Little Piece of Ground was unavailable in the U.S. until Haymarket Books published it in 2006. The book was targeted by Zionist campaigns before it even appeared, because it humanizes a population little-seen in American popular culture—Palestinians. Twelve-year-old Karim just wants a place to play soccer, but even this modest goal is impossible under Israeli military occupation.

Never settling for caricatures, the book reflects the class and cultural differences among Karim’s friends while believably recounting the experiences that propel them toward resistance. In spring 2008, Haymarket will also bring out the first U.S. edition of Laird’s Oranges in No-Man’s Land, set in Lebanon for younger kids.

A Little Piece of Ground is particularly relevant for children growing up during the “war on terror.” Another that makes you feel what it’s like to be occupied is Carol Matas’s Lisa’s War, set in Nazi-occupied Denmark. Although sadly out of print, I include it because it is rare among the many Holocaust children’s books in its attitude to violence. At the heart of most such books is a contradiction: They celebrate resistance, but almost all have a pacifist framework, particularly where their young heroes are concerned. Matas, on the other hand, explores armed struggle in a serious way. Involvement in the resistance is shown to be genuinely therapeutic for the protagonist Lisa’s best friend Suzanne after her parents are killed by the Nazis. And although Lisa is made queasy by the idea of killing, she does what must be done to help other Jews escape. Lisa’s War never takes violence lightly, but it leaves no question about what side to be on.

Although a political person today couldn’t read Lisa’s War’s depiction of the humiliations of occupation without thinking of Iraq, the book does present Americans simply as the hoped-for liberators. A good rebuttal is the story of Japanese internment, dramatizing what the U.S. “good war” really meant at home. The Bracelet is a picture book that introduces this history for early-elementary aged kids. For older kids, the most well-known book is probably the memoir Farewell to Manzanar. It’s politically mixed—defending the moderates against the militants in the internment camp struggles, but also capturing clearly how families’ lives were destroyed because of their race. After internment ends, author Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston recalls finding invisibility of a different kind in the male attention to her “exotic” appearance.

Today, of course, the “enemies” being demonized to serve U.S. war aims are Muslims and Arabs. This is the context for Randa Abdel-Fattah’s Does My Head Look Big in This? Sixteen-year-old Palestinian-Australian Amal decides to wear the hijab full-time, which adds dealing with racist preconceptions to her list of daily stressors (which also include such universal anxieties as her crush on a classmate). Abdel-Fattah writes with great humor, although I found the characters too one-note. More problematically, the book mocks all the “extreme” positions, including those of the Left. But it serves a crucial need as a rebuttal to every racist stereotype about Muslims.

As boys get older, they usually stop reading about girls. For progressive parents hoping to raise thoughtful boys, I recommend Speak. The narrator is a severely depressed high school senior. As the story goes on, chronicling the small absurdities of high school along the way, we piece together that the cause is a date rape that occurred several months prior. In an interview with author Laurie Halse Anderson included in the book’s “platinum edition,” she says that she has heard from dozens of young men who liked the book but were surprised that someone would have such a strong reaction to a rape. It’s a good reminder that in the absence of stronger social movements affecting what people grow up knowing, literature can play a role in telling stories that need to be heard.

For more information

Political children’s books abound, although they can be hard to identify. Two sources attempt much more comprehensive lists of books than I could include here. Hazel Rochman’s Against Borders: Promoting Books for a Multicultural World, available in many libraries, gives brief annotations, particularly of books about different ethnic experiences in America, some of which are political. And the Web site has a helpful, briefly annotated bibliography of political children’s books.

The author would like to acknowledge Aaron Hess, everyone who suggested books, and most of all, Emily Goldstein.

Where multiple editions are available, the one listed here is the cheapest edition in print

About children’s books

Julia Mickenberg
Learning from the Left: Children’s Literature, the Cold War, and Radical Politics in the United States
Oxford University Press, 2005
408 pages $20

Books for preschool and early elementary school

Diana Cohn (author), Francisco Delgado (illustrator)
Si, Se Puede! / Yes, We Can!: Janitor Strike in L.A.
Cinco Puntos Press, 2005
32 pages $8

Doreen Cronin (author),
Betsy Lewin (illustrator)
Click, Clack, Moo: Cows That Type
Simon & Schuster, 2003
32 pages $16

Doreen Cronin (author), Betsy Lewin (illustrator)
Duck for President
Simon & Schuster, 2004
40 pages $16

Kurusa (author),
Monica Doppert (illustrator)
The Streets Are Free
Annick Press, 2000
50 pages Out of print (cheap used editions available online)

Munro Leaf (author),
Robert Lawson (illustrator)
The Story of Ferdinand
Puffin, 2007
72 pages $10

Robert N. Munsch (author),
Michael Martchenko (illustrator)
The Paper Bag Princess
Annick Press, 1992
32 pages $6

Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell (authors), Henry Cole (illustrator)
And Tango Makes Three
Simon & Schuster, 2005
32 pages $16

Dr. Seuss
The Butter Battle Book
Random House, 1984
56 pages $15

Yoshiko Uchida
The Bracelet
Putnam, 1996
32 pages $7

Books for later elementary school to middle school

Christopher Paul Curtis
Bud, Not Buddy
Laurel Leaf, 2004
272 pages $6.50

Paula Danziger
Can You Sue Your Parents for Malpractice?
Putnam, 1998
160 pages $5

Sharon G. Flake
The Skin I’m In
Jump At the Sun, 2000
176 pages $6

Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston and James D. Houston
Farewell to Manzanar: A True Story of Japanese American Experience During and After the World War II Internment
Bantam, 1983
146 pages $7

Elizabeth Laird
A Little Piece of Ground
Haymarket Books, 2006
220 pages $10

Katherine Paterson
Puffin, 2005
192 pages $4

Dorothy Sterling
Freedom Train: The Story of Harriet Tubman
Scholastic, 1987
192 pages $6

Mildred D. Taylor
Roll of Thunder,
Hear My Cry
Puffin, 2004
288 pages $8

Books for middle school to high school

Randa Abdel-Fattah
Does My Head Look Big in This?
Orchard, 2007
368 pages $17

Sherman Alexie
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian
Little, Brown and Young, 2007
240 pages $17

Laurie Halse Anderson
Penguin, 2006
224 pages $10

Judy Blume, ed.
Places I Never Meant to Be: Original Stories by Censored Writers
Simon Pulse, 2001
208 pages $10

Judy Blume
Tiger Eyes
Laurel Leaf, 1982
224 pages $6.50

Nancy Garden
Hear Us Out! Lesbian and Gay Stories of Struggle, Progress, and Hope, 1950 to the Present
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007
230 pages $18

Carol Matas
Lisa’s War
Point, 1995
111 pages
Out of print (available cheaply online)

Walter Dean Myers
Amistad, 2001
288 pages $8

Ann Petry
Harriet Tubman: Conductor on the Underground Railroad
Amistad, 1996
256 pages $6

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