'Tales for Little Rebels': The Design of Radical Children's Literature

I have a soft spot for beautiful and thoughtful children's books, especially children's literature with timeless philosophy for grown-ups. Tales for Little Rebels: A Collection of Radical Children's Literature explores how the political beliefs of famous mid-century American authors shaped their cherished stories, teaching children to question rather than obey authority, to stand up and out rather than conform, to develop critical thinking skills rather than seek redemption through prayer.

Featuring 43 mostly out-of-print stories, comic strips, poems, primers, and other illustrated literary ephemera for pre-teen readers, the collection spans work by such icons as Dr. Seuss, Syd Hoff, Norma Klein, Langston Hughes, and Carl Sandburg, as well as lesser-know authors, many of whom were blacklisted at the time. The stories cover everything from civil rights to gender politics to environmental responsibility to dignity of labor, and each piece is prefaced by an introduction and a biographical sketch of the author.

Editor Julia Mickenberg offers an instantly sensible explanation for the project's proposition:

People interested in changing the world have to be looking towards the future and are therefore interested in children.

Jack Zipes writes in the book's introduction:

The very idea of 'radical children's literature' may be surprising, because we do not commonly think about the connections between children's literature and politics. But children's literature has always been ideological. Consider an ABC from the 1680s: 'A. In Adam's Fall / We Sinned all.' And, next to a picture of a Bible, 'B. Thy Life to Mend / This Book Attend.' The New England Primer teaches more than just literacy.

Zipes points out the perplexing paradox in how we tend to think about what the appropriate and inappropriate subjects of children's literature are.

From the Puritans to the present day, the didactic tendency of books for young children suggests that adults have no problem prescribing a moral framework for the young. Yet there is the tendency to fear that 'political propaganda' will taint a young child's 'innocence.' [...] Teaching children to obey a moral authority can be understood as a moral lesson, but it can also be understood as a political lesson.

Tales for Little Rebels made me think of the subtle ideological messages in some of my favorite recent children's books -- in Blexbolex's People, a meditation on human duality challenging commonly held stereotypes; in Shaun Tan's The Lost Thing, a reflection on our search for belonging in an ever-confusing world; in Fani Marceau's Panorama, a passionate case for biodiversity conservation; in Christoph Niemann's That's How!, a playful prompt to question the accepted explanations we're given about how the world works.

Images: Meta Filter, NYU Press.

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This post also appears on Brain Pickings.

Presented by

Maria Popova is the editor of Brain Pickings. She writes for Wired UK and GOOD, and is an MIT Futures of Entertainment Fellow.

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