Friday, November 12, 2010

Books Made My Baby A Bolshevik! On Radical Children's Literature

"A stands for Armaments, war-monger's pride

B is for Bolshie, the thorn in their side

C stands for capitalists, fighting for gold"

So begins "ABC for Martin" from Martin's Annual (1935), but one of the fourty-four fascinating children's texts (many out of print) exerpted and reprinted in Julia Mickenberg' and Philip Nel's 2008 book Tales for Little Rebels: A Collection of Radical Children's Literature.

Just on the next page is another imagining of the ABCs, this time Lucille Clifton's The Black BC's (1970):

"A is for Africa/land of the sun/the king of continents/the ancient one" 

According to Mickenberg and Nel, Clifton wrote the book as "an Afrocentric challenge to Eurocentric education" after hearing her children referring to Africa as "the dark continent."

I recently bought this gem of a book after bumping into a rather wonderful and radical woman in the bookstore: my children's ex-kindergarten teacher. She was looking at it, and I couldn't resist the recommendation of a woman who had so nurtured the imaginative and adventurous streaks in both my children's. And besides, I really couldn't resist the eenie weenie baby Bolshevik on the cover.

Reading this collection has gotten me thinking about the radicalizing potential of children's literature. After all, as a brown skinned girl growing up in the American midwest, my very first explicit conversation about racism with my parents happened after hearing Dr. Seuss' The Sneetches read aloud. (To this day, one of my father's favorite pet phrases is, "Oh, you snootie old smarties, now we can come to your frankfurter parties.")  Similarly, I was first encouraged to challenge the idea of two fixed genders when, as a child, my mother brought home from college a mimeographed (yes, there was life before fax machines and email, children) copy of Lois Gould's X: A Fabulous Child's Story  (about a baby named "X" who refuses to gender-identify and all the child's challenging and wonderful experiences - playing with gender neutral toys, using the teacher's bathroom since X can go into neither the boy's nor the girl's rooms, etc.).

In subtle and not-so-subtle ways, such children's literature can and has encouraged a frank examination of social mores, systems of power, and structures of oppression. Think about the authority challenging Max of Where the Wild Things Are, the environmentally conscious Lorax of Dr. Seuss, or even that the Little Engine that Could is (did you remember this?) female. 

In a time when many bemoan the frothiness of children's and YA literature, it is comforting to remember that children's literature also has a long history of radicalism.  For a recent rundown of the "9 most subversive children's books ever written" see here - although the Mickenberg and Nel collection gives those 9 a good run for their money. And for a fabulous digital collection of radical children's literature click around this Syracuse University site.

Whatever your feelings about mini-Bolsheviks railing against capitalist war-mongers, I think we can all agree that equality, freedom, justice are pretty fabulous values for literature to share with our children. Hopefully, they will carry these ideals from books into their hearts and minds, from their hearts and minds, into the future that they will create.

In Clifton's words, "Writing is a way of continuing hope." Or, as she writes in The Black BC's: "H is for Heroes/ who follow a dream/however impossible/ it may seem"

What are your favorite radical children's books?

1 comment:

  1. I haven't seen a copy in a very long time, but I remember vividly the red, slim hard back book called The Children's Story by James Clavell. A truly frightening story of how patriotism can be turned on its head and how minds can be manipulated...sometimes very easily. Spooky.