The Story is Their Own: The Role of Subversion in Children’s Literature
LSC 530: Texts & Tools for Children & Teens
Professor Renee Hobbs
December 12, 2014
When I told my stepfather that I was writing a paper on subversion in children’s literature, he smiled. “Good topic. Reading subversive books made me the liberal socialist I am today.” Many of my readers may not find this statement a very reassuring endorsement of subversive literature. A few might even start inspecting their children’s bookshelves: Which of these are subversive and how do I stop them? After all, the term subversive has a long history of negative connotations. It comes directly from the Latin word subvertere or “to turn upside down, overturn, overthrow” (Online Etymology Dictionary, n.d.). The Merriam-
Webster Online Dictionary (n.d.) defines it as “a systematic attempt to overthrow or undermine a government or political system by persons working secretly from within.” It has been used in almost every Western society to refer to individuals, activities, or ideas that pose a threat to the established political, cultural, or economic hegemony. Title 18, Chapter 115 of the U.S. Code outlines legal penalties for citizens engaged in “Treason, Sedition, and Subversive Activities” (18 U.S.C. § 115). And as recently as 2007, the RAND Corporation published a report prescribing tactics for countering the subversive activities of insurgent groups in the Middle East: “Subversive activities are those actions ‘designed to undermine the military, economic, psychological, or political strength or morale of a region’” (Rosenau, 2007, p. 4).
Thus, our idea of subversion that is inherently reactionary. It automatically assumes that the dominant sociocultural, economic, and political institutions are good and should be maintained. Of course, history alone tells us that this is not always the case. Slavery, for instance, was once a widely practiced and socially acceptable means of labor, while the abolitionist movement was considered subversive and even criminal. Now, the efforts and individuals of abolition are celebrated by the very institutions that once condemned them. Time and time again, subversion has been the key to paradigmatic shifts in history, in science, in government, etc. It challenges societies to reflect on their most core assumptions and values. It makes us uncomfortable in necessary ways. Change presupposes subversion, so of course the incumbent institutions fear it. The goal of hegemony is to maintain the status quo. No regime wants its power questioned, challenged, or undermined, regardless of what is right or even desirable. It does not serve their interests to encourage subversion, so we are instructed not to encourage it either.
But if we discard the assumption that the dominant sociocultural, economic, and political institutions are inherently good; if we decided that the current status quo is unjust, immoral, oppressive; if we agree that change presupposes subversion – then isn’t it our duty to be subversive? Isn’t subversion the mark of a good citizen and a good person? Think of George Orwell’s famed dystopian novel, 1984. The future it portrays is so nightmarish precisely because it is a society without the possibility of subversion. This does not mean that violence or total destruction is inevitable – not all institutions need overthrowing. But rather, subtler challenges to the status quo should be encouraged and celebrated, especially when they start important conversations or make us aware of potential problems.
This is where art comes in and, more specific to our purposes, literature. There is a long history of subversion in literature, which I address in terms of children’s literature later. For now, I will say that though “the relationship between this mostly cultural or ideological subversion and the actual subversion of existing social relations is a hotly contested topic,” subversive literature nonetheless suggests alternatives to the mainstream; different values, lifestyles, and perspectives from the normative culture (Blackwell Reference Online, n.d.). Literary subversion is often contextual – what is subversive in one era or culture may not be subversive in another – and its meaning may be open to debate. But the fact remains that “the history of the novel is the history of the threat it seems to have posed to order and norms” and subversion – in both an “aesthetic…[and] broader form” – is an inextricable element of our literary experiences (Ross, 2010, p. 2).
This is especially true when it comes to children’s literature:
Because its primary medium is language, and in the course of learning to read children are acquiring much of the vocabulary and many of the concepts they use to think about themselves and the world around them, writing for the young has considerable potential to influence what its readers regard as normal, good, acceptable, important, unjust or to be feared. This makes children’s texts valuable sources for those interested in ideological shifts and cultural change (Reynolds, 2011, p. 34).
Though this may seem a somewhat insidious use of children’s literature, the truth is that children’s books are always written by adults with a purpose, whether that purpose is to entertain, moralize, educate, or subvert. We must overcome our reflexive distrust of subversion if we are to understand its importance in children’s literature. Some of the most successful and beloved children’s classics are subversive, inverting or even opposing established norms, expectations, and conventions, encouraging alternative approaches, conversations, and perspectives. And this is not a bad thing.
Nor is it a new thing. Subversive texts for children emerged in the 18th and 19th centuries in the form of political satires like Grimm’s Fairy Tales and Gulliver’s Travels. Though the latter was once described as “the most savage onslaught on humanity ever written,” both works have been read and enjoyed by children for decades. Today, they are considered children’s classics, a testimony to the oldest and most common form of subversion in children’s media – audience crossover. This can include books written for adults, but read by children – “satires, from ages past, hiding their fangs” (Lepore, 2008, para. 17) – as well as books marketed for children, but consumed by adults – the literary equivalents of Looney Tunes. Regardless of intended audience, both types are subversive because they defy categorization as “children’s literature” or “adult literature”; they operate on multiple levels and across multiple audiences. They challenge norms, both in the literary and cultural sense, borrowing tropes and conventions from across the age gap to produce works that not only question our characterization of adult versus children’s literature, but also criticize, mock, or otherwise subvert the dominant culture. Gulliver’s Travels, for example, is a scathing condemnation of mankind, with its flaws and inexorable degeneration – disguised as an adventure tale, with all the fantastical markings of a children’s story. And it is a pattern that appears again and again in children’s literature. Almost all of the texts that I will address are crossovers, a phenomenon that has received increasing attention in recent years as children’s books achieve universal popularity. According to Reynolds (2011), this has even led to “some debate about whether such books are suitable for adults, and if this kind of reading is a symptom of the dumbing down of culture” – a debate that is rendered meaningless when we place crossover fiction within its historical and socially subversive context (p. 1). This is not to say that all subversive children’s books are explicitly or implicitly written for adults; rather, that subversion in general is aimed at a wide population – after all, revolutions are only as strong as their support base – and subversive texts, by their very nature, resist definitive categories like “children’s” or “adult’s” literature.
However, though crossover fiction and subversive texts have a long history in children’s literature, it was not until the mid-19th century that publications for children soared, producing so many popular and illustrious works between 1860 and 1930 that the era would later be called the “Golden Age” of children’s literature (Ross, 1986, p. 326). And as books for children became more prevalent, so, too, did literary subversion. It is a shift that is often overlooked in cursory examinations of this period, in part because so many of these books seemed to subscribe, at least superficially, to the dominant conception of children at the time: as romanticized and idealized Others. They were associated with nature and innocence, “shown as largely free from want or care, underpinning the sense of nostalgia for childhood” (Reynolds, 2011, p. 19). Think Winnie the Pooh, Peter Pan, Alice in Wonderland, The Secret Garden, Little Women, etc. All appear linger over this idea of the Child and of Childhood as idyllic, pure, and far removed from the adult world – i.e., sexless, sinless, and harmless. “Children’s books published from the mid-nineteenth century until the first few decades of the twentieth are consumed with nostalgia” (Hemmings, 2007, p. 54). They are books that have been criticized for defining “’children primarily for the benefit of adults,’” a criticism that seems somewhat unfair, considering that all children’s books are written by adults and, therefore are always constructions – rather than realities – of childhood (Nodelman & Reinmar, as cited in Hemmings, 2007, p. 57). But the fact remains that few overviews of the Golden Age include subversion as a common theme.
However, more in-depth analyses of this literary period have yielded very different results. Carpenter (1985), for instance, asserted that the famous writers of the Golden Age were “engaged in an effort largely of subversion and destruction” (Ross, 1986, p. 326). Gubar (2009) goes a step further, arguing that the Golden Age authors were not merely subverting traditional norms, but reacting against the paradigms of their own time: “Golden Age children’s authors were far more skeptical about Romantic primitivism” than generally assumed; they “resist the Child of Nature paradigm,” which places the Child as an autonomous being removed from the influences and worries of the real world, instead “acknowledging the pervasive and potentially coercive power of adult influence while nevertheless entertaining the possibility that children can be enabled and inspired by their inevitable inheritance” (p. 5). According to Gubar (2009), the authors of the Golden Age refused to make children the Other; indeed “the very authors faulted by recent critics for portraying childhoods as ‘an impossibly sanitized and Edenic time and space’ were censured in their own time for failing to promote a Romantic ideal of primitive simplicity’” (p. 12).
Moreover, the children in these texts, as well as the worlds they inhabit, are rarely as pure, innocent, and romanticized as outwardly suggested. Consider, for example, Peter Pan, which Reynolds (2011) describes as the apotheosis of “the cultural romance with the idea of childhood” (p. 19). After all, what is a better mascot for the “cult of the child” than the Boy Who Never Grew Up? But this Boy is far from a paragon of innocence and purity – rather “flashes of wickedness, which reveal themselves through Peter’s behavior, slowly push Peter away from the pure child trope. His innocence is tainted by…sudden sinister moments” (Franklin, 2012, p. 11). Likewise, the utopian Neverland is marred by scenes of violence, ones in which both the child reader and the child characters are complicit:
The narrator’s prompt ‘let us now kill a pirate,’ implicates the reader into an act of casual violence that eschews the conditions of child innocence that the text advocates. Through this violence, the reader is separated from notions of innocence and purity and becomes a force that directly disrupts Neverland’s fantasy of eternal childhood. ( Franklin, 2012 p. 12).
My own experience of reading Peter Pan as an adolescent was fraught with Lord of the Flies analogies, as opposed to childhood Eden. Furthermore, even in Neverland, the child characters cannot completely divorce themselves from the influences of the world they left behind:
When the Darling children follow Peter Pan to Never Land, they immediately reconstruct and reenact the domestic routine they have just left behind, revealing in the process their thorough acceptance of the bourgeois mores and conventional gender roles embraced by their parents. (Franklin, 2012, p. 6).
The protagonists of this Golden Age literature, therefore, are “fully socialized subjects,” an Us rather than an Other (Gubar, 2009, p. 6). Not only are the children in Never Land “corrupted” in the sense that they are not always good or innocent; they are “corrupted” in the sense that they are products of time and space. Far from being pure, almost ethereal beings, they are humans whose thoughts and behaviors are shaped by both adults and the adult world. And it is a process that authors like Barrie were tremendously aware of, acknowledging both “the fact that young people are born into a world in which stories about who they are (and what they should become) are already in circulation” and “that their genre was a prime source of such prescriptive narratives” (Guber, 2009, p. 6). If this is true, then much of the literature of the Golden Age was not merely subversive, but meta-subversive; the writers didn’t just challenge societal assumptions, but fought against the dominating forces of their own profession. “Self-conscious about the fact that adult-produced stories shape children, they represented children as capable of reshaping stories, conceiving of them as artful collaborators…[rather than] passive parrots” (Guber, 2009, p. 6).
The books of these years did more than just question beliefs about children childhood, and children’s literature, however. They also subverted other sociocultural norms. Carpenter (1985) claims that the writers of the Golden Age “rejected conventional Christian faith and then looked for a substitute by writing about an elusive Arcadia, enchanted place, or secret garden” (Ross, 1986, p. 326). Others, like Francis Hodgson Burnett, called attention to the consequences of imperialism and classism in Great Britain. And Louisa May Alcott, in the guise of perhaps the most quintessential family story, defied gender role, offering a new construction of womanhood: “She gives her female characters ambition and courage to decide what they want and to work to get it. The mere recognition of the fact that women need lives beyond their domestic roles makes Alcott an amazingly revolutionary writer” (Lenahan, 2012, p. 81). And the way in which she does so makes Alcott an amazingly subversive writer as well. According to Lenahan (2012):
In Little Women, Alcott invites her young readers to explore the world of the March family, who possess wholesome values of love, education, and family. Children recognize these values from their own families and from their lives. Because the book supports values they already possess, they wish to share additional, new values (like a belief in equality…Alcott was able to spread this message because her readers loved her books. (p. 28).
In other words, Alcott did use the tropes and conventions of the dominant social paradigm – middle-class domesticity, virtue, love, etc. – but included her own alternative narrative. In doing so, she subtly subverted her readers’ conception of what was right and natural for women.
The Golden Age eventually ended, but subversion in children’s literature continued. Authors like E.B. White, Roald Dahl, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Theodore Geisel – better known by his pen name, Dr. Seuss – all wrote subversive books that were read and beloved by children. Some of these, like J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, were crossovers, while others, like Dr. Seuss’s many works, were clearly written for children, but the common element – subversion – remained. For instance, White’s first book, Stuart Little, was a satirical piece, reminiscent of Gulliver’s Travels, with its fantastical premise and its not-so-subtle social commentary. “One way to read ‘Stuart Little’ is as an indictment of both the childishness of children’s literature and the juvenilization of American culture…a culture that refused to look at the facts of life” (Lepore, 2008, para. 43). Dr. Seuss, meanwhile, produced a prodigious number of picture books, in which he allegorically espoused political and social views. Yertle the Turtle and Other Stories condemned the fascist and authoritarian movements of Western Europe; How the Grinch Stole Christmas and The Lorax contained powerful messages about consumerism and materialism; The Butter Battle Book dealt with the Cold War; and Horton Hears a Who criticized America’s occupation of Japan (Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities, 2004). While these views were not particularly subversive in and of themselves, their context – in rhymes and illustrations for children – was. One explanation was that Dr. Seuss was writing, in part, for the adults who may be reading his books to or alongside children – a “dual address” that is characteristic of crossover fiction (Reynolds, 2011). But considering the primary nature of many of Dr. Seuss’s works – The Cat in the Hat was famously composed from a list of only 300 words with the specific purpose of helping first graders learn to read on their own – it seems just as likely that Dr. Seuss’s intended audience was singular: the child reader (Menand, 2002). What then makes Dr. Seuss’s works so subversive is their acknowledgement of children as sophisticated learners, able to identify multiple meanings, if not the nuances of those meanings, in a text. In his own way, Dr. Seuss is also indicting the “childishness of children’s literature” – by demonstrating that it is unnecessary (Lepore, 2008, para. 43). Like the writers before them, both White and Dr. Seuss choose to recognize children as “fully socialized” subjects (Gubar, 2009, p. 6). For the Golden Age authors, this meant that children had an understanding of, and were shaped by, the expectations and social mores of the adult world. For White, this meant that “’Children can sail easily over the fence that separates reality from make-believe,’” without any literary handholding or textual distinction (as cited in Lepore, 2008, para. 35). And for Dr. Seuss, this meant that he could write simple (not simplistic) books for children without omitting his sociopolitical beliefs.
It was this shifting perspective of what children could and couldn’t handle – both intellectually and emotionally – that fueled a new kind of children’s book in the latter decades of the twentieth century. At this point, teen literature had emerged as a literary tour de force, starring adolescent protagonists, aimed at adolescent readers, and championing the kind of overt subversion that characterized the counterculture movement of the 50s, 60s, and 70s. Books like The Catcher in the Rye and The Outsiders featured teen violence, sex, and rebellion, and were openly cynical of traditional values and norms. But they were not the only subversive texts of the era. Alongside and in the wake of these louder, more obvious writings emerged quieter, though equally subversive, narratives. Books like Bridge to Terabithia, Are You There God, It’s Me, Margaret, Forever, Where the Red Fern Grows, and Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry all dealt with very adult topics – death, puberty, sex, suicide, violence, racism, poverty, etc. – as experienced by young (preteen and teen) protagonists. But unlike the angry, amoral, and often bleak texts of the teen counterculture, subversive because they didn’t seem to care who their audience was, these “coming of age” stories were very aware of their reader. For example, Are You There God, It’s Me, Margaret, “functions as a safe, honest form of communication to adolescents, letting them know that puberty is confusing and different for everyone, but that they are not alone” (Szymanski, 2007, p.3).These books have been popular among generations of young reader because they so persuasively address the trials and tribulations of growing up, of both being and becoming a “fully socialized” subject in a world that often refuses to recognize children as such. And they are subversive for exactly the same reason. Their insistence that children are human beings - who not only experience things like trauma and prejudice, but are also aware of those experiences - “transgresses understood boundaries” about what is and is not appropriate for children (Reynolds, 2011, p. 34). Moreover, such books often “transgress understood boundaries” about what and is not appropriate for discussion in general (Reynolds, 2011, p. 34). Judy Blume, for instance, is one of the most banned authors in the United States, not only because her books dealt so explicitly with “adult” issues like sex and suicide, but because they did so in a public forum, where such issues were not openly (or comfortably) addressed.
Today, writing about such topics – within or without the context of children’s literature – is not nearly as taboo. Nor does the dominant culture still envision children as the romanticized and removed Other. Subversion is parabola; eventually, the paradigm shifts and what was once subversive becomes mainstream. Much of what was once considered “subversive” in children’s literature – like women’s rights, anti-consumerism, or puberty – has become the norm. But subversion is still very much a part of contemporary children’s literature. Consider, for instance, perhaps the most famous children’s series of the 21st century: Harry Potter. Initially, it is difficult to perceive the subversive elements. The books draw heavily on established fantasy conventions – they were once dismissed by Harold Bloom as derivative – and eschew stylized prose in favor of populism (Britt, 2011). Moreover, despite numerous death scenes in the later books, Harry Potter is not a dark series by any means. Even in its grimmest iteration, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the series is mitigated by a happy ending. So what, then, makes Harry Potter subversive? The simple answer: rule-breaking. It is a theme that surfaces and resurfaces in analyses of Harry Potter, both on a narrative and a meta-narrative scale. In the narrative sense, the protagonists of Harry Potter are continual transgressors – throughout the series, they violate school rules, disregard social conventions and, in the case of Trelawney’s prophesy, defy fate itself. This alone is not subversive; contemporary society expects a certain measure of youthful rebellion, though the consequences in Harry Potter are far more fantastical than in real life. What is subversive, however, is the moral sanction these actions receive. In the series, rule breaking is not just a normal part of growing up; rather, as traditional sources of authority become more and more unreliable, rule-breaking becomes a necessary and moral obligation. For example, when Harry refuses to recant his story of Voldemort’s return, he’s not just being a defiant child. Rather, he is resisting the efforts of a corrupt and incompetent bureaucracy to protect its own interests at the expense of its citizens. Likewise, when he disobeys school rules, it typically serves a purpose larger than mere rebellion. “Harry’s adventures interrogate the legitimacy of various claims to authority,” and almost always conclude with Harry and his friends as the moral center (Kern, 2003, p. 95). According to Harry Potter, rule-breaking isn’t just natural; it can be good, even (and perhaps especially) when confronted with dominant social institutions, like the government, the education system, etc.
This subversive narrative, in which “time and time again, Harry and all the likeable characters of Hogwarts break the letter of the law to fulfill the spirit of law” informs the meta-narrative as well (Gladstone, 2012, p. 2). While Rowling does rely on familiar tropes in the fantasy and children’s genres, she also repeatedly (and deliberately) subverts them. For instance, the locket in the seventh Harry Potter book is distinctly reminiscent of the ring in the Lord of the Rings. It has evil powers (Harry, Ron, and Hermione all find wearing it physically and emotionally taxing), it is inextricably tied to the main villain (Voldemort), and they must destroy it. Now replace locket with ring, Harry/Ron/Hermione with Frodo, and Voldemort with Saruman. It is almost plagiaristic. Except that Rowling once again breaks the rules. Instead of having her hero bear the burden alone, as Frodo does and as is common in the monomyth archetype, Harry shares the onus with his friends. He refuses to follow the hero trope. “’We’ll take turns wearing it so nobody keeps it on too long’” (Rowling, 2007, p. 287). The result: Harry and his friends are able to destroy the locket much sooner and with far less suffering than Frodo. Time and time again, Rowling subverts her own archetypes and influences, sanctioning defiance in the meta-narrative just as she does in the story itself. Sometimes, this multilevel subversion even intersects, like in the case of Hogwarts:
While Rowling’s texts, like those of established boarding-school fiction, seek to acculturate Harry and his friends into the proper roles that education, discipline, nation building, and citizenship play within society, the Potter series is above all a magical story – and magic, by nature, is unconventional and ‘subversive.’ Thus again Hogwarts…materializes as a place of defiance in which the normative values of accepted boarding-school fiction may be questioned and, ultimately, overturned. (McClelland, 2013, p. 130).
In other words, Harry and his friends defy the “normative values” of Hogwarts – don’t go out of bounds, don't befriend the house elves, etc. – even as Hogwarts itself, as a place of magic, defies the “normative values” of the boarding school genre.
Thus, subversion continues to be an important element of children’s literature. From the crossover satires of the 18th and early 19th centuries to the Golden Age authors to the post- World War II commentaries to the adolescent literature of the late 20th century to the populist series of the 21st – subversion is a part of it all. Despite our fears and our assumptions, subversive texts for children have prevailed, complete with hidden (and not so hidden) fangs. And this is not a bad thing. Why? Because children are fully socialized beings, informed by and informing the world around them. No child is born apart from the realities, constructions, and institutions of our societies. The paradigms we operate within matter for children and therefore, so do the alternatives we offer them. Subversion is about more than overthrowing and undermining. It is more than a dangerous tactic. Subversion is about alternatives. And for those who write children’s literature, it is about offering alternatives to a population that 1) may not always have access to alternate perspectives and 2) will one day decide was is and is not alternative. In other words, the aim of subversive children’s literature can be two-fold. In part, these authors do, in fact, recognize children’s texts as “valuable sources for… ideological shifts and cultural change,” with the potential “to influence what its readers regard as normal, good, acceptable, important, unjust or to be feared” (Reynolds, 2011, p. 34). Louisa May Alcott, for instance, recognized that through her books, she could shape the next generation’s views toward women. Perhaps even more importantly, however, subversion in children’s literature shows children that a different narrative is possible. As Guber (2009) writes, “young people are born into a world in which stories about who they are (and what they should become) are already in circulation before they can speak for themselves” (p. 6). Subversive literature is not necessarily the solution to this problem, since all books written for children by adults “address and construct versions of childhood” (Reynolds, 2011, p. 30). But it does provide a dissident voice, the possibility of stories that deviate from the ones children are born into. Whether through sanctioned rule-breaking, frank discussions of difficult topics, acknowledgement of children’s subjectivity, or social critique, subversive literature reshapes the narrative. It shows us that we do not always need to accept what we are told about ourselves and the world around us. There are different ways of thinking and growing and being. We can be influenced by our parents. We can question “adult” assumptions about society, politics, etc. We can defy gender roles. We can talk about puberty and about sex and about loss. We can break rules and still do the right thing. Even if children do not ultimately accept these subversive ideologies, even if they do not try to reshape the narrative, the important thing is that they learn they can. They are not passive characters in a story they didn’t tell. They are the author. They control the narrative. And the story is their own.
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