Talk trending children’s books with a librarian and you’ll likely evoke a groan. Critics cringe at the vapidity of modern children’s literature: a genre that, excepting gems like the Harry Potter series, is overshadowed by millions of girls (and their mothers) swooning over suave vampire protagonists. But sex, and adult themes for that matter, infiltrated children and adolescents’ books centuries before Twilight. Venture to Kroch Library’s newly-opened exhibition, “Wardrobes and Rabbit Holes — A Dark History of Children’s Literature,” and you’ll find that parents have been reading their children bedtime stories thick with death, racism and violence since the days of Mother Goose.
Take James Janeway’s collection of stories, A Token for Children. The Puritan minister published his book in 1672 to prepare rosy-cheeked children to … well, die. Not quite Peter Rabbit, the children’s book proffers vignettes of youth dying in their beds and seeks to lecture (read: scare silly) mere babes into seeking salvation. If parents had doubts about the necessity of the good death, Janeway was quick to rebuff them. “They are not too little to die … [and] not too little to go to hell,” he wrote. The words caught on. In an era of rampant tetanus and plague, when one in every three English children died before his or her sixth birthday, Janeway’s book became a bestseller — claiming widespread popularity for the next two centuries. It certainly didn’t make for light reading.
The fables that emerged out of the last two centuries also sought to save children from eternal damnation. The exhibition’s curator wryly noted that authors did not hesitate to wield graphic imagery or violence in fables to issue lessons on good Christian behavior to children. A cursory look at this portion of the exhibition’s works was enough to convince me of that. The titular characters of Wilhelm Busch’s 1865 fable, Max und Moritz, are dumped into a sawmill, ground up and fed to ducks for misbehaving. (Busch, perhaps a simple grounding would have sufficed?) Heinrich Hoffman issues an equally jarring admonition in his book, Struwwelpeter, in which a son who continues sucking his thumb has both his thumbs cut off by a tailor. Again, a little extreme. I would have nixed my childhood thumb-sucking habit in a heartbeat had my parents put me to sleep with Hoffman.
The exhibit also put the spotlight on the racism, xenophobia and the glorification of imperialism that began to seep into children’s literature as globalization occurred. If Janeway sought to teach children how to obtain eternal salvation, some 19th century authors took up storytelling to impress “proper” views of the world on children. Thomas Nelson’s Picture Alphabet of Nations of the World taught young girls and boys that T is for Turks, and “The Turks are lazy and stupid.” Underlying the singsong alphabet of Nelson’s picture book is a disturbing message: Those who are similar to us are good, and those who don’t look or act like us are bad. That theme would be reprinted in stories like the Third Reich’s children’s book, The Father of the Jews is the Devil — a darker genre of literature that, through caricatures, prodded the growth of ethnocentric, nationalistic views in children.
Leaving the exhibition, I was struck, and perhaps disturbed by, the power that children’s literature has yielded over its audience through the ages. It is not surprising that authors insert their morals and values into their works, but it is disorienting to see authorial agendas scripted into the outwardly innocent primary colors and rhymes of children’s books. After all, children are impressionable. Their values are molded from everything around them — including the stories their parents tell them, and the battered-up picture books their sticky fingers pick up from the library. Just as you might have claimed, at some point, that your life was altered by a song, it is likely the younger you began shaping conceptions of death, sex and morality from books. At the last, you developed the groundwork for some of your beliefs before you could test their integrity beyond the playground.
I began to understand the uproar that books like To Kill a Mockingbird have evoked, spawning “Banned Books” lists and ferocious calls for removal from libraries and schools through the decades. While I certainly don’t believe in censorship, I acknowledge that many children’s books, despite their simple plotlines, squeeze their own definitions of good and bad into each “happily ever after” — messages that you may or may not agree with. A few minutes spent exploring Kroch’s exhibition were enough to convince me of this.
It is never too early to be educated. Don’t assume that children’s books, not bearing the outward didacticism of a Machiavellian treatise, lack agendas of their own.
Wardrobe and Rabbit Holes runs till March 22, 2013 at the Kroch Library, Level 2B, Rare and Manuscript Collections in Olin Library.