5 Subversive Children’s Books That Everyone Should Read
I guess it’s not terribly surprising that, via the Liberty News Network, the Tea Party condemned a book entitled “A Rule Is to Break: A Child’s Guide to Anarchy.” ”Horrendous” was the judgment, with an obligatory dig at President Obama whose “radical terrorist leftist” friend, education theorist Bill Ayers, had written a praiseworthy blurb. Quelle horreur that “A Rule Is to Break,” written by John Seven and Jana Christy and published by a small (Left Coast!) San Francisco press, is about how “Wild Child” learns about just being herself and how that translates into kid autonomy.” The book offers such revolutionary advice as “Paint pictures on your TV! Forget about grocery stores and get dirty in your garden!” and “don’t look like everybody else! Be you!”
“Wild Child” wears a red suit with pointy ears and a tail that, depending on your imagination/political persuasion, resembles that of a fox or a devil — and also the wolf suit worn by famously wild Max of Maurice Sendak’s “Where the Wild Things Are.” Apparently unbeknownst to the Tea Partyites is that, as children’s literature goes, rule-breaking and, indeed, subversiveness are the standard rather than the exception.
In Education Week, Anita B. Voelker makes the case against offering children only sanitized, “safe” literature in critiquing an “updated” version of Clement Moore’s classic 1823 Christmas poem “A Visit From St. Nicholas.” A recent “cleaned-up” version by Canadian independent publisher Pamela McColl removed two lines, “The stump of a pipe he held tight in his teeth, / And the smoke it encircled his head like a wreath.” While pipes and smoking are, of course, bad for one’s health, those details being in the poem reflect the time period it was written in, when we knew far less about the dangerous effects of smoking than we do now. Writes Voelker:
I would hope that the children would not consider their ancestors to be evil or dim-witted because of a cigarette or pipe. But, rather, I hope children will be apprenticed in how to situate an image or text within the historical and cultural context of the times.
“Children do not need us to artificially sanitize the world,” Voelker says. Indeed, we do them (and ourselves) a disservice by filtering out anything scary, dangerous, ugly or contradictory to our beliefs.
In this spirit, here five books meant for children that question authority, offer a different view of those considered undesirable and are otherwise subversive. (I haven’t included books by Judy Blume as we all know how subversive she is!)
If you’re an adult and read from this list, be forewarned: a book can change your life.
1. Pippi Longstocking.
Swedish writer Astrid Lundgren’s Pippi with her bright orange braids can not only be said to embody the spirit of anarchy — she is living by herself when Tommy and Annika, the well-behaved kids next door, meet her — but she also smokes a pipe. Her adventures with her two friends — during which she displays her superhuman strength — always emphasize that, beneath the mayhem, Pippi is a loving and loyal friend and daughter to her seafarer father. An adventure to the South Seas (in a book published in 1948) will most likely seem very dated with its portrayal of the “natives” of a tropical island. Like Santa’s pipe, it offers a very good opportunity to show children that the world, and people’s attitudes about those different from them, have changed and evolved.
2. Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH
This 1971 Newberry Award-winner by Robert C. O’Brien imagines the horrors, and the powerful effects, of animal research at the National Institute of Mental Health from the perspective of the animals and, in particular, of rats. In a case of the captors giving the captives the tools for freedom, lab rats become super-intelligent as a result of injections from NIMH scientists and escape through the air ducts of the NIMH buildings. The rats establish a colony under a farmer’s rosebush and live a cultured life, with books and music. Seeking their help when one of her children is sick, the widowed mouse Mrs. Frisby ends up saving the rats when she learns the farmer plans to exterminate them.
3. In the Night Kitchen
With its illustrations of an unclothed Max, Maurice Sendak’s 1970 story of a little boy’s night-time adventures is routinely banned or at least censored with librarians and a fat black marker. Alarming also is the suggestion of cannibalism when Max is (shades of Hansel and Gretel?) baked into a cake, only to fly off in a bread airplane. But perhaps most alarming of all is that Max is not, in the way of good little boys and girls, doing as he ought and going to sleep in his bed but dreaming of adventures — perish the thought, right?
4. The Golden Compass
Don’t tell! I prefer this 1995 novel, and two more in the trilogy “His Dark Materials,” to J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books. Lyra Belacqua, accompanied by her daemon — her inner self embodied animal form, Pantalaimon — and (after the second book, “The Subtle Knife”) Wil Parry travel between worlds in what (by the third book, “The Amber Spyglass”) is an epic journey against the oppressive Authority.
The author Philip Pullman (who has not been shy to describe his atheism) draws in questions of good and evil, death and love; number witches and armored polar bears among his characters; and includes a world where evolution has created animals of an entirely different sort. “His Dark Materials” have come under fire for Lyra’s awareness of her sexuality in the third book (culminating in a scene with Wil in which she, like Eve, yields to “sin and temptation”) and the series’ negative portrayal of organized religion and, in particular, Christianity.
5. Greek mythology
I’m not thinking of any one book about Greek mythology in particular but of specific ancient Greek texts with the myths. In their original form, these classics are full of violence (often of one family member to another — Oedipus kills his father) and sex (again, of one family member with another — Oedipus again, and numerous others including Zeus and Hera who are siblings and husband and wife).
All of this is presented (in the originals, that is), without moralizing or often without a message that “doing evil means evil will be done to you.” Far from the jolly, Santa Claus-like figure in Disney’s “Hercules” cartoon, Zeus (in the 8th-century poet Hesiod’s Theogony) castrates his father Chronos, who had swallowed Zeus’ mother, Metis, and all of his siblings (including Hera). Greek myths are also steeped in powerful female figures including the goddess of wisdom, Athena, and Hercules (and, for that matter, Zeus) fall in love with as many young men as women.
What’s a book you read when younger that showed you a different world?
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