Late last year, a book entitled Tales for Little Rebels: A Collection of Radical Children’s Literature was published profiling roughly a century of leftist, radical, and sometimes revolutionary, children’s literature. Yes, I said children’s literature. The majority of the stories, poems, and comic strips appearing in this collection originate from long forgotten, and out of print material, but influential stuff nonetheless.
A recent review of this compendium in the New York Times, by the writer Caleb Crain, touched upon a related issue that was as troubling as it was provocative. Readily admitting to the idea that radical, if not Marxist, ideals emanating from children’s lit have been influencing young readers for a near century, and he goes on to say:
“After all, most parents want their children to be far left in their early years–to share toys, to eschew the torture of siblings, to leave a clean environment behind them, to refrain from causing the extinction of the dog, to rise above coveting and hoarding, and to view the blandishments of corporate America through a lens of harsh skepticism. But fewer parents wish for their children to carry all these virtues into adulthood. It is one thing to convince your child that no individual owns the sandbox and that it is better for all children that it is so. It is another to hope that when he grows up he will donate the family home to a workers’ collective.”
For me, the troubling aspect is not that left-wing propaganda has spiked the reading pool; it is the notion that these particular ideas of fairness, humanity, and egalitarianism have an apparent shelf life that regrettably does not extend into adulthood. That at some point in a child’s life, maybe once personal and financial independence is achieved, a certain tacit parental expectation kicks in and manifests itself in the form of subtle pressure to leave behind compassionate and/or artistic leanings for something a bit more viable and pragmatic. For many parents, regardless of their political leanings, the idea of carrying your child through successive years of a meandering liberal arts education or a life-affirming bohemian odyssey is not exactly appealing compared to a more tried and true path like law, medicine or business (actually, scratch that last one).
It is no secret that many, if not most, of children’s literature reinforces ideas and concepts having to do with fairness, personal responsibility, and the common good, and that most parents utilize these messages to shepherd their children through confusion and difficult life lessons. But do these lessons, so lovingly scripted and so eagerly read, cease to serve us (children and adult children) through the hard-nosed and practical realities of life?
Eric Steinman is a freelance writer based in Rhinebeck, N.Y. He regularly writes about food, music, art, architecture and culture and is a regular contributor to Bon Appétit among other publications.