There are … examples of pedagogy in support of civic causes — children’s books from the Russian Revolution and the Chinese Cultural Revolution, books associated with Irish Independence that makes use of fairy tales, a beautifully illustrated Hebrew alphabet book to teach children the language of a not-yet-created Jewish state. There are samples from W.E.B. Dubois’s monthly magazine for African-American children, The Brownies’ Book, published from 1920 to 1921, to teach black children pride in their identity.
Yet it is noteworthy that some of our most beloved children’s books don’t teach anything and can’t be linked to an agenda of any kind. It is also interesting to see those that caused a stir in their day for failing to toe a line of one sort or another. A recessed space contains books that have been controversial or censored: Pippi Longstocking, for its character’s rebelliousness, The Diary of Anne Frank for its narrator’s sexual explicitness, A Wrinkle in Time for overstepping the bounds of secularism when first published and for being unconventionally spiritual more recently. There is a copy of Garth Williams’ 1948 A Rabbits’ Wedding, castigated in its time for representing the marriage of a white rabbit and a black one. What looks like iconoclasm or perversity in one era can become unobjectionable and even desirable to teach in another — and vice versa. My reflex is to think that children are the best arbiters, being naturally drawn to what is good and true, but I may be indulging in a Rousseau-ist idealism here. After all, children are also fascinated by the sadistic and the gross — all those disturbing Grimm’s fairy tales, not to mention Jon Scieszka’s Stinky Cheese Man.
(Image: book cover of Cendrillon, c. 1930, via Wikimedia Commons)