Excerpts from Alison Lurie’s
DON’T TELL THE GROWN-UPS
: Why Kids Love the
Books they Do.
(Boston: Little Brown, 1990).
Available in an Avon paperback.
Subversive Children's Literature
Imagine an ideal suburban or small-town elementary school yard at recess. Sunshine,
trees, swings; children playing tag or jumping rope - a scene of simplicity and
innocence. Come nearer; what are those nice little girls chanting as they turn the rope?
"Fudge, fudge, tell the judge,
Mama has a baby.
It's a boy, full of joy,
Papa's going crazy.
Wrap it up in toilet paper,
Send it down the elevator."
Soon the school bell will sound and the children will file into assembly. Gazing up at the
American flag on the stage, they will Iift their young voices in patriotic song:
"My country's tired of me,
I'm going to Germany,
To see the king.
His name is Donald Duck,
He drives a garbage truck,
He taught me how to - - - -Let freedom ring."
(Lurie - 1)
Adults who have forgotten what childhood is really like may be shocked by these
verses; but anyone who has recently read
Alice's Adventures in
, or any of a number of other classics should not be surprised. Most of the
great works of juvenile literature are subversive in one way or another: they express
ideas and emotions not generally approved of or even recognized at the time; they
make fun of honored figures and piously held beliefs; and they view social pretenses
with clear-eyed directness, remarking - as in Andersen's famous tale - that the emperor
has no clothes.
Mark Twain's Tom Sawyer, for instance, is not the kind of story
contemporary authorities recommended for children. It was in fact written in irritable
reaction against what Twain described as "goody-goody boys' books" - the improving
tales that were distributed in tremendous numbers by religious and educational
institutions in nineteenth-century America. The standard plot of such works was that
known to folklorists as "Kind and Unkind." It is perhaps most familiar to us from
Hogarth's series of prints depicting the lives of the Good and Bad Apprentices, the
former of whom practices every virtue and rises to riches and honor, while his lazy,
thieving companion dies penniless.
In Tom Sawyer Twain deliberately turned this plot on its head. Tom lies, steals,
swears, smokes tobacco, plays hooky, and wins a Sunday school prize by fraud. He
sneaks out of his house at night and runs away for days, driving his aunt Polly almost to
despair. He ends up with a small fortune in gold, the admiration of the whole town, and
the love of Becky Thatcher - while his goody-goody brother Sid is last seen being
literally kicked and cuffed out the door.