Last semester was a bit of a wild ride. After finally deciding on a double major in English and Computer Science, I proceeded to overload my schedule with five classes and two jobs (going up to five classes and three jobs for next semester, because I never learn). One of the English classes I took last semester was a course on Children’s Literature, and boy-oh-boy do I have a lot to say about that.
I was severely disappointed in the class for a number of reasons. Rather than giving a good overview of the development and growth of children’s literature as a genre, it quickly became apparent that the professor had succumbed to the same issue that plagues English departments nationwide: an insistence on discussing every work of literature in a liberal, feminist, or anti-capitalist context.
Now, I’m not saying anything against treating works of literature in such a context, when it is appropriate to do so. But when a class is named “Children’s Literature” and marketed as a historical study of children’s literature, I was a little disappointed that the criticism and analysis discussed in class was unfailingly written from a single point of view. One of the strengths of English classes and literary criticism is that it allows the consideration of multiple viewpoints on a work or a genre. So I was very disappointed by the professor’s one-sided presentation of the criticism surrounding children’s literature.
This wasn’t my only issue with the class, though. For me, a much larger issue lay in the professor’s mode of conducting a class; she would frequently present a single interpretation of a text, and then proceed to lecture us about it for the entire class, without allowing any opportunity for the students to express alternate interpretations. And let me tell you, there were times where alternate interpretations would have been beyond welcome.
The example that springs is our discussion of Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time— coincidentally, one of my favorite works of children’s literature, and possibly my favorite work of children’s literature by an American author. (I’m sorry, but when it comes to this particular genre, I’m convinced the Brits have us beat.)
A Wrinkle in Time is interesting because it subverts the idea of children as beings without “reason”, and thus without the ability to make their own decisions. The dystopian society of Camazotz demonstrates the dangers of assuming that certain beings are more or less capable of consent than others. On Camazotz, the society is ruled by a single consciousness, and thus there is only a single will on the planet that is capable of making decisions and giving consent. Consent implies the presence of a separate will, which makes nonconformity dangerous.
Nonconformity, however, is the defining feature of the three child protagonists of the novel. Each of the children is intelligent in a different way, suggesting that there are many different levels and spheres of knowledge in the world, each of which is valuable in its own way. These differences contribute to different understandings of their surroundings, and thus to different relationships with those surroundings. Meg Murry is perhaps the best example; she is protected from the all-encompassing willpower of IT by her “faults”, or rather, by her lack of conformity. This lack of conformity is precisely what allows her to retain her own will, and thus her ability to give or withhold consent. Although Meg struggles with her individuality throughout the novel, what she ultimately casts off is not her individuality itself, but rather her fear of her own individuality.
Those last two paragraphs are what I wished we’d said in class about A Wrinkle in Time. In reality, we spent the entire class listening to the professor expound upon her theory that the novel is a commentary on the synthetic food industry.
You can take a moment to read that again, if you’d like.
A Wrinkle in Time is about a lot of things. It’s about individualism, nonconformity, the search for truth and knowledge, the battle against ignorance, the American education system, different kinds of familial and romantic love… it’s even about faith and religion. With such a wealth of things to discuss, I’m in shock that a university professor would devote an entire lecture (one of only two lectures spent on this particular work) to a single interpretation of the text. The fact that the interpretation in question centered on the synthetic food industry did not impress me, to say the least.
Don’t get me wrong: A Wrinkle in Time is a difficult book. It was rejected by 26 different publishers, and continues to be one of the most banned books in the United States. L’Engle’s own theory is that the book was “too different” for its time, and “because it deals overtly with the problem of evil, and it was really difficult for children, and was it a children’s or an adults’ book, anyhow?”
Children’s literature can be hard to discuss as a genre because it has historically been an ill defined term. Just as the definition and popular conception of “the child” has evolved over time, so has children’s literature. During the days of the genre’s inception, writers were used to a single mode of writing for any audience. When that audience expanded to include children, writers such as Mark Twain and Robert Louis Stevenson did not aim to entertain only a younger readership. Instead, they sought to write texts that would entertain children in addition to adults. As time went on, however, children’s literature became a genre in its own right. In some ways, the public perception of that genre has done it a disservice; too often, there is a tendency for later works of children’s literature to struggle to match a certain level of understanding. This may be due to the publishing industry’s constraints on authors of children’s literature, or it may be due to an unfortunate modern idea that all children develop in a certain way.
Texts such as A Wrinkle in Time, however, dismiss that notion as flawed. The notion of children as a target audience is problematic, because children are as distinct from one another as adults are. C.S. Lewis once argued that novels for children should not be written in a way that is calculated to please or to educate children as a whole; rather, they should be written either to please a single specific child, or simply because a children’s novel is the form through which the author can best communicate what they have to say. In this way, the author avoids the pitfalls of trying to please every member of a target audience that is itself ill defined.
Ironically, A Wrinkle in Time has come under the most fire since its publication for its nonconformity, which is the very thing it seeks to uphold. L’Engle manages to touch on quantum physics, the reality of evil, and Christian faith without ever seeming to talk down to younger readers. She approaches her audience as an audience of equals; their age is irrelevant.
I would suggest that A Wrinkle in Time has been banned so often because of its inclusion of Christian ideas, if not for the fact that many of the groups that banned it were Christian groups. I have two theories as to why the text has so often been considered dangerous. One I have already discussed: its refusal to talk down to children. The other is its treatment of evil.
This was another failure on my professor’s part: we barely discussed the true antagonist of the novel, the “Black Thing”. The Black Thing is a darkness spreading throughout the universe. It represents evil, but it also represents ignorance. And it is constantly implied that it can never be defeated, but only fought.
The idea of evil that cannot be defeated is by no means peculiar to A Wrinkle in Time. But it’s certainly an idea that could be considered dangerous. After all, aren’t we supposed to teach kids that the monsters under their beds aren’t real, that you can always come out on top, that happy-ever-afters exist and that the world is perfectible?
I’m not saying we should be teaching kids not to believe in happy-ever-afters. But I read a fascinating article earlier today talking about the difference between British and American children’s literature. The central idea: American children’s literature is firmly grounded in reality, while British children’s literature has a rich background of fantasy and myth to draw on, which ultimately makes British children’s literature stronger.
I’m not going to paraphrase the whole article here (although I agree with every word of it and will link to it at the end of this post). But one of the main points was that the American emphasis on realism can actually be less effective than the fantasy of the Brits. Often, fantasy can be a better tool for teaching kids to cope with difficult or frightening ideas such as death and evil, because it couches those ideas in a safe way.
A Wrinkle in Time might not have been so controversial if it were published in Britain, because it seems to match their tradition of children’s literature somewhat better. It is by no means the first book to treat children as equals, or to present evil as unbeatable. Tolkien did the same, decades ago.
I remember reading A Wrinkle in Time when I was in elementary school. The Black Thing scared me, but it didn’t scar me. I’m not saying that every child would have the same reaction, but I have a fundamental problem with the idea of banning books because we don’t think readers can handle them. No one can make that judgment call except for the reader. (And of course, I have a fundamental problem with the idea of banning books at all, but that’s a whole separate can of worms.)
I’m not completely sure why American publishers would be so frightened of a science fiction book for children that dares to be honest with them. Perhaps it’s just the age-old problem of people being scared of ideas. But it does make me wonder if my professor wasted all that class time on the synthetic-food theory because she, too, was afraid.
For those interested, here’s the link I referred to in the post. It’s a really interesting read, for those who love children’s literature as much as I do.