Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Don't Tell the Grown-Ups: The Subversive Power of Children's Literature by Alison Lurie


Since John Cech mentioned "Female Liberation" during his presentation (or was it the Q&A?) I decided it was a fine time for me to devote a quick post to the book it was reprinted in, Don't Tell the Grown-Ups: The Subversive Power of Children's Literature by Alison Lurie. Lurie has long been a fairy tale apologist and edited a few fairy tale related books. She also wrote several articles about fairy tales for the popular media.

Lurie's articles, especially "Fairy Tale Liberation," first printed in 1970 in The New York Review of Books inspired a response "Some Day My Prince Will Come": Female Acculturation Through the Fairy Tale by Marcia R. Lieberman in 1972 (this is an article and I linked to it on JSTOR which requires login to access) which was a key article in the feminist anti-fairy tales stance held by some during the height of the 1970s and beyond. I am oversimplifying here, but some feminist writers accused fairy tales of teaching girls the wrong messages about women's roles, behaviors, etc. These arguments still resonate and echo today. For example, recent books like Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the New Girlie-Girl Culture by Peggy Orenstein are a direct inheritor of this decades old discussion.

Needless to say, I am pretty firmly in Lurie's camp myself, but I also understand the other side and sympathize with it, too. After all, I was born the year Lieberman's article was published, so all of these views have informed my life and education. Feminism is not a bad word to me as it is to some.

But that is just one small part of Lurie's book which I highly recommend. It was one of the first books I added to my shelf the year I started SurLaLune and started revving up my personal fairy tale studies  and children's literature studies library.

Book description:

In sixteen spirited essays, Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Alison Lurie, who is also one of our wittiest and most astute cultural commentators, explores the world of children's literature--from Lewis Carroll to Dr. Seuss, Mark Twain to Beatrix Potter--and shows that the best-loved children's books tend to challenge rather than uphold respectable adult values.

And since it provides a little more insight into the book, Library Journal's review:

While not a comprehensive history of the unorthodox in children's books, the 16 essays collected here (some from the New York Review of Books and Children's Literature ) do offer witty and illuminating insights into the classics they explore. Chapters on folktales, Greenaway, Nesbit, Barrie, and Milne are especially rich. Lurie may win new readers for Shardik , T.H. White, and William Mayne. Essays on Mrs. Clifford's and F.M. Ford's little-known stories unconvincingly stretch the "subversive" to include these writers' very private, and even unbalanced, use of unconventional material, while Chapters 3 and 4, on adult books, have crept in on a subversive mission of their own. Although the theme announced in the subtitle is not so strong a unifying thread as one might wish, the book is worth having for its careful, reasonably feminist, and often fascinating readings of some enduring texts.
- Patricia Dooley, Univ. of Washington Lib. Sch., Seattle

Bio for Alison Lurie:

Alison Lurie edited The Oxford Book of Modern Fairy Tales. She was for many years a professor of English at Cornell University, where she taught writing, folklore, and children's literature. Her novels include The War Between the Tates; Foreign Affairs, for which she won a Pulitzer Prize; and, most recently, The Last Resort. She divides her time between Ithaca, New York; Key West, Florida; and London.

Table of Contents:

1.Subversive children's literature
2.Folktale liberation
3.Fairy tale fiction: Fitzgerald to Updike
4.Braking for elves: fashionable folklore for adults
5.Child who followed the piper: Kate Greenaway
6.Tales of terror: Mrs. Clifford
7.Ford Madox Ford's fairy tales
8.Animal liberation: Beatrix Potter
9.Modern magic: E. Nesbit
10.Boy who couldn't grow up: James Barrie
11.Happy endings: Frances Hodgson Burnett
12.Back to Pooh Corner: A.A. Milne
13.Heroes for our time: J.R.R. Tolkien and T.H. White
14.Power of Smokey: Richard Adams
15.Games of dark: William Mayne
16.Folklore of childhood

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