What Michael Denning's The Cultural Front has done for the study of popular culture, Julia Mickenberg's Learning from the Left will do for the study of children's literature. Each book's richly detailed cultural history restores a previously neglected radical past to its proper place in any serious study of the subject. In clear, lively prose augmented by over two dozen illustrations, Learning from the Left chronicles children's literature from the Lyrical Leftists of the 1910s and 1920s through the New Left activists of the 1960s and 1970s. It is a groundbreaking book.
These are its main claims. First, during the Cold War, "[t]here was no blacklist per se in children's publishing" (142); children's literature's "feminized position . . . within a literary hierarchy" allowed it to operate with little scrutiny (15). That is, perceiving children's books as a field dominated by women, Red hunters deemed it less important and so did not monitor it very closely. Second, although the field provided a safe haven for leftists shut out of other fields of cultural production, there "was not a Communist plot to reach the kiddies" (6). Most of these books were not revolutionary in a Marxist sense but instead hoped "to make children autonomous, critical thinkers who questioned authority and believed in social justice" (11). Third, examining the history of radicals' and ex-radicals' work in the field of children's publishing allows us to uncover unexplored connections between the Old Left and New Left. Though Mickenberg notes that drawing a "cause-and-effect link" between the two "would be impossible (and far too reductive)" (276) she persuasively demonstrates how books authored by the activists of the 1930s and 1940s may have influenced the activists of the 1960s and 1970s.
Such provocative claims require a substantial body of evidence. As the eighty pages of endnotes demonstrate, Mickenberg has done her homework—and then some. She consulted dozens of archives, obtained access to FBI files of ten of the authors under [End Page 80] discussion, and conducted personal interviews with over thirty people involved with left-leaning children's literature and culture, including Pete Seeger and the late Meridel Le Sueur. This extensive use of primary sources allows Learning from the Left to offer an insider's history of the politics of twentieth-century American children's books. We learn, for example, that in the 1930s Syd Hoff (as A. Redfield) was art editor for the New Pioneer, the Communist Party's children's magazine (67). Though all reference works omit Hoff's "Redfield" publications, he had many ties to the Old Left, as did Crockett Johnson and P. D. Eastman. We also witness pressures within the publishing industry that, in the late 1950s, forced Helen Kay to rewrite her adolescent novel of an interracial friendship, making it "a more conventional story of a white city kid visiting a country cousin" (280). In the 1960s, when the political climate had shifted, the publisher invited her to republish the novel and restore the black protagonist: frustrated by the original response, Kay refused.
What makes Learning from the Left's evidence persuasive is the book's tendency to qualify its claims and its willingness to include examples that complicate its thesis. For example, Mickenberg suggests that, despite Johnson's and Hoff's association with Communist publications, the imaginative emphasis in Harold and the Purple Crayon (1955) and Danny and the Dinosaur (1958) derives more from the Lyrical Left of the 1920s than from the Marxist proletarian children's literature of the 1930s (82). Or, from the 1940s through the 1960s, a good number of Marxists and ex-Marxists wrote science books for children, but their works were not necessarily politically radical. One the one hand, Mickenberg notes that leftist Millicent Selsam's Hidden Animals (1947) encourages children to "look beyond the obvious, to probe beneath the surface, to question, and to conceive of possible explanations" (195). The child may then apply this scientific...