Pedagogy 1.2 (2001) 405-409
[Access article in PDF]
From the Classroom
Teaching Children's Literature in a Postmodern World
Teaching children's literature in a university English department is an enterprise fraught with personal and professional risk. No matter how sophisticated your theoretical commitments, no matter how learned you are in and beyond your subject area, you suffer the bemused and patronizing smiles of peers who find the aesthetic virtues of Dr. Seuss less worthy of study than those of, say, Thomas Hardy or Emily Dickinson. Undergraduates, as well, are not generally predisposed to see the study of children's literature as a rigorous mental exercise. Children's literature courses have notoriously large enrollments because students perceive the content as simple, intellectually undemanding.
But in a children's literature course students can learn more about ideology and how the aesthetic practices of literary representation transform culture than in any other course they may take. The myths of their culture and, more important, the myths of their own past are what they analyze; they take apart the very stories that they used, that cultures use, to put themselves together. They see how ideas of capitalism and imperialism get wedded to moral narratives in turn-of-the-century boys' adventure fiction, creating an ideal imperial subject itching for travel and conquest in the service of God and country. Likewise they trace how piety and domesticity as values for girls are undercut by tomboy figures, like Laura Ingalls and Jo March, who have inspired countless feminists. As students and subjects of postmodernity, they learn to think both developmentally and paralogically, to figure out why texts like The Giving Tree and Love You Forever, which they find ideologically repugnant, nevertheless make them cry and why these texts might be important [End Page 405] stories for children for the same reasons that they are repulsive to adults. And my students have to use that kind of thinking to engage difficult problems: if texts like Curious George and The Story of Babar do have the racist and colonialist implications that they seem to have, should we continue to hold them up as cultural icons worth keeping? How do we engender genuine tolerance for diverse lifestyles when every fairy tale ends with a heterosexual marriage presented as a prerequisite for living happily ever after? Must Little Red Riding Hood be forever responsible for her own rape and murder, in the interest of passing on a tradition? How do we reconcile the preservation of a kind of cultural literacy with the continual reinscription of values that are offensive and harmful? All of the consciousness-raising in the world does precious little if the very stuff of our childhood fantasy remains mired in the recalcitrant ideologies of dominance and oppression.
But when I explain the intellectual insights that are available to my students precisely because of the "simplicity" of the texts we study, my colleagues often look at me as if I were telling fish stories--mildly interesting but not especially credible. So, I invite you into my classroom as we read three fish stories to demonstrate the methodological pluralism and literacy challenges one might explore through children's texts.
The first story is one I use to conduct an experiment in censorship. We discuss academic freedom and censorship, and my students are all convinced of their ability to tolerate all sorts of ideas and worldviews in the spirit of intellectual inquiry. Enter Arlene Sardine, by Christopher Raschka. Arlene is a brisling who wants to be a sardine. So, early in the book, she is caught in a net with about ten thousand of her friends and dies on the deck of the fishing boat. Using rather lovely poetic language, Raschka (1998: n.p.) describes the process of becoming a sardine: "Then she was smoked, delicately. She was delicately smoked. Delicately smoked was she," and so on, as Arlene is packed in oil and hermetically sealed in a can with the other sardines. The final scene depicts a smiling Arlene curled up on a plate, about to be...