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The Clash between Cultural Values: Adult versus Youth on the Battlefield of Poverty by Diana Chlebek In her book on children's fiction and American culture in the first half of the nineteenth century, Anne Scott MacLeod raises the provocative question of intentionality: Any view of reality in children's literature is refracted through adult attitudes toward children and society, with the result that juvenile stories are often as suggestive for what they leave out as for what they include. Death and poverty, for instance, were a commonplace in the children's literature of antebellum America-but no child character was seen to defy authority successfully, (10) Early children's books were especially energetic in enforcing a "Christian" view of poverty through allegories and parables that created an image of the poor as a class separate from the rest of society; this image was often reinforced by racial and ethnic prejudices that portray poverty as the peculiar burden of blacks, native Americans, or immigrants. Modem authors of juvenile realistic fiction address the issue of poverty ki the child's world from points of view that are opposed to the moralistic judgments in earlier children's literature. Until recently, Western society plied itself and its children with the sugared fantasies of Wait Disney, or cozy tales that focused on home and hearth. Not until the appearance of books such as Eleanor Estes' One Hundred Dresses was the issue of social discrimination arising from economic disparities squarely faced. From the first pages of the story, when Wanda's material and social status is described in school, Estes dearly shows that ajj children are victims of an Insidious social stratification that is implicitly modeled on adult prejudices and values that spring up like toadstools in the course of the story: "Boggkis Heights was no place to live. It was a good place to go and pick wHd flowers in the summer, but you always held your breath till you got safety past old man Svenson's yellow house. People in the town said old man Svenson was no good. He didn't work . . .' (9). Meddle, one of the poorest girls ki the class, and a persistent tormentor of Wanda, eventually questions the values of the pecking order in her group, and, implicitly, in society at large, The poignant narrative is filtered through Maddie's point of view in small flashbacks, When the girts pay a visit to Wanda's home and reconstruct the details of her impoverished but dignified He1 a social message is conveyed dearly and unobtrusively, The contrast between the characters of the two little girts, Peggy-brusque and self-centered, Maddie-guiit-rtdden and empathetic, presents a moral choice to the reader. There is a note of hope in the bitter-sweet ending, when contact with Wanda is partly re-established through her gift of pictures to the two girts, after she has left the community. The realization that a friend has been lost for good underscores the pressing need for tolerance, understanding, and generosity in contact with the underprivileged. Lois Lenski's observations of regional cultural differences prepare the way for an authentic social consciousness that goes far beyond abstractions and moralizing. Her message is truly démocratie as she states in the Foreword to Cotton in Mv Sack: I have heard many conflicting points of view in cotton economy, but my primary concern was human nature in action, controlled by an environment (xi) The description of the Hutleys as a typical example of sharecropper mentality and material circumstances is dramatized by the common destitution of the rural ghetto. The Saturday spending spree in town acquires symbolic meaning: AD the things they saw took on a shining glory because they were within their reach -rings, gold watches, bracelets, jewelry, anything. ... "I can have that, I can have that," she kept saying to herself. "I can have all these things if I want them." (17) 53 The environment and the system are blamed for the economic miseries that plague the sharecroppers, yet the message at the end places the burden of fiscal responsibility on the individual. To some extent, the economic misfortunes create a basis for individual growth and communal...


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pp. 53-56
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