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Suffer the Little Children

Uses of the Past in Jewish and African American Children's Literature

Jodi Eichler-Levine

Publication Year: 2013

"Illuminates the importance of fear and suffering in shaping African American and Jewish children’s literature. . . . Gives a cogent understanding of how each community's difficult historical narratives coupled with their religious and social lives have helped to prepare children to engage an American civic life that has been hostile at times to their ethnic groups."
—Anthea Butler, University of Pennsylvania
This compelling work examines classic and contemporary Jewish and African American children’s literature. Through close readings of selected titles published since 1945, Jodi Eichler-Levine analyzes what is at stake in portraying religious history for young people, particularly when the histories in question are traumatic ones. In the wake of the Holocaust and lynchings, of the Middle Passage and flight from Eastern Europe's pogroms, children’s literature provides diverse and complicated responses to the challenge of representing difficult collective pasts.
In reading the work of various prominent authors, including Maurice Sendak, Julius Lester, Jane Yolen, Sydney Taylor, and Virginia Hamilton, Eichler-Levine changes our understanding of North American religions. If children are the idealized recipients of the past, what does it mean to tell tales of suffering to children? Suffer the Little Children asks readers to alter their worldviews about children’s literature as an “innocent” enterprise, revisiting the genre in a darker and more unsettled light.
Jodi Eichler-Levine is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies and Women’s Studies at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh. Her work has appeared in American Quarterly, Shofar, and Postscripts

Published by: NYU Press


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p. 1-1

Title Page, Series Page, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. 2-7


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pp. vii-viii

List of Illustrations

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pp. ix-x


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pp. xi-xii

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Introduction: Wild Things and Chosen Children

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pp. xiii-xxiv

Maurice Sendak, the renowned artist and author of children’s classics such as Where the Wild Things Are and Bumble-ardy, had a problem with the idea of Jewish chosenness. “We were the ‘chosen people,’ chosen to be killed?” he observed to a New York Times reporter in September 2008.1 Sendak, the son of Eastern European Jewish immigrants whose families perished in the...

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A Word about Language

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pp. xxv-xxvi

It is always challenging to find the right words for race, ethnicity, and religion, particularly when all of these terms are internally diverse and naming conventions change with each decade. Another problem, of course, is that of unsigned, assumed identity: the problem of indicating when an author is black while leaving whiteness unspoken. Throughout...

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1. Remembering the Way into Membership

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pp. 1-24

Crispus Attucks, the former slave killed at the Boston Massacre in 1770, was a martyr whose death ensured liberty for other Americans. This is what child readers are told in the 1965 text Crispus Attucks: Boy of Valor: “His death is significant because it demonstrates his loyalty to a country in which he was not actually free. His sacrifice serves as a rallying cry for freedom.”1 In...

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Part I: Crossing and Dwelling

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pp. 25-28

Exodus journeys provide a narrative foundation for writing and reading African Americans and Jews as pilgrims and pioneers; the making of homes brings us to a Victorian mode of containing difference and expressing religious cultures according to recognizable tropes. The two chapters that follow...

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2. The Unbearable Lightness of Exodus

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pp. 29-56

Molly and “Moses” are both pilgrims on the road to freedom. Molly, of Barbara Cohen’s 1980s classic Molly’s Pilgrim, is an elementary school student, the daughter of Russian immigrants whose classmates mock her family’s accent and the funny doll she brings to class before Thanksgiving. “Moses” is an imagined version of Harriet Tubman, featured in a recent picture book...

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3. Dwelling in Chosen Nostalgia

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pp. 57-90

Miriam, Moses’s sister, who is so often a striking figure of crossing and exodus, has also taken up residence on the Jewish children’s bookshelf as an emblem of dwelling and domesticity. In Fran Manushkin’s Miriam’s Cup, she is a longhaired, dancing, almost “exotic Jewess” who represents Jewish women’s places at the Passover table. The text’s frame story is that of a...

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Part II: Binding and Unbinding

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pp. 91-96

The next two chapters show us children who are bound to and unbound from violence, and how this binding is what most tightly lassos American Jews and African Americans into acceptance as upstanding, religious American citizens. We pay particular attention to how the biblical figures of Isaac and Jephthah’s daughter are entwined with such imagery. Thinking about the...

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4. Bound to Violence: Lynching, the Holocaust, and the Limits of Representation

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pp. 97-128

Fear, violence, and darkness are not new to the world of children’s literature, as numerous studies of fairy tales can attest.1 Books about lynching and the Holocaust, however, cross the line between darkness and terror, moving us into a space that is paradoxically both unspeakable and iconic. On a narrative level, the chilling violence visited on Jewish and African American...

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5. Unbound in Fantasy: Reading Monstrosity and the Supernatural

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pp. 129-154

Is there a way out of the horrific logic by which Jewish and African Americans are written into American religious identities precisely because of their lost children? Strangely enough, one way of unbinding these identities from sacrifice comes to us from fantastic literature, particularly the sort that features monsters and Wild Things. Cultural monsters are always with us. Like...

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Conclusion: The Abrahamic Bargain

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pp. 155-160

For Jews and African Americans, living, breathing children, children who thrive and grow and listen to stories, are a very real form of triumph over the fairly recent threat of genocide. The Middle Passage and the Holocaust stalk all of the tales in this book, even those that do not directly address them. In literature and imagination, possibilities of survival expand dramatically, yet...

Appendix: Children’s Books

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pp. 161-164


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pp. 165-204


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pp. 205-220


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pp. 221-226

About the Author

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pp. 227-254

E-ISBN-13: 9780814724002
E-ISBN-10: 0814722997
Print-ISBN-13: 9780814722992
Print-ISBN-10: 0814722997

Page Count: 256
Publication Year: 2013