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Marvels & Tales 15.2 (2001) 233-237
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Sticks and Stones:
The Troublesome Success of Children's Literature from Slovenly Peter to Harry Potter
Sticks and Stones: The Troublesome Success of Children's Literature from Slovenly Peter to Harry Potter. By Jack Zipes. New York: Routledge, 2001. xiv + 213 pp.
The study of children's literature is often relegated to the margins of English, language, or education departments, and the connection is tenuous between those in the field, their analyses and critiques, and actual children, who [End Page 233] may or may not read the same literature. The paradoxical disconnect between academics and their putative subjects (children) is alarming given the alternative --- the complete monopolization of children's literature by market forces---and this phenomenon can, in fact, be read in a much larger social context as encompassing a general, society-wide commodification and regulation of children.
Jack Zipes's new book addresses the general tendency in the US to institutionalize and "homogenize" the experience of childhood through the mechanisms of the culture industry (Zipes is heavily indebted to Adorno). Zipes claims that "[w]e calculate what is best for our children by regarding them as investments and turning them into commodities. Such rationalized practices lead to irrational if not vicious behavior" (xi). Although he eventually focuses on literature, Zipes's claims extend to all areas of children's experience---schools, movies, organized sports, books, and TV. Zipes challenges all of us, particularly those of us engaged in the study of children's literature, not only to revisit our assumptions about children, childhood, and children's literature (xiii), but to actively seek to reverse the trend toward homogenization, and to help "establish a realm in which [children] can explore themselves and the world in imaginative and critical ways" (141). Here Zipes exposes a paradox: both the forces which tend to homogenize children's literature (and culture), and the academics who decry the vulgarization of that literature, represent adult sensibilities and agendas which are imposed onto children in a "somewhat desperate struggle to guard, shield, dominate, control, manipulate, animate, and cultivate young people and to distinguish ourselves" (64).
Zipes, however, is aware of the oxymoronic, paradoxical status of children's literature, and the ways in which children are inscribed by the processes of socialization. The title of the book itself cleverly suggests this: learning "Sticks and Stones . . . " as children, we learned from adults that names would never hurt us. But this bit of "children's folklore" was quickly appropriated and reinterpreted as a defensive taunt on the playground, a bit of adult-initiated moral highgrounding. Thus not only does this adage precisely illustrate the polysemantic power of words, but, in the current media environment of school shootings and the emphasis on "bullies," we find, ironically, that there are new programs being implemented in schools which concentrate on the potential damaging consequences of hurtful names and words, reversing the proverbial "wisdom." Thus Zipes insists that those who are part of the children's culture industry, from parents to educators to authors and publishers, be "sensitive and partial to a social critique that seeks to improve the manner in which we acculturate children" (73). He calls for nothing less than an epistemological shift in the ways we understand childhood, a shift away from the control and management of children and children's psyches---a process which renders them [End Page 234] more and more susceptible to the demands of the market forces (79)---towards the "cultivation of pedagogical, social, and cultural practices that enable children to think for themselves and to develop sensitivities that make them aware of their fellow creatures as humans and not as competitors and consumers" (22). This would entail opening up the canon, rather than shutting it down; diversifying rather than homogenizing; developing critical thinking rather than "teaching values"; and, "[i]n the process, children will learn to discriminate and make value judgements and to contend critically and imaginatively with the socio-economic forces that are acting on them and forming...