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  • Hindsight on the Heroic:Impressions of the Institute
  • Louisa Smith (bio)

Brock Cole was one of many children's book authors who examined "The Heroic Ideal in Children's Books" at MIT this past summer at an institute conducted by Children's Literature New England. His discussion outlined the classic stages of heroism: birth, separation, initiation, and transformation. In his book, The Goats, two teenage protagonists, Laura and Howie, are stripped of clothing and identity and abandoned on an island by fellow campers. By the end of the book, both have a new appreciation of themselves and their capabilities. But Cole raised the question, as did others, of whether or not there can be heroes in children's literature.

Those of us in his audience had been examining that very question for three days and were still at it by the end of the week. Ethel Heins, one of the institute organizers, had warned us not to expect any answers. I think none of us, however, were disappointed by the thorough discussion of the possibly unanswerable question that occupied our week in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Unlike the child hero, who is frequently thrust into the quest by accident of birth or discovery, I had chosen to go on this quest, leaving behind comfortable quarters and friends. I chose to drive. Jason never had to manipulate his way through the streets of Cambridge. We were lodged in dormitory rooms without air conditioning, a test of purpose in 100° heat, sharing accommodations with strangers. Beginning at 8:45 a.m. and finishing at 9:00 p.m., we survived our first day, our initiation. By the end of the week, we were friends. We still didn't have the definitive version of the heroic ideal in children's books, still hadn't reached the end of the quest. But perhaps we had gained something else—new armaments, such as a sense of not being alone as we struggle to promote children's literature, and an appreciation for the authors, critics, teachers, librarians, and editors who join us in the endeavor.

This was Children's Literature New England's second conference, as such. The faculty were familiar names from the Simmons College staff: Barbara Harrison, Betty Levin, Paul and Ethel Heins, and Gregory [End Page 97] Maguire. Many participants had attended last year's institute, which had focused on survival and conquest in children's books, and were, back, one all the way from Ireland. This summer's package was truly enticing. Authors included Nancy Bond, Jane Langton, Milton Meltzer, Julius Lester, Brock Cole, Diana Wynne Jones, Madeleine L'Engle, Susan Cooper, Ashley Bryan, Paula Fox, Myron Levoy, Nancy Garden. Peter Neumeyer doubled as critic and author. Editors present were Frances Sedney, Dorothy Briley, Susan Hirschman, and Margaret McElderry. After having attended numerous conferences where children's authors had spoken, I had heard a number of these writers before, but never all together. The assemblage was every bit as dazzling as the Golden Fleece.

Prior to the institute, we had been sent a reading list of approximately 40 books. These books were then discussed in clusters around a topic pertaining to heroes, such as their roles in their particular society. Peter Neumeyer's seminar examined the various faces a hero can have. In children's literature, the hero can be a mouse, a bat, a troll.

Certain restrictions appear to limit the concept of child hero. A child hero or an animal bearing child-like qualities lacks the prowess and stature of adult heroes. Access to power, whether it be power of weapons or power of intellect, is often denied a child hero. Gifts of knowing by virtue of birth such as Will Stanton possesses in Susan Cooper's Dark is Rising series are available, but even that child needs a mentor. Throughout the conference Oliver North and Rambo were referred to as examples of the kind of hero a child could not be, fortunately. In contrast, we were presented with heroes such as Georgie in Jane Langton's The Fragile Flag. Georgie is in the fourth grade of, appropriately, the Alcott School. She decides to take a letter to the president requesting the...


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