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  • Serious Play
  • Katharine Capshaw Smith

Cultural historian Robin Bernstein recently gave a talk at my university on the Kenneth and Mamie Clark doll experiments of the 1940s. These experiments, now famous, asked African American children to select between black and white dolls. The record of children's preference for white dolls, as well as the young people's despair at being presented with such a choice, became potent evidence for efforts at school integration, particularly during the Brown v. Board of Education hearings. Bernstein's fascinating presentation focused not on the uses of the experiments within the civil rights campaign, however, but on the way in which children's facility with cultural expectations for doll play helped influence the choice between a black and a white doll. In short, black dolls had historically been used in play associated with violence, and children's reluctance to select the black doll revealed their resistance to the American cultural practice of defiling black bodies. One of Bernstein's observations allowed me to reflect on unspoken assumptions about children's culture within the field of literary criticism: "In my research on doll-play, I constantly found the phrase 'supposed to': children reported that they knew how they were 'supposed to' play with different dolls. Sometimes they did what they were 'supposed to' do, other times they refused, but they consistently understood the play scenarios that dolls prompted, the traditions of performance that dolls referred to." Stepping back from the particular example of the Clarks' experiments, I wondered then about the expectations for critical play with children's books within the field of literary studies. How are we able to challenge cultural "givens" about the place and purposes of children's texts? What are we "supposed to do" with children's literature, and how do we engage and often resist such expectations?

The essays in this issue of the Quarterly all reveal an awareness of cultural expectations for children's texts and then spotlight moments of resistance to such expectations; our essays analyze re-imaginings of texts and of authorial identity or themselves demonstrate resistant critical practices. In other words, they do not play the way they are "supposed to" play, and for [End Page 1] that I am grateful. Adrienne Kertzer's essay, "Fidelity, Felicity, and Playing Around in Wes Anderson's Fantastic Mr. Fox," discusses expectations for film adaptations of children's books, arguing that Anderson cannily understands the cultural demand for fidelity to the source text, but he instead offers "a tribute" to Dahl influenced largely by Anderson's own childhood experiences rather than by textual accuracy. In one section of the essay, Kertzer looks at the figure of a more critical and ironic Mrs. Fox in the adaptation, finding that "The film thereby functions as both a tribute and a critique, differing significantly from previous filmic adaptations that never consider challenging Dahl's depiction of adult women." Adaptations play with children's texts, even as they pledge to be faithful to the original, and Kertzer's essay asks us to reconsider attraction to the idea of a stable text.

Joseph T. Thomas Jr. studies a persona of one of the most popular children's poets of the twentieth century, Shel Silverstein. To say that this persona has been overlooked or ignored is an understatement; the "Uncle Shelby" version of Silverstein is bawdy, earthy, irreverent, and iconoclastic, qualities not typically embraced by the children's book–buying public. Thomas discusses the larger purposes of re-imagining our popular authors: "Shel Silverstein and his persona, Uncle Shelby, provide us with a more robust way to think about children's literature, reminding us that the line between texts for adults and those for children is far more blurry than we generally like to believe, as is the line between child culture and adult culture, even though we like to police that line with ever-growing determination." According to Thomas, ignoring Silverstein's publications within the pages of Playboy magazine has restricted our awareness of the scope of his attention, as well as limited our appreciation of the ambition of his authorial presentations.

If Thomas bucks our expectations for reading Shel Silverstein, Lydia Kokkola takes...


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