Journal of American Folklore 116.462 (2003) 498-499
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Sticks and Stones: The Troublesome Success of Children's Literature from Slovenly Peter to Harry Potter. By Jack Zipes (New York: Routledge, 2001. Pp. xiv + 213, preface, illustrations, bibliography, index.)
Sticks and Stones is a collection of disparate essays on children's literature, most of which are based on delivered but unpublished talks, plus one previously published article and a postscript on the Harry Potter phenomenon. All of the essays are written with a strong undercurrent of Marxist ideology to the point of redundancy.
Zipes's objective is to address the concerns of two polar-opposite groups: the "activists"—among them feminists, family associations, and the religious right—who advocate active interference with the culture industry's practices in order to bring about the conditions for a more spiritual and creative childhood; and the "realists"—a group that includes some folklorists—who argue that children are more creative and independent than we generally give them credit. Zipes positions himself, comfortably but passionately, in the middle of these two camps.
Chapters 1 through 4 critique American cultural attitudes about children's literature, the act of reading, and childhood (i.e., the assumption that children are a commodity). Chapters 5 through 9 analyze the texts of children's literature and its authors, viewing children merely as empty vessels needing to be filled. Topics that may interest folklorists most include the fairy tales Americanized by Wanda Gág (chapter 5); the history of the Grimm tales, their retellers and "contamination" (chapter 6); a commentary on the lost tradition of storytelling (chapter 7); and the adult-centric appeal of Struwwelpeter (chapter 8).
I very much wanted to like this work, but my "realist" position perhaps prevented that. The first half of the book really does not state anything new. The overwhelming message is that public schools and mass media attempt to homogenize children into consumers of mediocrity while simultaneously destroying their imagination and creativity. However, I am most disconcerted by Zipes's adamant belief that there is no such thing as children's culture or a children's realm.
While Zipes does acknowledge that children are very active participants in cultural production, he claims they participate in processes and games that are, for the most part, not of their own making. They are only appropriators of the bigger culture to which they belong. In his own words, "The input they have may bring about limited changes in their socialization, but we adults ultimately shape and determine the children's private and public spheres" (p. xiii). I find his argument problematic because childhood is temporally limited. Children have no choice but to accept "adult hegemony" because they cannot prevent physiological maturation and their inevitable incorporation into the adult community, becoming the next generation of enforcers of adult culture.
Zipes denies that children create a culture of their own because they only appropriate and modify products of adult culture. However, in [End Page 498] chapter 6, "The Contamination of the Fairy Tale," he praises the Brothers Grimm for appropriating and modifying their collection of folktales. These literary reworkers, he argues, improve the original form "by artfully introducing extraordinary motifs, themes, words, expressions, proverbs, metaphors and characters into its corporate body so that it will be transformed and form a new essence" (p. 103). Here the reworked "borrowings" of writers are praised for creating a new cultural product, while in previous chapters children's reworkings of adult inventions are dismissed as being of little significance.
For folklorists confronting the world of childhood, Sticks and Stones is a valuable work because it provides insight into the text-based world of children's literary criticism. However, Zipes's criticism stems from an adult point of view and is framed by adult notions of what is best for children. It remains for folklorists to critique literature for children from the point of view of the child.