- Ethics in Children’s Literature ed. by Claudia Mills
As its title indicates, this is a collection of essays about ethics in children’s literature, and an excellent one at that. Dealing more in practical or applied than in theoretical ethics, these essays take up a rich variety of topics and are strong across the board. But this volume isn’t only a topical collection, but rather a book about children’s literature-as-ethics, about the complicated ways in which ethics and children’s literature are intertwined. It raises big questions—What does it mean to write “for” young people? What counts as “ethical” or “moral”?—while focusing on particular texts and contexts. It nicely shows that we cannot know where “ethics in children’s literature” might start or stop.
In her preface, Mills explains that the book emerged out of a conference held at the Prindle Institute for Ethics at Depauw University, where she was a visiting professor. Mills’s excellent introduction reflects the four-part organization of the volume and hits on the book’s central point: moral instruction hasn’t gone away, but rather has diversified in strategy. The three essays in part 1, “The Dilemma of Didacticism,” make clear that “didacticism” is not only foundational to children’s literature but can also be politically progressive. Claudia Nelson writes on books of golden deeds, which emphasize self-sacrifice and often embrace a collectivist sensibility. Emma Adelaida Otheguy provides a fabulous comparative treatment of the children’s magazines of Mary Mapes Dodge and José Martí, demonstrating how the latter used direct address, metaphor, and narrative repetition toward progressive ends in La edad de oro (The Golden Age). Whereas US writers “tend to separate the instructional purpose of a story from its literary quality,” Otheguy writes, “Latin Americans largely believe that moralizing and literary merit work together” (31). Moira Hinderer offers an equally engaging analysis of the progressive didactic literature for African-American children produced in the 1930s and 1940s by authors and activist librarians. Otheguy and Hinderer underscore the point that social privilege drives much contemporary disdain for didacticism. [End Page 408]
Part 2 shifts the focus to “Ethical Themes in Classic and Contemporary Texts,” with essays on the Chronicles of Narnia (Emanuelle Burton), Madeleine L’Engle (Mary Jeanette Moran), A. A. Milne’s Pooh books (Niall Nance-Carroll), “virtuous transgressor” stories (Jani L. Barker), and Taiwanese juvenile fiction of the 1960s (Andrea Mei-Ying Wu). Taken together, these essays show that the reception history of certain texts often misses or distorts the ethical dimensions of those texts. Burton, for instance, argues that Prince Caspian is not the weakest link in Lewis’s series but rather a compelling exploration of “discernment” and/in moral life. Nance-Carroll argues against the framing of Milne as sentimental entertainer and/or ironist, seeing in the Pooh books an “ethics of the ordinary” concerned with everyday actions and challenges. Focusing on Harry Potter and Louis Sachar’s Holes, Barker proposes that “virtuous transgression” on the part of the protagonist(s) represents a toning down of didacticism even as it “negotiates conflicting adult desires for the ideal child” (112). Likewise, the Taiwanese juvenile fiction that Wu examines is explicitly didactic, but it also features children as moral agents “inclined to acts of transgression or boundary crossing” (128).
In her introduction, Mills insists that moral criticism cannot be separated from aesthetics, that “what a work says is at least as important in judging its overall aesthetic quality as how the work says it” (8; emphasis in original). The essays in part 3 model a criticism based on this premise. Lisa Rowe Fraustino delivers a terrific and timely critique of anthropomorphism in children’s literature, contending that it “brings out the worst in many aspiring authors” (150), leads to misunderstandings about nature, and is, “in a nutshell, human chauvinism” (146). Fraustino’s analysis aligns with recent critiques of human exceptionalism. Next up is Suzanne Rahn, on the ethics of war in the fantasies of Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien. Rahn provides excellent insight into the...