- Perils of Protection: Shipwrecks, Orphans, and Children’s Rights by Susan Honeyman
Narratives for young audiences allude to explicit national laws, implicit social rules, and shifting cultural understandings of justice and human rights. There is no question that texts like Click Clack Moo: Cows That Type, The Day the Crayons Quit, or Yertle the Turtle recommend tactical behaviors against injustice. Yet children’s books come from an array of ideological standpoints and negotiate a multitude of gatekeepers before finding their way into readers’ hands. They are a poor measure of children’s actual human rights and activist potential, instead conveying popular ideals around child-rearing and children’s limited agency, or providing sanctioned perspectives on brave kids’ self-determination and power. Reading youth literature as though it upholds or expresses children’s rights is a frustrating enterprise, because literature is context-specific and invites logical conclusions that are not necessarily in support of young, marginalized, and vulnerable individuals at all.
Leading instead with the history of childhood and the economic status of children—as Susan Honeyman does in Perils of Protection: Shipwrecks, Orphans, and Children’s Rights—illuminates the conceptions of rights to be found in well-known children’s narratives. Honeyman studies how rhetorical and material practices support children’s rights to protection (historically, children have been protected as property, like real-estate investments or favorite pets) while denying children full participation in a society that is coded adult. Children commonly are lied to, disenfranchised, and denied a clear voice in civic leadership, and these exclusions often are justified by appeals to child protection and the preservation of innocence. Her book’s title refers to the “perils of ” a protectionism that locks down children for reasons of their own safety, silences them, and justifies societal control. In popular narratives shared with young people, and in sensationalistic news of real events, Honeyman persuasively locates a tendency to restrain, “island,” “containerize,” or misinform children in the name of the child’s best interests (48). She also unpacks the notion that “the shrinking, controlled sphere of childhood has intensified with consumer capitalism” (116).
Observing literature through a childhood studies lens, Honeyman charts a much-needed path between literary representations and lived experience, daring to take on derisive academic remarks about the constructed [End Page 408] child and real live children. Honeyman writes, “Reading stories for and by children as potential rights-respecting narratives, we can consider the consequential impact of narratives without generalizing about those addressed and represented by such discourse. We can stop avoiding the subject and acknowledge the ‘human’ in the ‘humanities’” (5). For instance, she explains that tales of foundling children make for gripping fiction, and certainly have their historic analogues. Today, these foundling tales have their counterparts in “safe haven” sites where guardians surrender infants and children, no questions asked. But, in practice, the private choice to abandon a child could be mitigated by an insistence on human rights, the public good, and an improved social infrastructure. “[L]iterary depictions of such issues reveal less about actuality and more about our uses of sentimentality,” Honeyman says (98). “Sentimentality (as with women and children first) is one of the most pervasive and lasting protections we’ve offered our young as a safety net, but it isn’t always matched by structural support (law, aid) and sometimes can even comfort adults too much by casting real dangers in an obscuring rose-tinted view” (97). Honeyman cites Harold Gray’s Little Orphan Annie and the adoption of Swee’pea in Elzie Segar’s Popeye to show how fiction privileges the exceptional plucky orphan, not a taxpayer-funded program for every orphan’s triumph.
Genuinely radical, or even practical, accounts of children’s human rights and participation can be difficult to find in literature. Honeyman questions, for instance, the noble imperative of “women and children first” to escape a shipwreck, and finds this to be the exception and not the rule in actual practice, Titanic notwithstanding. (Even read generously, this doctrine allows for the rescue of male clients...