- Cub Reporters: American Children’s Literature and Journalism in the Golden Age by Paige Gray
Given today’s uncertainties and turmoil, one might question the relevance of Cub Reporters, Paige Gray’s foray into the journalism and children’s literature worlds of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. After all, today’s newspapers seem to be a dying industry. Charges of “fake news” and bias—on the parts of news organizations and of news consumers—abound, and so-called Golden Age children’s literature today seems more gilded than golden. Gray’s lively writing draws readers in from the first eleven-word paragraph— “Pretend it’s 1896. You live in New York City. It’s Sunday.” (xiii)—and leads them on a rollicking journey through the first all-color, full-page cartoon and ending with, well, us. Today. Now.
Gray explores, through the lens of artifice, the ways in which children’s texts featuring the news industry present particular avenues of knowing, reveal the underlying artifices of knowing, and empower child readers to employ their own agency in recreating everything from “tomorrow’s edition of the newspaper [to] entire cultural belief systems” (xxxvii). As an example of child agency linking past and present, journalism and literature, Gray notes that the 1992 Disney movie Newsies, which was panned by adult critics and consigned by adult marketers to the VHS discount bin, went on to become wildly popular as home entertainment among young viewers. Twenty years later, it became a long-running Broadway musical with a new generation of young fans. The story of child and teen news hawkers going on strike—and winning!—and other news-centric American children’s literature has reflected, Gray writes, “American children[’s] . . . desire to not just carry the banner, but to create it”(16).
Artifice, in its original sense of the word, “broadly refers to human-made apparatus—artistic, technological, psychological, cultural, or otherwise—devised and used to both communicate ideas and compel others to [End Page 421] acknowledge those ideas. It can refer to works of individual invention or the production of larger social constructs” (xix). By reverting to artifice’s foundational meaning, Gray says she “hope[s] to erase the adverse implications of the word . . . [and] to reinforce individual agency” in order to “show how larger concepts . . . often deemed ‘natural’ or ‘absolute’ also reflect artifice, and are therefore available for revision” (xix). Gray contextualizes her work in a tightly woven web drawn from the fields of journalism, literary history, children’s literature, media history, childhood studies, and communication, especially as applied to newspapers and children’s literature. Newspapers, Gray claims, are not a transcription of life. Rather they are “the stage for . . . domestic drama, as well as that of the grand spectacle of American political theater” (x). Nineteenth-century newspapers used the verbal artifice of sensationalist language and the visual artifice of typographical choices to report, for example, the grisly details of a domestic tragedy using “a multideck headline that introduces new titillating information with each sentence, spaced out to force readers further into the article while simultaneously providing just enough of the story to satisfy a superficial news perusal” (xiv).
Children’s literature of the late-1800s, Gray argues, used similar tactics to create both a romanticized narrative around the news industry and a counternarrative exposing its artifices. In the first two chapters, Gray documents historic developments in the news industry then discusses how those developments are fictionalized in the boy stories of two widely published authors: Horatio Alger, Jr., who did not work in the news industry, and Richard Harding Davis, who was a reporter and war correspondent. Several of Alger’s rags-to-riches novels feature newsboys working on the fringes of the industry, whereas Davis’s journalist characters are insiders such as newspaper office boys or cub (novice) reporters. Both authors depict the artifice involved in making and selling news. One of Alger’s novels, for example, depicts a newsboy’s performance in “shouting promises” to customers that the newspaper will give them the...