- Cub Reporters: American Children's Literature and Journalism in the Golden by Paige Gray
Paige Gray's Cub Reporters theorizes the idea of "artifice" as a quality evinced by both children's literature and journalism, which both developed into their modern forms during the "Golden Age of Children's Literature"—the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The term "artifice" refers to both the concrete techniques used by yellow journalism, such as "sensationalized writing and stunt reporting" (xviii), and more broadly to "human-made apparatus—artistic, technological, psychological, cultural, or otherwise—devised and used to both communicate ideas and compel others to acknowledge those ideas" (xviii). In arguing for such a broad usage, Gray hopes to "erase the adverse associations of the word with mendacity and malicious intent [and] instead … [,] to reinforce individual agency" (xviii). In her individual chapters—which focus on the newsboy narratives of Horatio Alger, the reporter narratives of Richard Harding Davis, L. Frank Baum's Oz books and his realistic Aunt Jane's Nieces series, and the Chicago Defender's Defender Junior column—Gray explores "individual choices or actions by writers, characters, reporters … [that] show how larger concepts that are often deemed "natural" or "absolute" also reflect artifice, and are therefore available for revision" (xix). Gray therefore intervenes in the ongoing conversation about child agency by examining literary and primary texts that allow children to look into stereotypes and constructs of childhood, gender, and race and potentially reject or revise them. Like many of the scholars who have made important contributions to the conversation on agency, such as Marah Gubar and Victoria Ford Smith,1 Gray is interested in ways that children can alter what currently exists—neither assuming that children or their culture are a blank slate on whom ideology can be passively imprinted or claiming that they have complete freedom. Gray's work provides a new contribution to this conversation, however, by focusing optimistically on ways in which children can alter the existing world, rather than collaborating with adults.
Like other scholars who explore agency, Gray focuses—particularly in her fourth chapter—on "actual children, as opposed to fictional depictions" (70). Her fourth chapter on the Chicago Defender and the children who wrote in to its Defender Junior column was, to me, the most socially relevant and groundbreaking of her chapters. Based on archival research, this chapter establishes the Defender Junior as an important column for understanding the crucial role of newspapers in the development of youth culture both as a whole and for African American youth culture in particular. Gray demonstrates how the newspaper gave young African Americans an opportunity to contribute events that would be featured in the paper's pages, and to symbolically become members of the Defender Junior's Billiken Club through both their [End Page 216] reading of the column and writing for it. It is in this chapter that Gray also most strongly validates many of her largest and most innovative claims—in particular, the connection between the development of the newspaper and children's literature and the ways in which artifice can empower children to create their own texts and identities.
In other places in Gray's book, the power of artifice is more symbolic, and Gray's definition of the term does sometimes shift. At times, for instance, Gray relates artifice to the "persuasive power that the concepts of the child and the newspaper both possess" (xxxvi). In some chapters, Gray focuses more on this sense of artifice—in particular, in chapters 1 and 2, which attest, respectively, to the way in which the "creative power of the newsboy disrupts narratives about identity and power" (5) and the heady pull of reporting as a profession for young people in the novels of Richard Harding Davis. This sense of the word "artifice" seems different, as it does not empower "actual" children, but instead shows the power of the idea of the child in society, and/or the way that certain ideas could indirectly empower children to pursue their dreams of journalism.