08 July 2011

"Little Dog knew he wasn't and never had been lost." ChLA 2

I wouldn't be me if I didn't "play hooky" or "cut class" now and then. 
Learning from the Left: Children's Literature, the Cold War, and Radical Politics in the United States Friday morning at ChLA, I slept in because I needed time to recover from the awful travel day on Wednesday and the late night on Thursday.  The late morning  put me at the coffee bar with key note speaker Julia Mickenberg, Assoc. Prof. American Studies at U.T. Austin, who authored one of the books I read in preparation for the the conference.  Learning from the Left: Children's Literature, the Cold War, and Radical Politics in the United States won the 2008 ChLA Book Award and is a beautifully written "study of children's literature and the Left in the mid-twentieth century.  It is a work of history as well as a work of literary analysis." (p. vii) 
I  was born at mid-20th century and, as a child, read many of the books discussed.   I thanked Julia for her book "which explained my life."  As a child I learned a democratic, egalitarian spirit from the books I read.  "While school textbooks taught children to uphold the values of the Cold War, many of the trade books they checked out of the library or bought in bookstores taught them just the opposite."     As McCarthyism drove leftist writers and educators underground they entered "the hidden world" of children's literature.  Some titles and authors mentioned in the book are:
Millions of Cats (Gift Edition) (Picture Puffin Books)The Little Red Caboose (Little Golden Book)Millions of Cats, Dr. Seuss, the All- About Books and the Landmark Books, Jack London, Little Golden Books, Penny Parker, Nancy Drew,  most Lincoln biographies for children, Langston Hughes (whose poetry I selected as my reading for UIL competition during my senior year in high school), many science and nature books, etc.  
Meet Abraham Lincoln (Landmark Books)"Few..." of the authors of these books "wished to 'propagandize' children...  they wished to make children autonomous, critical thinkers who questioned authority and believed in social justice.... to strengthen a sense of community, of the need to work with others to solve problems or accomplish tasks."  (page 11)  "They wished to give children tools of critical thinking, a distrust of received authority, and insights into the dynamics of biological and technological development and operation.  They wanted to share their internationalist, cooperative, and democratic outlook and what they perceived as an ability to rationally evaluate aspects of an irrational society."  (p. 182)   
While I was reading this book, I was selecting books from my sister's library and came across Just Follow Me by Phoebe Erickson which is illustrative of Mickenberg's treatise:  the puppy explores a world that is much bigger than he is, meets a variety of animals who say "just follow me" while he learns to judge for himself what is and isn't a home, comes across a lamb from the flock of the home farm, plays equally with this very different animal, and goes home to a mother who has worried that he has been lost but "Little Dog knew he wasn't and never had been lost."  
In some sense this little book is a biography of the "flower children" and so many of my friends who travelled about and made foolish and wise choices while "looking for themselves" during our college years.   It is one explanation of how and why the radicalism of the 1960s grew out of the placid (and repressive) 1950s and how and why some children of the South marched for Civil Rights, although Julia cautions:  "It would be impossible (and far too reductive) to draw some kind of cause-and-effect link between childhood reading and the rebellions of the 1960s. Even so, the generational lines are not merely coincidental." p. 276

I highly recommend Mickenberg's Learning from the Left, which I read in the Kindle edition, to anyone with an interest in literature, history, American culture, education, or who seeks to understand the roots of the sharp political divide and partisanism which is the bane of current U.S. politics.  We might also read a some children's literature to see if we can  "strengthen a sense of community, of the need to work with others to solve problems."

1 comment:

runswithcarrots said...

I've added it to my "when I have a Kindle" list. How wonderful that you had the opportunity to talk to Mickenberg about her book!