The Kids Might Be Alright: Progress as Virtue in Contemporary Children's Literature
Dave Eggers and Colin Meloy take on the antagonistic and nativist rhetoric in American politics and culture with children's books intent on generating empathy.
Leave it to Henry Rollins to offer a timely nugget of perspective in the midst of our increasingly fraught and unprecedentedly dysfunctional political climate. In an interview with The Daily Beast last year, the notoriously outspoken former lead singer of Black Flag addressed Donald Trump's presidency as the inevitable culmination of nationalistic sentiment and an unchecked industrial complex.
He then appended to those comments the following insight: "I think a lot of that American bigotry… that's coming to an end. And I think what Trump and these guys don't realize, is that they are hastening their demise… I think there's going to be a huge rejection of this really antiquated bigotry. And so I think what you're seeing right now is the old guard kicking and screaming as it's dying off." Such remarks – from one of punk rock's enduring luminaries, at that – speak to the ethos of that particular art form for which he is most recognized: the vocalization of discontent as an expression of hope.
Granted, this expectation flies in the face of Trump's possible 2020 reelection, which Rollins acknowledges. Furthermore, the interview was published on 11 August 2019, one day before a whistleblower filed a complaint alleging Trump's abuse of office and several months prior to Senator Mitch McConnell's flagrant avowal to cooperate with the president in acquitting him of the resultant charges. Such developments – capped with a Senate trial that could be described without exaggeration as nothing short of Machiavellian – might deflate even the most optimistic elector. But in the spirit of Rollins' assurance – assuming there exists some semblance of justice that McConnell's grubby paws cannot somehow manipulate – such developments bear potential to incite that requisite discontent as well and perhaps even expedite his prediction.
The implicit generalizations of his assertion aside (namely, that the demographic most likely to support Trump is uniformly bigoted and that younger voters uniformly do not support Trump), voting behavior by and large supports Rollins' generational distinction. That's not to suggest that exceptions don't persist – the Center for Public Integrity's claim that "brewing among some young men is an intolerance and hatred that's bringing bias-motivated violence to the streets and white-nationalist politics to the political forefront" is disconcerting – but the constituency that was primarily responsible for ensuring Trump's 2016 victory should gradually cede its influence over the course of the next several decades.
This, in conjunction with an amalgam of other factors, will theoretically induce a monumental turnover in voter demographics, which is probably encouraging to those of us Americans who, like Rollins, at the very least cringe with some discomfort at our president's consistently brazen chauvinism. Gavin McInnes and the self-parodying clowns that comprise his Proud Boys collective aside, most Millennials (and, as suggested by statistics, a majority of Generations X and Z) are probably not too sympathetic to, say, Trump's unapologetic gripes regarding an influx of immigrants from supposedly "shithole countries".
However history comes to characterize the zeitgeist of our time, it will inevitably bear testament to our president's xenophobic fearmongering and the unabashed insularity he has emboldened. A medium often overlooked in the critical analysis of a culture's artistic representation is children's literature, and the body of juvenile fiction and nonfiction that this particular era has spawned is reflective of and perhaps may even prove influential toward the reactions of new generations of voters to this presidency's foundational principles.
That an antagonistic and particularly nativist rhetoric has now become commonplace renders all the more urgent the necessity for broadening younger generations' capacity for empathy. Amidst the spate of literature that has responded, Dave Eggers' Her Right Foot and Colin Meloy's The Golden Thread typify this crucial push. Both titles were released shortly after Trump assumed office and, in their respective celebrations of two traditionally revered bastions of unfettered American ideals, their reactive intent is apparent.
Varying traces of progressivism have colored both authors' different pursuits over the years: Eggers through his fiction, correspondence from presidential rallies for The Guardian and oversight of several nonprofit organizations, and Meloy primarily through his densely allegorical lyrics as frontman of The Decemberists. Their treatment of their subjects – respectively, the Statue of Liberty and folk singer Pete Seeger – is imbued with this same motivation. While each book follows enough of a narrative to avoid overtly didactic sermonizing, both within the context of our current sociopolitical climate clearly serve to stimulate the awareness of children and perhaps provoke the assumptions of the adults privileged with reading these books to their target audience.
Aside from the tidbits and narrative history with which he opens Her Right Foot, Eggers' primary focus is that specific, titular facet of Lady Liberty – literally, the statue's right foot – that is raised in mid-stride. Though the monument is one of the most recognizable in the world, Eggers suggests that this feature probably goes overlooked more often than its sculptor intended. He writes:
"People talk about her unusual headwear. They talk about her gown, which seems a very heavy kind of garment, and would likely result in serious lower back issues. They talk about her beautiful torch, and the severe look on her face. But no one talks about the fact that she is walking! This 150-foot woman is on the go! Every time we see the Statue of Liberty in pictures, or any time we imagine the Statue of Liberty, we see her" – owing to the fact that she is most often portrayed head-on – "standing still. Very still. Like, well, a statue."
The explanation, of course, is rooted in her symbolism and geographical placement: "…If the Statue of Liberty has welcomed millions of immigrants to the United States, then how can she stand still? Liberty and freedom from oppression are not things you get or grant by standing around like some kind of statue. No! These are things that require action. Courage. An unwillingness to rest." The fact that by its very nature the statue is of course rooted and thus depicted as moving in perpetuity then only reinforces its meaning.
The remainder of the book bears the same exhortative tone and simplicity that is apparent in these passages: Eggers includes no allusions to the American president (he lets loose with those in his 2019 satire The Captain and the Glory) or this administration's unequivocally draconian take on illegal immigration. But he also acknowledges full well the impressionability of his audience and the very real possibility that any child coming to terms with the world around her right now could conflate "immigrants" with "bad guys".
In this respect, Eggers' point that "the Statue of Liberty was not built to welcome just 1,886 immigrants from Italy on one certain day in, say, 1886. No! She was built to welcome 3,000 immigrants from Poland the next day. The next day, 5,000 Norwegians. After that, 10,000 Glaswegians. Then Cambodians. Then Estonians. Somalis. Nepalis. Syrians. Liberians" acts to counterbalance the warnings about immigrants, illegal or otherwise, currently put forth by some of the loudest, brashest voices. (Plus, there may be some timely significance to the inclusion of at least two of those countries, the entry of whose nationals has been heavily restricted since early 2017 per Executive Order 13780.)
Shortly after his book was published, Eggers told Here & Now, "…The rhetoric over the last few years about immigration has gotten very heated, and I thought it might be a good opportunity to remind ourselves who we are as a country and the role immigration plays, and sort of why the statue that's walking out to sea might symbolize and remind us of immigration as a central point and tenet of who we are." He then proceeds, "I think [the statue being on the move is] a really apt symbol that the American experiment isn't one that is static. It's not like we have finished ourselves, it's not like the United States of America is done, and we have settled exactly who we are forever. We are an ongoing experiment in democracy and in welcome, in welcoming the oppressed, welcoming the needy, welcoming people that want a better opportunity. And the fact that she is on the move, I think, is perfectly symbolic of that. She's not standing still."
This is the takeaway of Her Right Foot: the statue serves as a marker of progress. Even as prevailing sentiment these last few years has demanded a literal wall – in its very essence a deterrent to progress, something that restricts rather than enables – the Statue of Liberty endures.
In regards to his conviction that children especially need to hear this message, Eggers explained in the same interview, "…I thought, if anybody would understand this message, and that it would resonate with them, I think it would be these young minds that are still, you know, being molded. And I think so many of our kids, and the kids in the public schools in this country, are from immigrant families. And so, to remind them of our status and our foundation as a country of welcome, I think, is powerful."
He's not simply moralizing from a distance: a GEN article recounts Eggers' memory of the day after the 2016 presidential election, when he was working with students at the Washington, D.C. branch of 826 Valencia, the nonprofit organization he cofounded in 2002 that serves to help under-resourced students develop their writing skills. Seeing the optimism of his students then, he said, "'was the only thing that gave me a little bit of hope… They were scared because these kids were all from immigrant families, but at the same time there's just an inherent belief that good will prevail that's common to every kid that I've ever known.'"
The lofty universality of Her Right Foot is no doubt attributable to the renown of its subject; The Golden Thread, subtitled A Song for Pete Seeger, steers young readers toward a less iconic, but – especially in its commemoration of Seeger's unassailable idealism – similarly compelling representative of the same fundamental ethic. Meloy, whose songwriting over the years has occasionally engaged that political tradition central to Seeger's legacy, recalls the folk singer's career and various motivations: his outspoken pacifism amidst a nationwide war effort, his working class propagandizing, his eventual founding of the environmental nonprofit Hudson River Sloop Clearwater, Inc. As such, the arc of Meloy's narrative is chiefly biographical, though his subject's relentless activism warrants commentary throughout.
In regards to Seeger's defiance in the face of McCarthyism and the ensuing witch hunts of the mid-century Red Scare, for example, Meloy writes, "Pete was then sent to a senator's court/ And thereupon angrily asked to report/ About all his doings and political leanings/ And did any of his songs have nefarious meanings?/ But Pete, he just said: 'It's no business of yours.'/ WHICH IT WASN'T!/ STILL ISN'T!/ It's our right to free speech/ Without fear of reprisal, beyond government reach."
Similar to Her Right Foot is the inclusivity and sheer idealism that The Golden Thread espouses. Though his focus is narrower than Eggers' and thus casts less overtly personal implications for the young reader, Meloy is just as concerned with conveying a profoundly basic message. And like Eggers, his timing is no doubt intentional: both exemplify an encouraging rejection of the isolationism that has equally inspired and validated those contingents of society once relegated by and large to only the darkest, most loathsome message boards the Internet had to offer. That is, in this new America, where an armed militia defends its practice of patrolling the New Mexico border and detaining migrants as fundamentally "patriotic", material like Her Right Foot and The Golden Thread will hopefully prompt today's youth to undermine, in Rollins' words, that "antiquated bigotry".
Thankfully, neither Her Right Foot nor The Golden Thread appear to be outliers within our present milieu: The Atlantic, The Guardian and other publications have documented an upswing in children's literature that is invested with the same spirit that informs these texts. But given the increasingly normalized platform that this president's comportment – let alone his policies and track record pertaining to human rights – has afforded to factions generally deemed otherwise reprehensible, the industry may have to rely upon similarly overt moralizing. Culturally, we may be beyond the point where the figurative playfulness of Dr. Seuss's The Lorax or the subtext of Ezra Jack Keats speaks loudly enough to compete with every neo-fascist degenerate waving his Confederate flag ,or hyper-masculine alt-right bro flashing the "okay" gesture: the innate impressionability of children is too precious to simply hope that such spectacles do not yield long-term influence.
In the aforementioned article from GEN, Eggers admitted, "The only people I feel that often can speak truth to power in a clear and uncomplicated way are young people." We are fortunate that writers like he and Meloy recognize this. Hopefully, given the especial fractiousness that has marked our political discourse of late, theirs and the contributions of others will prove resonant in years to come.
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Romero, Simon. "Militia Defiant in New Mexico: 'It's My God-Given Right to Be Here'". The New York Times. 23 April 2019.
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