Langston Hughes’ story is effective more for what it doesn’t say than for what it does. That his protagonist couldn’t go to school with white children in the South immediately brings to mind the question “Why?”
Tales for Little Rebels: A Collection of Radical Children's LiteraturePublisher: New York University Press
Length: 313 pages
Author: Julia L. Mickenberg and Philip Nel, eds.
Publication Date: 2010-03
Shortly after the passage of healthcare reform in the US, a news story appeared in my town in which two drivers were involved in a road rage incident. An old man in an SUV trailed a younger man and his ten year-old daughter in a car. At a stop sign the old man pulled up close behind the car, pointed at the bumper and waved his middle finger in the air. The SUV continued to follow the car, and at the next stop sign the SUV rammed into the back of the car. When the driver of the car got out to inspect the damage and get the other driver’s information, the man in the SUV rammed into the car again, and again.
What had angered the man in the SUV? It was the Obama/Biden sticker on the car’s bumper, and his rage spilled out through the horsepower of his large automobile. Reasonable people on either side of the political divide can see the man in the SUV was out of line and out of control but, if I may employ the usually comical cliché, what about the children? Never mind the horror and fear the little girl in the car must have felt as the stranger’s vehicle rammed into her father’s car, what kind of lesson did this little girl learn from the incident? The man in the SUV was arrested and charged with assault, but consequences are too often lost in the trauma of real life situations.
In his foreword to Tales for Little Rebels, Jack Zipes writes, “From the Puritans to the present day, the didactic tendency of books for younger children suggests that adults have no problem proscribing a moral framework for the young. Yet there is a tendency to fear that ‘political propaganda’ will taint a young child’s innocence.”
We like to think of childhood as innocent, free from the gripes and grumbles of politicized adults, but is it really? Innocence is so easily spoiled, whether it’s from an anti-reformist with anger management issues or from a book.
Tales for Little Rebels is a collection of stories, poems, articles and primers each owing to the radical tradition in the United States. The goal of all literature for children is to instruct, illuminate and indoctrinate, editors Julia L. Mickenberg and Philip Nel assert, but indoctrination is a scary word that evokes Cold War-era paranoia, not lazy summer days resting on one’s belly reading Curious George or the Little House books.
This idea of indoctrination isn’t the sole province of Eastern bloc nations or James Bond villains. Mickenberg and Nel begin this book with a section on primers, the alphabet books that familiarize new readers with the building blocks of language through easy to understand word and picture combinations.
The model the editors point to is the New England Primer of 1690, in which Puritan children learned simple lessons like, “In Adam’s fall / We Sinned all”. While that’s an idea a little more complex than something like “A is for apple”, it’s nothing compared to 1935’s ABC for Martin which originally appeared in a communist publication produced both in the United State and Great Britain. With its praise of Stalin and examples like “M is for Marx, whose teachings proved true”, the primer is decidedly pro-Soviet, but its inclusion isn’t likely to put the book or its editors on any black lists. The aim is to illustrate how such primers “distill revolutionary ideas into their simplest forms”. Any subject in its simplest form ignores the nuance and complexity of the truth, which may give some modern parents pause before exposing their kids to a primer that praises both the rights of workers and dictators.
This book isn’t dangerous, at least not like ramming an SUV into a sedan. The ideas presented in the book’s selections aren’t dangerous, either -- they don't instruct one to do another harm. These selections, some of which date back to the beginning of the 20th century, have all been given to children at some point in the past. It’s hard to see a piece like ABC for Martin as anything but a historical oddity, but The Story of Your Coat, in which the steps involved in producing a garment are detailed with special attention given to the laborers who do much of the work, is timeless.
Mickenberg and Nel focus primarily on radical labor, environmental and civil rights movements in the United States, but also acknowledge similar traditions in children’s literature around the world. The editors do an amazing job placing their selections in their historical context with introductory essays that often dwarf the actual work that follows. Works by and about African Americans, such as Langston Hughes’ A Little Boy in a Big City, are prominently featured. Hughes' story is effective more for what it doesn’t say than for what it does. The matter-of-fact manner in which Hughes explains how his protagonist, Terry Lane, couldn’t go to school with white children in the South, immediately brings to mind the question “Why?” in anyone’s mind.
The book is presented more like a sedate encyclopedia than an eye-popping kids’ book, but it’s filled with many black and white illustrations. Most striking is an extended piece by Walt Kelly, of Pogo fame, that’s a satire of Joseph McCarthy and told in the style of Alice in Wonderland. Some illustrations suffer from their obvious lack of color, but maybe that’s the trick: pretty, brightly colored pictures have to fight each other for a reader’s attention, but everyone’s equal in black and white.
It’s easy to think of children’s literature like this, as simple, black and white lessons on being nice, or just exercises in silliness, especially years after our initial exposure. Anyone that follows politics or has a conscience knows there are few things which can be viewed in only black and white. That little girl sitting in her father’s car knew what the man in the SUV did was wrong. There’s nothing in Tales for Little Rebels that could teach this girl how to change that man’s mind about health care or anything else, but there’s plenty here to help her decide where she stands if she ever encounters anyone like him, again.