Lurie has achieved wide recognition not only as a writer for children but also as a social critic and adult novelist and essayist. Her overriding concern when she approaches children’s literature is the degree to which all readers can understand the issues that connect literature for young readers with that for adults. She perceives a real danger in the separation of the two and prizes especially the degree to which children’s fiction stands as a challenge to social conventions. As in her successful adult fiction, including Pulitzer Prize-winning Foreign Affairs (1985), Lurie presents characters who upset traditional values. She includes children as important protagonists in the struggle for a wiser and more just life, and she has been a leading feminist whose interests have taken in the ways in which stereotyped images of female weakness and passivity have been passed down through the ages through folktales and fairy tales, as well as through other means.
Clever Gretchen and Other Forgotten Folktales is part of Lurie’s longtime interest in redirecting popular understanding of gender roles toward more socially responsible and realistic aims. She explains in her introduction to the collection that these tales reflect a different reality from the stereotypical one of a passive and completely dependent female character who awaits a male rescuer. She insists that women have always played a major role in the affairs of society and that most stories do not reflect this fact because of the historical dominance of men in selecting what was deemed appropriate to be preserved and recorded. Lurie proposes an honesty that would praise the “subversive” nature of children’s literature as a force that has the potential for reforming abuses in society. Ten years after this collection, she published her essays on children’s literature and social reform as Don’t Tell the Grown-ups (1990); these writings are anticipated by the selection of tales in Clever Gretchen and Other Forgotten Folktales, in which each story shows the accomplishments of wise, brave, and adept female characters.
Clever Gretchen and Other Forgotten Folktales was praised in some reviews and criticized in others. Some critics pointed out that while Alison Lurie challenged the passivity of female characters and tried to show them as actively heroic (unless they were the evil contrasts to the other, good girls and women), she did not go far enough to portray their possible rejection of other stereotypes, such as marriage. Their fulfillment was still dependent on the choice and whim of the male characters, usually princes or other nobles. These critics wondered why Lurie was content with reforming the perceptions and portrayals of the female characters but letting the old images of noble and warlike male characters go unchallenged. In addition, they expressed the desire for a less dogmatic feminist view that did not ignore the possibilities for wise behavior from a male character as well.
Other critics noted that Lurie did not succeed in bridging the gap between important writing for juvenile and adult readers but rather privileged the former and mistakenly assumed that adult writing might not have the same important “subversive” potentials. Moreover, while some critics paid much attention to Lurie’s obvious feminism, others noted that many of the tales were not “forgotten” at all and that many of them had long been accessible and available in other sources. The Horn Book magazine of April, 1980, in particular, documented in detail the common sources of many stories in Lurie’s book, including Womenfolk and Fairy Tales (1975), edited by Rosemary Minard, a third of which are the same tales.
The growing importance of feminist literary criticism in the years since Lurie’s book appeared would indicate that she was among the first to work toward a reevaluation of the portrayal of both children and female characters in some of the most lasting and influential stories that continue to be passed on from generation to generation.