Study Guide

Don't Tell the Grown-ups

by Alison Lurie

Don't Tell the Grown-ups Essay - Critical Essays

Don’t Tell the Grown-ups

As Lewis Carroll views the pedantic figure of Father William--topsy-turvy--the best-loved children’s literature has a subversive quality to it, a tendency to overturn adult pretensions and ridicule adult institutions. Carroll’s ALICE’S ADVENTURES IN WONDERLAND and THROUGH THE LOOKING-GLASS, according to Lurie, go “underground” in more ways than one, caricaturing as they do Victorian educational, political, and judicial systems. Similarly, Mark Twain’s THE ADVENTURES OF TOM SAWYER turns the plot of the generic nineteenth century “improving tale” (enthusiastically distributed by religious and educational institutions) on its head; Twain himself declared that the novel was written in reaction against “goody-goody boys’ books.”

Sympathy is often for the rebel, such as Toad in Kenneth Grahame’s THE WIND IN THE WILLOWS--in Lurie’s description, a “juvenile delinquent, with a passion for flashy clothes and fast cars.” Sharing this unconventional spirit, Beatrix Potter plainly prefers her impertinent, reckless characters in PETER RABBIT to her dull, obedient ones.

The creators of children’s literature featured in DON’T TELL THE GROWN-UPS are varied. They include writers and illustrators of exclusively children’s books, authors who also published adult novels, playwrights, and anonymous geniuses to whom we are indebted for a wealth of compelling fairy tales and legends, as well as nursery rhymes, singing games, and riddles. However diverse, a great number of these works present alternative worlds that critique social convention as propped up by adults. For example, Kate Greenaway’s rendering of a pastoral universe, in the Romantic tradition of William Blake, constituted a protest against the industrialization of the English countryside.

Delving into the power and appeal of children’s literature, Lurie plunders research in psychology, political science, anthropology, semeiotics, and literary criticism; the range of references in the endnotes, bibliography, and index reflects her multi-disciplinary approach. Scholarly paraphernalia aside, Lurie’s bias for the iconoclastic, insouciant world of the literature of childhood is clear--and convincing.

Sources for Further Study

Bloomsbury Review. X, March, 1990, p.11.

The Horn Book Magazine. LXVI, May, 1990, p.364.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. March 11, 1990, p.6.

New Statesman and Society. III, May 25, 1990, p.32.

The New York Review of Books. XXXVII, April 26, 1990, p.45.

The New York Times Book Review. XCV, March 11, 1990, p. 13.

The New Yorker. LXVI, May 7, 1990, p.110.

The Washington Post Book World. XX, April 8, 1990, p.8.