Don’t Tell the Grown-ups (Magill's Literary Annual 1991-2005)
Adults who thoughtfully write books for children seem to be compelled into a didactic mode. The lessons may be practical, intellectual, emotional, or moral, and they may be overtly preached or more implicitly revealed in a story’s plot, characterization, and values. Early writers found it perfectly appropriate to teach through terror: “Little Suck-a-Thumb,” in Heinrich Hoffmann’s Struwwelpeter (1845), winds up with both thumbs amputated, and in Mary Martha Sherwood’s The Fairchild Family (1818) a loving father takes his children to see the body of a murderer hanged from a gibbet. In boyhood, Mr. Fairchild is careful to point out, that murderer had been quarrelsome and (just like the Fairchild children) had squabbled with his siblings. During the last hundred years, writers have been more likely to construct models of a reassuringly just world, in which effort is rewarded, adults are helpful, children’s errors (or the errors of the bunnies, engines, and dogs who are their fictional standins) are opportunities for them to learn and improve, and no flaw has truly dire consequences.
There are other books for children, however, which are less deliberately instructive. Some are purely commercial, of the Nancy Drew and Sweet Valley High variety. Youngsters not only like the escapist worlds in these stories but also savor the knowledge that parents, teachers, and librarians would rather they were reading something else. (L. Frank...
(The entire section is 1932 words.)
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