Don’t Tell the Grown-ups

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

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 Baum’s Oz books, now almost venerated, were once thought too trashy for libraries to purchase.) Others fall into the category that Alison Lurie calls “subversive”: the books such as The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876), Little Women (1868), and Peter Pan (1904), which make fun of the adult world and, as she writes in the foreword, celebrate “daydreaming, disobedience, answering back, running away from home, and concealing one’s private thoughts and feelings from unsympathetic grown-ups.

Although Don’t Tell the Grown-ups contains much that is interesting, it has not been worked into a book that supports the premise of its foreword. The essays, reviews, prefaces, and talks collected here, many of which first appeared in The New York Review of Books, are generally on folklore and on fiction by British authors. Some of the chapters, however, do not seem to bear out Lurie’s claim to be writing about works which tell the “truth” (rather than the facts) about an unruly world, and thus implicitly criticize the conventional values of the period in which they were written. Nor is the book entirely on children’s literature: One essay describes fairy-tale themes in books by E Scott Fitzgerald, Philip Roth, and John Updike, and another is about the late- 1970’s fad for quasi-serious coffee-table books on gnomes, unicorns, dragons, and their ilk. The chapter on Richard Adams is devoted primarily to Shardik (1974), which children surely did not read, although some persevered through Watership Down (1972).

The central core of children’s authors about whom Lurie writes consists of Kate Greenaway, Lucy Lane Clifford, Ford Madox Ford, Beatrix Potter; E. Nesbit, James Barrie, Frances Hodgson Burnett, A. A. Milne, I R. R. Tolkien, T. H. White, and William Mayne. Other chapters are on folktales and on children’s own folklore—a chapter particularly delightful because the subversive kid still in most of us is tickled to be reminded of the naughty jump-rope rhymes and hand-claps that we once knew but had forgotten because our own children kept them as secret from adults as we did.

One value of the book is Lurie’s skill in recuperating subversive knowledge that many adults lose with the end of childhood. In part because of their mass-media versions, works such as Peter Pan, The Secret Garden (1911), and Mary Poppins (1934) have come to carry an aura of saccharine sentimentality. Reexamined, these texts reveal adults who are stupid, foolish, inadequate or wrong, and children whose evasion of adult rules takes forms—and expresses fantasies—that have startling implications.

Lurie’s basic mode of analysis is biographical and psychological. Certain classics of childhood literature are subversive because the adults who wrote them had their own serious difficulties with the adult world. Some of the information is fairly well known, but Lurie avoids the malicious tone found in writers who are greatly embarrassed by the fascination of a John Ruskin or a Lewis Carroll with preadolescent girls or James Barrie’s preference for the company of young boys.

The essays on such writers are kind, perceptive, and frank but not debunking....

(The entire section is 1932 words.)