“A tear in this fabric is all it takes for a story to begin.”
January 10, 2016 10:03 AM   Subscribe

Why the British Tell Better Children’s Stories by Colleen Gillard [The Atlantic] Their history informs fantastical myths and legends, while American tales tend to focus on moral realism.
If Harry Potter and Huckleberry Finn were each to represent British versus American children’s literature, a curious dynamic would emerge: In a literary duel for the hearts and minds of children, one is a wizard-in-training at a boarding school in the Scottish Highlands, while the other is a barefoot boy drifting down the Mississippi, beset by con artists, slave hunters, and thieves. One defeats evil with a wand, the other takes to a raft to right a social wrong. Both orphans took over the world of English-language children’s literature, but their stories unfold in noticeably different ways.
posted by Fizz (89 comments total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
In Scotland, Bateman in turn suggests the difference between the countries may be that Americans “lack the kind of ironic humor needed for questioning the reliability of reality”

Oh no, not this again.
posted by teponaztli at 10:11 AM on January 10, 2016 [15 favorites]

I cannot help but notice that the British books are all 20th century, mostly post WWI, and the American books cited are 19th century and (in the case of Huckleberry Finn) only equivocally intended for children. What's more - if one wanted to be mean about it - the British books are mostly about tiny upper class children (with the exception of Dark Is Rising, I think), whereas the American books are much more class diverse.

I could certainly be persuaded that 20th century children's lit belongs to the British and that this has something to do with the rise of fantasy...but surely Harry Potter is all about righting social wrongs (for certain values of social wrongs). And the Golden Compass, etc, is a pretty polemical set of books.

Also, what about Madeline L'Engle? She's American and 20th century and looms very large. Her books are certainly super moralistic, but they're also full of fantasy. (More, in this respect, similar to the Space Trilogy.) Or John Bellairs, also looming pretty large, also fantastic, also very American.

I think there's something in this comparison, but I also think it suffers from being framed as 19th century books versus 20th - that makes it harder to draw fine-grained comparisons. Definitely there's some terrific British 70s fantasy (including TV - Changes trilogy, Children of the Stones) where I feel there's a strong trend to social realism in the US even in fantasy (ie, Zilpha Keatley Snyder or Norma Fox Mazer).
posted by Frowner at 10:14 AM on January 10, 2016 [45 favorites]

Ah, Huck Finn, another for my list.

Superman, Batman, Spiderman, Luke Skywalker, Frodo, Harry Potter, Finn the human, Moses, me. There are more, of course.

Why are all the heroes orphans? It's unfair, my only superpower is changing a light bulb without needing a stool.
posted by adept256 at 10:17 AM on January 10, 2016 [3 favorites]

Speaking as a Briton, this theory is bollocks.
posted by TheophileEscargot at 10:20 AM on January 10, 2016 [9 favorites]

You make this argument without using the only real weapon, Roald Dahl? Weird.
posted by chavenet at 10:21 AM on January 10, 2016 [14 favorites]

One is social commentary written by a master of satire; the other is narrative about child abuse and was not. Both central characters are children, but to call Finn a "children's story" is disingenuous; it was never written as such and only became part of the American school reading curriculum long after it was published. Harry Potter has yet to reach that high rank, but given another 50 years it might.

There are plenty of moralistic high-ground books written by British authors, just as there are fantasy books written by Americans. To say otherwise is flat-out wrong and shows a complete lack of understanding of the subject.

Oddly enough, both were first published in England before the United States.
posted by Old'n'Busted at 10:21 AM on January 10, 2016 [13 favorites]

> "Also, what about Madeline L'Engle? ... Or John Bellairs?"

Or Norton Juster, or Edward Eager, or L. Frank Baum, or Robert C. O'Brien, or Tamora Pierce, or Maurice Sendak, or Diane Duane, or ...

The whole piece is nonsense.
posted by kyrademon at 10:22 AM on January 10, 2016 [17 favorites]

The Ramona books and books such as Starring Sally J. Freedman as Herself are today still among my favorite pieces of literature. Harry Potter pales in comparison.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 10:28 AM on January 10, 2016 [3 favorites]

I guess what I'd say is that I think this is a potentially neat comparison, but needs to be framed in a less "cultural-generalizations about Britain" way. There's certainly differences between US and British children's fantasy in terms of how influential/pervasive it is and in terms of content and style - that's something that I think you could have a hypothesis about. I also wonder if there isn't a lot of convergence now in the post-Harry Potter YA world.

I mean, I guess I'd start by trying to figure out parallel influential figures, and how they're influential. I read a quite interesting essay about science fiction the other day pointing out that a lot of what we think of as genre is really marketing - it certainly seems that in the US, we aren't getting all the important British books by any means, so do we all know and love Diana Wynn Jones because she's great or because she's the best of the ones we read? (I mean, she's great; but I assume not the only great kids' fantasist of her general type.) How are these categories of British and American influential fantasy even constituted?

It seems like one has to be really careful to talk about texts and not - accidentally - about sales.

Let's leave aside the whole "this is better" business - what does that even mean? Narnia isn't better than Huckleberry Finn or even Little Women on any level that makes sense at all - it's not better written (Lewis is no stylist), it has a really simplistic moral scheme, the landscapes are sharply and economically drawn but with nothing like the staying power of Twain, the characterization is minimal, the women characters are not a patch on Little Women, etc. One might prefer the Narnia books, but not for quality reasons. And how do you even compare a really good, classic, engaging fantasy adventure like The Golden Compass with Little Women? What could possibly be the grounds for comparison?

It also seems like one would need a pretty deep background in late 19th/early 20th century fantasy from whence all this emerges.
posted by Frowner at 10:28 AM on January 10, 2016 [6 favorites]

The article doesn't seem to support the idea that British childrens books are better, as much as more fantastical. There's one paragraph that says that fantasy is good for kids, but on the whole I'm not seeing a strong argument.

Also, Oz is a better direct comparison to Harry Potter than Huck Finn. (It's mentioned later in the article.) I guess I'm always going to have issues with an article that takes it as given that Harry Potter is the better of those two things.
posted by surlyben at 10:28 AM on January 10, 2016 [2 favorites]

As a kid I read a ton of books from the UK, so I'll always have a soft spot for them and be willing to believe just-so stories about the quality of British writing. But I have trouble including Harry Potter in those classic books; they are fun stories but the quality is tremendously lower than Dahl or The Dark is Rising or the Narnia books.
posted by Dip Flash at 10:35 AM on January 10, 2016 [5 favorites]

But this is also a very stimulating topic, sort of. You could easily talk specifics about, let's say, British and American children's fantasy novels and how they use landscape - that might get at what some of the author of the OP is trying to say. Just totally spitballing, I think there is a different sense of landscape in British fantasy - there's a different discourse about nation (as in Jonathan Strange or Hope Mirlees) and quite understandably there's much more of a a sense of ancientness/worness/exhaustion/past-coming-into-the-present (Viriconium, Wynne Jones's Dalemark books, MR James). I feel like American fantasy isn't concerned with nation in the same way.

It might also be interesting to consider, say, Joan Aiken and Felix Gilman, who wrote/write fantasy that is set in the US although they are British.
posted by Frowner at 10:37 AM on January 10, 2016 [5 favorites]

That's like the archetypal Atlantic piece: there's a germ of an interesting idea, framed in the dumbest, most un-subtle way imaginable.

I would say that, as a whole, the British books that I loved as a kid were more likely to have fantastic elements than the American books were. I also think that some American fantasy books were really clearly indebted to the British stuff. I think it's silly to claim that British children's books are better than American children's books, and I can think of plenty of non-fantasy American kids' books that I loved as a kid and that I don't think were moralizing examples of the Protestant work ethic. I mean, can you make that case about The Westing Game or From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil P. Frankweiler or the Great Brain books?
It might also be interesting to consider, say, Joan Aiken and Felix Gilman, who wrote/write fantasy that is set in the US although they are British.
Wasn't Aiken's father American?
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 10:40 AM on January 10, 2016 [6 favorites]

Yeah, Frowner, I'd agree that this is a neat topic, but I wish it hadn't been framed as "British books are better," because it's making value judgments about cultural differences, and that's kind of a tired subject. And yeah, the scope was bizarre. The American literature was all 19th century, from a period which obviously had completely different ideas about child rearing, both in the US and Britain. The British literature is picked from a huge span of time, which stretches from the Arthurian legends, which are, what, 1500 years old? up through Harry Potter.

Gah, this is why I never wanted to be an English major.
posted by teponaztli at 10:43 AM on January 10, 2016 [1 favorite]

The whole piece is nonsense clickbait.

Yes, the conversation about different styles in British vs American kid's books would be interesting, if there were any sort of keeping era consistent.
posted by jeather at 10:48 AM on January 10, 2016 [1 favorite]

Conrad Aiken was American. One of JA's husbands was American and she lived in New York in the late seventies, apparently.

But see, that's partly why this kind of thing is, exactly as you say, "a germ of an interesting idea framed in the dumbest way possible", because it assumes that there's no cultural contact between two Anglophone countries in the 20th century so there's something inherently "British" and something inherently "American" which can be neatly separated by something more profound than publishing house. SF/fantasy circles are pretty small, actually, and although I can't speak to kids' literature, I know that in adult literature the most surprising people know each other and are friends.

I bet one could do some really, really neat mapping, a la Franco Moretti, of locations in kids' fantasy. (You heard it here first - credit me when you write your dissertation.) You could probably elicit some insight into landscape, class and imagined nation by doing that - where do kids' books tend to be set? What journeys occur in them? Who journeys where?
posted by Frowner at 10:48 AM on January 10, 2016 [3 favorites]

I think there is some truth to this. I spent my childhood in England and Wales, and the sense of existing within a long timeline of history was always with me: living in a house built in 1600 in a village that had been renamed after King Alfred in 900AD or something, torch-lit Guy Fawkes parades and burning effigies on November 5th, Roman ruins, the castles, gallows poles and stocks, WWII pill boxes and tank traps, and empty lots still left from the Blitz, canal boat holidays, school trips to 'stately homes' (and to be fair, a good dollop of BBC historical drama)... to a pretty imaginative youngster it did feel like something mystical, like all these ghosts were still there all around if you could only see them. Moved to Canada when I was 10, a place where the only mythology comes from the wilderness. I embraced this too as soon as I could wield a canoe paddle but it just isn't the same.
posted by Flashman at 10:54 AM on January 10, 2016 [8 favorites]

It seems to me like people in this thread are talking about a lot of books, whereas the article mostly discusses those that are ubiquitous or 'classics' in children's literature in their respective countries.
posted by Dysk at 10:59 AM on January 10, 2016

Christian children are born in sin and need correcting. Like Jody in The Yearling who, forced to kill his pet deer, must understand life’s hard choices before he can forgive his mother and shoulder the responsibility of manhood.

The word "like" is doing a lot of work there. Also, The Yearling is not a children's book. (It is, at least, from the 20th century.)

But I come not to bury the O.P., but to recommend The Yearling, which is amazing (albeit heartrending).
posted by doubtfulpalace at 11:01 AM on January 10, 2016

Huckleberry Finn is not a children's book but a book about a young person in an adult world...Is Lolita a children's book?
posted by Postroad at 11:04 AM on January 10, 2016 [2 favorites]

> "It seems to me like people in this thread are talking about a lot of books, whereas the article mostly discusses those that are ubiquitous or 'classics' in children's literature in their respective countries."

The Phantom Tollbooth isn't a classic?
A Wrinkle In Time isn't a classic?
The Wizard Of Oz isn't a classic?

You will have a difficult time convincing me that the classics of American children's literature are lacking in the fantastical.
posted by kyrademon at 11:05 AM on January 10, 2016 [6 favorites]

What I meant to add ^ before getting lost in my own misty-eyed revery is that I'd be surprised if having such a rich trove of history and mythology to draw from didn't make for better children's stories.
posted by Flashman at 11:07 AM on January 10, 2016 [1 favorite]

As an English major, these were thesis topics that I ran the hell away from, because many points is fairly indefensible in its generalization and it doesn't explore nuances very well. It also, sadly, does not read very well, more like something I would see in a standardized testing exam book for its light use of examples without much backing up. It would be easier and more convincing to discuss how they have similar parallels and diverge and throw in some interesting theory, but the clickbait headline serves more views. SIGH.

It's just very featherweight. I understand what the author is going for, but I wonder if a more nuanced take on the topic was just not appreciated by the editor. I just refuse to think that this is acceptable? Who are the forces responsible for this piece being published?

It would be more compelling to discuss how fantasy operates in very specific universes' differently. Then, using historical context and supplementary information through letters, notes, and interviews, how it may or may have not manifested differently due to sociohistorical context.
posted by yueliang at 11:08 AM on January 10, 2016 [2 favorites]

Harry Potter is this generation's retelling of the Arthurian legend, and as such is heir to enormous autocthonous power. Unlike previous retellings, it is not tragic but comedic in the Fryean sense that the main character ends up reintegrated with a society which has been transformed and redeemed by his one great and irresistible power: an almost limitless capacity to love. I don't remember any direct statement of it, but the true ruling Latin motto of Harry Potter is Amor Vincit Omnia.

And I believe it is a work of genius, not least because actual children really do love it -- and inhabit it -- and it offers them a light of hope as they begin lives which happen to coincide with the beginning of what looks to me like one of the darkest ages humanity has yet experienced.
posted by jamjam at 11:11 AM on January 10, 2016 [3 favorites]

It isn't that the Americas don't have a rich trove of history and mythology, it's that most schools don't teach it.
posted by jeather at 11:11 AM on January 10, 2016 [4 favorites]

I feel Harry Potter v. Huckleberry Finn is a bad comparison, too. Peter Pan v. Oz, maybe?
posted by HypotheticalWoman at 11:12 AM on January 10, 2016 [1 favorite]

No mention of Enid Blyton? For an article about British children's literature, that's quite an omission.

My favourite books as a child were the Shoes books (magic of Theatre and hard work, not magic-magic) and the Five Children and It series. I wouldn't say that any of them were free from moral lessons/instruction. (I still want to visit The Story of the Amulet's Socialist Paradise London.)

One of my pet peeves is when people mistake the Wizard of Oz film for the books. In the books, Dorothy eventually moves her whole family to Oz. And the female characters in the series are pretty fabulous.
posted by betweenthebars at 11:14 AM on January 10, 2016 [7 favorites]

Yeah, this whole thing feels full of weird points of comparison that obscure any good points it might have.
posted by Artw at 11:16 AM on January 10, 2016

One reason the "American children's book authors don't have access to this rich history and mythology" argument falls apart is because, of course, they do. You exactly don't need to live in a 1000 year old house to find out what your ancestors -- or someone else's ancestors -- were doing 1000 years ago. Lloyd Alexander was able to adapt Welsh mythology just fine, for example.

There are, obviously, differences. There's a history of American children's stories about life in the American frontier. Far fewer make use of some of the staples of British children's stories such as boarding school adventures, novels that involve being evacuated from London during the Blitz, and tales of the children of expats growing up in India.

But those are far more particular things.
posted by kyrademon at 11:23 AM on January 10, 2016 [1 favorite]

See, I wonder if one could think through some questions like this:

1. How does landscape appear?

2. How important is the past? How long ago is the past in question? Is it familial past? National past? Magical past?

3. How do cities appear? Where does adventure take place? Do people live in cities and towns and go to remote places to find magical adventure? Does magical adventure occur in cities? If so, why? Is it because of the ancient past or because of some new thing?

4. How are unsettled/wild places described and understood? How is "empty" land rationalized? (Ie, highland clearances, genocide of native people as deep background)

5. Where does magic come from? The Oz books are super American, I think, in that the magic is all new and kind of gimmicky - while there are "traditional" societies in Oz, that's written very shallowly, and the magic is not positioned as part of a tradition of American magic. How would E Nesbit, who is very modern in a lot of ways, compare to L Frank Baum?

6. How does social class work? Where are stories set, class-wise? How do children's families get their money?

I think you could make a very broad hypothesis about US versus British children's fantasy that might serve as a way of organizing geneologies in order to make a deeper study. But then, I think you could also do sort of a "modernity and fantasy" thing where you talked about how magic appears in Anglophone books when it deals explicitly with the modern world rather than the ancient, or you could talk about colonization and how it appears in fantasy in the US and the UK....lots and lots of fruitful organizing strategies, as long as you recognize that you're just building a sort of armature to help you organize your reading rather than uncovering a hidden truth.
posted by Frowner at 11:27 AM on January 10, 2016 [18 favorites]

To say that American youth lit avoids fantasy seems a big odd given how urban fantasy, paranormal romance, and dystopian SF seem to be the big thing these days.

But, I'll throw Le Guin and Sendak in as American defenders of the fantastic. No love for Hawthorne's Wonder Book and Tanglewood Tales? Lloyd Alexander, to expand the theme that English-language writers in America also read the pre-modern classics? And wasn't Charlotte's Web a story about talking animals?

Then there's Disney, who needs to be considered in this discussion.

Note that Narnia and The Hobbit are, in the end, all about moralism. Narnia gets more and more evangelical as the series wears on, while The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings stands better contrasting right faith with wrong faith because Christ never appears to lecture the children.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 11:31 AM on January 10, 2016 [5 favorites]

It would also be interesting to contrast Narnia and the Wrinkle in Time books, which were both written by serious Christians and have really different ways of thinking about Christianity and where it fits in a story. Or, for that matter, you could think about how religion and science play out in His Dark Materials and in the City of Sparks books, although I think the former are clearly better and more sophisticated books than the latter.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 11:37 AM on January 10, 2016 [1 favorite]

And wasn't Charlotte's Web a story about talking animals?

Only to each other - for humans they have to write notes.
posted by Artw at 11:38 AM on January 10, 2016 [4 favorites]

@Frowner: Love your breakdown, it was what I was trying to express in my comment but didn't have the words to. Going to save it and use it as a future reference for how to think through my own work.
posted by yueliang at 11:43 AM on January 10, 2016

The article is just obvious cherry picking to fit the desired conclusion. All countries have children who need stories and parents who make stories up, sometimes coming up with great stuff.
posted by w0mbat at 11:49 AM on January 10, 2016

That's like the archetypal Atlantic piece: there's a germ of an interesting idea, framed in the dumbest, most un-subtle way imaginable.

Indeed. Why does it have to be framed as a contest or in such antagonistic terms? Is that merely because that is how clicks are garnered? It would make more sense to attempt to catalog the differences and similarities in the way that Frowner has suggested. I mostly posted this article because it had me scratching my head. I'm glad that MetaFilter has stepped in and provided a more intelligent and cohesive discussion of this issue.
posted by Fizz at 12:25 PM on January 10, 2016 [3 favorites]

As one who grew up with Perrault, Hans Christian Andersen and the Brothers Grimm aside from books originally written in English (and sorry for the Eurocentrism anyway), I find this false dilemma irritating.
posted by sukeban at 12:26 PM on January 10, 2016 [2 favorites]

Next up: "Why Americans are better poets than the Brits: A Critical Examination of the works of T. S. Eliot and William McGonagall"
posted by Myca at 12:30 PM on January 10, 2016 [6 favorites]

A contextual analysis of last weeks Walmart sales flyer when compared to an annotated original manuscript of War and Peace told me all I need to know about Putin and Obamas interactions.
posted by blue_beetle at 12:31 PM on January 10, 2016 [1 favorite]

This article's conclusions are very...strange? Ahistorical? As people have already pointed out, the chronological framing makes no sense, and also ignores the entire problem of "children's literature" as a category, which is far more recent than people realize; for example, a lot of 19th-c. British didactic fiction was written for a crossover audience of children and adult working-class/servant readers. More to the point, the author slips imperceptibly between a tradition of British children's lit and the British children's lit we actually still read--which, indeed, tends to be lit in the fantastic tradition. A lot of the humor in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, for example, depends on parodies of popular religious and didactic novels (in addition to the more famous parodies of moralizing poetry) by Mrs. Sherwood et al. ("It was all very well to say 'Drink me,' but the wise little Alice was not going to do that in a hurry. 'No, I'll look first,' she said, 'and see whether it's marked "poison" or not'; for she had read several nice little histories about children who had got burnt, and eaten up by wild beasts and other unpleasant things, all because they would not remember the simple rules their friends had taught them: such as, that a red-hot poker will burn you if you hold it too long; and that if you cut your finger very deeply with a knife, it usually bleeds; and she had never forgotten that, if you drink much from a bottle marked 'poison,' it is almost certain to disagree with you, sooner or later.") Sometimes we've just forgotten the didactic context, as is the case with Black Beauty. Nor is the fantastic tradition necessarily free of didactic elements, as something like Charles Kingsley's The Water-Babies suggests, or even the "nonsense" tradition, as in Catherine Sinclair's pioneering Holiday House. (You can insert an excursus here on Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, which profoundly influenced adult and children's fiction on both sides of the Atlantic, both fantastic and otherwise.) Finally, thanks to the wonky state of nineteenth-century copyright law, a lot of early American children's lit is British, and vice-versa, albeit sometimes freely rewritten to suit a local audience (a habit that Frowner's points illuminate very nicely).
posted by thomas j wise at 12:33 PM on January 10, 2016 [14 favorites]

I'm echoing what several commenters have said, but this piece definitely seems to be taking an endlessly fascinating (to me) subject-- what is so special about British children's fantasy and the fairy story? why does it have so much influence and staying power?-- and framing it in a very silly comp-lit-lite US vs. UK way. Gonna blame the internet for this one; I wonder if this didn't start out longer and more nuanced and end up having to go in a clickbaity direction.
posted by thetortoise at 12:44 PM on January 10, 2016 [3 favorites]

I for one agreed with the article. When I was little I had basically nothing to do but read books. And sometimes there weren't even any books around so I was just poking around the house looking for anything to interest me. There was nothing to interest me. The walls of the house ended where they ended. I had examined every single object in the house. All of my mom's old nursing textbooks. The world was a small, concrete, boring place. I definitely got a sense, although I couldn't have articulated it, that the magical worlds described in British books like Narnia and His Dark Materials were much bigger, richer, and more interesting, and I longed for something like that that I could experience in real life. Meanwhile, back in America, Ramona was being scolded for wasting toothpaste (those books were depressing as hell to me), and the girl in Bridge to Terebithia died for trying to access what I wanted to access. What's the point of reading a book that just describes everything I already know, except worse?

I also noticed that British books tended to write from a place that was taking for granted that the kid was already immersed in this more magical ... I don't know, air quality or something. Like I would read books that would say stuff like "You know when you go into a church and you see a statue of a guy with his arms crossed? That means a knight is buried there!" Like this was a common experience that everyone had. Um no, my church was built 20 years ago.
posted by bleep at 12:50 PM on January 10, 2016 [5 favorites]

The Phantom Tollbooth isn't a classic?
A Wrinkle In Time isn't a classic?
The Wizard Of Oz isn't a classic?

The only one of these I've even heard of is The Wizard Of Oz, and that's only because of the film.
posted by Dysk at 1:04 PM on January 10, 2016 [1 favorite]

The folklore thing I think has some kind of basis, but is expressed badly? It's something I've been thinking about less in terms of children's fiction and more in terms of horror, particularly why HP Lovecraft has stuck around like he has - in the absence of a body of lore to draw on, at least one to his atheist liking, he came up with a new one pretty much all by himself that managed to be modern (for then) but feel like it has that sense of ancientness.
posted by Artw at 1:05 PM on January 10, 2016 [2 favorites]

One defeats evil with a wand, the other takes to a raft to right a social wrong.

This sentence says it all for me, as in: "Harry Potter could never actually happen, whereas Huck Finn totally could."
posted by valkane at 1:15 PM on January 10, 2016

Harry gets on okay without the wand.
posted by Artw at 1:25 PM on January 10, 2016

> "The only one of these I've even heard of is The Wizard Of Oz, and that's only because of the film."

Well, you're in for a bit of treat, then! The Phantom Tollbooth is particularly delightful. I don't know if you have or know a child you can read it aloud to, but that was how I first encountered it and it was a memorable experience for both me and my parents.
posted by kyrademon at 1:31 PM on January 10, 2016 [3 favorites]

None of the children in my life (nieces and siblings) speak English, what with them - unlike me - living and growing up in Denmark. Maybe I'll just go ahead and read them for my own pleasure anyway!
posted by Dysk at 1:47 PM on January 10, 2016 [2 favorites]

Ahem: A Wizard of Earthsea.

Know what's more menacing than He Who Must Not Be Named? The thing that you have to name to defeat it but you don't know the name and oh shit it's right on goddamn top of you.

Ged's shadow still creeps me out. Voldemort is just this guy without a nose, y'know.
posted by logicpunk at 1:50 PM on January 10, 2016 [5 favorites]

Coming to you live from a conference filled with children's book publishers touting to librarians!

This year's new picture books, as has been the case for a few years, feature lots of "programming" books. The Penguin that Wants to Go to Bed. The Elephant that uses His Words. Learn to Code with your Parent, etc. These books are implicitly marketed towards parents--in many cases explicitly, on the cover: "a new method to get your child to go to bed". Read this book to your child for the desired behavioral response. They're also prominently featured in children's bookstores. This seems different from the 80s and 90s where there were "serious" picture books about dealing with cancer, death, etc., but those were about giving children knowledge and coping skills instead of in stilling behavior.

Meanwhile a publisher of charming reprints offers 20th century "easy chapter" classics; almost all of them fantasy (though they may contain moral lessons.) What endures, one hopes, is writing from people who say "I want to tell a story about a mouse that sails around the world, or a pudding that grows ever larger till it threatens a town, for the delight of young readers."

Make Way for Ducklings may not be super fantastical and Horton Hears a Who may instill a moral lesson but at least they weren't Go the F* to Sleep taken seriously.
posted by Hypatia at 1:51 PM on January 10, 2016 [3 favorites]


Also doomed to failure.
posted by Artw at 1:58 PM on January 10, 2016

Anyone who says Americans lack irony while explicitly including Mark Twain in that assessment does not know what they are talking about. At all.

(Also, Huckleberry Finn is a sequel, and like most sequels, is significantly inferior to the original.)
posted by Sys Rq at 2:20 PM on January 10, 2016 [3 favorites]

this isn't hard 20th century UK Fantasy Children Lit -> US Superhero stories
posted by The Whelk at 2:26 PM on January 10, 2016

Well, if you open things up to other media things fall apart even more. The UK has a monopoly on Arthurian takes about Chosen Ones picked by special weapons? What's number one at the box office right now?
posted by Artw at 2:30 PM on January 10, 2016

I guess nobody has heard of a little American fantasist who wrote under the pen name of "Dr. Seuss".
posted by egypturnash at 2:39 PM on January 10, 2016 [1 favorite]

Let's leave aside the whole "this is better" business - what does that even mean?

I have no idea. The idea of a competition mystifies. British literature has a longer history, and their history is different than the US. Ortgeist and zeitgeist is going to shape literature, anyway. Mark Twain didn't have the same sophisticated marketing back in his day and, really, so what? It is what it is. I can enjoy both for different reasons, and appreciate them for their own merits.
posted by Alexandra Kitty at 2:39 PM on January 10, 2016

Untangling all the assumptions, omissions and conflations in this piece would take hundreds of words. But here's the ones most obvious to me:

*that the author has any grasp of what children's lit includes
*that the author really understands what is a "classic" and what is not (or even understands that this is a category open to dispute)
*that the author has done any research whatsoever on what children are currently reading in either country in the last decade aside from noticing Harry Potter and the Hunger Games.

Also, just wanted to say that I found my copy of The Phantom Tollbooth and started reading it to my kid last week and it is even more delightful than I remember.
posted by emjaybee at 3:15 PM on January 10, 2016 [1 favorite]

Am I the only one who thought the Phantom Tollbooth was way too dark and scary, both in the sense of atmosphere and being hard to see what was going on?
posted by bleep at 3:25 PM on January 10, 2016

Well, the Phantom Tollbooth is scary. It wasn't too scary for me as a kid, but definitely I found the prison where Milo meets the Which, the very idea of Division Dumplings and the creatures in the mountains of unreason to be pretty scary, especially the illustration of the guy without a face. And for some reason, when the got into the Doldrums, that really freaked me out.

Also, you know what was scary? John Bellairs's The Curse of the Blue Figurine, or The CURSE of the BLUE Figureeeeeeeeeen as I say it to myself in my head. That one still scares me. And also the one where Johnny has the medallion and there's the message with the Latin that I now know is straight out of MR James.

In terms of classics:
Some classics are in-country classics, partly because of culture and partly because of publication issues. People don't really know much about Enid Blyton over here unless they're really into British kids' books, for instance. The Phantom Tollbooth relies on English-language puns about English grammar. (I assume it's translatable, but not the most immediate candidate.) John Bellairs is such a regional writer - it's not that his books wouldn't be scary if you were reading them in, like, Berwick-on-Tweed or something, but a lot of their atmosphere is very much about American small towns, the kind of old wooden houses you get here, the vast spaces between towns, small town culture, etc.

And I assume that the things that get marketed heavily in other countries are believed to have either a "universal" appeal or a particular kind of national appeal. The Harry Potter books - before all the books were, like, wizarding boarding school books - were partly about a particular cozy imaginary Britishness that fits in well with the depiction of Britain we already had.

Orwell has a quite famous piece where he talks about his childhood mental image of the US as built up by Twain, Alcott and a few other late 19th/early 20th century writers, and it's clear that what was getting sold abroad when he was a kid was very much frontiers and the 19th century.
posted by Frowner at 3:43 PM on January 10, 2016 [2 favorites]

Frowner, about locations, nobodyjones at Did you ever stop to think & forget to start again? has compiled a list of locations of British children's books. She's also doing a PhD on literary tourism and children's books. You may already know her blog but, if not, you may be interested.
posted by paduasoy at 3:44 PM on January 10, 2016 [4 favorites]

Incidentally, The Phantom Tollbooth is where I first encountered the word "ogre", which I had never read before. I immediately went to my parents and asked, "What's an orgy?" Somewhat surprised by the question, they attempted to explain.

I frowned, said, "No, that doesn't sound like what the word should mean", and went back to the book.
posted by kyrademon at 4:37 PM on January 10, 2016 [14 favorites]

I guess nobody has heard of an American fantasist who wrote under the pen name of "Dr. Seuss".

.....who is mentioned in the article, along with The Wizard Of Oz and Where The Wild Things Are.

If people RTFA, you'll find that the claim isn't that "Americans didn't write fantasy at all". The claim is more subtle - it's that the American fantasy kids' books tend to sort of puncture fantasy, for lack of a better word, or use fantasy to Teach Lessons. The article actually compares WIZARD OF OZ to HARRY POTTER in this regard especially - both are stories about a kid going to a fantastical realm of magic and wizards. However, Harry keeps returning to that world and works to become a wizard himself, and it is accepted that the world is totally real, whereas Dorothy meets the Head Wizard of Oz and exposes him as a charlatan. Hogwarts is presented as real in a way that Oz isn't, even though they are both fantasy books.

THAT's the distinction the article is trying to make. And while I agree it isn't perfect, it does raise some intriguing points about the differences in between both nations' mindsets.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 4:45 PM on January 10, 2016 [3 favorites]

I'm not sure I really buy that either, TBH. Again, it seems to depend on a lot of apples to oranges comparisons and cherrypicking.
posted by Artw at 4:49 PM on January 10, 2016 [1 favorite]

I don't think that's actually what happens in the Wizard of Oz, though, at least if you take into account the whole series. Oz is real, and Dorothy and her family end up moving there.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 4:51 PM on January 10, 2016 [2 favorites]

Fair enough. I was responding more to the calls of "didn't they ever hear of Oz" when there actually was a paragraph about Oz right in the thing.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 4:52 PM on January 10, 2016

Harry Potter is "better" than Huck Finn??

I mean, maybe it's unfair to saddle the author with the implications of the clickbait headline, when the actual piece is more comparative than normative.

But that made me goggle. I hope no one thinks that.
posted by grobstein at 4:52 PM on January 10, 2016 [1 favorite]

What's more - if one wanted to be mean about it - the British books are mostly about tiny upper class children (with the exception of Dark Is Rising, I think),

My assessment of the social class of the protagonists (focussing on the stories, leaving aside real-world context of the authors) in the British classics highlighted in the article (most of these aren't tiny):
The Wind in the Willows (the protagonists aren't children): Mostly middle or working class (antihero Toad is upper class)
Alice in Wonderland: Unclear
Winnie-the-Pooh: Unclear
Peter Pan: Middle class (the Darlings) and marginalized youth (Peter Pan and the Lost Boys)
The Hobbit (the protagonists aren't children) : Middle class and working class
James and the Giant Peach : Unclear
Harry Potter: Upper class
The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe : Upper class
The Dark Is Rising : Middle or Upper class
The Golden Compass : Upper class
posted by Bwithh at 5:03 PM on January 10, 2016

EC: The claim is more subtle - it's that the American fantasy kids' books tend to sort of puncture fantasy, for lack of a better word, or use fantasy to Teach Lessons.

Oh, come on. The Narnia books are openly evangelistic (and include at least on rant about 20th century education). Tolkien's narrative was all about "Fall, Mortality, and Machine." Dahl's Charlie is a story about a fairy who lays traps for various childhood vices.

... whereas Dorothy meets the Head Wizard of Oz and exposes him as a charlatan.

That is, assuming your knowledge of Oz ends with the 1939 movie adaptation and ignores the last chapters of Wizard showing us the Smart Scarecrow, Compassionate Tin Man, and Brave Lion. Not to mention that while the Wizard of Oz is a charlatan, he's a true believer who eventually returns to Oz.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 5:07 PM on January 10, 2016 [2 favorites]

And Harry Potter doesn't have a moral and political framework underlying it's conflict?
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 5:10 PM on January 10, 2016

So here's the thing. An awful lot of American kids' books are about kids who have to think about money. Plots are driven by issues with money. In one of the All of a Kind Family books, there's a major plot that has to do with one of the kids losing a library book. She's going to lose her library privileges if she doesn't return it or replace it, and there's no way they can afford to replace it, and this is a major catastrophe in her life, because the library is super important to her. Little Women is driven by concerns about money. Jo sells her hair so her mother can afford to go visit their sick father in the hospital. The family in Little House on the Prairie is basically in danger of starving all the time, and Laura gets a job she despises because her family needs the money. The ongoing saga of Ramona Quimby's dad's job woes permeates the books: he loses his job, and then he's unemployed, and then he gets a job but it's soul-crushing and doesn't pay well, and he's a loving dad but it wears on everyone. It's not just that American kids' books are about kids who are in some cultural sense working-class. (And some of them aren't: Little Women is about a broke culturally middle-class family.) It's that they're about a universe in which people have to think about money. They're about people who don't have the luxury of having adventures and not asking who is paying for them.

There are definitely British kids' books about people who have to think about money. Noel Streatfeild's books about theater kids, for instance, are totally preoccupied with it. But I think that overall, this is one real difference between American kids' books in general and British kids' books in general, at least if I think about the stuff that I read as a kid.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 5:13 PM on January 10, 2016 [3 favorites]

Incidentally, The Phantom Tollbooth is where I first encountered the word "ogre", which I had never read before. I immediately went to my parents and asked, "What's an orgy?" Somewhat surprised by the question, they attempted to explain.

My vocabulary takeaway from that book was "doldrums" and it has haunted me ever since.
posted by srboisvert at 5:14 PM on January 10, 2016 [2 favorites]

The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe : Upper class

Although they're always posh in any adaptation of it, I'd always assumed the children in The Lion The Witch And The Wardrobe were supposed to be working class, as they were evacuees from London during the blitz. And so I read them as being from the east end.
posted by dng at 5:21 PM on January 10, 2016 [1 favorite]

Harry Potter: Upper class
I'm not so sure...I mean Harry himself grows up in what seems to be a modest house on Privet Drive. nothing about the description of the house or the Dursley's life suggests that they are wealthy. The Weasleys don't seem to have much money. I mean with a good government job at the Ministry of Magic, they're probably stable enough,but they have a lot of kids and kids ain't cheap, even for wizards. Hermione? Unclear. there are obviously some old wizarding families with house elves and such, but it's hardly like the protagonists are overwhelmingly rich.

The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe : Upper class
They have an upperclass relative, but their wonder at the house kind of made me think their own lives weren't like that.

The Golden Compass : Upper class
Lyra is raised as an orphan, so it's hard to htink about how to think about her class: Her parents are powerful people, but they don't raise her and she doesn't knwo they're her parents. She's raised in an enclave of privilege at Oxford, though. But the other characters? The gyptians and most of the kidnapped children are hardly living lives of luxury. Will's class is unclear -- I mean his father was a famous explorer before he disappeared, but he HAS disappeared and his mother's mental illness and the way the family is being pursued means that he's hardly living a sheltered privileged life, either.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 5:34 PM on January 10, 2016 [1 favorite]

No - the father is a university professor or something. The family goes on a lecture tour to America at the start of Voyage of the Dawn Treader, taking Susan, leaving Peter to be coached for Oxford. They can't afford to bring Lucy and Edmund, it's true, but there's a lot of carping in the books about how the post war tax system is just impoverishing all the former rich (like the Professor/the boy in the Magician's Nephew). The four children all go to private boarding school (they're on their way at the start of Prince Caspian.) And note that they are evacuated to an old family friend's - and he just happens to be super, ridiculously wealthy until Labor wins and there's, like, a National Health system, etc. They're not evacuated like working class children were evacuated - more like the rich kids who were sent to America. Now, they're not independently wealthy (although Aunt Whosis in Magician's Nephew would be except for the machinations of the wicked uncle) and they're not aristocrats, but they are definitely middle/upper middle. (I know that US "middle class" isn't the same as UK "middle class".)

Do I think a lot about class backgrounds of characters in kids' books? I sure do!

Note, too, that in Harry Potter, Harry is quite well off. We encounter poverty in the shape of the improvident Weaselys who have a gazillion kids. And we also encounter eeeeevil aristocrats. But the only actual prole we see is the comic relief who drives the Knight Bus. Long ago when I wrote fanfic, I wrote about this because it galls me no end.

I think it's important to remember that "not rich" and "working class" are not the same thing. Ron Weasely's family isn't working class. They can afford Hogwarts for all their kids, their father is a solidly employed state functionary and Mrs Weasely, IIRC correctly, stays home.

Very often, I think, people from college educated/middle class/upper middle class backgrounds just don't encounter working class people socially, and so we tend to think that people at the bottom of our economic scale are working class. But you rarely see, say, the child of a supermarket checker or a day laborer in children's books, and there are plenty of those people in the real world.
posted by Frowner at 5:35 PM on January 10, 2016 [12 favorites]

(Also, Huckleberry Finn is a sequel, and like most sequels, is significantly inferior to the original.)

Pistols at dawn!
posted by krinklyfig at 5:38 PM on January 10, 2016 [3 favorites]

Very often, I think, people from college educated/middle class/upper middle class backgrounds just don't encounter working class people socially, and so we tend to think that people at the bottom of our economic scale are working class. But you rarely see, say, the child of a supermarket checker or a day laborer in children's books, and there are plenty of those people in the real world.

Frowner, it's interesting you make mention of this. I just finished reading this article and I think it's worth reading:

Where’s Literature’s Class Diversity? [The New Republic]
The call for literary diversity is now beginning to extend to class. In a Literary Hub essay from last month, Lorraine Berry describes the alienation she’s experienced as a writer from a working-class background, and makes the case for adding socioeconomic status to the “essays, articles, charts, graphs, and surveys”-driven conversation. “[J]ust as the expansion of the literary world to more fairly represent a world in which people are more than white or male or straight has added untold riches to the canon,” she writes, “so too would the stories of working-class folk go a long way toward improving our representation of and understanding of the greater world.”

Meanwhile, at Hazlitt, Andrea Bennett described the extent to which writers from less-posh beginnings aren’t so much excluded as invisible—it only seems that writers are all upper class because the ones who need to work for a living aren’t, she explains.
posted by Fizz at 5:39 PM on January 10, 2016

Also, in all these books, it's middle or upper class people who are the heroes. Will in the Golden Compass books is an exception, but he's matched by Lyra. Sam plays second fiddle to Frodo and it's his growth out of working-class "nature" that is his primary character arc, and all the other characters are members of the elite who do not do proletarian labor.

Again, money isn't class. Lyra doesn't have a lot of cash money growing up, but her parents are very rich and she's living in an elite environment. There's no question of whether she's going to, like, end up down at the mill to make her living.
posted by Frowner at 5:39 PM on January 10, 2016 [2 favorites]

you can really tell from Harry Potter that Rowling has lived without money and writes from that perspective. Dismissing it as "Upper class" seems super off.
posted by Artw at 5:43 PM on January 10, 2016 [1 favorite]

you can really tell from Harry Potter that Rowling has lived without money and writes from that perspective. Dismissing it as "Upper class" seems super off.

Don't forget the Weasley family, middle-class at best. A large family where Mr. Weasley works in a middle-management government position. Also, Harry only gains his wealth through suffering. And I'm sure he'd gladly give it up in exchange for not having dead parents.
posted by Fizz at 5:48 PM on January 10, 2016

I think that Rowling is pretty precise about where everyone fits in the class system, but they're kind of class archetypes taken from the books she's riffing off of. Hermione is your archetypal middle-class striver (both her parents are dentists!) who is never, ever going to be accepted by the upper class types for whom earning things through hard work is totally gauche. The Weasley family are respectable lower-middle class. Harry's an aristo who was raised by wolves. Nobody is working class, except maybe Hagrid.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 5:52 PM on January 10, 2016 [6 favorites]

My mom was an American lit teacher, and she taught Huck Finn for a Humanities class for high school juniors for over 30 years. She re-read each book every time the class did, which meant she read Huck Finn over 30 times, once a year, and for nearly all those years she used the same paperback copy, which was eventually dog-earred and crammed full of margin notes. I took her class, and Huck Finn was a major highlight. And she also taught children's lit for a few years, including Tom Sawyer. I was steeped in Twain growing up, long before I took her class. So, I'm biased...

Tom Sawyer is a great book, but it doesn't have the depth and range of emotion that Huckleberry Finn does. I can see why some people might prefer it, because it's a different kind of story and has a lot more clever humor, but it feels and reads much lighter and breezier, and doesn't really probe into the dark side of humanity the way that Huckleberry Finn does. Of course, Tom Sawyer was typically taught to younger readers in schools, and Huck Finn was reserved until high school. They just feel so different to me that I'd have a hard time comparing them. I love them both, but for very different reasons.
posted by krinklyfig at 5:55 PM on January 10, 2016 [4 favorites]

Cbrachyrhynchos - again, I was speaking more to the posters in-thread who were claiming the arcticle didn't mention Oz or Seuss at all, and who seemed to have overlooked what the article actually was claiming.

I didn't say I agreed with the article completely either, only that it gave me food for thought.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:09 PM on January 10, 2016

for some reason i'm reminded of matthew rossi on irish vs. scottish literature :P "Perhaps I simply prefer the tales of King Arthur to those of Cuchulain..."
posted by kliuless at 6:19 PM on January 10, 2016 [1 favorite]

One is social commentary written by a master of satire; the other is narrative about child abuse and was not.

I tend to agree that the comparison between these two books doesn't make the best case for the article's premise. I think there's something to the argument itself, as some other people already mentioned, but those books were written so far apart that it's not a fair comparison. I agree also that Harry Potter was written long after children's lit was fully established and was intended for young readers, while Huck Finn was considered an early example of the "Great American Novel." It was not intended by Mark Twain to be read by children, nor was Tom Sawyer. In fact he was disappointed that children had read them and made his intentions clear that they were written for adults.

To be fair, I've never read Harry Potter nor seen any of the movies, so I can't offer much on that end. I was in my late 20s when the first book was published, and I never got around to reading it. Is this true that Harry Potter is about child abuse? I'm curious because I had never heard anyone mention it before, and many of my adult friends have read it (as well as their children).
posted by krinklyfig at 6:40 PM on January 10, 2016

Harry Potter is about child abuse in the same way that Cinderella is. It shapes the narrative but doesn't dominate it.

I am interested now in the assertion upthread that American kid's books are obsessed with money/avoiding poverty. There might be something to that. Of course Dickens wrote plenty of poor characters, but, maybe because he's English, the details of money were often vague. Charlotte Bronte is the most upfront 19th-century British writer I can think of when it comes to money. Perhaps Americans had less shame about discussing income and that has shaped our literature? That's an interesting idea.

Certainly as a kid I loved the details of the tiny precious sugar cakes the Ingalls girls got for Christmas, or how the kids in Cynthia Voigt novels always saved money in shoeboxes and looked for summer jobs. Money was mysterious to me and it was interesting to read about how you did without it and how to be careful with it. And also how to deal with people treating you shabbily if you had less than they did. It wasn't so much about Protestant work ethic as "this is how life is, but you can be ok if you're clever."

But if you lived in a society in which social mobility was out of the question, perhaps it made more sense to focus on fairy gifts and escape to other lands where you could triumph through virtue. Or the coming of a godly king-type who would make sure you always had enough.
posted by emjaybee at 7:19 PM on January 10, 2016 [1 favorite]

What about Roald Dahl? Charlie Bucket from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory? The four grandparents in one bed, the father losing his job in the toothpaste cap assembly line, Charlie nibbling slowly away at his single birthday chocolate bar over the course of many months. In Danny, the Champion of the World, the protagonists aren't desperately poor in that way, but you do have Danny and his mechanic father living in a tiny caravan and plotting how best to poach pheasants from the local rich bastard's property. I think both of those books also have a real respect for hunger and relief from hunger. From Charlie:
The Buckets, of course, didn’t starve, but every one of them – the two old grandfathers, the two old grandmothers, Charlie’s father, Charlie’s mother, and especially little Charlie himself – went about from morning till night with a horrible empty feeling in their tummies.
Charlie felt it worst of all. And although his father and mother often went without their own share of lunch or supper so that they could give it to him, it still wasn’t nearly enough for a growing boy. He desperately wanted something more filling and satisfying than cabbage and cabbage soup. The one thing he longed for more than anything else was… CHOCOLATE.
And there's a description of Danny eating a pie that I'll never, ever forget :
“Very carefully, I now began to unwrap the waxed paper from around the doctor’s present, and when I had finished, I saw before me the most enormous and beautiful pie in the world. It was covered all over, top, sides, and bottom, with rich golden pastry. I took a knife from beside the sink and cut out a wedge. I started to eat it in my fingers, standing up. It was a cold meat pie. The meat was pink and tender with no fat or gristle in it, and there were hard-boiled eggs buried like treasures in several different places. The taste was absolutely fabulous. When I had finished the first slice I cut another and ate that, too. God bless Doctor Spencer, I thought. And God bless Mrs Spencer as well.
posted by two or three cars parked under the stars at 11:47 PM on January 10, 2016 [4 favorites]

I wrote that thing and totally thought that Dahl was another exception, so I agree. He wrote really viscerally about money.

Also, what do you do with Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, which is both moralizing and wonderful?
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 11:54 PM on January 10, 2016 [1 favorite]

The Phantom Tollbooth is an interpretation of The Pilgrim's Progress, isn't it? Chuck Jones made a movie of it that I enjoyed very much when I was a kid. I've just realised I saw it over forty years ago. Unh.

There's something a bit sentimental about the article that rubs me up the wrong way. A bit "Gee, your cute li'l ol' country is so quaint!" I wonder whether the writer simply doesn't know that much about British children's literature apart from the books she's calling classics. There have been a lot of children's books published in the UK over the last fifty years, particularly. It's very easy to make the kinds of sweeping statements she's making if one ignores 90% of what one is talking about. There are books that are explicitly about the modern world being suffused with ancient magic (I'm thinking of Alan Garner here, particularly), but there are lots and lots of books that are not fantastical in the least. An enormous number of books have been published which reflect ordinary life, but they don't travel to the U.S. quite as easily as wizards and dimensional portals.

It is true (I suspect throughout the world) that children's publishing - the commissioning, the editing, even the design - is primarily done by [upper-] middle-class women, which means there will be a particular bias to what is published if the situation is left unexamined. But I know from personal experience working in the industry in London that many of the people making the books are aware that they need to diversify what is represented (and have done) while at the same time being equally aware that they need to publish books that people want to buy.

(Of course, people means parents and librarians in this case, which is a separate kettle of fish.)

The British children's publishing industry of my childhood (which I think had a sort of momentum that carried through to the present day, because the people who are running the industry now were children then), had a particular power because of Kaye Webb and Puffin Books (and their publishing model which sort of carried through the rest of the industry), and Jackanory (come home from school and a popular actor reads you a story) which exposed a lot of us who weren't from bookish families to a range of writers and stories that we wouldn't encounter otherwise.

The thing is, though, I would want to argue that British books... aren't so much better - "better" and "worse", "good" and "bad" are concepts that are less and less useful critically - , but have, as a corpus, a particular strength that I do feel proud of.

My prejudice is that American children's books (particularly picture books) tend to come from an elevated adult position, to talk to children and tell them things, preferably moral lessons, rather than engage directly with the child's mind the way the best books made by the people I work with aim to do (because it's convenient for me for the sake of my argument to ignore Sendak and Mo Willems). But I'm here with my own limited window onto what is published in the U.S. just as the author of this piece (and, may I suggest, some of the commentators) has a limited window onto British children's books. It's as if she's seen Dr Who and Sherlock and Downton Abbey and she now feels competent to comment on British television and culture.

Thus ends my first-coffee rant for today.
posted by Grangousier at 1:18 AM on January 11, 2016 [3 favorites]

Certainly some cherry-picking going on here. The Thomas the Tank Engine stories are moral fables about how people from a certain class (tank engines) should not overstep their bounds.
posted by QuietDesperation at 11:54 AM on January 11, 2016

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