Sunday, June 2, 2013

Tales for Little Rebels: A Collection of Radical Children's Literature by Julia L. Mickenberg (Editor), Philip Nel (Editor)

"Can you read this?" My husband, a first grade teacher, hands me a test that says to circle one of the pictures and explain what features help the animal to live in its habitat. This first grader circled a dolphin and wrote, "They have ckowlowcashine. They live in the sea. They need to breath arr." "Well, it has to do with a dolphin," I replied handing it back. "Ah! I know... she means 'They have echolocation.'" He laughs at my gaping jaw and explains, "We teach them that bats and dolphins use echolocation to find food." What a great reminder for me that just because young children can't express themselves in sophisticated language systems, does not mean that they can't understand more than adults think. This book highlights radical writers who believe this too, and as such, have used the childrens genre as a vehicle for politics with the goal of effecting change in society and questioning the existing social hierarchy. This is not a book you are going to sit down and read with your kid. You might read some of the stories, but many might find the language stilted or the black and white illustrations unappealing or the topics too adultish. While this book is thought-provoking and unique in its topic, it was hard for me to get through and I went into skim mode several times. I only found some of the stories interesting and gravitated toward the more familiar writers. Given that most of the 43 items composed of stories, comics, primers, and poems were out-of-print or from lesser-known authors is one reason I didn't love the book in its entirety. This is personal taste and does not reflect on the quality; there's no doubt this is well-written and scholarly. If you love, love, love the history of children's books, then add it to your bucket list.  You won't be disappointed.

The book is divided into 8 parts that cover the historical breadth of radical works with topics of literary themes, science and technology, economics, subversive messages, missing historical narratives, and societal prejudices. Part 3 on "Work, Workers, and Money," was one of my favorites as it showed how radical writers bucked the trend of glorifying industrial production and the person in power to focusing on the worker. Langston Hughes "Sharecroppers" shows the tenant farmer working for an overseer who keeps the profits and "The Little Tailor," by William Gropper that has a tailor working in a factory on an assembly line. Both show their labors do not allow them to own their products or find happiness in their strenuous work. Unlike most books during the early 1900s that glorified industrial production, these authors questioned it. These stories made me think of today and how computers are replacing people and books to some degree.  The contemporary novel by John Scieszka shows this shift in technology as the protagonist, an old rusted cell phone called "Robot Zot" comes to earth and falls in love with a toy cell phone. Perhaps it is a comment on consumerism as Zot zaps household items in the house with his ray gun, as well as, a  parody on romance tales. Lane Smith's "It's a Book" is another radical book that shows how technology is causing kids to not read, along with "Goodnight iPad," a parody of children saying goodnight to their technology devices. These books make me question what I consider the norms of how technology effects society today.

My favorite story in this book was "Johnny Get Your Money's Worth," by Ruth Brindze which reveals how advertising by a company gets kids to buy their candy. (I'm sure this appealed to my journalism side.) The piece is written for adults and reads more like an article than story but is meant to get people to think critically about consumerism. The company advertised a free bike to kids if they collected 700 wrappers in 4 months. If you do the math that means a kid would have to eat 5 candy bars a day. As she says it is "first-rate advertisement" for the company in getting them addicted to their chocolate bars. This made me think of the book, "Betty Bunny Loves Chocolate" and "Betty Bunny Wants Everything," by Michael Kaplan, a humorous look at a child who doesn't know when to stop eating chocolate or buying all the toys in the store. David Shannon's "Too Many Toys" is a comment on the consumerism that has many children with "mountain's of toys". Much of what the authors point out can be found today and for me this was the strength of the book. History doesn't really change. There will always be inhumanity, prejudice, war, environmental, economic, and societal issues. This is a book that could be written many times over and while I found it quite compelling I didn't love it.

4 Smileys

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