Children’s literature can often be seen in relation to the common conception of the innocent childhood, which is presumed by adults, who also have control over children’s literature, giving the texts overt and/or hidden agendas or motives. (Carpenter, 2009, p.57).Therefore in this field of study, it becomes apparent that children’s literature is both diverse in content and context, and yet still holds a certain amount of similarity, and because of this, texts can be studied historically, which can then determine common features of agendas within the texts. Agendas consistent in children’s literature can include recurrent themes of family and home, a sense of right and wrong and how these are placed in society. This essay will be focusing on these central themes and touching on how they may change in time, with consideration to the adult and author’s influence on these ideas. The themes, ideas and characters will be discussed briefly due to there not being enough room here to analyse extensively. The children’s literature being used in the following discussion will include Little Women by Louisa May Alcott, Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry by Mildred D. Taylor and The Other Side of Truth by Beverley Naidoo. Accompanying these texts will be the critical theories by Kimberley Reynolds and Peter Hunt, which will contribute to the analysis and conclusion of whether children’s literature always has an overt and/or hidden agenda.
In ‘Instruction and Delight’, Hunt proclaims that children’s books have historically, been ‘designed for educational purposes, with ‘delight’, if any, an incidental sugar-ing of the pill’, by adults with an ideological and political stance. (Hunt, 2009, p.22). Proclaiming that this ideology and ‘power struggle’, which children’s literature is embedded in, it conflicts with the ideal of the ‘innocent’ childhood. (Hunt, 2009, p.14). In highlighting these issues surrounding children’s literature, it can be contended that children’s books have a vast amount of ideological and power ideals ‘lurking behind’ the texts. (Hunt, 2009, p.14). Because these issues in the content of children’s books are primarily produced by adults and adult writers, it displays adults having a larger role in children’s literature, resulting in ‘even the most child-friendly [books] adopting some implicit attitudes.’ (Hunt, 2009, p.14). Therefore, when it comes to reading or analysing children’s literature, it stands to reason that the adult and adult author’s agenda of ‘motivation, ideology (all the attitudes that constitute a culture) and the manipulation or idealising, or commodification of childhood’ should be considered. (Hunt, 2009, p.12).
Furthering his thesis, Hunt continues in ‘The Same but Different: Conservatism and Revolution in Children’s Fiction’, contributing to the history and theory of children’s literature. He claims children’s books ‘are all rather similar’, and in viewing both the ‘sameness and difference’ of ideologies and recurrent themes, it is possible to identify the recurrent concepts of childhood through children’s books. (Hunt, 2009, p.70-1). The agendas, then, are fluid due to the changing conceptions and popularity through different periods of time, which ‘tells us a lot about what a society thinks about childhood at any given moment.’ (Hunt, 2009, 71). As an example of the recurrent themes Hunt talk of, he states that after world war two, ‘fantasy, especially, flourished’, which has been a recurrent theme towards the end of the twentieth century with books such as the Northern Lights by Philip Pullman. (Hunt, 2009, 79). It is within these recurrent themes that Hunt argues a difference can be seen in the agendas that have been determined through cultural ideas and the fluid and progressing concepts of childhood.
Similar to Hunt, Kimberley Reynolds, in her essay ‘Transformative Energies’, states that most children’s literature has intertextuality elements in which ‘culture’s choose to preserve and repeat.’ (Reynolds, 2009, p.111). Although Reynolds highlights this fact, her thesis is somewhat concluded differently. This is due to the fact that Reynolds argues that ‘children’s literature plays a seminal role in bringing about cultural change.’ (Reynolds, 2009, p.104). In leading the belief that the texts are central in ‘shaping an identity’ among childhood, it is suggestive that the effects of the ideological agendas will have a lasting influence on the future of a culture. (Reynolds, 2009, p.100). Reynolds furthers this thesis by stating that the act of this agenda is ‘piloted’ into the text because adults are aware that children will be shaping the future of society, ‘resulting in intellectual platforms from which to build new thinking.’ (Reynolds, 2009, p.108). Therefore, Reynolds, like Hunt, contends that cultural ideas in history have formed part of the background within the network of children’s literature. However, Reynolds doesn’t just contend for the shaping of history, but also argues that children’s literature has innovative ‘blueprints’ that will contribute to how a culture progresses. (Reynolds, 2009, p.108).
Little Women, written in the nineteenth century is still remaining popular among child and adult readers today, considered a classic, and is continually being subject to analysis in the field of literature. The text ventures straight into intertextuality with the text and morality of Pilgrim’s Progress, this gives an overt agenda of religion which ‘claims importance’ throughout the rest of Little Women. Because religion and moralistic connotations are embedded in the text, the reader will have the experience of what is religiously and culturally right and wrong for the characters and therefore childhood in this period. This overt agenda and intertextuality is in agreement with Hunt and Reynolds theories.
The March girls’ endearing, absent, father, that they dote on has a role within the family home as ‘the household conscience.’ (Fetterley, 2009, p.26). His absence has his character play a similar role to that of their religious counterpart, God. This combined with his overtly instructing of the girls’ characters to ‘conquer themselves beautifully’, is placing a male dominant agenda on the text, as well as, treating womanhood idealistically. (Alcott, Little Women, p.12). Furthering this concept of religious undertones and idealised femininity, Old Mr Lawrence, later in the book, also refers to the March’s home as a ‘nunnery’, continuing the agenda throughout the text. (Alcott, Little Women, p.57). In compliance with this, the March girls’ go out of their way to better themselves, morally, and to please their social peers and family, which surrounds their home, making their family and home life at the centre of this overt agenda. This also displays that within the home and underneath this morality, is the agenda of the March girls’ characters conforming to society in their journey into adulthood. ‘Growing up involves making choices’ and it seems that these choices made by the March girls’, would be influenced by their society’s ideals and categories. (Reynolds, 2009, p.100). This contends the gender role, socially and culturally, as placing a sense of right and wrong in the text and therefore childhood in this period. If this agenda is underneath the religion and moral tones, as well as considering gender restrictions as a commonality for this period, would it be considered a hidden agenda? Looking closer at characteristics of central characters, this agenda can be analysed further.
‘Jo is the vital center of Alcott’s book and she is so because she is least a little women’, due to her tomboyish ways and her struggle in the conforming to the female role, vastly contrasted with this, is her sister, and, ‘In Beth one sees the exhaustion of vitality in the effort to live as a little women.’ (Fetterley, 2009, p.27). In comparison, they both lack what they other needs. Jo’s life events can be considered overt but her wishes covert as she doesn’t wish to conform to society’s idealised roles. Bet yet Jo dotes and loves Beth, who is characterised as everything a woman ought to be and nicknamed as her father’s ‘Little Tranquillity’. (Alcott, Little Women, p.8). Therefore, Jo loves an ideal in her home, but this ideal in society is everything she avoids, displaying conflict and perhaps contradiction in the agenda shown. Beth, the ideal little woman, dies, seeming sacrificial, suggesting there is nothing left but to be dead after giving yourself up to this cultural ideal. This conflict contributes to the ‘continuing interest’ in Little Women, as sure as it connotes the theme to be overtly central to the text. (Fetterley, 2009, p.19). The negativity surrounding the gender restriction agenda could be suggestive of the text being innovative in the movement for women’s roles in culture, complying with Reynolds thesis. However, similarly, Jo’s character parallels Laurie in the text, with which his ‘unhappiness results from his place in the world of men and the concurrent pressure of proving himself a man’, highlighting that gendered restrictions weren’t just on females for this society. (Parille, 2009, p.33). This furthering of the agenda implies it to be overtly central to the text and displays how ‘boys and girls confront cultural limitations’ in this period. (Parille, 2009, p.38). The characters confronting cultural boundaries are what Hunt would term ‘revolutionary’ in the progression of children’s literature. (Hunt, 2009, p.92).
The agendas discussed can be seen as overtly displayed in Little Women, and in agreement with Hunt and Reynolds theories. It is worth noting, that Alcott was writing particularly for girls and in that market ended up catering for the audience, ‘as well as to the expectations society placed upon them’, making the agendas placed in accordance to what was agreeable among adults for the child reader in children’s literature. (Wadsworth, 2009, p.47). Thus, suggesting, the agendas possibly taking on a hidden form for the child reader.
Roll of Thunder Hear my Cry is autobiographical, historical, set in the 1930s in Mississippi, and tackles cultural issues of racism and ‘social injustice’. (Study Guide, p.174). Being written in the 1970s, Taylor contributes to the Civil Rights Movement in which she ‘joins in the effort to reclaim and revive a specific, realistic African-American history.’ (McDowell, 2009, p.246). This agenda places these themes to act as a teaching agent to child readers, but under a realistic emphasis, suggesting there is no sugar-coating the harshness displayed in this history, going against the idealised depiction of childhood.
In this book, like Little Women, the Logan family have ‘loving family scenes inside the home’, as well as it being a place of work and learning, placing the themes of family and home as central to the book. (Study Guide, p.175). Embodying these agendas makes it a place of both comfort, and suffering. Continuing throughout the book is the close-knit, strong and teaching peers for the Logan children, giving a sense of comfort. Big Ma and Mr Morrison play vital, teaching, roles in the book, where they tell stories of their histories which is directly related to the realities of slavery and events of racist attacks. For example, Mr Morrison tells his story of how he became the only survivor and witness in his family from a racist attack where the ‘Night men… Didn’t care who they kilt’, and invaded his childhood home. (Taylor, p.163). This daunting story leaves the room quiet, bar, Big Ma, poking ‘absently at the red-eyed logs with the poker’, which amidst the silence, the presence of a warm fire and being surrounded by family gives a sense of comforting after hearing such history. (Taylor, p.165). This displays how ‘The elders educate them [the children] about the ordeals that both their family and neighbours have endured’, which is essential in their learning of their place and roles in that society. (Cobb, 2009, p.251-2). This scene shows various contexts that are fundamental in the book, for portraying a history via telling another history, the children learning their historical roots as well as their place in society and the child reader is learning this history in order to be aware of the cultural issues surrounding ‘crucial’ and growing racial theory in the 1970s. (Cobb, 2009, p.245). In effect, this teaching agent is employed to not just teach a history but to be fundamental in the learning and choices of issues concurrent of the time in order to have emphasis on these society roles ‘suited to a future’, in hope of a better one, complying with Reynolds thesis. (Reynolds, 2009, p.100). Because it is clear Taylor intended for these certain features to be effective on the readership, the agendas are displayed realistically and overtly.
Cassie is the focalisation, as the narration is from her characters perspective, she, like Jo in Little Women, is ‘assertive’ alongside Ma and Big Ma, placing an agenda of strong femininity and motherhood roles in this text. (Cobb, 2009, p.251). The connection they have is strong due to the way they live and how they conform or revolt to their gender roles, then handed down to Cassie, just as the history is. This suggests, Cassie’s connections are stronger towards the females in her life, despite the fact she idealises her father, who is absent through some of the story, just as the March girls’ father was. Cassie seems to be more interested in her surroundings than her brothers via this female connection, furthering the importance of strong femininity. This can be seen in the text when Big Ma tells a story to Cassie after the Logan children saw Mr Granger had visited to which Stacey’s disinterest in the importance of the land and their home is shown in ‘his tone’, observed by Cassie. (Taylor, 2003, p.97). This leaves Big Ma and Cassie, with Cassie learning the history of how they came to own the land, with just the two of them displaying the female bonding, also contributing her understanding of their place in society.
In this context, the Logan children are encouraged to learn and fight alongside adults through the injustice of their society, which ‘overturns the strong boundary between childhood and adulthood’ that is ever present in classical fiction such as Little Women. However in the overt agendas displayed in this text Taylor has ‘promoted black heroes and heroines, celebrated black family life and reclaimed and foregrounded black history and heritage.’ (Maybin, 2009, 229). The pushing at the boundaries between childhood and adulthood combined with the overt agendas in order to reveal common and historical cultural ideas and facts about racism and justice, puts Taylor’s text in confrontation differently in society than Little Women, but does concur with Hunt and Reynolds critical ideas.
The Other Side of Truth, written in 2000, is different again to the previous two texts, in that it is set in another culture, society and time period. In this book, ‘Beverley Naidoo champions immigrants and asylum-seekers’, with a realist effect, and also displays themes of race and social justice, showing similarities to Taylors text. Naidoo’s writing is influenced by her own background where she grew up in a ‘whites-only school and community’, and later became more politically aware of her surroundings, as well as reading texts by African writers. (Naidoo, 2009, p.333). This can be called a ‘social realist fiction with a political agenda’. (Watson, 2009, p.330). This overt agenda suggest how ‘children’s literature is at root about power’, complying with Hunt’s thesis. (Hunt, 2009, p.14).
Sade is firmly placed as the focalised character in the story, in which the reader engages with and connects to her most, also having glimpses of her dreams and thoughts contributes to this. Sade being female, again, shows a continuing connection of female protagonists, displayed through, Jo, Cassie and Sade, in different periods of children’s literature. What makes Sade a protagonist in this story, is that even after the ‘victimisation and brutality’ she endures through the story, she still manages to be courageous and independent in her quest to the media in order to try and save her father. (Study Guide, p.259). The efforts pay off in the end when their story is publicised, ‘Papa was smiling from a large square behind Mr Seven O’clock’, and eventually contributes to the saving of Sade’s father. (Naidoo, 2000, p.183). This makes the media and news industry seem like an ideal saviour to the story, but it was through their father’s truthful journalism that their mother was killed and their ordeal in becoming refugees in Britain, showing conflict within the text. The conflict of this political agenda rings true in contemporary culture and also displays a conflict among children over what is right and wrong in their decision making and how childhood gets caught up in an adult’s world of political upheaval. Therefore this overt political and social agenda can be seen as a ‘transformative’ of social awareness, perhaps even progressing from Taylor’s text, for childhood readers and consequently the future of society. (Reynolds, 2009, 107).
In looking at the family and home life of Sade and her brother Femi, the difference is vast to that of the March girls and the Logan family. Their home in Nigeria is where the text places them at the start of the story and where their problems start, but it is their home that they love and lose, leaving them living in various places. They do settle into a house and school in Britain, but Sade’s memory and viewpoint often takes her back to the ‘village and Family House from their hideout at the forest’s edge’ in Nigeria, viewing it as still her home that is unreachable to her. (Naidoo, 2000, p.116). This displays discomfort and a lack of stability in the family and home compared to that of the previous texts. However, ‘Memory was to become an important theme in the novel as Sade experiences the loss of Mother, family and home’, making it, in effect, a comfort and grieving process. (Naidoo, 2009, p.339). These themes step over the boundaries of what is argued as suitable for childhood readers, in agreement with Hunt’s thesis. But, Naidoo stated ‘The process I adopted was allowing me to write with layers of meaning that could speak to a wide range of readers internationally’, suggesting she wasn’t just aiming for childhood readership. (Naidoo, 2009, p.335). In any case, Naidoo’s overt agendas and contribution of social and justice affairs, to have an impact on contemporary and future societies, agrees with both Hunt and Reynolds theories.
The above analysis of the three texts with the contribution of the theories by Hunt and Reynolds shows a continuation of themes in children’s literature, but with a difference in social and cultural content, context and time period. This concludes that adults and authors always place a hidden, and more often overt, agenda in children’s literature.
Texts used for analysis and theory;
- Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
- Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry by Mildred D. Taylor
- The Other Side of Truth by Beverley Naidoo
- Children’s Literature Approaches and Territories edited by J.Maybin & N, J. Watson
- Children’s Literature Classic Texts and Contemporary Trends edited by H. Montgomery & N, J. Watson