Subversion in Children’s Literature, Part I

Yes, it’s a good thing!

I promised a friend that I would send her my list of subversive children’s literature. I have a thing about kid’s books – I adore them. I’ve read lots of them, both when I was a kid and later on in life. And I found a trend. Everything that had lasting impact on me shared one element in common. They were subversive.   

Dictionary.Com defines Subvert (v) as:

  1. To overthrow (something established or existing).
  2. To cause the downfall, ruin, or destruction of.
  3. To undermine the principles of; corrupt.

That is what great art does – it changes us by overthrowing our sensibilities, destroying our preconceptions, and undermining our own sense of reality.

Great children’s literature is no different. We aren’t talking Aesop’s fables or stories with morals or ones designed to make you a good citizen – we are talking about bad days, poor parents, naughty children who have fun, and worlds of nonsense.

If you want to make me really cranky – give any child I know Rainbow Fish – I will then tell you, and the child why this is one of the worse books ever written. I usually make children cry when I explain the basis for it… the little fable about sharing and fitting in is really about a group making someone different have to give up parts of himself to fit it. When Kurt Vonnegut Jr. deals with the same theme it is art – this is something else. It glorifies the norm and upholds the principle of political correctness. If everyone is the same, everyone will be equal. Cruelty to infants! I can write pages on the images in Rainbow Fish… but this is about subversive children’s literature. 

You can tell a really great subversive picture book by how it holds an audience – and how many times they want it read over and over and over again. Many picture books are really created and marketed to parents not children – it is the parents who are buying them after all. That is how “Guess How Much I Love You” got its sales. It is a sweet story… but it isn’t a great book.

So… now you are asking yourself – what does she think a great children’s story is? I’ve given two examples of what they aren’t but what are they?

Think for a minute – you know them. They start out with phrases like

“The night Max wore his wolf suit and made mischief of one kind and another.” Where the Wild Things Are, Maurice Sendak 

“The sun did not shine. It was too wet to play.” The Cat in the Hat, Dr. Seuss

And one of my personal favorites:

“Mr. Plumbean lived on a street where all the houses were the same.” The Big Orange Splot, Daniel Manus Pinkwater

But then Daniel Pinkwater has the fun of having his book “Devil in the Drain” banned – but I think “The Big Orange Splot” is one of his most subversive since it takes on the idea that we all have to present the same face to the world yet we only begin to really live when we start being different.  

I was just viewing a list of the most commonly challenged books in the US from 1990 – 1999.

What fun – everything from The Adventures of Super Diaper Baby to The Bridge to Terabithia to A Wrinkle in Time. If it’s been challenged or banned it is often subversive…

Just think how you felt when you read Alice in Wonderland or Winnie the Pooh for the first time. Or how you know every word to “Green Eggs and Ham”. And let’s not forget the book that made studying hard cool – Harry Potter! All of those book worms out there warmed to Hermione since she made being smart, really really smart okay. 

Over the next week I’ll be adding a new page where I list and review my favorite books of subversion…. Things like The Phantom Toll Booth, The Golden Compass, anything by A A Milne or Beatrix Potter… If there are any you think should be included send them my way. I’ll take a look and if they meet the criteria I’ll add them to the list.  

~ Tess

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