Monday, August 21, 2006
Book: Inventing the Child
Following is my review of:
Inventing the Child: Culture, Ideology, and the Story of Childhood (Children's Literature and Culture)
Author: J. Zornado
Genre: Literature & Fiction/History & Criticism
Summary: 400 years of children's literature teaching authority, obedience and violence
To use the type of language that quickly becomes familiar to a reader of this book:
The dominant culture reproduces itself by telling itself stories about itself. These stories tell of the rightness of obedience to authority, of the natural order of hierarchy, of power, of the obvious right of the strong to use violence and force to coerce the weak, of the need of the subjugated to be controlled. Children learn these stories, which reinforce the realities that they themselves experience and that they see around them.
By telling these stories about children (or stand-ins for children, as Curious George the monkey represents a child), adults create the notion of what a child is. The child grows into an adult who is shaped by lessons learned -- through stories and through experience -- at so fundamental and unconscious a level that these precepts seem to be reality itself. Nurture is taken for nature, training for instinct, and so on.
Zornado reviews 400 years of children's literature, as well as pedagogy and mainstream thinking about the nature of children and childhood, in the Western world. The results are eye-opening and can be more than a little disturbing.
It is easy to feel outrage and to distance ourselves from the cultural world revealed in earliest examples given, among them the school primer alphabet that read, in part: "A: In Adam's fall we sinned all...J: Job felt the rod but loved God," when learning how extensively beating was used to make children behave and remind them of their sinfulness and inferiority. The interpretations of more modern texts are more apt to make us squirm, from the readings of Babar as a celebration of colonialism and Barney as a lesson in happiness through group conformity and consumerism, and the Lion King as a text of racial hierarchy and dinine monarchical right.
Some are sure to protest that children's stories are by their nature innocuous and that Zornado's whole enterprise is overblown, perhaps silly. But the interesting fact remains that children's literature, as Zornado points out, is the only category of literature produced entirely by people who are not its own target audience.