This is especially a problem when academics get their hands on children's literature and, because understandably Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day isn't Ulysses in terms of grist for the literary interpretation mill, they are reduced to grinding out conclusions about how it reinforces sexist, racist, hetero-normative, and imperialist worldviews in order to demonstrate that studying children's literature is a Serious Field of Inquiry. The argument has to rest on subconscious perceptions of these things, since no nine-year-old reading Kipling is going to turn to his parents afterwards and say, "You know, mommy, I think I'd like to take on the white man's burden and administer an Oriental colony full of savages, please."
I'm not averse to the possibility that children do attend to these things subconsciously or implicitly, particularly where the offending ideas are very explicit (and Babar the Colonialist is definitely not explicit--what American child even knows what a colony is when he is 6?). But there's no way to demonstrate that Kipling makes children imperialists, since the child who absorbs Kipling's imperialism and denies it because, as an adult, he can't recall learning imperialism from Kipling only suffers from this problem because Kipling has made him such a thoroughgoing imperialist that he can't even remember when his affliction began. See how useful that was? There is good reason to suspect that the analysis of the professional academic might not be the best guide to the reading mind of the child, but how can we know what the child does absorb from these stories?
These are problems. Seth Lerer's Children's Literature: A Reader's History does not resolve them, but it is nonetheless marvelous. Really. My point in the above disquisition was only to convey my deep suspicion of academic studies of kid's books, which almost necessarily over-critique the obvious, and start from dubious assumptions, like that which holds that children's authors want to enslave their readers by teaching them manners and other burdensome rules of adult life. But Lerer does not have this problem. His history assumes that all the great children's authors have succeeded in teaching basically good things to children, things which will help them grow up successfully into the world of adults, and that growing up is a good thing.
I'm a little doubtful of Lerer's readings of some of the earlier works, like Aesop and Augustine. I'm not sure he (or really anyone) knows enough about the context in which these stories were read by Roman and medieval schoolchildren, and when he doesn't have much to say, he fills space with cloying linguistic metaphors for life, so that, for example, the bigger meaning of The Adventures of a Bank-Note: "Our offspring are our banknotes. We put stock in them, we hope the redeem us. They have value, they are money in the bank..." Or after describing an ambush scene in Winnie the Pooh: "Like Pooh and Piglet, or the young boy in Treasure Island...we are all ambushed by imagination." Let's just say that there is a lot of eye-rolling and facepalming to be done in the first few chapters.
But then he starts into the influence of Puritanism on children's literature and goes forward chronologically from there, and the bad metaphors are (mostly) replaced by really interesting readings of the really big themes that child readers would themselves plausibly see--the omnipresence of lists and categories in children's literature, the islands and explorations of boys' books, the connection between philology and fairy tales, between the overflowing of culture and ironic YA lit, nonsense and the idea of childhood imagination, and the best chapter (I am biased by my own childhood reading, obviously)--Theaters of Girlhood--about the tension between performance and authenticity in girls' books:
That girls are always on the stage; that being female is a show; that there is always, as the girl grows up, a tension between staging one's behavior for the delectation of others and finding inner virtue in devotion to the family or to learning...Should the girl pursue a life in public or in private? Should she place desire over duty? How can she avoid the temptations of applause to find true fulfillment in good works or small devotions?In case you are wondering, no one grows up to be an actress, possibly because we are still Puritans, a thread that Lerer also follows diligently. (And we know how I love this thread.) Most of these thematic explications successfully walk the fine line between absurd hyper-critique and statements of the obvious that call into question the validity of children's lit as an academic source in the first place. And this is actually pretty hard to do.
...The literary fictions I have explored here all figure forth ideals of a creative life. The girl may grow up as Jo March, absorbed and writing, chronicling stories of her family, putting away the old hunger for the stage in favor of the pleasures of the book. She may, by contrast, grow into Anne Shirley, learning to master her theatrical impulses, bringing a bit of floral drama to the otherwise dull, simple lives of her adoptive family. Or she may grow up into Mary Lennox, a stage manager of human growth, playwright and director of men.
Also, this book made me reconsider my plan to write Straussian chick lit in favor of Straussian children's lit. So it wins.