by Elizabeth Marshall
Children’s literature is inherently political, whether it upholds social and economic inequality or resists it. For educators, the Occupy Wall Street movement offers an opportunity to think about children’s and young adult books that deal with issues of equality and economic justice. What kinds of stories do adults tell children about social class?
Below are some titles that deal explicitly with economics and inequality, its causes and its potential remedies. To be sure, these are not the only children’s and young adult texts available that explore and explicitly critique the relationship between boss and worker, work and money, but they offer a place to begin. The three books described below serve as examples within a larger set of texts that aim to challenge the status quo, some more radically than others.
Tales for Little Rebels: A Collection of Radical Children’s Literature
Julia Mickenberg and Philip Nel’s anthology, Tales for Little Rebels, offers a history of radical literature for children. Their collection focuses on works published in the United States in the 20th century. The anthology includes fiction and nonfiction, poems, biographies, and illustrations from what Mickenberg and Nel define as “left of center” authors and artists, including Lucille Clifton, Syd Hoff, Langston Hughes, Munro Leaf, Eve Merriam, Julius Lester, and Dr. Seuss.
Herb Kohl reviewed Tales for Little Rebels for Rethinking Schools in the winter 2008/2009 issue. He wrote that, “Taken as a whole, the book reveals a unique, vibrant, imaginative, and energetic left-wing tradition of writing for young people.” The book includes reproductions of the original (and often out of print) texts. Two sections, “Work, Workers, and Money” and “Organize” would be most relevant for discussions about labor, economics, power, and the unequal distribution of wealth.
One excellent example is “Mr. His: A Children’s Story for Anybody” written and illustrated by Syd Hoff (author of Danny and the Dinosaur and other successful children’s books) under the pseudonym A. Redfield and published in 1939 by New Masses press. In this book, a rich capitalist named Mr. His lives in a small town called Histown because “everything in it was his.” Mr. His skips through the street each day with a paper and pencil, calculating profits and singing. Mr. His has no friends in the town as the townspeople hide from him.
The poor people would peep through their windows and shiver. They didn’t know it made Mr. His very happy to see they were afraid of him and that they were doing nothing to improve their lot. For there were no strikes in Histown—and no picket lines and no unions. The newspapers, which Mr. His owned, too, said that these things were wicked. (Mickenberg & Nel, p. 125)
One day as Mr. His “was dreaming of a way to get all the air in Histown into cans so the people would have to buy it from him,” he looks out the window and sees the townspeople holding signs of protest. Mr. His tries to divert them by running a newspaper story that encourages the people in town to see each other as the enemy, but they don’t fall for it. Mr. His is run out of town by a large group, who march through the streets chanting, “We’re tired of being stepped on! Now we are stepping forward!” In the end, wealth is redistributed and the town renamed Ourtown, where “The fields of wheat and corn, the fruit trees, the great mines—everything belongs to the people.”
In this contemporary picture book written by Doreen Cronin and illustrated by Betsy Lewin, the cows on a farm organize for better working conditions.
After finding an old typewriter, the cows post a note on the barn door that reads, “Dear Farmer Brown, The farm is very cold at night. We’d like some electric blankets. Sincerely, The Cows.” When Farmer Brown says “No,” the cows go on strike. They post another note: “Sorry. We’re closed. No milk today.” When the cows and the hens (who also want electric blankets) become allies, the animals find strength in numbers and revise their tactics: “Closed. No milk. No eggs.”
Farmer Brown is incredulous that cows and hens would demand such things. Finally, furious, he types a response to tell the cows and the hens that he will not provide electric blankets. Farmer Brown concludes: “You are cows and hens, I demand milk and eggs.” The cows hold a meeting to discuss the farmer’s ultimatum. They propose an exchange—typewriters for electric blankets—and the farmer agrees. While perhaps not as radical as the stories in Tales for Little Rebels—Farmer Brown remains in power at the end and the cows continue to provide labor—the book could be used to spark conversations about organizing for change and using technologies for resistance.
The bestselling dystopian trilogy, The Hunger Games features 16-year-old Katniss Everdeen, who lives in Panem, a district in what used to be the United States. The Capitol forces 24 children to fight to the death in a reality television show as a way to keep the 12 districts from rebelling against it.
Taking the kids from our districts, forcing them to kill one another while we watch—this is the Capitol’s way of reminding us how totally we are at their mercy. How little chance we would stand of surviving another rebellion. Whatever words they use, the real message is clear. “Look how we take your children and sacrifice them and there’s nothing you can do. If you lift a finger, we will destroy every last one of you. Just as we did in District Thirteen. [pp. 18-19]
The novels deal directly with economic repression, the use of media to uphold the interests of the one percent, and the necessity, as well as the often-violent consequences, of resistance. The books are brutally violent as Collins’s intent is to capture the realities of war. As Collins said in an interview in the New York Times, “I write about war. For adolescents.” Given that The Hunger Games is now a major film and a media spectacle of its own, with features in magazines like People, it will be interesting to see if and how the subversive elements of the books are co-opted into the mainstream.
The above are brief overviews of children’s and young adult literature that seek to represent the 99 percent. Readers of this blog may have other titles to suggest. What is clear is that children’s and young adult literature teaches profound lessons about economic equality—some that challenge and others that reinforce injustice.
What children’s or young adult books do you use to spark conversations about economic (in)justice? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.
Elizabeth Marshall, Ph.D. teaches in the Faculty of Education at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver Canada, where she researches children’s and young adult literature and popular culture. She is co-editor with Özlem Sensoy on Rethinking Popular Culture and Media. Her work has appeared in numerous academic journals, including the Harvard Educational Review, Reading Research Quarterly, Gender & Education, Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education, and The Lion and The Unicorn.
This post represents the views of the author, and not necessarily those of Rethinking Schools.