A Manifesto for Children’s Literature; or, Reading Harold as a Teenager: From Philip Nel’s Blog, Nine Kinds of Pie

Through children’s literature we can study how social change and cultural values can determine what is suitable for children, and how books and stories reflect the times in which they were written.
This is a great blog post which illustrates the importance and distinctiveness of children’s literature and its different representations of children’s worlds.

TurtleAndRobot.com

Philip Nel is the author of several books about children’s literature and the director of Kansas State University’s Program in Children’s Literature. He’s also the creator of the website Nine Kinds of Pie, which takes its name from a line in Harold and the Purple Crayon.

He recently published a post that I wanted to share with my readers titled “A Manifesto for Children’s Literature; or, Reading Harold as a Teenager” in which he perfectly expresses all the things I think and feel about children’s books. And, like Nel, I began collecting children’s books as a teenager.

I’ve copied his post below, but I urge readers to check out Nel’s site as well.

 

Those of us who read, create, study, or teach children’s literature sometimes face skepticism from other alleged adults.  Why would adults take children’s books seriously?  Shouldn’t adults be reading adult books?

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Little Red Riding Hood – The wolf and the leer

English: An illustration from Tales of Mother ...
English: An illustration from Tales of Mother Goose by Charles Perrault; translated and edited by Charles Welsh The caption was “”She met with Gaffer Wolf””, it presumably illustrates the tale “Little Red Riding-Hood” and is found as the frontispiece (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 Double Review: Little Red Riding Hood by Charles Perrault and Little Red Riding Hood and the Wolf  by Roald Dahl

The story of Little Red Riding Hood is essentially a story about an attack on a little girl and her grandmother.  It includes violence, death and sexual connotations (and we read this to kids!).  The vague time and location of ‘Once upon a time…’ signifies to the child that this is a world of fantasy. This means that the child is aware that it is just a story.

Fairy tales began as folk tales for adults but have been used to entertain children since the eighteenth century.  They have been retold and altered according to social and cultural contexts.  In the original folk tale the little girl (unnamed)  is asked by the wolf if she is taking the path of pins or needles – pins representing the temporary binding of a young girl’s garments, and needles representing coming into adulthood, where needles are a permanent bind.  This was originally a tale of initiation as she chose the path of needles.  She later encounters the wolf dressed as her grandmother and gets into bed with him.

In Perrault’s version (1697) the girl who is now nicknamed Little Red Riding Hood, is “the prettiest that had ever been seen”.  Her attractiveness is important because, as is seen later, the story is a warning to women against talking to the wrong kind of men.  She does not escape but instead serves as an example of girls who are spoilt and naive.  She wears red, the colour of passion, which was introduced by Perrault, as a symbol of her ‘sinful’ nature.  She “met old neighbour wolf, who had a great desire to eat her.”  This is the first clue that the wolf is actually a sexual predator.  Perrault turned the wolf into a stand –in for male seducers who lure young women into their beds.

What makes Perrault’s version so great?

– Although this version was not originally intended for children, the repetition the ‘all the better to…’ sequence is a formula that is liked by children.  This has been repeated in every retelling of the story apart from removing some lines such as “the better to hug you with…” for their promiscuity.

– In terms of social anthropology, this is a wonderful example of a 17th century text.  The earliest oral versions of the story include bodily functions “oh, but I’ve also got to make cacka, grandma” and cannibalism “Slut! To eat the flesh… of your grandmother” and also sexual innuendo “undress yourself… come lie down beside me…” which were all removed when Perrault wrote it down.  He altered the story to one that would be suitable for the society he wrote for.

– Let’s face it,  the moral is still relevant: “Children…  should never talk to strangers, for if they should do so, they may well provide dinner for a wolf.  I say “wolf,” but there are various kinds of wolves. There are also those who are charming, quiet, polite, unassuming, complacent, and sweet, who pursue young women at home and in the streets. And unfortunately, it is these gentle wolves who are the most dangerous ones of all.”

Roald Dahl’s version  (1982) begins with the wolf.  Little Red Riding Hood comes into it later when wolf decides that eating Grandma was not enough.  He makes the decision to wait for her with a “leer” which is the first sign of the wolf’s ‘sleaziness’.   This version is clearly aimed at children; the simple rhyming scheme and the humour make it appealing to children. Yet it is still laced with hidden assumptions about Little Red Riding Hood.  She is described in line 27 as the “little girl in red”.  But later, she is referred to as “Miss Riding Hood” with “no silly hood upon her head”.  In France, to have ‘seen the wolf’ was a euphemism for a girl losing her virginity.  Dahl’s Little Red Riding Hood has matured since having ‘seen the wolf’.  She also smiles and takes a gun from her underwear before shooting the wolf dead.  Children only see the humour in this but to an adult she acts quite flirty, and promiscuous.   Dahl has returned the idea of her being a desirable object for the wolf, which is often removed in recent versions. “Compared with her old Grandmamma/ She’s going to taste like caviar.” Her youth makes her more appealing, but it also questions her physical appearance.  Grandma was “small and tough” but by favourably comparing Little Red Riding Hood, one assumes that she would be in comparison, curvy and voluptuous.

What makes Roald Dahl’s version so great?

It is hilarious: “He ran around the kitchen yelping/’I’ve got to have a second helping'”

It is postmodern: “‘That’s wrong!’ cried wolf ‘Have you forgot/to tell me what BIG TEETH I’ve got?'”

She is kick-ass: “The girl smiles. One eyelid flickers/She whips a pistol from her knickers.”

It is illustrated by Quentin Blake