Thursday, June 14, 2012

Greetings from Boston

Greetings from Boston, where I'm having a blissful time at the annual conference of the Children's Literature Association, which I attend every year.  This is the national organization of children's literature scholars, mainly professors from English departments (as well as some historians and folks from cultural studies, childhood studies, women and gender studies, American studies, and other allied fields), who teach and write about children's literature as a field of academic endeavor.  When I come to this conference, I take off my children's book author hat and put on my children's book scholar hat.  I mainly take off my philosophy hat, but sometimes adorn myself with it when it is suitable headgear for my purposes, as it was this year.

I was asked by my dear friend Lisa Rowe Fraustino to take part on a panel she was organizing on romanticism.  The actual title for the panel was "The Romantic Child in the Literary Slipstream" - the conference theme this year is "Literary Slipstreams."  Many of the papers involve a pleasing slipperiness across genres, historical periods, and/or critical approaches.  So I wrote a paper on my beloved Jean-Jacques Rousseau, using his argument against premature moralizing to children in his treatise on the philosophy of education, Emile, to provide a lens for critiquing several recent children's novels that try to teach children to view others in a non-prejudiced way, but actually, in my view, actually work chiefly to introduce child readers to the very prejudices they are seeking to combat.

In Emile, Rousseau offers a hilarious close reading of La Fontaine's fable, "The Crow and the Fox," in which a cunning fox flatters a vain and gullible crow into opening his mouth to show off his lovely singing voice - in the process dropping the cheese that he is holding in his beak, so that the fox can snatch it up and be on his way. In analyzing La Fontaine’s text, Rousseau points out that, in order to warn a child against the alleged dangers of susceptibility to flattery, La Fontaine succeeds chiefly in introducing the practice of lying to a child who has never yet been lied to, nor been motivated to tell a lie of his own.  When the Fox praises the Crow, “without lying” to see if his song matches his plumage, Rousseau writes: “Without lying! One lies sometimes, then? Where will the child be if you teach him that the fox says ‘without lying’ only because he is lying?” Rousseau goes on to ask “whether it is necessary to teach six-year-old children that there are men who flatter and lie for profit?”

I next consider a children's novel from about a decade ago, The Janitor's Boy, by Andrew Clements, in which the title character learns not to be ashamed of his father’s calling. At the same time, however, the story carries the message to young readers that it is indeed horrifically embarrassing to have one’s dad work as a custodian.  Jack is the cruel target of kids who call his dad a "dum-dum" and ask sneeringly if he had to take a course in cleaning up vomit at a special janitor's college. Now, my own children attended an elementary school in which the custodian (I don't think they had ever heard the word "janitor") was a mega-cool woman, admired and respected by all the kids, a talented mechanic and handywoman who was a valued member of the school staff.  If my kids had read this book, would they have learned not to be prejudiced against janitors?  It had never occurred to them to be prejudied against janitors in the first place! I constrast Clements's book with Clementine by Sara Pennypacker.  In this book, Clementine's father does maintenance work for the apartment building in which her family lives, but Clementine is proud to join her father in his war against "pigeon splat" on the front of the building, and they both achieve a gloriously satisfying tactical victory against the pigeon splat together. I argue that Rousseau would approve of Pennpacker's approach to combatting prejudice more than the approach that drives The Janitor's Boy. Anyway, that is the gist of my paper.

I gave the paper this morning, and I think it went pretty well, though it was a tad longer than it should have been.  But any paper about Rousseau is bound to be pretty good. and a Rousseau lover will be tempted to make any paper about Roussseau just a tad too long.  Now I can relax and enjoy two more days of stimulating papers and reconnnections with beloved once-a-year conference friends until I fly back to Indiana on Sunday.


  1. Of course you're in Boston when I'm home from school! Alas, we could have had tea. Oh well.

    What a wonderful paper. What little I've read of Rousseau's I have absolutely reveled in; now I must read more. My friend did Fantasy in Children's Literature for her senior thesis and talked a bit about moralization in kid's lit, I wonder what she'd think about this. I might send her the link, provided she's ready to think about academia so soon, heehee.

  2. I would have loved having tea! Oh, well....