Revolution (2008), by French artist Sara. Credit: http://trollire.bm-grenoble.fr.
Committed literature, according to Jean-Paul Sartre, is an imperative call – both a demand and a gift. It is a transformative act, involving a free writer and a free reader. By reading my book, says Sartre, you are taking responsibility for the world with me. We will transform it together.
I would like to say 'no pressure', but actually, for Sartre, there is pressure. A good novel – by which he means a committed one – must press the reader to yearn for, and act towards, the improvement of society.
What happens if the reader is a child? Politically committed children's literature has always existed, alongside and sometimes set against more passively ideological works. These books, which can also be called radical, subversive, or transformative, attack or defend particular political positions. They can be aimed at very young children as well as teenagers. They can be leftist, anarchist, or reactionary. They often tackle themes which, as Philip Pullman would say, are ‘too big’ for literature aimed at adults.
Committed picturebooks are especially fascinating. Revolution (2008) by French artist Sara, tells the tale of a martyr in a time of popular upheaval. A collage of ripped papers and angular cardboard cuts, this wordless picturebook presents, in just three colours (red, white and black), a nameless revolution repressed by an army. An anonymous young protester’s death turns him into a blood-red lion, which walks into the flag, a symbol of courage and strength for the crowd to rise again. The book manages to be lyrical without using words, pressing the reader to react without spelling out an imperative.
The Tooth (2008), by Avi Slodovnick and Manon Gauthier. Credit: Amazon.
Other children’s books subtly address the imbalance between the power of adults and children. The Tooth (2008), an American picturebook by Avi Slodovnick and Manon Gauthier, denounces both adult indifference to homelessness and also the many adult-imparted myths which prevent children from fully engaging with the world.
Little Marissa has a tooth removed by her dentist. Her mother tells her she should put it under her pillow: the tooth fairy will replace it with a coin. But on the street, Marissa decides to give her tooth to a homeless man instead, since he could certainly do with an extra coin. The homeless man smiles at her, and she smiles back, but the book ends with these words: “Now all he needed was a pillow.” The harmless myth of the tooth fairy is equated with the much less harmless adult desire to protect children from social reality – to preserve the blissful assumption that anyone, even a homeless man, will obviously have a bed to sleep in.
There are children’s stories from many countries about domestic abuse against women and children; stories of war, rape, murder, sexual harassment, racism and environmental destruction; stories of death and political action; and above all, stories about the possibility of another, better world.
Such books can worry adult gatekeepers like librarians, parents and teachers because of their political agenda. If a book tells the child how to make the world better, isn't it akin to a propagandist pamphlet? It has an ideology after all. But it would be naïve to ignore the fact that 'normal' children's books are also soaked in ideology, albeit often passively.
Openly political children's literature is unmistakably pedagogical because it spells out its transformative purpose. It wants the child reader to act upon the messages that are transmitted. This can make such books heavy-handed in their style and content, but not always. And it makes them less dangerous, not more so, than the soup of domestic tales and school stories which charmingly and silently cultivate assent to multiple forms of social inequality, such as Enid Blyton’s perennially-reprinted works.
Click Clack Moo, Cows That Type (2002-2004) by Betsy Lewin and Doreen Cronin. Credit: Wikipedia.
Children's literature is a battleground between conserving the status quo and transforming it; between continuity and change. Of course, committed children’s literature strengthens some values and beliefs just as it strives to weaken others. The celebrated Click, Clack, Moo! Cows That Type picturebook series, written by Betsy Lewin and Doreen Cronin between 2002 and 2004, humorously presents to children the benefits of workers’ unions and strikes.
In these books, a herd of cows, suddenly literate thanks to a typewriter they have found, pressures the nasty farmer into improving their life conditions (with electric blankets no less). Meanwhile, a clever duck, acting as middleman between the farmer and the cows, takes advantage of the situation to make his own requests to the boss – in the form of a diving board for the duck pond. The message is clear, but the books’ gently Marxist critique of exploitation in farmyards and factories never goes as far as to question the unsatisfactory distribution of labour at its roots.
Regardless, committed children’s literature can be extremely perturbing and subversive, shamelessly wishing for another world and encouraging the child to achieve the necessary changes. Who is the dreamt-of, ideal child reader of these transformative books? Sartre would probably refute the idea that truly transformative literature for children is possible. From his perspective, children are, by their situation, devoid of effective freedom. They depend on adults to tell them what to think and how to act. They take the world as a given. They are in bad faith – going on with their lives in blissful ignorance of their ability to transform them. What, then, is the point of addressing children as if they also have their own agency and power?
The point is that, of course, they do – at least potentially. Committed literature for children exists because despite the effectively disempowered status of children in society, and despite the general conformism and conservatism of educational practices, adults still believe that children will be more powerful than themselves in the future.
The child can and will change the world which the adult failed to transform. This tacit assumption of child potency by adults, this call for powerful child readers, may be idealistic but it is also transformative. It is a declaration from one generation to another – and from the authoritative to the subservient - that they trust them, and that they want them to fulfil the potential that they themselves have failed to fulfil.