Author Archives: Kathy Cacace

A little Alexie extra reading

In The Absolutely True Diary, Mary Runs Away writes enthusiastically to Junior about the telephone in the bathroom of her honeymoon hotel room:  “It’s on Flathead Lake and we had a suite, a hotel room with its own separate bedroom!  And there was a phone in the bathroom! Really! I could have called you from the bathroom.”

This poem looks at that same detail in a totally different mode.  I thought it might be a nice complement to our reading to see another facet of Alexie’s voice.

An Absolutely True Primary Post about the Absolutely True Diary

My mother-in-law is staying with me this weekend. She is a clinical social worker at an in-patient crisis unit for teens and children in Washington County, Maine, the poorest of Maine’s numerous poor, rural counties. It’s up on the Canadian border and virtually the only opportunities for employment are small-scale fishing and the blueberry crop, neither of which provides more than a meager income.

I bring her up because she was describing life in her town, which is sandwiched between two Passamaquoddy reservations, and on her unit, which treats numerous children and teenagers from these communities. While at the clinic, kids don’t have access to phones, the internet, or TV (beyond a group movie screening on the weekend), and she was explaining that they read voraciously–though large books are used less often for reading than for “paper ball tennis,” which is exactly what it sounds like, though perhaps more bloodthirsty than you’d expect. I was asking about what kinds of books they have on the unit, and it’s basically a potpourri of whatever is donated to them. She was really excited to hear about The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, because she feels they don’t have anything that directly speaks to the experiences of her Passamaquoddy clients and she intends to buy a copy for the unit.

While I wholeheartedly endorsed the book, particularly for its humor and its frankness about topics that adults often hedge about when speaking with children or teens–death, addiction, racism, etc.–there’s a small voice in the back of my head that wonders who this book was written for, and what it means for young Native American readers. I don’t know if I would’ve had this question had we not read the selections from Bradford’s Unsettling Narratives. I was so struck by author Cynthia Leitich Smith’s discussion of self-censorship, and particularly her questions quoted in Chapter 2: “Is there any place in children’s books for writing that reflects Native idiosyncracies? Or rather, if diversity of voice matters at all, does it only apply to diversity that appeals to the mainstream audience?”

This issue of “diversity that appeals to the mainstream audience” popped into my mind every so often when I was reading The Absolutely True Diary. Arnold/Junior’s clarifying “That’s about the worst thing you can do to an Indian guy” about Rowdy’s braid-cutting, or how common his nickname is among Native Americans seem like explanations included for a presumed non-Native audience. And while I think that having this book on my mother-in-law’s unit will benefit Passamaquoddy and non-Passamaquoddy clients alike, I have to shake my head a bit at the idea that Native American readers can only read Native American stories when the publishing industry deems them interesting enough/accessible enough for a white audience as well.

(I also realize that this is somewhat counter to the spirit of Alexie’s poetic musing later in the book about how he is a member of many of humanity’s different tribes. I don’t think he expects or wants this book to speak ONLY to Native American young adults.)

I was also thinking in particular about the Passamaquoddy girls on my mother-in-law’s unit reading this book, and what they might think of it. I tend to read a book and notice its treatment of female characters first, and in many ways I think Alexie does a wonderful job. Considering we get them only through Arnold/Junior’s perspective, I think his sister and his grandmother come across with great depth. I flinched a bit at Penelope’s characterization, though. Readers know little more about Penelope than her beauty, and her bulimia is a convenient shorthand for the universality of pain (and he characterizes it in terms of addiction, which is not quite right) and it’s never mentioned again.

Again, I know it’s not realistic for Alexie to give every character and every situation in this book the vibrant, layered treatment he gives Arnold. But this is a book for young adults, and some young adults are young women. Native American teen girls may see aspects of their culture reflected in this book, but not their gendered experience. And other books that reflect their gendered experience will almost certainly not reflect their culture, given publishing trends. What I am left with is all the more conviction that The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is an excellent book, but a book that should be surrounded with shelves and shelves of other excellent books that reflect more Native American experiences, amid a library of truly diverse literature for children and young adults.

Abate, Raising Your Kids Right — Method

Allow me to get a little autobiographical here for a moment. I had a bit of a Baader-Meinhof experience reading the Abate that provoked some interesting questions for me, and they might be helpful to some of the discussions we’ve been having about childhood and children’s literature this semester.

I was alternately doing my reading and cleaning out an old bookshelf (thanks, Marie Kondo) when I fortuitously came across an old copy of Politically Correct Bedtime Stories I forgot I owned. I’ve had it since I was a kid, in fact, and I remember my mother buying it off the discount book table at Costco, chuckling through it on the way home, and giving it to me. I was about eleven when it came out and I had read “adult books” before, or tried to, struggling mightily with Michael Crichton in the wake of seeing Jurassic Park but plowing through my mother’s Stephen King and scrappy lady investigator mysteries. This book felt *very* adult though, because I knew I was supposed to understand both what it was saying to me and what it wasn’t saying to me, and how adults spoke to each other in order to get that something was going on.

I bring this up because my mother is an avowed Democrat, and yet she purchased Politically Correct Bedtime Stories and gave it to me. And while I haven’t looked at the book since then, what I took from it as a child was not an aversion to “political correctness,” but rather the sexist stupidity of fairy tales. In fact, I remembered this so clearly and was so convinced Abate’s reading of this book was wrong that I went back and flipped through it again, shocked to see it was of course a send-up of “P.C.” liberalism and not the subversive text I’d perceived it to be. What my mother got out of it I’m not sure, but she is a Democrat married to a blue-collar Republican, and they both read only the New York Daily News, never the New York Times. I suspect the thing my parents have in common is the thing she found funny here–a snickering disdain for things they find to be pointlessly pompous. (Dad’s a ball at MOMA.)

Anyway, my experience of Politically-Correct Bedtime Stories lead me down an interesting path–or really, down a series of questions–that ties the Raising Your Kids Right back to some of our other reading. As I was reading about The Book of Virtues and The Truax, I was preoccupied by the fuzzy model of conservative childhood I was getting from Abate’s work–it just wasn’t coming into focus for me. I’m not sure investigating this was the goal of her project because she seems to be working in a bit of a Kidd-like way, in that she uses a historical lens and selects certain works as case-studies to reveal larger themes. Her introduction is heavily historical, tracing the shape of the American conservative movement from the mid-20th century through the present, or the present when the book was written. At least in the chapters chosen for this week, her motive seems to be exploring moments in conservative children’s literature to reveal truths about conservatism, not necessarily what it does for children. I wish she had done more with this, though again I don’t think it was her goal–I wish it because it would be helpful for our class, and for my understanding of childhood studies.

What is the conservative idea (or ideal) of childhood, and what role do books play? I think Bennett’s Book of Virtues points to certain popular conceptions of Victorian childhood that Gubar has so graciously complicated for us, and also to a belief that a child absorbs what they are presented as-is. But if modern conservatism is characterized by traditionalism, an feeling that was “opposed to progressive social changes and promoted the status quo” [12], which the child is, I think, supposed to absorb through the simplified or sanitized moral tales in The Book of Virtues, how and when does that child also learn to question and push back against cultural change? How can political ideology be transmitted through a book to children who may, as I did with Politically Correct Bedtime Stories, take from it a completely different lesson?

Though this is a bit half-baked, I found myself reaching back to Bernstein and wondering whether or not we might be able to look at the children’s book itself as a scriptive thing to get at some of these concepts of childhood. An illustrated picturebook, for example, is meant to be touched and opened, enjoyed visually by the child alone but read in tandem with an adult who can decipher the print. Its script requires contact between adults and children to fully transmit the book’s contents. I’m wondering then about the particular scripts around The Book of Virtues, which at more than 800 pages a child might not even be able to lift for herself and which (from a quick glance inside the book on Amazon) contains almost no illustrations. Or the scripts surrounding the Truax, which, to a child who cannot yet read, might be indistinguishable from The Lorax. These two examples seem to bind together the child receiver to the adult transmitter of the children’s book particularly tightly, and I wonder if that isn’t something important to our understanding of conservative childhood–that one should hew closely to one’s elders.

Method Post — Freud in Oz

In Freud in Oz, Kenneth Kidd’s “main goal has been to describe rather than analyze” the “historical encounter(s) of children’s literature and psychoanalysis,” as he states in his concluding paragraph. He explores how psychoanalysis used children’s literature in ways that made it seem vital and applicable, and also how children’s literature incorporated psychoanalytic methods and motifs in ways that made it seem authoritative and therapeutic. Kidd identifies an impressive number of connection points, concentrating broadly on fairy tales, child analysis and Winnie the Pooh, case writing as it relates to The Wizard of Oz, Lewis Carroll and Alice, and Barrie and Peter Pan, Maurice Sendak, YA literature as a genre, and trauma writing for children.

I found Kidd’s chapter on Sendak to be the strongest in the book, perhaps aided by its close focus on the work of one mind–playfully close to a case study, in fact. The chapter is in fact based mostly on just two books, Where the Wild Things Are and Kenny’s Window, a grounding which allows Kidd to boomerang out into the many touchpoints between psychoanalysis and children’s literature (developing his idea of picturebook psychology, child drawings, picture book history, queer theory, Sendak’s history with analysis, Freud’s famous cases, children’s author as therapist, etc.) without the chapter feeling scattershot.

Because there are already two excellent blog posts on this book, I think I’m going to concentrate on two ideas that stuck with me after I was finished reading. Neither is necessarily engaged with some of the fundamental questions of children’s literature and childhood itself that we’ve been exploring this semester, but both are broader questions or thoughts about Kidd’s style of work.

First, while I really liked this work, I found myself wondering what to make of it as a work of scholarship. And I mean this in the most respectful way, as I was pretty swayed by Kidd’s assertion that psychoanalysis and children’s literature were and to some degree are “mutually constitutive.” This is an excellent history — but what avenues does historicizing open for future scholarship? What do we do now that we’ve read Kidd?

Because I was curious how others answered this questions, I actually checked out some reviews of the book, which I’ve added to the course Dropbox in the Kidd folder. They were written by our good pals Karen Coats and Marah Gubar, who in fact both saw this book as opening up entirely different conversations. Coats focuses on Kidd’s neglect of trauma in children’s literature about the black experience in America, and suggests that further scholarship on other American identities is needed. Gubar, on the other hand, is most taken with Kidd’s YA chapter and sees his book as a critical new perspective on how she will teach and interpret responses to young adult literature.

(Side note: I’m super glad that Chelsie was writing on this book this week, because I think her expertise in psychology brings a totally different perspective to my question of what one does with this sort of history!)

My second thing, though this is somewhat tangential to the main concerns of our course, is that I found myself reflecting most often not on the content of Kidd’s book, but on its style, sensibility, and prose. Kidd was an antidote to some of the things I find most alienating about academic writing. Sometimes I feel as though I am reading excellent thinkers whose influences, or the scholars with whom they are in dialogue, are nearly coded within their text. Of course, I acknowledge that some of this feeling has to do with how early I am in my own academic career, but I found the directness with which Kidd interacted with other work to be refreshing. An example I particularly enjoyed comes at the end of the introductory sections of Chapter 3, where Kidd takes a detour to discuss Gubar’s Artful Dodgers:

“While Gubar makes a good case for rethinking Golden Age literature in its cultural and historical context, I am less concerned here with the original literature than with what has been done with and to it. I understand that source texts do not always authorize their aftertexts and that Golden Age authors enjoyed richer, more complex personalities than we might know from ventures in case writing.” [I think this is on page 73…but I have a Kindle version so who knows…]

Yes, asides like these help to demonstrate the breadth of Kidd’s reading, but these signposts for what his work is and isn’t, and what it aims to accomplish, and what work it speaks to were gestures I appreciated. The ruminative nature of this book and its careful qualifications and examinations were intensely appealing to me, and demonstrated a thoughtful curiosity I hope will inspire my own work.

I found Kidd’s clarity even more admirable given the jargon-y nature of psychoanalysis. I expected to be Googling terms all but constantly, but his tone was so inviting and so–is casual the right word?–that I felt neither lost nor lectured to as a reader. Likewise, I found his introduction to be one of the most helpful I’ve read in a while, a welcome contrast to something like the beginning of Rose’s The Case of Peter Pan, whose foreword about child abuse I found disorienting, like a footnote to a case not yet made.

The Case of Peter Pan

In Jacqueline Rose’s own words about The Case of Peter Pan, she states:  “Instead of asking what children want, or need, from literature, this book has asked what it is that adults, through literature, want or demand of the child.” Roses selects Peter Pan because it is an enduring example of children’s literature and, because of its content, complicated authorship, and history, a useful site to excavate what she sees as the essentially problematic nature of writing for children.

Rose dismantles prevailing models and conventions of children’s literature by employing a psychoanalytic line of reasoning. Freudian childhood is not a fixed state, but rather a constantly shifting amalgam of memory, the unconscious, and the present. Because the adult can only conceive of this image of childhood, Rose asserts that adults are writing for this false child—truly, themselves–when they write children’s literature.  Likewise, Freud (and many linguists who followed) also recognized a distance between what is meant and what is said via language, an essential disconnect magnified by this unbridgeable distance between adult and child. The story of Peter Pan first appeared framed within an adult work called The Little White Bird, which acknowledged these issues by having it pass from an adult narrator to a child character, the complicated relationship between whom is understood by the reader.  Peter Pan, in its transformation into a purely children’s tale, loses this framing.  There is no acknowledgement of the adult/child relationship between the narrator and the child reading the book.

Rose then traces a line from Locke to Rousseau and on to Alan Garner and other writers of children’s literature, and attributes to this lineage a focus on the concrete realism of the natural (or unnatural, in the eventual case of children’s fairy stories and fantasies) world.  Locke and Rousseau originated the idea that the child is pure, should be sequestered from the corrupting influence of society, and should retain their purity through contact with the physical world.  Language is a corrupting force because of the distance it introduces between the word and its meaning, so the best literature for children keeps them in touch with the natural world (as in Robinson Crusoe).  Rose asserts that the prevailing realistic aesthetic of children’s literature, which requires them to believe the narrator and identify with the characters, can be connected to Rousseau’s concept of the child.  Likewise, Rose sees a relationship between this view of the child and Western, particularly British views of “primitive” cultures, which are both more pure and under the colonizing control of the British adult.

Peter and Wendy, J.M. Barrie’s long-awaited 1911 novelization of 1911 the play Peter Pan, flouts all of these traditions.  The narrator shifts from sentence to sentence, which Rose states is “…remarkable for the way that it exposes this problem of identity in language. (p. 72)” But Peter and Wendy is distinct from the beloved stage version of Peter Pan, and previous book versions of the play not written by J.M. Barrie. Exploring the difference between Peter and Wendy and the rest of children’s literature, Rose suggests that children’s literature should not be grouped by content type but by language—and nearly all children’s literature insists on a reliable narrator and realism.

Rose also investigates the troubling relationship between Peter Pan, the child, and money.  While the play is now conceived of as a children’s classic, Rose insists it was produced as much for adults and gave adults the license to look at children—which she connects, obliquely, to child prostitution.  She also connects Peter Pan with the creation of the child book market, and its production at different price points and its sales to children were necessary for the publishing industry to “render innocent (again) the more glaring commercial realities of the trade. (p. 107)”

Finally, Rose uses Peter Pan’s relationship to the British school system to explore how the state uses children as the site of language production.  In 1912, the British Board of Education stressed teaching “natural,” or plain-spoken, language to working-class children.  A few years earlier, however, the same body stressed “training the mind to appreciate English literature” to wealthier children in secondary schools. Rose stresses that both of these forms of language are manufactured by adults—that they are ideologies.  When Peter and Wendy is edited for inclusion in the school curriculum, it becomes apparent that Barrie is in fact speaking to both audiences, though all instances of the shifting narrator identity are edited out. She reflects that current theories of education stress teaching mastery of language to all students.

Rose concludes that she does not intend to suggest “an ideal form of writing which I am wishing to promote for the child. (p. 140)” Instead, she intends to question how language creates identity and how adults recreate that process in children through children’s literature. This is a critical question, and one that should not be taken lightly when considering what adults give children to read.  While I think it would be highly unlikely that that giving a child either the edited version of Peter Pan or Peter and Wendy in all of its identity-shifting glory would cause that child damage, I think that when you zoom out to how this text related to educational policies for different populations of children, there is a very real concern she unearthed about what we teach to which children and why.  I think her argument that adults cannot truly know the mind of the child restores to them some autonomy and power.  I can imagine that, perhaps, a healthy sense of mystery with regard to their inner lives contributes a certain amount of respect from adults.

However, while I think that Rose used Peter Pan to usefully probe the limits and traditions of children’s literature, I found myself constantly repeating to myself and writing in the margins “…but children do exist.” As much as adults may project onto children their current anxieties and their own complicated feelings about their childhood, children are real, and they must learn to read, and adults must communicate with them in ways that are both practical and entertaining.  I understand that it was not Rose’s intention to suggest a framework for children’s literature, but declaring the impossibility of it certainly leaves the reader at a loss with what to read a kid at bedtime.

I also wonder about how necessary it was to use Peter Pan as the basis for her theories about shifting language, identity, and realism in children’s literature—whether the uniqueness of this particular text in its different incarnations is particularly helpful to her and whether the same conclusions could be drawn from other books of its time, or from books that have been published since. I am thinking here of books that explicitly play with language (and image, in the case of Chris Rascha’s  jazz books) or narration/audience (a weird example, but “The Monster at the End of This Book” was a classic in my house).

–Kathy Cacace