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Learning from the Left: Children's…

Learning from the Left: Children's Literature, the Cold War, and Radical…

by Julia L. Mickenberg

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On Friday morning at ChLA 2011, I wasat the coffee bar with Julia Mickenberg, Assoc. Prof. American Studies at U.T. Austin, who authored one of the books I read in preparation for the the conference. Learning from the Left: Children's Literature, the Cold War, and Radical Politics in the United States won the 2008 ChLa Book Award and is a beautifully written "study of children's literature and the Left in the mid-twentieth century. It is a work of history as well as a work of literary analysis." (p. vii)
I was born at mid-20th century and, as a child, read many of the books discussed. I thanked Julia for her book "which explained my life."

As a child I learned a democratic, egalitarian spirit from the books I read and carried those values with me into adulthood. "While school textbooks taught children to uphold the values of the Cold War, many of the trade books they checked out of the library or bought in bookstores taught them just the opposite." As McCarthyism drove leftist writers and educators underground they entered "the hidden world" of children's literature. Some titles and authors mentioned in the book:

Millions of Cats, Dr. Seuss, the All- About Books and the Landmark Books, Jack London, Little Golden Books, Penny Parker, Nancy Drew, most Lincoln biographies for children, Langston Hughes (whose poetry I selected as my reading for UIL competition when I was in high school), many science and nature books, etc.

"Few..." of the authors of these books "wished to 'propagandize' children... they wished to make children autonomous, critical thinkers who questioned authority and believed in social justice.... to strengthen a sense of community, of the need to work with others to solve problems or accomplish tasks." (page 11) "They wished to give children tools of critical thinking, a distrust of received authority, and insights into the dynamics of biological and technological development and operation. They wanted to share their internationalist, cooperative, and democratic outlook and what they perceived as an ability to rationally evaluate aspects of an irrational society." (p. 182)

In some sense this little book is a biography of the "flower children" and so many of my friends who travelled about and made foolish and wise choices while "looking for themselves" during our college years. It is one explanation of how and why the radicalism of the 1960s grew out of the placid (and repressive) 1950s and how and why some children of the South marched for Civil Rights. Although Mickenber cautions, "It would be impossible (and far too reductive) to draw some kind of cause-and-effect link between childhood reading and the rebellions of the 1960s. Even so, the generational lines are not merely coincidental." p. 276

I highly recommend Mickenberg's Learning from the Left, which I read in the Kindle edition, to anyone with an interest in literature, history, American culture, education, or to anyone who seeks to understand the roots of the sharp political divide and partisanism which is the bane of current U.S. politics. We might also read a some children's literature and see if we can "strengthen a sense of community, of the need to work with others to solve problems." ( )
  KCummingsPipes | Jun 11, 2011 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0195152816, Paperback)

At the height of the Cold War, dozens of radical and progressive writers, illustrators, editors, librarians, booksellers, and teachers cooperated to create and disseminate children's books that challenged the status quo. Learning from the Left provides the first historic overview of their work. Spanning from the 1920s, when both children's book publishing and American Communism were becoming significant on the American scene, to the late 1960s, when youth who had been raised on many of the books in this study unequivocally rejected the values of the Cold War, Learning from the Left shows how "radical" values and ideas that have now become mainstream (including cooperation, interracial friendship, critical thinking, the dignity of labor, feminism, and the history of marginalized people), were communicated to children in repressive times. A range of popular and critically acclaimed children's books, many by former teachers and others who had been blacklisted because of their political beliefs, made commonplace the ideas that McCarthyism tended to call "subversive." These books, about history, science, and contemporary social conditions-as well as imaginative works, science fiction, and popular girls' mystery series-were readily available to children: most could be found in public and school libraries, and some could even be purchased in classrooms through book clubs that catered to educational audiences. Drawing upon extensive interviews, archival research, and hundreds of children's books published from the 1920s through the 1970s, Learning from the Left offers a history of the children's book in light of the history of the history of the Left, and a new perspective on the links between the Old Left of the 1930s and the New Left of the 1960s.

Winner of the Grace Abbott Book Prize of the Society for the History of Children and Youth

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:13:44 -0400)

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