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Leave My Childrens’ Books Alone!

October 22, 2009

It started when I stopped reading the Narnia series halfway through when I found out they were a biblical allegory. Ever since then, the discovery of the political undertow of my favorite kids’ books has both fascinated and disturbed me. Some of the following are inarguable facts, while others are merely theories discussed by adult readers since publication, which poses another interesting question about our quest to find deeper meaning in everything we read.

Dr. Seuss began his career as a political cartoonist for the left-leaning magazine PM during World War II. His distinctive style was established from the beginning to portray grievances against isolationism, racism, Hitler, Mussolini, the Japanese and American conservatism. Even some of his characters from his later books appear first in these cartoons. Seuss is often critiqued for his depiction of the Japanese which, despite his crusade against racism for others, are disturbingly stereotypical. His political views extended to his childrens’ books, which he started publishing after his cartoonist career. The Lorax has strong environmental messages, The Sneetches preaches racial tolerance and Yertle the Turtle cautions against dictatorship. Even The Cat in the Hat’s red striped hat is a take on Uncle Sam’s cap. Source

Eric Carle charms us with his whimsical, cheery children’s tales of caterpillars turning into butterflies, mice finding unexpected friendships and chameleons who find self-acceptance. But a recent article in Newsweek claims that these fanciful picture books are Carle’s way of recreating a happy childhood he feels he never had. Born in 1929 in Syracuse, NY to German immigrants, Carle’s mother soon moved the family back to Germany a few years before Word War II began. After Carle’s dad was drafted into the German army, his family spent the war hiding in the cellars from bombs and dodging bullets in the streets. His salvation was an art teacher who secretly schooled him in the works of forbidden artists like Picasso and Matisse. Thankfully, like so many of his characters that start out lonely and unsatisfied with their lives, Carle has built himself a very comfortable and happy life. He runs a picture-book museum in Amherst, MA and his most popular book, The Very Hungry Caterpillar, is the second most best-selling childrens’ book of all time, after Peter Rabbit.

The political correctness of Babar has been fiercely debated. To the critical reader, the story of the elephant king reveals itself to be a celebration of colonialism and imperialism. The series begins with the uneducated and unclothed (African) Babar discovering the delights of a Parisian city. He soon becomes civilized and begins a missionary effort back in his kingdom, adopting his new ideals throughout the land. Those animals that don’t assimilate to this civilized manner, such as the rhinoceros, are subordinated and ultimately defeated. All of this is clearly based on the model of French imperialism, but some critics argue that the author, Jean de Brunhoff, was actually criticizing the system through his allegory. They turn to the stories’ comedy and the consequences of the elephants’ civilization as evidence. Source

Another author who has ambiguous political leanings is Herge, the author of the Tintin series. Herge started his cartooning career in Belgium in 1929. When the Nazis occupied the country in 1940, his Tintin series was extremely popular. Not wanting to cut his burgeoning career short, Herge agreed to work for the Nazi controlled newspaper, Le Soir, which was often used for anti-Semitic propaganda. Although his Tintin strips remained neutral towards Germany’s efforts, he was still considered a Nazi sympathizer. When Brussels was liberated in 1944, Herge was one of the 600,000 people arrested on suspect of treason. He endured a two-year exilation from the press and it was only until he was granted a “certificat de civisme” by popular Resistance fighter, Raymond Leblanc, that he was accepted once more by the public and was put in charge of a weekly Tintin magazine.Evidence of all varieties of political thought can be found in the Tintin series, from anti-capitalistic leanings when Tintin visits Chicago to pro-imperialistic views when he is in the Congo to attacking the German occupation itself in the Shooting Star. Yet suspicions of the author, along with his own guilt and confusion, followed him for the rest of his career. Source

The Wizard of Oz is yet another political allegory. Almost every aspect of the story is associated with factors of Populism and the Gilded Age in the turn of the century. The Wicked Witch of the East represents eastern industrialists who controlled the people (or Munchkins; since the common man felt belittled by his lack of voice in the government), the Scarecrow is the farmers, the Tinman is the dehumanized industrial worker and the Cowardly Lion is the Populist presidential candidate, William Jennings Bryan. The Yellow Brick Road led to danger as the Gold Standard did while Dorothy’s silver slippers represented the Populists’ proposed solution to the economic failings of the time. Emerald City was Washington DC and the wizard, which is only a bumbling old man hiding behind the facade of greatness, is all the presidents of the Gilded Age. Altogether the tale is supposedly about the Populists’ failed attempts to reform the country during this period. Source

Originally written March 17, 2009

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