Once a month, a robin’s-egg-blue box arrives at our house. “Mama! Mama! My books are here!” shouts my six-year-old daughter as she runs from the front door to the kitchen. We open the box to find personalized stickers, bookmarks, posters, and sometimes coloring pages or little paper games. The box also contains five new books, which may be kept or sent back. My daughter opens each one and pronounces on its merits. Sometimes the pictures are scary—monsters, bugs, slime, witches—and this is enough for a quick rejection. Other books have too many words per page, which can be a deal-breaker for a child just learning to read.
I have learned that children’s books come in various categories. True, our book club is highbrow. We never receive books about princesses, bodily functions, or Disney characters. We occasionally find a beautiful picture book about a day at the seashore or the discovery of a pond in the back meadow. Sometimes we even get a book that is poignantly conservative, like the beautiful Hello Lighthouse. Still, the club might best be described as exemplifying the ethos of National Public Radio, only for kids.
Now that we have received between sixty and eighty books, I can observe with some confidence two notable trends in contemporary children’s literature. The first is a desire to turn children into miniature adults. This is the aim of books that extol the virtues of professional life—particularly of female professional life, and more particularly of women in STEM. Examples include Joan Procter Dragon Doctor, the story of a British herpetologist, and Grace Hopper: Queen of Computer Code. Part of the Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls series, Madam C.J. Walker Builds a Business is “an inspiring tale about the importance of empowering women to become economically independent.” My favorite is Baby Loves Aerospace Engineering!
The books in this genre are no doubt written by earnest and well-intentioned people. Perhaps these authors reason that if STEM fields, feminism, and pre-professionalism are good for college and high-school students, then they must be good for middle-school students; and if for middle school, then for elementary, and thus for toddlers and babies. It’s never too early to start!
But most books of this kind are painfully boring biographies about things in which few children have any natural interest. Elementary-age children aren’t yet engaged in the process of becoming their best selves through reading about the lives of famous and inspirational celebrities and historical figures. Why would any well-adjusted child choose to hear about the trials of building a haircare business, when she could have the fun of reading Go, Dog. Go! or Marvin K. Mooney?
The other trend is political indoctrination. With some exceptions (the most startling of which might be Eric Metaxas’s Donald Trump-as-caveman series), this genre tends toward progressive politics. Again, so the thinking goes, if activism is good for college students and teenagers, then it must be good for the littlest among us. A is for Activist is like “Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, but for two-year-olds.” Other titles include Pride: The Story of Harvey Milk and the Rainbow Flag and Race Cars: A children’s book about white privilege. In Woke Baby, the reader is told: “Look at each toe, wiggling hello to the sky. There is no glass ceiling, there is no one to tell you no!” And if the old A-B-C readers are passé, there is An ABC of Equality, in which L is for LGBTQIA, and N is for No, because “No means no.” Ibram Kendi’s Antiracist Baby claims that babies (yes, babies) “are taught to be racist or antiracist—there’s no neutrality.”
Tempting as it is to multiply examples of ideological excess, it’s more constructive to identify alternative approaches to children’s literature. Tara Thieke argues in a beautiful recent essay that the best children’s books convey a sense of the world’s enchantment and its “mysterious realism”—a realism that is obscured by the two-dimensional, distorted figures in popular series like Pete the Cat and Dragons Love Tacos. Princeton classics professor Joshua T. Katz, writing in response to the disappearance of six Dr. Seuss books, maintains that Seuss is vital for showing children “how to bend language successfully” and for equipping them “with the best antidote to life’s troubles: a sense of humor.”
Alternatives to premature professionalism and ideological indoctrination need not be boring old Dick and Jane, or pink-and-purple stories about butterflies, cheerful dogs, and unicorns. Some of the best children’s literature contains plenty of grown-up themes, often in the form of subtle social commentary. Many children’s books have philosophical insight embedded within them. Some exhibit compelling conservative visions of life.
Many books written during the 1960s and 1970s offer commentary on modern life and the relationships between parents and children. Outrageous things happen in these stories that would now necessitate a call to Child Protective Services, as when the parents of Pierre, title hero of Maurice Sendak’s “cautionary tale in five chapters and a prologue,” leave him alone for the day and he is (deservedly) eaten by a hungry lion. In The Shrinking of Treehorn, brilliantly illustrated by Edward Gorey, a young boy shrinks until he is small enough to stand up under his bed. But his self-absorbed parents and teachers pay little attention. When he returns to his normal size (but turns a striking shade of green), Treehorn’s mother merely observes, “That’s nice, dear; it’s a very nice size I’m sure; and if I were you I wouldn’t shrink anymore.” The book offers a biting but subtle critique of mass media, adult selfishness, and mindless bureaucratic language.
Philosophical children’s books also counter the ideological and professionalizing trends of contemporary books. A philosophical author par excellence is Arnold Lobel, whose short stories in Grasshopper on the Road exhibit a blend of Augustinian and Stoic influences. The book’s main character is a grasshopper who steadfastly resists Pelagianism (“The Sweeper”) and political activism (“The Club”). Other stories mock typical and annoying human types: the self-important bureaucrat (“The Voyage”) and all those overbearing people who pop up in life, eager to tell you how to live and what to do (“Always”). Shel Silverstein’s work (as in The Missing Piece and The Giving Tree) is less to my taste, but it does offer parents something to think about as they read these stories for the hundredth time.
The very best books, however, are the conservative books. I do not mean books that are politically conservative, as if they stood in militant opposition to today’s progressive books. Instead, these books are deeply rooted in the cultural essence of conservatism: in the family and its multiple generations of kin relationships, in preservation of and delight in old things, and in familiarity and warmth rather than novelty and innovation.
Old Hat, New Hat is a short book about a bear who visits a shop looking for a replacement for his worn-out hat. Each one he tries on is slightly wrong—“too fancy, too frilly, too shiny, too silly”—and in the end, when he is offered his own hat once again, he decides he loves it after all. The Little House, likewise, is the moving tale of a house, built by a family many generations ago, that has fallen into disrepair. As the industrial expansion of twentieth-century America creeps toward it, the little house—located on what was once a grassy hill—is surrounded by skyscrapers, elevated trains, and smog. But a descendant of its original builder recognizes the house, loads it on a truck, and relocates it to a new grassy hill, far out of town. Because the house was so well-constructed, the descendant renovates it and lives in it with her own family, understanding it as a precious inheritance. Old things made new and vital again: This is a theme that could support many more stories.
For me, the most affecting book of all is Little Bear’s Visit, illustrated in Edwardian style by Maurice Sendak. My own copy was purchased in the mid-1970s, and its pages have begun to yellow and curl. Inscribed on a label at the front of the book is my father’s dedication, “To Elizabeth, for no other reason but that he loves her.” At the top righthand corner of that page is my name, written in my mother’s blocky handwriting, with my parents’ phone number, which has not changed since the mid-1960s. My sister claimed the book as her own around 1980 by affixing a “This Book Belongs To” sticker on another page, and now in 2021 my daughter has pasted one of the stickers from her book club with her name on it next to my sister’s. All of this is thoroughly personal, and why should it matter, one might wonder? It matters, I think, because it shows concretely that certain books possess beauty, permanent value, and continuity. They can be passed down from one generation to another, as mine was. Some stories are timeless.
Little Bear’s Visit is the story of a young bear who visits his grandmother and grandfather, hears tales about his own mother, and comes to understand both departure and—still more important—return. The book contains the beautiful story-within-a-story of “Mother Bear’s Robin,” which emphasizes this point. As a girl, Mother Bear rescued and rehabilitated a baby robin; but when the robin grows up, it is restless. It must leave home to make its own way in the world. It promises to return, and it does, as do its children and its children’s children. In multiple ways this book exemplifies familial love across generations. Like the Odyssey, it is a story of going out and coming back, of children, parents, and grandparents. It is Laertes, Penelope and Odysseus, and Telemachus retold for a new generation, and for another after that.
Our social world is in a state of flux, and change is often praised. But I think Russell Kirk was right to observe that change for its own sake often does more to disorient than to ground us. Continuity, he wrote, is the means “of linking generation to generation; it matters as much for society as it does for the individual.” Without continuity, Kirk says, “life is meaningless.” Children’s books, with their mysterious realism, offer one way of passing down a body of sentiments and a vision for life that is not exhausted by career or politics. They sometimes offer social and political commentary that is insightful rather than heavy-handed. They can even be philosophical. And in the best books, we and our children may come to see that certain permanent things, such as love and family, possess enduring beauty and value.
Elizabeth C. Corey is associate professor of political science in the honors program at Baylor University.