“Mother Goose Marx” and Other Kids’ Stuff

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Tales for Little Rebels: A Collection of Radical Children’s Literature, edited by Julia L. Mickenberg and Philip Nel.  New York University Press, 2008.  295pp, $32.95.

Tales for Little RebelsTales for Little Rebels is a remarkable book in many ways, but I am most interested here in the artwork.  According to liberal and conservative critics alike, radical, socialist, and communist teachings, indeed any kind of pedagogy condemning capitalism as a social system and envisioning something more cooperative, can only be dreadful stuff.   This collection gives the lie to that.  The prose excerpts are fascinating; the illustrations are perfectly fabulous and, very often, really funny.

Take the Socialist Primer (1908) with drawings by Ryan Walker, created for the Socialist Sunday Schools flourishing at the time.  Lesson IV: “Who does the work?  Who has the world?  Who gets the wage?” is preceded by a drawing of a wealthy fop or “shirk,” and followed by Lesson V: “All men will Work.  We want no Shirk.”  Or closer to our time, in Lesson XXX, “No man made the oil wells?  Then why do we let the fat man own the oil wells?”  And among the Rules of Life, “Do not hate or speak ill of anyone: Do not be revengeful, but stand up for your rights and resist oppression,” followed further by “Honor good men and women: Be courteous to all: Bow down to none” and “Be a friend to the weak and love justice.”  Judeo-Christianity is surely in here somewhere, but with a decided improvement.

And so we march through the century, with writings on science, anthropology, and history among various subjects, art by the likes of Lynd Ward, Lydia Gibson, Theodore Seuss Geisel (aka Dr Seuss), Walt Kelly, William Gropper, Walter Crane (the only British choice), and authors who include Carl Sandburg, Langston Hughes, Munroe Leaf, Julius Lester, Eve Merriam.

Readers are likely to search for popular favorites first.  Walt Kelly’s “Who Stole the Tarts?” (an illustrated version of Lewis Carroll, from The Pogo Stepmother Goose) is as radical as anything in the book for nailing the familiar claims about private property, and drawn with the usual Kelly gusto.  But there is so much here, and something unique for everyone except sourpuss defenders of the status quo.  One of my longtime favorites of American theater is the Works Progress “Revolt of the Beavers” (chided at its 1930s performance as “Mother Goose Marx”), here rendered into prose with illustrations for kids who couldn’t get to performances or wanted to remember what they saw, again and again.

The editors, Philip Nel (our best scholar of Geisel) and Julia Mickenberg (authoritative expert on progressive children’s books of the 1950s-70s) offer outstanding annotations and introductions; fairy tale scholar Jack Zipes adds a fascinating Foreword.

To say that children’s lives have so improved as to make the contents of this book archaic would be sadly untrue.  As Zipes notes, children today face as many hazards as a century ago, in some cases more, with resources just as scarce, and with governments (including our own) more concerned about control and regimentation than real education, that is to say, teaching yet another generation of children how to behave like toy soldiers in corporate warfare. Tales for Little Rebels is a prompt for another, very different mode of education.

Paul BuhlePaul Buhle, currently a lecturer in history and American civilization at Brown University, is author or editor of twenty-seven books on radicalism, labor, and popular culture, including five volumes on the films of the Hollywood blacklistees. Most recently, he coedited Wobblies: A Graphic History (2005) and The New Left Revisited (2003), winner of an American Library Association’s Choice Academic Book Award. He has written for The Nation, Times Higher Education Supplement, The Guardian, and the Journal of American History, among others. He founded the journal Radical America (1967-95), the Oral History of the American Left project (New York University), and the Community and Labor Oral History project of Rhode Island.