A Review of The Norton Anthology of Children’s Literature

A Review of The Norton Anthology of Children’s Literature

from The Claremont Institute:

“It is not so much an anthology as a postmodernist manifesto.”

As the editors declare in the preface, “In our choice of texts and in our introductions, we have paid close attention to�perceptions of race, class, and gender, among other topics, in shaping children’s literature and childhood itself.” Practically every text and every author (save for the “emergent”) is subjected to a wicked scolding from the editors for its racism, sexism, and elitism. Forget about ogres, witches, monsters, and evil stepmoms; today’s villains are gender stereotypes, white males, the middle class, and the traditional family. Retrograde literature must therefore be replaced by a new one, one that is, as it were, beyond good and evil: “In our postmodern age, in which absolute judgments of ‘good’ and ‘evil’ are no longer easily made, the distinction between heroes and villains is often blurred.”

The editors herald this as a great advance, one they wish to promote by burying the stories under a ton of commentary. To read a children’s story out of context, say the editors, is so pass� (so childish?): “Discourses such as reader-response theory, poststructuralism, semiotics, feminist theory, and postcolonial theory have proven to be valuable in analyzing children’s books.” Thus the editors introduce Fun with Dick and Jane by noting that the “world of Dick and Jane was the idealized image of white, middle-class America.” The introduction to the chapter on “Legends,” which includes The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood and King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, warns that “history has generally been written by the victors and the elites, who tend to view those like themselves�white males, for the most part�as heroes.”

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

In a strange way, completely unappreciated by the anthology’s editors, we have returned to the pre-Lockean age of children’s literature. Locke wished to scrub stories clean of horrific images and premonitions of death�not because he was a na�f or a utopian, but because he believed it possible to build a more rational, humane world. The Norton editors break with him on this central issue. They do not believe in the possibility of a more rational world, or even, it would seem, in childhood itself. And so they have more in common with the New England Primer than they dare to admit. They, too, are obsessed with death and the apocalypse, only they don’t believe in redemption.

And this text will be used in education classes? Training up new teachers? Certainly it reflects the attitudes of the academy toward children’s literature. This yet another reason why I am pro-homeschooling. The lunatics are now running the asylum. How can we expect these people to reform our schools?


courtesy of The Llama Butchers

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  • My problem with abstract art is that so much of it depends on explanation in order to understand it. With most abstract art, if I haven’t read or heard about the author and his specific ideas and methods, then I have no idea of what is going on in the painting. I can look at a classical piece of art, or something impressionistic, realistic, cubist, etc, and I may not understand at first glance everything that is going on in the piece, but I can understand something.

    But with abstract art, I get absolutely nothing until someone wanders by and says oh, this artist was playing with these ideas or this comes from this aspect of his life. I have to have it explained to me, or I have to learn about it. I feel like I’m contantly “out” of the art intelligentia. If I can’t make heads or tails of it without long explanations, if it is completely unacessible to most people, then I fail to see why it is an important piece. It looks nice, but it doesn’t take me anywhere. I can’t interact with the painting/sculpture in any way.

    Even as a kid, Picasso and Matisse and Michelangelo and countless others grabbed my attention. I couldn’t always say what it was that I was feeling, or describe my reaction, but it moved me in some way, even if it was being disturbed by a Picasso. But even as a kid, my response to abstract art was “……ok…..”

    I don’t think that abstract art is completely pointless or useless, but I also don’t think that it is as important as other types, because it is not universal. It can’t effect both an educated middle class American and an uneducated kid from across the world. It is far more limited in its scope.

  • Picasso and Matisse can be legitimately grouped with abstract artists.  That’s not to say that they were wholly abstract, but they were in large part abstract, even in the midst of their representation.  Almost anyone of note who painted/sculpted/potted/printed in the 20th century cannot claim to have nothing to do with the abstract.

    When you say “abstract” art, there is a broader than broad scope of work that you’re lumping into one general category.  Surreallists, Expressionists, Impressionists, Abstract Expressionists, Dada, Minimalism and heaven forbid Feminism all have intimately to do with the “Abstract.”  On the one hand, you have Picasso, or Pollack, or Barnett Newman.  On the other hand you have minimalist weirdos like Sol Lewitt, or the people who paint a line and a dot.  Abstract art can be applied at almost any point in the 20th century, and it includes too much of variance to be condemned flippantly as meaningless or untranslatable.

    For example, with Pollack’s drip paintings, you’re not looking at a subject within the painting so much as you’re looking at a physical recording of a performance—of the canvas being nailed to the floor and the painter moving all around and walking all over it, dripping the paint as he went.  If you didn’t know how he went about making the paintings, even by looking at them you can see the activeness and the energy contained and recorded there.

    The cool thing about the really good abstract art is that it allows you to experience it yourself, to have your own experience with it, without being told what it means, or having it spelled out for you by a specific subject in the painting. 

    Looking at the pieces on the link that Melanie posted, even in the representational works you get the abstract—sharpened lines on the figures, exaggerated light, imposed geometrics on the natural world.  Those are abstract elements.

    Representation isn’t always universal either…….a beautiful painting of the Crucifixion isn’t going to reach a Muslim kid; it may not even reach a Jewish kid.  Saying art must be positivically universal is asking for the impossible—we can’t express the existence of God because it would be arrogant and presumptuous for us to try.  What we can express is our exprience, our awareness and our convictions on the existence of God.  We only arrive at the Universal through our own experience, and we cannot wholly separate ourselves from that experience to express what we know, even if what we do in fact know is universal.

    Expressing our place in our pursuit of that kind of truth isn’t (doesn’t have to be) limited to solid figural representation.  What good abstract art does is present forms and placements in a way that is expansive and depthening on the literal and the figural.

    Yes, I did just use the word “depthening.”  I love English.

  • It doesnt communicate it in the same way.  That’s why it’s cool that we have both—the completely representational, the completely abstract, and the mix of both contained in single pieces.

    Aquinas didn’t spend his whole life on philosophical prose—he got as far as he could praising God with human rationality, and then he left it behind him in favour of praising God with poetry for the rest of his life.

    Moving from representation to abstraction, especially in the past 75-80 years, is a bit of that sort of progression—HOWEVER, I’m not putting abstraction as “higher” than representation.  Neither was Aquinas’ poetry necessarily better than his philosophy.  it was just how he progressed in his life and thought.  Abstraction, similarly, is a linear progression and development rising out of representation.

    I dont agree with the black and white—either a painting is abstract or it is representational.  Art is perpetually shades of gray; though i’ll grant you that it starts with black and gradiates into white, as far as being completely representational gradiates to being completely abstract.  Abstraction isn’t limited to just the overall look of the thing, or to the paintings in which no distinguishable object is evident.  The Surrealists—Magritte, Dali, Ernst, Miro among others—in order to express a more dream-like language and world, gave us paintings with representation, but they juxtaposed the objects, combined, floated, distorted and meshed them in a way that made them more abstract that realistic.

    Cezanne, who came earlier and is typically counted among the Post Impressionists, was the one who started looking at very natural scenes and then in his paintings imposing rigid geometric shapes over the more natural shapes—like a rectangle topped with a triangle for a rounded smoke stack—giving the pictures (still representational) an abstracted, slightly less naturalistic look.  I realize that example is a little faulty, given that a smoke stack is a manmade item, but you get the idea.

    I’m not out to change anyone’s taste—I just want to emphasize that the term “abstract” refers to alot more than people tend to give it credit for, and there are some very very bad artists who have given the notion of the abstract a really bad reputation.

  • De gustibus non disputandum est

    There is no disputing matters of taste.

    I have simply stated what I like. (And unless I mistaken the same goes for Theresa.) Trying to argue me into a different position is like trying to convince me that lilies smell good, that butterscotch is a pleasant flavor, or that any other baby is cuter than my Bella. Ain’t gonna happen.

    But if you want to have a discussion…

    First we’d have to agree on a definition and on the boundaries of our discussion. Which we don’t. By “abstract art” I specifically exclude much of what you want to lump in. When I look at an impressionist painting, say a Monet painting of the catherdral of Rouen or a Van Gogh of haystacks, I look at it and it says to me: this is the way this scene looked at a certain time on a certain day. I can discern the subject matter… a building, a field. So to me that’s representational art, not abstract. I like such paintings because they show me how to see the world in a different way. I walk out of the musuem and objects seem different for a while.

    But art which is not representational. Which is colored paint on a canvas that doesn’t look like anything and isn’t intended to look like anything; that’s what I mean by abstract. And with a couple of notable exceptions that kind of art just doesn’t speak to me at all.I have no interest in spending time staring at it when I come across it in a museum. I walk on by pretty quickly because there is nothing on the canvas that calls to me.

    The exceptions are a couple of pictures where something about the color scheme or the pattern was attractive to me. Example: a Jackson Pollack at the Metropolitan in NY. I have on two occassions spent some ten or fifteen minutes sitting and staring. I liked the simplicity of the colors, black and white and grey. I liked the way they moved across the canvas. My eyes wanted to trace the lines around and through. It was soothing, intriguing. And no, not all of Pollack’s canvases do that for me. Many of them I don’t like. And even that one, I’m still not sure why I should put it in the same category as a landscape or a portrait. It doesn’t speak to me in the same way and I can’t see that it demonstrates any technical proficiency that I admire. I’m just as likely to admire a random splashing of colors done in finger paints by my niece, like the one I’ve got on my refrigerator.

    You say that the paintings I admire have abstract elements. I don’t think I agree with you there. Those are elements when the artist has interpreted, interpolated. That;s the difference between photography and a painting. A photograph is filtered through a camera, a painting is filtered through the mind of a man. The man decides what color to dip his brush in, how to make a stroke, how to represent what he sees and how it makes him feel. But he is representing something. So that’s not abstract. Abstract art is that which does not communicate a visual message: this is how I see this person, place, or thing. It doesn’t make sense to me to talk about “abstract elements”. Either a painting is representational or it is abstract. How can it be both?

    And I disagree that representation isn’t universal. It is true a painting of the crucifixion doesn’t effect every viewer in the same way. It doesn’t mean the same thing to the Muslim kid as it does to me. But we both agree when we look at it that it is an image of a man nailed to two pieces of wood that is intended to represent a historical figure. Even if we disagree on who that man is, even if there is a viewer who disputes that Jesus was a historical personage, he’d still look at the picture and see a man on a cross.

    Even if a painting of the English countryside makes one person feel nostalgic for home and another filled with loathing for an imperialist tyrant, both agree that the picture is of rolling hills and trees and sheep. And both can tell that the artist doesn’t intend the viewer to feel that kind of loathing for his subject.

    I don’t ask that all art speak to all people in the same way. That truly is impossible. But I just don’t see how you can insist that abstract art communicates in the same way representational art does.