Midday Musings: Subversive children’s books

Hope Brusstar, Copy Editor

On Nov. 9 at lunchtime, English faculty members gathered to read and discuss literature as the year’s final installment of the well-established Midday Musings series. Subversive children’s books comprised last week’s topic, discussed by graduate assistant Joel Bignell, graduate coordinator and children’s literature Professor Pat Austin, and elementary education student Leslie Pittman. In general, a subversive book contains material that is mildly to very inflammatory; in children’s literature, it might have a troublemaker or rebel as a protagonist.

Bignell opened the meeting of about 20 students and faculty members. “I hated books as a kid,” he said. “A kid with a book in his hands is an affirmation of Mom and Dad.” He explained that the books that entertained him most were the ones that most exploited adults, and Roald Dahl was his favourite author. “He crashed his plane twice and walked away,” Bignell said with admiration.

Bignell gave a brief but thorough reading of Roald Dahl’s “George’s Marvelous Medicine,” a book about a child who gets back at his grumpy grandmother by serving her a poisonous concoction. “Lesson: if your grandma’s a pain, take! her! on!” he said, drawing a few chuckles from the audience. “My parents always wondered why I was so disrespectful of adults – it’s because I thought they were expendable!”

Next up was Austin, ready to share various examples of subversive fiction beginning from almost two centuries back with “Struwwelpeter” by Heinrich Hoffmann. “It’s never been out of print since 1844,” she said. The collection of stories features children who misbehave, and unlike Dahl’s unchecked protagonists, receive hyperbolic punishments. “The kid who sucked his thumbs all the time gets his fingers and hands cut off,” Austin said.

In 1936, Munro Leaf published “The Story of Ferdinand,” a book about a pacifist bull. No one understands him, and many still choose to view him as an aggressive creature, but he only wants to smell flowers. Austin called this book “a passive message around the time of the Spanish Civil War,” a time of violence during which she explained such a book “was not expected so it was definitely subversive.”

Austin described a few other notable works for children. “Click, Clack, Moo” by Doreen Cronin is a children’s book that Austin called “labor relations for the six-year-old.” The story describes some cows who complain to the farmer that it’s cold in the barn, and they refuse to produce milk until he can supply some blankets.

“Wolves” by Emily Gravett is noteworthy because “typically, in children’s books, the characters don’t die,” said Austin. The protagonist is a rabbit who goes to the library to read about wolves. He discovers that a wolf’s diet consistently includes rabbit, and suddenly, he gets eaten.

“Where do Babies Come From?” by Babette Cole is a memorable book in which the parents give extraordinary explanations for reproduction hence the alternate title, “Mummy Laid an Egg.” The children respond to their parents by explaining the truth, using simple and comical hand-drawn diagrams that baffle the parents and entertain readers. An eventful few pages of illustrations follow the line “Here are some ways mummies and daddies fit together.”


Pittman completed the meeting with a readthrough of Jon Klassen’s 2012 “This is Not My Hat,” a piece of the three-part series including “We Found a Hat” and “I Want My Hat Back.” All three books demonstrate lessons about interactions between friends and regarding valued items, but in a way that is meant to be manageable for the small child. “He has a way of ending his stories that leave you on a cliffhanger,” noted Pittman.

It was another of the unusual children’s books which allow the protagonist to die. But Klassen is not straightforward: “I read this book to a 4-year-old, a 15-year-old, and a 22-year-old, and I got the same reaction,” Pittman shared. “What happened to the [main character]?”

He is a fish who decides to steal a hat. “I know it is wrong to steal a hat, but I’m going to keep it anyway.” Pittman pointed out that the narration was akin to the thinking of a child, who thinks authority figures won’t see when he misbehaves. By the end of the book, the fish disappears and someone else has the hat. “The 22-year-old asked ‘What happened to the fish?’ and the 5-year-old just said it: ‘He died!'” said Pittman. She felt that adults don’t explain things to children when sometimes they should, and that “insults their intelligence.”

Guests asked questions or shared beloved children’s books of their own. A discussion ensued which, among other things, covered the many possible meanings of Shel Silverstein’s “The Giving Tree.”  “This is what children’s literature is. It’s the stuff we keep rereading because we can get more out of it each time we go back,” said English Professor Dan Doll.