Philip Nel’s ‘Tales for Little Rebels’

Philip Nel’s Tales for Little Rebels I thought was published some time ago but NYU is putting out an edition on the Ides of March that I want to mention here because it makes an important point about children’s literature, all literature really, and how we think about this subject.

Full disclosure: I know Philip Nel and I like him. Prof. Nel wrote what I think was the first academic attempt to come to terms with Harry Potter as literature and his critical biography of Dr. Seuss is perhaps the best thing I’ve read of this type, certainly in the field of children’s literature. I met him at my first Harry Potter conference, Nimbus 2003, and again in Toronto at Prophecy 2007. He came to my talk about Literary Alchemy in Orlando and was very kind and encouraging to me in his comments afterward (to understand how grateful I remain for that kindness you’d have to remember I was considered something of a nut-job at the time by Ivory Tower types for arguing that Ms. Rowling was using a traditional alchemical scaffolding for her work).

What is Tales for Little Rebels about? Here is the Amazon page’s product description:

In 1912, a revolutionary chick cries, “Strike down the wall!” and liberates itself from the “egg state.” In 1940, ostriches pull their heads out of the sand and unite to fight fascism. In 1972, Baby X grows up without a gender and is happy about it.

Rather than teaching children to obey authority, to conform, or to seek redemption through prayer, twentieth-century leftists encouraged children to question the authority of those in power. Tales for Little Rebels collects forty-three mostly out-of-print stories, poems, comic strips, primers, and other texts for children that embody this radical tradition. These pieces reflect the concerns of twentieth-century leftist movements, like peace, civil rights, gender equality, environmental responsibility, and the dignity of labor. They also address the means of achieving these ideals, including taking collective action, developing critical thinking skills, and harnessing the liberating power of the imagination.

Some of the authors and illustrators are familiar, including Lucille Clifton, Syd Hoff, Langston Hughes, Walt Kelly, Norma Klein, Munro Leaf, Julius Lester, Eve Merriam, Charlotte Pomerantz, Carl Sandburg, and Dr. Seuss. Others are relatively unknown today, but their work deserves to be remembered. (Each of the pieces includes an introduction and a biographical sketch of the author.) From the anti-advertising message of Johnny Get Your Money’s Worth (and Jane Too)! (1938) to the entertaining lessons in ecology provided by The Day They Parachuted Cats on Borneo (1971), and Sandburg’s mockery of war in Rootabaga Pigeons (1923), these pieces will thrill readers intrigued by politics and history—and anyone with a love of children’s literature, no matter what age.

If you’ve read the Seuss/Geisel work, you know that Prof. Nel really understands the way children’s literature delivers meaning between the lines (as well as in-your-face) and especially ‘progressive’ or ‘liberal’ meaning. We live in a historical period, of course, characterized by no little irony because the regime’s message today is the deconstructionist anti-metanarrative war-cry “Speak Truth to Power!” The irony and black comedy of having an implicitly anti-regime message as the predominant cultural meme we see played out in the bizarre contradictions of political correctness.

The value of Prof. Nel’s book, though, and the point of this post is only the fairly obvious one that all books are vehicles, first, of the core values we have in common as people living in a specific historic period. Children’s books, because they are almost by definition stripped down work in which the moral messages are transparencies even the youngest reader will get, are broadsides of these shared ideas or mores.

The odd thing is that we recognize that in primers (if we’re paying attention or lucky enough to be guided by a mentor as capable as Prof. Nel) but neglect it in popular fiction. Harry Potter, Twilight, and The Hunger Games have several things in common, though their narrative lines are poles apart: think ‘literary alchemy,’ ‘religious allegoricorical meaning,’ and ‘genre melange’ for starters. The most obvious  — or least obvious for being hidden in plain sight — is their shared postmodern mantras of “the exclusive metanarrative is evil,” “don’t believe what you think,” and “right choice is the only means to real freedom (and the only legitimate choice is, that’s right, “speak truth to power”).

I think we can expand the message of Prof. Nel’s book, in fact, though it is not about Young Adult or Adult fiction or even Children’s literature as a whole, to the whole of reading and story-telling in our times. All of it, to greater or lesser degree, is about fostering the “Little Rebel” in us.

Sadly, in a nation of non-conformists imagining themselves all to be “different” in wearing their baseball cap off center like everyone else pursuing individuality, such messages are redundant. Please send me your list of novels, not about ‘Little Rebels’ combatting prejudice and discrimination, but about the young person who chooses to conform to higher standards rather than lower ones because s/he believes there is a larger life in community and tradition and in the spirit than in the individual, the conventional, and the ego.


  1. Perelandra says

    How about THE LITTLE WHITE HORSE by Elizabeth Goudge? One of my absolute favorites since I read it in 7th grade. Her LINNETS AND VALERIANS is not quite as good. Lucy Boston’s Green Knowe series is lovely for the 9-12 set.

    Where would Andre Norton fit? She was emphatically against racial or social discrimination but her model plot is “lonely/abused/disabled outsider finds purpose and a loving home.” Her OCTAGON MAGIC and FUR MAGIC are excellent for 9-12 girls and boys respectively.

  2. all books are vehicles, first, of the core values we have in common as people living in a specific historic period….The odd thing is that we recognize that in primers (if we’re paying attention or lucky enough to be guided by a mentor as capable as Prof. Nel) but neglect it in popular fiction.

    John, well-said, and worth chewing on. As someone who reads and reviews a lot of mid-grade fiction right now, I find myself becoming more “finely tuned” to those kinds of core value messages. Sometimes I struggle to know how to communicate them within the body of a review, even though I think it may be important (particularly for parents and teachers looking for book recommendations) to think through precisely what values are being conveyed. Of course I think we need to evaluate story as story, first and foremost, but well…to quote someone near and dear to all our hearts…”morals will be drawn.” Some of those values and morals feel so subtle and implicit (and are such a part of the air we breathe) that unpacking them can be difficult, though a worthy endeavor.

    Thanks for recommending Prof. Nel’s book, which sounds fascinating! And a great recommendation during the week in which we marked the anniversary of Dr. Seuss’s birth.

    As for stories “about the young person who chooses to conform to higher standards rather than lower ones because s/he believes there is a larger life in community and tradition and in the spirit than in the individual, the conventional, and the ego” it certainly does sound like our Harry! But interestingly, the very first book that popped into my mind as I read that line is Shannon Hale’s Princess Academy, which won a Newbery honor a few years back. Hale is another Mormon author, and a friend of Meyer’s. She has written an interesting series, the Books of Bayern, which explore a world in which certain people are gifted with languages which roughly correspond to the four elements. Fascinating.

    Princess Academy is not part of that series, but a standalone novel about a young girl named Miri who has always felt like a bit of an outsider in her village, a community of stone quarriers. The village is part of a territory living under the rule of a distant kingdom. The precipitating crisis comes when she and all the other girls in the village from the ages of 12-17 are required to leave home to attend the academy of the title, as one of them will be chosen to marry the distant prince. At first it all feels a bit like “My Fair Lady” with the girls being groomed into more elegant versions of themselves, and all the girls are highly competitive. But as they are educated for the first time in their lives (learning to read, which becomes incredibly empowering) they begin to learn things about their village’s place in the world and ways they might be able to help change things for the better. With Miri as ringleader, they learn about unique gifts and strengths they have as daughters of the mountain. And in the end, when danger inevitably comes (to them, to their village) Miri’s courageous choices and actions definitely show just how much she has come to value and appreciate the “larger life in community and tradition” over against easy, simple, and potentially selfish choices she could make.

    In other words, Miri chooses “what is right over what is easy.” Which is the main reason (besides the lovely writing) that I recommend Princess Academy to young readers often, and why I think it’s a book that will endure.

  3. Hi. I was definitely a kid raised on radical messages. I didn’t grow up in a particularly far-left home, but my parents came of age in the 60s, so they had some values that I now recognize as “hippie.” All through middle school and high school I can remember being urged by teachers to “think for yourself!” and “question authority!” … and all of them seemed to think that they were the first person ever to say this to us. Some said it with obvious frustration, as if they were sick of these kids who never thought for themselves.

    About children’s books, I think whether the message is a desirable one varies from book to book. It also matters how the message is conveyed. For example, Dr. Seuss has an anti-war book (which I now can’t remember the name of) that basically portrays, as far as I can tell, the Cold War as one big misunderstanding, with mindless fear and escalation on both sides, that would have been completely avoidable if they’d only talked to one another for a few minutes. I’m sorry, but that’s not always the case. Sometimes there actually is an aggressive, oppressive empire that poses a real threat.

    On the other hand, his Horton Hears a Who is a *wonderful* anti-abortion message (whether or not he intended it to be), with its oft-repeated refrain, “A person’s a person, no matter how small.” (Though it does raise the horrible specter that we are all unintentional mass murders if there is indeed an entire civilization that we are unaware of living on every dust spec. That crosses into territory of “you can’t live without killing,” such as the Buddhists might say … Is it wrong to take ALL life, even plant life? Even the life of microbes? Then we are all doomed to live in constant bloodguilt, which is a rather large burden to place on young readers.)

    Anyway, sorry, I digress.

    I think the classic story of a heroine who finds wholeness by NOT rebelling is … Cinderella. She’s usually maligned nowadays, because our values are so opposed to a “passive” heroine who doesn’t save herself, but is saved by a deus ex machina. But having lived overseas where it was common for a poor niece, say, to live basically as a servant with her relatives, I argue that Cinderella was NOT passive. It would have taken great strength of character to go on doing the household chores without complaining, and go on acting respectful to her stepmother and sisters, day after day. We know it’s not just that she was beaten down, because when a reasonable chance did arrive to get out of the house and better her lot, she took it.

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