The Wordy Birder

Theaters of Girlhood
January 25, 2010, 12:35 am
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What kind of adult reads children’s literature? This adult. I’m not sure there is much else that is as nerdy. Unless you consider reading scholarly criticism of children’s literature to be even more obsessive and creepy.

I bought Seth Lerer’s book Children’s Literature: A Reader’s History from Aesop to Harry Potter a while ago. I do have a bit of a defense–I teach a course I designed called “Storytellers” in which we trace the narrative arc of storytelling from the days of Aesop to the Grimm’s brothers to Disney and on down to those cheeky chroniclers of human folly on This American Life.

Lerer’s book starts with a whimper, pandering to the audience and offering flimsy scholarly evidence for the ways in which audiences received and interpreted Aesop’s tales. can we really know this much from a few measly references to Aesop in crumbling documents scattered here and there? Doubtful. But it is the chapter on girls in literature that captured my interest.

Called “Theaters of Girlhood,” Lerer’s chapter traces the ways in which girl characters in children’s literature have achieved their place in the modern literary canon. With explorations of my favorite books from childhood (Anne of Green Gables, Little Women, and Charlotte’s Web) Lerer outlines the ways in which wily, sharp female characters have been maligned to roles of domesticity or tamed back into submission.

It’s actually pretty fascinating to look at these women as the precursors to modern tales like Harry Potter. Lerer points out that Harry always gets the praise and adoration from fans and from the characters in the text, even though it’s really the female Hermione Granger who does all the tough intellectual dirty work.

He writes convincingly about the ways in which the bookish, bright Anne of Green Gables–who dreams of being called Cordelia and of living in a kind of poetry-inspired dreamworld–is constantly pulled back down to Earth by not only her foster parents Marilla and Matthew, but by her teachers as well. Eventually, she becomes a schoolteacher and marries her high school sweetheart–a life much less exciting than the original sprightly Anne had dreamed of.

Lerer won the National Book Critics Circle Award for criticism for the book, so I suppose he already has enough readers. But if you’re interested in any of the same nerdy scholarship on children’s lit that I am, I suggest you check it out.