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On Ideology and Chickens with Blankets

[The following will appear in Routledge's Handbook of Research on Children's and Young Adult Literature, paired with a discussion of how ideology works in children's lit.]

Recently I was on a panel with several other children’s book writers, and we were asked what lesson we hoped to pass on to children. Almost universally, the answer was that we’re not trying to pass on any lesson at all, just trying to tell a good story.

If there is any accusation we fear as writers for children, it is that our books have been somehow instructive, that they have had a message. Our own heritage of primers and abecedaria embarrasses us. We all fear Dick and Jane. We cringe at their knee-socks and the plasticine sheen of their cheeks. Confronted with their image, we want to disavow the vacuous sweetness of their moral world. Given the marginalization of children’s books that Markus Zusak discusses (page [#]), we’re eager to prove that we don’t play by schoolyard rules. After all, in literary discussions, the charge of didacticism is often precisely what contributes to our marginalization – the dismissive assumption that books for kids are too safe in their scope and limited in their vision.

So writers for children are more troubled by imputations of an ideological dimension to their work than writers for adults are. Most of us were brought up in a literary and critical tradition which suggested that literature is defined by ambiguity – the precise opposite (it would seem) of ideological clarity. Trained in high school and college English Lit. classrooms that assumed critical approaches vacillating between the Modernist and the Post-Modern, we are eager to celebrate the sublimity of the artfully unclear and the polyvalent. So one of the reasons I love “Romeo and Juliet,” for example, is that I can never decide whether it’s a grand, sweeping love story about a noble passion that shall never fade – or the story of two self-absorbed pubescents who die unnecessary and irritating deaths, meeting their stupid, sticky ends in pools of blood and puppy love. Is Mercutio right about the idiocy of love, or is he just a buzz-kill sidekick? For me, the delight in the play is the instability of these questions.

As the writer sits down at his or her desk, thinking out the next chapter that needs to appear on the blank screen, there is constantly a question of how far ambiguity should reach in a narrative. How far should we try to determine the reader’s reactions? How far should we nail down characters’ motivations? And to what extent should we be overt about stating our opinions? These questions become more vexed because of embarrassment at the accusations that we, as writers for children, are hacks who just say what we mean, shout out our spiel, and then drag children by their gangly arms into whatever political and ethical side-show we want to ballyhoo.

These craftsman’s concerns for the calibration of ambiguity – when we agonize over the clarity of character motivation or the extent to which an abstract narrator should endorse or condemn a character’s actions – these concerns should not blind us to the fact that (as the preceding article suggests) ideology is always present, vibrating in the text, whether it’s there consciously or unconsciously. We can’t escape it. It structures our stories. It informs our cast of characters. It imparts a feeling of rightness or wrongness to our plot resolutions.

Picture a scene from some generic YA novel – the prom, say, and a hunk of cake thrown on someone’s lapel, and the outsider boy blushes, and the mean blond girls laugh. When we tell this story, it’s embedded in a narrative tradition which we implicitly comment on, and the action is undergirded by a series of tropes and topoi on which we subtly take positions: sweet good boy vs. thrilling bad boy, for example, or jock vs. intellectual, or mean stud vs. shrinking sophisticate, or cruel sophisticate vs. gentle rube – and behind those constructions lie other, more deeply buried structures related to whatever ethical and economic and cultural markers we wish to endorse.

And why should that embarrass us? It is those buried debates and struggles that give these narratives their energy. It is our willful desire to prove one thing true or prove another thing false or declare our love for something else that makes our prose dynamic. We are, consciously or unconsciously, always reworking our own histories, our own tensions, our own anxieties, so of course those topoi and tropes are propelled by our own tangled subjectivity, our own situation in intersecting ideologies and in stories that came before us and meet within us.

This is true even in the simplest texts. Take a hypothetical board book, say. The whole text is something like, “Up. Down. Farm. Town. Black. White. Day. Night.” Already, however, in just these simple phrases, the writer reveals a commitment to a certain kind of educational and developmental methodology – one based on the use of binary oppositions to establish definition, for example. And even just the fact that the author has written a board book is significant: The board book as cultural artifact suggests a certain approach to childhood literacy and development that many of us take for granted in our culture, but which isn’t universal. And then we might look at the illustrations in the board book – grinning cows, chickens settling down under blankets – and note that the book partakes of a long association between young children and the American pastoral. While overtly teaching young children word sets, therefore, the book is also introducing them to an oft mythologized and de-historicized image of agricultural production – one which I, for example, as a guilt-ridden but enthusiastic meat-eater, would infinitely prefer to real and historicized images of life on the modern industrial farm. So one could ask, what’s at stake in the reproduction of these images? What is being revealed and what is being concealed? This board book couldn’t be simpler or more spare, in some ways, and yet it is involved in transmitting all kinds of values to its readers.

So – given that our writing exists in a context of competing ideologies anyway, and reflects those contexts and the struggles between them – why balk at wading into the fray openly? Why not admit that we’re girded with a battle-ax to grind? They say to write about your passion – and I’m passionate about questions of ethics, questions of the human capacity for love and for destruction and for genius and for idiocy. Why shouldn’t I just plonk down my answers? Why shouldn’t I just write non-fiction, in fact – argumentative non-fiction?

And a lot of the answer is that I don’t always know the answers before I begin writing. And a lot of the answer is that answers aren’t clear. And part of it is that I’m fascinated by those moments of disruption when I don’t know. (Though commitment to pluralistic ambiguity is itself ideological.) And so I’m stranded between knowing and not knowing, uncertain, often, whether to make statements or ask questions.

And in the midst of this, I wonder: Why, anyway, the commitment to literary ambiguity when writing for a young audience that is still using narrative to construct their world? Don’t we want to participate in that construction? And even: What’s wrong, in some cases, with a little propaganda? What’s wrong with telling the lies that might come true if they’re believed? These are difficult times, and worse times may come, and do we really want to abjure our power to argue fervently for what we believe in the forum of the young?

And yet simply to say that causes me shame. How brittle and trivial “lessons” seem.

Oh, who knows? This all hurts my head. And maybe, in the end, that’s important. Maybe the books that endure are those that engage us most powerfully in the anxiety of doubt and polemic – narratives that hurt the heads of successive generations, each generation reformulating the story and the issues – so that the author’s ideological certainty and ideological doubt both continue to inspire debate within readers, and delight, and despair, and adoration, and awe.