‘this war-crazed Pig had your brother killed’

In the New York Times book pages, Caleb Crain reviews Tales for Little Rebels: A Collection of Radical Children’s Literature by Julia L. Mickenberg and Philip Nel, two American academics. He writes:

the tentacles of the left reach deep. Crockett Johnson, creator of the innocuous-seeming “Harold and the Purple Crayon,” was an editor at The New Masses, a Communist weekly. Syd Hoff, known for “Danny and the Dinosaur,” wrote for The Daily Worker. Environmentalism is more or less explicit in such crowd pleasers as “The Lorax” by Dr. Seuss.

In fact, so permeated is children’s literature by progressive ideals that Mickenberg and Nel were forced to narrow their scope by focusing on texts that have fallen out of print. They group their rediscoveries according to such themes as economics, unionization and respect for individual difference. A less ideological reader might be tempted to divvy them up into the categories Charming, Insufferable and Inappropriate. Let’s get Charming out of the way first. In 1939, under the pseudonym “A. Redfield,” Hoff wrote and illustrated “Mr. His,” a book about a portly capitalist with a top hat, a tuxedo and a droopy mustache — like the Monopoly man but more personable. Though elsewhere Mickenberg and Nel warn against trafficking in “the stereotype of the fat capitalist,” they’re lenient with Hoff, perhaps because the rotundity of Mr. His is so charismatic. Mr. His owns a whole town, Histown, where he lives in luxury and the workers in squalor. He gets away with it because “there were no strikes in Histown — and no picket lines and no unions. The newspapers, which Mr. His owned too, said that these things were wicked.” Since this is a children’s story, the workers manage to defy Mr. His despite the false consciousness foisted on them by his mass media, whereupon he temporizes by trying to foment race hatred: “Wuxtry!” he exclaims, hawking issues of his newspaper in person. “Blondes — your real enemy is brunettes!” Unable to resist a villain who shouts “Wuxtry!” I wandered off to the Internet to try to buy a copy of “Mr. His” for my niece. None were for sale. By their reprinting, Mickenberg and Nel have rescued Mr. His from near-complete oblivion

Obviously, what kids read makes a difference and most people, one imagine, would accept that the removal of the more egregious racial and gender stereotypes (the Little Black Sambos and the Dick and Jane stories) is unequivocally a good thing.

Some of the more ambitious plans for a radical children’s literature seem, however, rather more problematic. In Radical Melbourne 2, we noted how  1920 manual of the Young Communist International  recommended the ‘Pied Piper’ approach:

Go in a group to the places where children are … on the streets in the evening, in parks, public playgrounds, or some outdoor celebration … watch the children play and gradually and tactfully join in their games, perhaps teaching them a new circle game which all can join. Other children will be attracted and appraoch to play the new game. After a time when the children are a little tired: ‘Shall we learn a new song?’ At first the little ones may be suspicious, then they will be shy, but eventually they will join in ‘The Red Flag’, ‘The Internationale’ or some other revolutionary song.

And then you’ll have them for life, you see!

About his third category (‘inappropriate’) , Crain writes:

For all their caution about the fatness of capitalists, no warning is given that Julius Lester’s “High John the Conqueror” (1969), a retelling of several African-­American folk tales, deploys the N-word with gusto. Another stumper is a 1954 retelling and reillustration by Walt Kelly, of “Pogo” fame, of an episode from Lewis Carroll’s novel “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.” The King of Hearts is drawn as a burly, sinister cat with the face of Senator Joseph McCarthy. To show that the McCarthy cat is evil, Kelly gives its eyes no pupils. It has a 5 o’clock shadow, and there’s hair — fur? — on the backs of its hands. The effect is grotesque, of a feline Tony Soprano brutalizing and carnalizing Carroll’s delicate surrealism. I imagine it would give children nightmares.

His other example of the inappropriate category is a verse taken from the Communist Party journal New Pioneer. It’s called ‘Pioneer Mother Goose’ and it runs:

This bloated Pig masters Wall Street
This little Pig owns your home;
This war-crazed Pig had your brother killed,
And this greedy Pig shouts ‘More!’
This Pig in Congress shouts ‘War, War!’
All day long
These Pigs we’ll send to market –
And will they squeal? You bet!
Down with Capitalism!
Long live the Soviet.

Rather than dreaming of the kindly little pigs in Charlotte’s Web, one imagines a generation of Red Diaper babies haunted by nightmares of enormous homicidal porkers pursuing their little brothers and sisters.


Immediately after posting this, I stumbled on Ben Joseph’s ‘The 9 Most Racist Disney Characters‘. His remarkable collection of clips provide a good reminder as to why so many radicals were concerned about the messges their kids were absorbing.

Jeff Sparrow

Jeff Sparrow is a Walkley Award-winning writer, broadcaster and former editor of Overland.

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