What matters is that lives do not serve as models; only stories can do that.
The literary work or cultural object, as though for the first time, brings into being that very situation to which it is also, at one and the same time, a reaction.
‘I told her I think I’m a girl’, says George, the eponymous narrator of Alex Gino’s children’s novel. George is what her family and friends call her, but she (and throughout the story the narrator uses the feminine pronoun for George) prefers Melissa. Published by Scholastic in the United States, it has won several prizes, and was a best book of the year for Booklist, School Library Journal and Kirkus Reviews and a notable book for the New York Public Library. It is the story of a fourth-grade boy who decides to come out as a girl to her family and best friend in the process of auditioning for a part in the school play, Charlotte’s Web. She performs as a girl, playing the part of Charlotte. One reviewer, quoted in the 2017 paperback version, said that ‘reading this breathtaking debut should be a requirement for living’. The back of the book encourages the reader to ‘Be Who You Are’.
The act of reading is a performance; what, then, does the fictional subject in children’s books call upon readers to perform? For the past 200 years the answer to that question has been more or less consistent: the child in the book has been a subject in psychological, physical and social development. Gino’s George breaks decisively with this pattern. But George is no surprise: children’s fiction has long been a reliable calibrator of cultural change, and the number of children under the age of nine who declare that their gender differs from their natal sex rises every year. George and similar characters that have been finding their way into children’s fiction for more than a decade mark a radical change in what is a socially significant symbolic form. To see what this might mean demands a backward look at the development of the child in the book and the literary form—children’s literature—that has enshrined it in the contemporary social imaginary.
Since 1744, when John Newbery opened the first publishing house and bookshop dedicated to children’s books in St Paul’s Churchyard in London, books written with the explicit purpose of giving pleasure to children—as opposed to texts whose primary aim is educational—have assumed that young readers (or listeners) are social and cultural subjects in the early stages of development and formation. The fictional child subject found in early children’s books did not, of course, spring into view unbidden in 1744. Newbery was a man of vision and acumen, and a good reader of the transformations in thinking about childhood that were stirring in the social world of the mid- to late eighteenth century. His eye firmly on the market, he thought highly of John Locke, for whom education played a central role in the child’s development, and many of the earliest children’s books published by Newbery combined the ideas of play and learning that Locke enjoined in his 1693 treatise Thoughts Concerning Education.
Locke argued that children, born with minds ‘void of all characters and without any ideas’, should be ‘cozened’ into their letters, and given ‘easy pleasant books’ to read, suited to their capacity. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, whose impact upon the concept of childhood equalled Locke’s, was less sanguine about the value of books, or indeed of formal education at all before the age of twelve to thirteen. Like Locke, he thought that the child should learn through experience, but above all he wished to preserve the child’s ‘original perfect nature’, as the opening sentence of his Emile, or on Education (1762) makes plain: ‘Everything is good as it leaves the hands of the Creator; everything degenerates in the hands of man’.
For all their differences, Locke and Rousseau were both clear about the importance of the child’s experiential development, both physical and moral. Rousseau’s Emile, written as a novel, forms a bridge between the educational philosophy of Locke and fiction; little surprise, then, that Emile has been thought of as a bildungsroman, a story of development and moral formation, and that the earliest fiction written for children followed suit. In these stories accounts of the inner life of the child and the development of the subject over time combine in didactic accounts of common standards of morality, manners and growth.
It was in the Romantic period that what Hugh Cunningham calls the ‘middle-class ideology of childhood’ was perfected. An earlier Puritan emphasis on the sinfulness of children was met, and largely overcome, by a sanctification of childhood. Wordsworth’s Ode to Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood (1807), in which ‘trailing clouds of glory do we come/From God who is our home’, is perhaps the best-known expression of childhood’s transformation from a period of preparation for adulthood to the cherished origin of each individual’s life. The child figure in books written for children began to inhabit an imaginative space that was, in effect, one that the adult had lost. In it the child’s agency was limited by the boundaries that separated it from the adult’s world. This was a space in which innocence and experience, nature and nurture were held in a complex balance.
By the turn of the nineteenth century few Western children lay outside this ideology. Philanthropists turned their attention to the plight of poorer children, whose working lives Henry Mayhew had documented in his 1840 London Labour and the London Poor. When Mayhew interviewed a little eight-year-old, who ‘had entirely lost all childish ways’, selling watercress in all weathers, he responded to her from within the expectations of childhood that had taken hold in the social imaginary. He found it ‘cruelly pathetic’ that ‘this infant, so young that her features had scarcely formed themselves…[talked]…of the bitterest struggles of life with the calm earnestness of one who had endured them all’.
When Lewis Carroll’s Alice fell into Wonderland in 1865, twenty years after Mayhew published his account of life in London, her adventures were as much an exploration of privileged nineteenth-century childhood as of the social world that Carroll’s fantasy turned upside down. Her typical response to the fantastic creatures and beings she meets in Wonderland is to dismiss them for failing to meet the standards of behaviour and logic she has been taught. As she says to the Queen of Hearts: ‘Who cares for you?…You’re nothing but a pack of cards!’.
Carroll’s book is among those that constitute what has become known as the Golden Age of children’s books. Like others on the list, such as Beatrix Potter’s Peter Rabbit (1902), Edith Nesbitt’s The Railway Children (1906) and Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden (1910), child characters attempt to negotiate the various situations they find themselves in by means of the social and cultural lessons they have learned. Like Alice, the logic they apply reveals the extent of their limited experience of the world, and at the same time confirms the ideology of childhood that they instantiate. The picture of childhood that these books provided was one in which children were largely free to roam without adult supervision. They might go on hiking or sailing holidays, or trek on ponies, take trains and buses, and meet remarkable characters as they explored their environment and coped with a proper amount of manageable danger and excitement, always with the expectation that adults were there to help and protect when they were needed. It was a picture of an ideal childhood that would be sustained well into the twentieth century.
By the time the books of the Golden Age were published, a more substantial market for children’s books was well established. Following the creation in 1879 of The Boy’s Own Paper, followed by The Girl’s Own Paper in 1880, less ‘literary’ books for children came to be classified according to the expectation of their appeal to either boys or girls. Books for girls tended to be regarded as more frivolous, and, as Kimberley Reynolds argues, classified as ‘low-status, popular fiction’. But, as she points out, it was girls who were the avid readers of fiction; looking beyond books written expressly for them, they would read boys’ books, too. Boys, however, did not in general return the compliment. In this, the Victorians’ experience mirrors our own. It is also notable that male protagonists, particularly when given in animal form, still outnumber females in books written for children today, no matter which gender is presumed as the book’s audience.
After the Second World War, in a rapidly changing social world, the cordon sanitaire erected around children’s books began to show the first signs of dissolution. While books for younger children published in the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia continued in the pattern of ‘sociological and cultural values of Edwardian England’, as John Rowe Townsend puts it, in which an ‘unwritten ban’ on bad behaviour such as unpunished lying or stealing, sexual suggestiveness, drinking and smoking remained in place for books with an expected audience of children under twelve, the protective barriers began to lift for their elders.
Young adult (YA) novels, aiming for a readership between twelve and seventeen, began to make their appearance around the same time that the commodification of childhood became starkly apparent in the figure of the sixteen-year-old model Twiggy, who, in becoming ‘the face of 1966’, blurred the boundaries between adulthood and childhood. The early YA books such as S. E. Hinton’s The Outsiders (1967), the story of rival gangs, and Judy Blume’s Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret (1970), with its frank discussions of menstruation, sex and religion, continued the traditional themes of psychological, physical and social development. A major feature of YA books was their realism, and this extended to characters that found themselves blocked in their search for identity.
Alan Garner’s Tom in Red Shift (1973) and Robert Cormier’s Adam in I Am the Cheese (1977) are characters whose subjectivity is precarious and fragmented, constructed in situations in which fragile and increasingly broken interpersonal relationships play out within an uncaring world. The protagonists’ situations are not ameliorated by interactions with loving and consistent parents, nor do their circumstances offer any certain means of escape from their debilitating isolation. These are the young of a world and society in rapid transformation. Meanwhile, picture books, with their overt presumption of the mediation of an adult reader and the possibility of reading and rereading, began to take on contemporary themes and to deal in the complexity of the child and childhood itself.
Since the early years of the twentieth century picture books had concerned themselves with child psychology, but in 1963 Maurice Sendak’s deservedly famous Where the Wild Things Are, at ‘the crossroads of Freudian tradition, child analysis, humanistic psychology and bibliotherapy’, as Kenneth Kidd remarks, renewed the sense that fairy tales and fantasy were essential for the psychological health of children. Together with his other picture books, Where the Wild Things Are is concerned, Sendak says, with the way that ‘children master various feelings—anger, boredom, fear, frustration, jealousy…and…come to grips with the realities of their lives’.
Max, the wolf-suited protagonist, has been sent to bed supperless by his mother for acting like a ‘wild thing’. His moonlit bedroom becomes a dream forest and then a sea upon which he sails away ‘off through night and day/and in and out of weeks/and almost over a year’ until he meets the five Wild Things, who meet him arms outstretched in loving greeting. They begin a wild rumpus together. Cheerfully doing his bidding, the Wild Things are in turn sent to bed without any supper, as Max had been. Max’s return home, his anger worked through, is crowned with supper waiting for him on his bedside table. Max, for all his modernity, remains very much the recognisable child subject in children’s fiction. His agency—he has been lording it over the Wild Things—has been part of his invaluable fantasy.
In response to feminism, the construction of gender in children’s books came to the attention of children’s-literature theorists in the early 1970s. Since one of the major features of children’s books had been their role in illustrating ‘what it meant for girls to be girls and boys to be boys’, according to Perry Nodelman, this was hardly surprising. The image of childhood as a period of slow development towards an assumption of a mature social subjectivity that had served children’s literature well for more than 200 years had now to be held in increasingly tense equilibrium with the effects of commodification, concerns about gendered stereotyping, adults’ continuing nostalgia about childhood and the growing importance of an individualised identity that had become a major theme of YA fiction. Gino’s George makes her entrance into this nexus.
While George is not the first transgender protagonist of a book written for children under the age of twelve, she is an interesting example of a child whose performance of her gendered selfhood is enacted literally on a stage: she receives a positive reception from her audience, who assume her identity to be the one she performs. Her family will later repeat this confirmation. It is a striking example of agency and social power, one that will confirm her gender choice. Trans here, though, means moving from one position to another, rather than existing in the space between: rather than questioning gender categories, George’s transformation into Melissa serves only as confirmation of them. In this sense, the position taken in Gino’s novel confirms and actually strengthens the gender lessons children’s books have always taught: you are either one or the other, either female or male. But in demanding a response from the social that confers on her a subjectivity in command of its agential selfhood, George defies the idea of the child as a subject in the process of development, and moreover crucially affects the traditional power balance between adult (parent) and child.
‘Be who you are’ sounds simple enough. But for the last 200 years at least the idea of the child that has shaped social thought and informed public policy, as well as the image of the child in children’s literature, has been one of long development; we have assumed that being who you are takes time. Gino’s George sets this aside—she already knows who she is at nine years of age. Importantly, she receives unquestioning parental affirmation of her choice to change her gender. The story about choice being based on judgment—the kind of lesson that so many fairy tales, let alone other novels for children, insist upon—is missing in this. Both knowing who she is and the setting aside of judgment are major developments that open up to a range of questions about childhood and parenting, gender, agency and social change. Posing questions about the present is valuable and inevitable in books written by one generation for the next. Gino’s novel, while forcing us to confront profound issues in our contemporary cultural, social and political life, is a reminder of the importance of children’s literature as a cultural form. It also reminds us to take seriously the books our children read.