Children's literature

Encyclopedia of the Literature of Empire - Mary Ellen Snodgrass 2010

Children's literature

Children's literature

As with adult literature of empire, children’s chronicles tend to feature the tensions and conflicts of imperialism and can overlap with other genres, such as FRONTIER LITERATURE. CATHERINE PARR TRAILL produced two titles for youth—Canadian Crusoes: A Tale of the Rice Lake Plains (1852) and Lady Mary and Her Nurse: or, a Peep into the Canadian Forest (1856)—that provide stories of courage and endurance. Fiction classics such as ROBERT Louis STEVENSON’S TREASURE ISLAND (1883) and RUDYARD KIPLING’S KIM (1901) present young people with difficult, complex predicaments requiring pluck and determination to solve, such as the theft of a pirate vessel or a holy Hindu quest.

In 1901, four years before the dissolution of the Swedish union with Norway, the Swedish National Teachers Association hired Selma Lagerlof, a former teacher and Nobel laureate from Varmland, to write a primary reader devoid of the dry pedagogy of standard textbooks. Drawing on the suspense and whimsy of Stevenson’s masterworks, she composed Nils Holgerssons underbara resa (The Wonderful Adventures of Nils, 1906-07) as a boost to the national self-image and to an understanding of Scandinavian mythos, topography, flora, and fauna. Borrowing a writer’s trick from Kipling, she depicted the progression of chapters as the view of wild geese in flight as they gaze down on Sweden, province by province. In 1955, a Soviet film studio adapted the text as The Enchanted Boy, an animated feature about a flight across Lapland.

Children’s works do not preclude realism from their profiles of courage. A nonfiction landmark, The Diary of a Young Girl (1947), recounts the brief life of the German-Jewish teenager Anne Frank, who succumbed to typhus at the Nazis’ Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in Saxony. From 1942 to 1944, she kept a journal, written from the perspective of a girl hidden in an achterhuis (secret annex) on the upper floor of an Amsterdam office building during the Nazi occupation of Holland. She recorded her fears and the inevitable tensions resulting from living with others in crowded quarters. In the process, she recorded experiences of gross anti-Semitism as well as yearnings for freedom. Her emotional outpourings offer readers and historians an eyewitness account of the plight of the individual at a moment in imperial history when GENOCIDE threatened the survival of European Jews.

Although limited in scope and maturity, Anne Frank’s observations give her a voice in a time of repression and provide catharsis for the suffering that reduces her nuclear family from four members to a single HOLOCAUST survivor: her father, Otto Frank. The poignant text was adapted as a play, The Diary of Anne Frank (1955), and a film version was made in 1959, starring Millie Perkins, Shelley Winters, and Diane Baker. In 1995, Kenneth Branagh, Joely Richardson, and Glenn Close narrated a documentary of the diary, Anne Frank Remembered. In 2006, publication of Nina Lugovskaya’s I Want to Live: The Diary of a Young Girl in Stalin’s Russia replicated the measured style and desperation of Anne Frank’s journal. The suppressed work, which the KGB (Russian secret police) labeled counterrevolutionary, covers capricious incarcerations and imperial paranoia, injustice, and hypocrisy from 1932 to 1937, when the author entered the Kolyma gulag, the beginning of 12 years of imprisonment and exile. (See CENSORSHIP.)

Youth's Dilemmas

The struggle of girls like Anne and Nina inspired children’s writers to set fictional characters in wrenching political dilemmas, often demanding valor and discretion, two qualities not common to the immature. In 1942, Marie McSwigan (1907-62), an editor for the Pittsburgh Express, extracted from wire service news the elements of a plot about youthful nationalism and daring. A combination of wartime fact and McSwigan’s own imagination resulted in Snow Treasure, a historical novel featuring the theme of self-help and a motif of deception by the Norwegian underground. Set on the Arctic Circle at Riswyk at the time of the Nazi invasion of Norway on April 8, 1940, the action places 12-year-old Peter Lundstrom in the role of hero for smuggling the nation’s gold past German occupation troops.

In the novel, McSwigen captures her audience with suspense. Bar by bar, teams of sledders cross mountains and deposit the gold under snowmen in reach of the crew of a freighter, the Bomma, captained by Peter’s uncle Victor. Central to the gripping story is the transformation of child fantasy and play into necessary cunning to save the country’s treasury. According to national legend, Norwegian fishermen carried a total of $9 million in bullion to safety in the United States. In 1968, the narrative supplied filmdom with an adventure starring James Franciscus and featuring Paul Austad as Peter.

McSwigan subsequently wrote of other protagonists who display vulnerability and resistance to tyranny. These include the two ham radio transmitters who are threatened by torture in Juan of Manila (1947), a story of brotherly solidarity for the Philippine underground during Japanese insurgency. In All Aboard for Freedom (1954), the Czechoslovakian orphans escape communist oppressors in 1951 by heisting a train, locking switches, and driving it into West Germany.

Stark Imperialism

The late 20th-century trend toward multiculturalism and realism in children’s works inspired Asian- American writers to inform young readers about aspects of World War II in Pacific rim countries that are often glossed over by standard textbooks. Linda Sue Park’s When My Name Was Keoko (2002) offers a child’s view of Japanese occupation and the identity crisis foisted on Koreans stripped of birth names and assigned a Japanese name. Contributing to the unrest is the title character’s loss of a brother, Tae-yul, a teenage pilot for the Youth Air Corps who disappears into the ranks of the kamikazes. The narrative explores mixed feelings in wartime: the family’s receipt of extra rations as an honorarium for producing a pilot, the death letter that fliers post to their parents before departing on a suicide mission, and Tae-yul’s joy in attaining his ambition to fly airplanes. During indoctrination, he is wise enough to recognize Japanese propaganda, “the usual speech about the divinity of the Emperor and the glory of his Empire” (Park 2002, 128). The resolution leaves loose emotional ends, the type of anguish that assails a people long oppressed, culturally deprived, and separated from friends, relatives, and nationhood.

From the Middle East, Marjane Satrapi, an emigre from Iran to France, recapped the history of her noble family in Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood (2002). A graphic autobiographical novel adapted as an animated film in 2007, Persepolis’s story connects a stateless humanist to her family’s role in the shaping of the Persian empire into modern Iran. By explaining the nation’s lack of education, she accounts for a shift in rule in 1896 after the death of Great-Grandfather Nasser al-Din Shah in 1896, the seizure of Azerbaijan by the Russian Empire in 1920, the downfall of Shah Reza Pahlavi in 1979, and the creation of a repressive Islamic state under the Ayatollah Khomeini. Through family storytelling from her parents and Uncle Anoosh, she learns that Iran’s history has been one oppressive regime after another, punctuated by invasions by Arabs and Mongols and by exploiters from Great Britain and the United States.


Dave, Shilpa, et al., eds. East Main Street: Asian American Popular Culture. New York: New York University Press, 2005.

Frank, Anne. The Diary of a Young Girl: The Definitive Edition. Edited by Otto H. Frank and Mirjam Pressler. Translated by Susan Massotty. New York: Bantam, 1997.

Grice, Helena. Negotiating Identities: An Introduction to Asian American Women’s Writing. Manchester, U.K.: Manchester University Press, 2002.

Huang, Guiyou. Asian American Autobiographers: A Bio- Bibliographical Critical Sourcebook. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 2001.

Lugovskaya, Nina. I Want to Live: The Diary of Young Girl in Stalin’s Russia. Translated by Andrew Bronfield. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2006.

McSwigan, Marie. Snow Treasure. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1942.

Park, Linda Sue. When My Name Was Keoko. New York: Random House, 2002.

Satrapi, Marjane. Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood. Paris: EAssociation, 2003.

Schiwy, Marlene A. Voice of Her Own: Women and the Journal Writing Journey. New York: Fireside, 1996.