All societies indoctrinate their children, observes E. L. Doctorow in The Book of Daniel, a fictional, albeit rather thinly veiled, account of the execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg through the eyes of one of their sons. If the American narrative is simply a matter of perspective, why not expand the nature of childrens literature to include the class, race, and gender struggles that have characterized modern life? This question influenced our collection development policy in such a way that we began to target those authors and artists who challenged the status quo. As it happened, we did not need to look much further than some of our existing collections, including that of noted childrens author and illustrator Lois Lenski (18931974). Awarded the 1946 Newbery Medal for Strawberry Girl, even the quintessential mainstream Lenski had long been recognized for her regional stories that explored the diversity of the lives of American children, not only from the urban dweller (We Live in the City) to the rural child (Corn Farm Boy), but also in every corner of the American landscape. Always with a keen sense of discovery and an equal portion of wonder, Lenski conjured up the environment of the Cape Cod cranberry bogs (Berries in the Scoop), the mountains of North Carolina (Blue Ridge Billy), the Louisiana back country (Bayou Suzette), a West Virginia mining town (Coal Camp Girl), and the Mississippi River (Houseboat Girl). Lenski also highlighted the lives of ethnic minorities, including the African American migration from the South to up North (Mama Hatties Girl), the Standing Rock Indian Reservation in the Dakotas (Little Sioux Girl), and the contributions to American culture of Chinese immigrants and their rich heritage (San Francisco Boy). With egalitarian rigor and honesty, Lenski serves up the sheltered world of the Amish child in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, in Shoo-Fly Girl alongside a sympathetic but unsentimental portrayal of the well-traveled, if impoverished, paths of the migrant child (Judys Journey). As early as 1950, Lenski shattered the gender stereotype with Texas Tomboy, which follows the adventures of the independent Charlotte Clarissa (Charlie Boy to everyone at the Triangle Ranch) as she rides her horse Gypsy with the expertise and abandon of a cowboy, fearing neither coyotes nor stampeding cattle. In the 1960s, Lenski reworked some of her most popular stories (Papa Small and Cowboy Small) in a bilingual format, using English with Spanish translations side by side on a single page. Of course, Lenski also wrote more traditional childrens fare about various modes of transportation (automobiles, fire engines, trains, and airplanes), explorations of seasonal distinctions, the relationships between children and pets, expectations about growing up, and a few stories based on Bible characters, such as Mr. and Mrs. Noah. However, if even the nonconfrontational Lois Lenski tackled subjects such as racial and ethnic identity, and questioned traditional gender roles, could it be altogether surprising that those same themes were explored repeatedly by political activists and leftist sympathizers such as Arna Bontemps, Jack Conroy, Howard Fast, Theodor Geisel (Dr. Seuss), Langston Hughes, Crockett Johnson, Meridel Le Sueur, Ben Martin, Eve Merriam, A. Redfield (Syd Hoff), Muriel Rukeyser, and Richard Wright.
The selection of titles for this exhibition features biographies of radical activists, as well as the Young World Books series issued by International Publishers, an organ of the Communist Party of the United States of America. Also included are childrens books with feminist, labor, multicultural, pacifist, and racial themes.
A lecture on this subject was presented to Library Associates at Syracuse University Library on February 7, 2008 by Julia Mickenberg of the University of Texas at Austin and Philip Nel of Kansas State University. In their lecture they provided a definition of radical children's literature and discussed its history in the U.S. and relationship to the larger history of radical politics. The lecture can be viewed online here.