Editorial: RIP Little Jackie Paper (November/December 2019)

Over on a great Facebook group called Jewish Kidlit Mavens, the members have been discussing their childhood reading (or not) of C. S. Lewis’s Narnia series and how each maven variously dealt with its Christian themes and allegorical elements. The reactions in the group have run from childhood delight to adult reservations, but the most often proffered observation is that the religious content, at least initially, soared right over their heads, a veritable Dawn Treader of obliviousness. 

I hadn’t read the Chronicles of Narnia until, like many 1970s teens, I was sent to them in search of another Lord of the Rings. Disappointment reigned, as the books couldn’t be more different, but I did enjoy the series’s cozy tone and the interplay between Narnia and our own world. Who among us can now regard a wardrobe (or even a closet) without wondering where it might take us? But even at the relatively advanced age of sixteen and with a then-confident adherence to Roman Catholicism, I missed most of the Jesusy stuff except for Aslan himself. 

There’s a reason we caution would-be writers for children to stay away from allegory, and it’s the same reason we see so much of it from self-published and small-pressed* children’s authors: it’s more often preachy and didactic and labored than not, but there’s a lesson involved, which people who don’t love to read love to see in books for the young. Allegory also, as we see above, eludes many young readers, so what’s the point? When I read The Gift (Paulist Press, 1995), I knew that Angela the pumpkin’s destiny as a tasty and nutritious pie was an allegorical approach to the concept of self-sacrifice, but to kids, I’m guessing it reads like a horror movie. (*And the big publishers aren’t innocent either, with 9/11 and Sandy Hook, for example, prompting some egregious allegories in response.) 

Why do we expect children to respond to the use of a literary device they will only come to understand later? As a six-year-old when Peter, Paul and Mary’s “Puff, the Magic Dragon” was all over the radio, I thought Little Jackie Paper died. It was very sad (but very stirring), and when one gray night it happened that I figured out Jackie had merely grown up, I felt betrayed — and I still like my version better, death being a subject of more interest to six-year-olds than is the sadness of encroaching maturity. 

There’s allegory and allegory, of course, but while Lewis manages to mostly hold onto his literary reputation as a gifted fantasy writer, it is despite his spiritual ambitions, not because of them. Kids keep reading those books because they are exciting and unusual, and no one cares if those readers miss the point. Which is my point, I guess: books live or die for readers independently of an author’s — or a librarian’s — intentions. Readers might not get what you want them to get. They might get it but may not care. I can remember, in my first job, kids loving those dreadful ValueTales (The Value of a Positive Attitude: The Story of Michael Landon) not for the sermons they delivered but for the inviting format, easy reading, and cartoon pictures. Mostly the cartoon pictures. We all can think of books handed to the young with the noblest of intentions but received with incomprehension, irreverence, salacious delight, or boredom. 

Think of how often reviewers blithely goose a recommendation with the phrase “Readers will…” We don’t know. Our projections for what a reader will do with a book or what a book will do for a reader (or to a reader) say more about what we hope (or fear) will happen than about what actually will occur. As my dear friend and colleague Betty Carter says, “There’s no teaching, there’s only learning.” Or if you want to think of it in allegorical terms, try the one about the horse and water.

Roger Sutton
Roger Sutton
Roger Sutton has been the editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc, since 1996. He was previously editor of The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books and a children's and young adult librarian. He received his M.A. in library science from the University of Chicago in 1982 and a B.A. from Pitzer College in 1978. Follow him on Twitter: @RogerReads.

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