The Roll Of Dadiactism In Children’s Literature Essays Example
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Kelly McDowell argues that “any children’s novel almost always falls into didacticism one way or another (McDowell, 236).” Didactism is the presence of lesson-learning or instruction in a novel. It is the novel’s ability to teach moral lessons, or to instruct children how to operate in the adult world, in a socially appropriate way. All novels fit somewhere on a sliding scale that ranges from non-didactic, or subversive to overtly didactic or so completely didactic that they are no longer also entertaining. I will argue that along this continuum there is also subjective didactism, which relies on the text’s ability to present a concept, and offer a choice, as an intermediate level of didactism, and which allows for the child character to exhibit some free agency, or question of authority, without going so far as to declare full autonomy. Roll of Thunder Hear my Cry, Sparrows and Amazons and Harry Potter all demonstrate a very different approach to didactism in children’s literature.
One way that authors can present didactism in their work is through the voice of the narrator. Literature which is overtly didactic is typically written from an adult’s perspective, or in an adult narrator’s voice, and tells a child to behave. This was most commonly seen in literature that was presented during, or previous to the 19th century. More recent children’s literature, however, has moved to more subjective levels of didactism, where overtly didactive statements may be made by adult characters, but the main narration of the novel is in the voice of the child who drives the story’s action. For example, the story Swallows and Amazons could certainly be considered subjectively didactic, and we will discuss some of its more didactic elements further in this analysis, but there are a very few moments of overt didactism when adults are speaking. For example, at one point Captain Flint says, “Never lock anything up Polly, and you’ll never lose it” (Ransome, 1985, p.266). The most overtly didactic statement in the book is “Never any of you start writing books (p. 338).” These statements are spoken directly to the children in the novel, and offer them a specific understanding of something they should or should not do in the adult world, or a “rule” to follow.
In other cases, a single character can repeatedly offer the voice of overt didactism in a more subtle text. This is especially visible in Albus Dumbledore, who consistently offers nuggets of wisdom which are overtly didactic. This is to say he offers rules to live by or direct instruction about how to be a good child, and more importantly a good adult. For example, in the first of the Harry Potter Novels, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Dumbledore tells Harry “It does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live (Rowling, 1997, p. 157).” Advice like this comes from Dumbledore more than any single character in the series, and is peppered throughout all 8 books.
One could argue, however that the overt didactism in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone is much more widespread than the advice offered by a single character. After all Uncle Vernon declares "Don't talk rubbish (p. 5)," And a sign in Gringots bank in Diagon Alley bears this inscription:
Enter stranger, but take heedOf what awaits the sin of greed,For those who take, but do not earnMust pay most dearly in their turn.So if you seek beneath our floorsA treasure that was never yours,Thief, you have been warned; bewareOf finding more than treasure there.(p. 57).
These displays of overt didactism are perhaps important in this novel because Rowling is setting up a set of rules, or expectations that will guide characters through a fantasy series. Since fantasy novels and magic necessarily undermine the understood limitations of the adult world, or take children to a place in their imagination where there are no limitations, J.K.Rowling uses her first novel like a traditional tale of warning to establish rules, and limitations that will control the rest of her series. This allows the novel to take on a form that is much more similar to pre-19th century writing’s to children. While still embracing many of the freedoms, and subversive elements, that are common to fantasy.
While Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and Swallows and Amazons both demonstrate some overtly didactic dialogue, it should be noted that some children’s literature contain no such utterances. They fail to establish a clear voice of right and wrong, or adult narrative voice, and instead allow the children in the story to act as free agents, determining what is right and what is wrong for themselves. According to McDowell, this is especially powerful for children from poor or oppressed cultures, who need to be encouraged to subvert authority (p. 246). Roll Of Thunder Hear my Cry, is a subversive text, and so encourages not rules, but choices. Cassie’s father tells her “Then I want you to think real hard on whether or not Lillian Jean’s worth taking a stand about, but keep in mind that (p. 195). Here, the adult voice in the novel tells the child to carefully consider her own choice, but does not work to sway that choice one way or another.
Where a book lies along the continuum of didactism is also visible in the voice of the novel. An overtly didactic novel will be written in an adult voice, and from an adult character’s perspective. None of these novels have a overtly didactic voice, but as you would expect, Harry Potter comes closer than the other two tales. Harry Potter is told from the perspective of an adult bystander, but he stays very close to Harry Potter, and is clearly privy to Harry’s innermost thoughts. In way of comparison, Sparrows and Amazons is written from the perspective of a child, but we do not know which child. All of the child character’s are viewed from a third person perspective, but adults in the story is referred to simply as Mother, and Uncle Jack rather than by their formal or given names. Finally, Roll of Thunder Hear my Cry is written purely from Cassie’s perspective, complete with inner dialogue, and use of a thick and uneducated dialect. This clearly places her further in the role of a child agent than the other to characters.
Another way that novels inforce teachable moments, or act didactically is through their plot construction. A subversive novel will not appear to teach that there are consequences for a child’s actions, while subjectively didactic novels appear to offer children choices, and then demonstrate that there are good and bad consequences based on the choices that are made (McDowell p. 238). In an overtly didactic novel, these choice and consequence scenarios are not necessarily present, because they have been made unnecessary. Children need not be concerned with choices and outcomes because they have been overtly informed of the rules and the consequences, so there is no need to learn from choices and mistakes. For example, in Harry Potter, we see Harry Potter make choices which might have lead a child in a more subjectively didactic novel to ruin, but in this novel, Harry is allowed to make bad choices for good reasons, and nothing bad happens as a result of those poor decisions. However, the plot as a whole still contains a lesson in good vs evil, which can be considered didactic. There is a constant tension in the novel between good and evil, and in the end, as we witness Harry defeat Voldamort we are reassured that good will always, ultimately triumph.
Similarly, Swallows and Amazon’s uses the plot of the novel to tell a story about rivalry, friendship and adventure, while dealing with real children’s fears, decision making and consequences. Children are almost allowed to act as free agents, but ultimately are still within a pirating fantasy, and so, like Harry are protected by the real consequences of their actions.
In Roll of Thunder Hear my Cry there is no such sense of protection. The children act entirely as free agents, capable of making decisions and directing a plot that is not steeped in fantasy. Their decisions, and the consequences seem to have an effect not only on the narrative’s plot but on the character’s reality.
This demonstrates perhaps the most significant role of didactism in children’s literature. McDowell argues that one of the primary roles of didactism in children’s literature is to provide children with a kind of gateway from childhood to adulthood. It allows the child to experience the very real realm of adulthood through a set of characters and through choices and consequences that are not real. Books written in the fantasy style as more a part of childhood’s reality than adults because, as we saw with Harry Potter, the good guy is always allowed to win, and bad choices can be simply passed over if they are made with good intention. But books that work toward realism begin to allow children to experience the disappointment and personal harm that comes with bad decision making. It allows them to see, through characters in the novel, what it is like to be an adult.
Swallows and Amazons is the perfect example of this balance between the child’s agency and the adult’s because it uses two parallel story lines to draw a sharp contrast between the reality of the adult world, and the fantasy of children’s world. The children are going on an adventure trying to determine if Captain Flint (their Uncle) has stolen and buried the treasure. While in a parallel story line real thieves are stealing and hiding Turner’s property, and the children accidently discover it, and must navigate what to do about their discovery. The first story line shows the children protected in an arena where choices to do not have real consequences because the conflict is centered in play. The second story line, however, puts the children in real peril, and in a real battle of good versus evil, where they must decide what side they are on, and how they will do what is good without getting hurt.
In Roll of Thunder Hear my Cry, Cassie is forced to face the very real, very adult, trials of racism, and then choose how she will respond to them. As a free agent, she is thrust into an adult position and does not have the safety-net of fantasy that we see in both Harry Potter and Swallows and Amazons. She must act, and react, on her own, and ultimately we see a reflection of some, but not all of her parents attitudes regarding both racism and success reflected in Cassie’s opinions, but it never feels like she is simply modeling her parents behavior, but rather she has chosen a path for herself, where racism is to be to both fought, and occasionally endured, depending on the situation.
Didactism is inherently a part of children’s litereature. Books written for children are seldom, if ever intended to solely entertain a child and are instead intended to instruct them in how to act as they grow into adults. It is clear in analyzing Roll of Thunder Hear my Cry, Harry Potter and Swallows and Amazons that each book, though having a very different level of clear didactism, plot, voice and structure, have a very similar overall goal – to teach. Even Roll of Thunder Hear my Cry, the must subversive of the novels, ultimately has at its hard the goal to instruct. It is designed to instruct minority children to rise up against authority when it is oppressive, and to seek success first. Which one could argue is a very valuable lesson. As long as children’s literature is written by adults, for children, it is unlikely that this goal, this drive to teach while entertaining, instead of entertaining for pure amusements sake, will change.
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