Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Book Review: Tales for Little Rebels: A Collection of Radical Children's Literature

by Rachel Branson and Marina Balina

Tales for Little Rebels: A Collection of Radical Children’s Literature, edited by Julia L. Mickenberg and Philip Nel with a foreword by Jack Zipes, is an anthology of 44 little known children’s stories that represent, according to the statement of the two editors of the volume, “the ideals of radical politics as they evolved over the 20th century.” The book is divided into eight parts with stories written between 1907 and 1982, demonstrating not only the range of topics that most commonly concerned writers of children’s literature for the American Left in this period, but also the age, race, and gender of the diverse children’s audience that these stories were intended for.

Mickenberg and Nel open the volume with a section called “R Is for Rebel,” which includes children’s texts meant for the youngest of readers and  follow "R Is for Rebel" with “Subversive Science and Dramas of Ecology.” This second part contains stories that encourage children to become ecologically aware and critical of racial prejudices that have no foundation in biology. “Work, Workers, and Money” is the third part of the book in which texts echo the economic concerns of the American Left for a child’s understanding. Finally, “Organize,” the fourth part, contains the most ideologically charged stories--those that concern the successes of class struggle. For scholars working in Soviet children’s literature, it will be especially interesting to discover direct parallels with Russian stories written for Young Pioneers and the interknizhki of the 1920s that described class struggle around the world. It is interesting to notice that the binary approach, so important for the depiction of class struggle in Soviet books, survives in these American stories written in the 1970s (“Doria Ramirez”). For instance, the story “Imagine” employs the fairy tale genre to make social conflict comprehensible for a young audience, and the subversive power of the fairy tale is used in the manner known to Slavic readers from Soviet examples. “History and Heroes” subverts traditional history lessons through stories told about oppressed minorities in American history (stories from such collections as Independent Voices, for example). “A Person’s a Person,” teaches a young audience the value of freedom and tolerance. “Peace,” the last part of the collection, includes stories that stress the negativity of war and the benefits of peace. Comprised of predominantly American-authored texts, translated stories by Herminia Zur Mühlen (German) and Yehoshua Kaminski (Yiddish) are also included. The anthology represents a variety of genres – picture books, poems, fairy tales, nonfiction – that diversify and complicate the use of ideological messages in children’s narratives.

In his foreword, Jack Zipes, a distinguished scholar of children’s literature, states that this anthology is “a strong antidote to the dominant tendency of consumerism in our times,” thus making this collection relevant to the issues facing children’s literature today. However, the value of this collection for Slavic scholars lies in its ability to become an eye-opening resource for comparative studies of children’s literature by the American Left and literary works written for children in Russia during the Soviet period. Reading Mickenberg and Nel’s volume allows us to examine the multiple ways ideology is incorporated into children’s texts and becomes an integral part of the narrative. The overused claim that only Soviet children’s literature (or, literature affiliated with totalitarian regimes like German children’s literature of the Nazi period) was ideologically “corrupt” is the first one that this anthology successfully undermines. The collection focuses on a fascinating combination of ideology and creativity introducing its readers to a multiplicity of ways didactic messages were presented to a children’s audience. This anthology is important for scholars of Russian literature because it shows the inherent elements of children’s literature that permits its use (and abuse) for ideological purposes.

Tales for Little Rebels: A Collection of Radical Children’s Literature, edited by Julia L. Mickenberg and Philip Nel with foreword by Jack Zipes. New York and London: New York University Press, 2008.


  1. So glad to find this blog! Prof. Balina told me about it at the ChLA conference, but I hadn't been able to find it as of yet. Looking forward to reading :)