Seen and Heard: Remembering Children's Art and Activism

By Marah GubarDecember 27, 2018

Seen and Heard: Remembering Children's Art and Activism
This piece appears in the latest issue of the LARB Print Quarterly Journal: No. 20  Childhood

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Do you think it’s more important for a child to be respectful and obedient, or independent and self-reliant? Well behaved and well mannered, or considerate and curious?

When political scientist Matthew C. MacWilliams included these questions in a survey he gave to likely Republican primary voters during our last presidential election, he made a discovery that surprised many people. Among the voters he studied, the variable that correlated most strongly with support for Donald Trump’s candidacy was not their race, gender, class, religious affiliation, or education level. A better predictor of who would vote for Trump was how they answered these seemingly non-political questions about children. Prizing obedience and good behavior over qualities like independence and considerateness, MacWilliams found, was a more statistically significant predictor of support for Trump than standard demographic variables — a fact that might seem innocuous until we learn that psychologists use these questions to determine how disposed people are to authoritarianism.

The idea that our political values might express themselves in how we think about children shouldn’t be surprising to us. In the wake of World War II, philosopher Theodor Adorno collaborated with a group of psychologists at the University of California at Berkeley to trace how early childhood experiences might make people more susceptible to either developing or revering what they described as “the authoritarian personality.” Later, in a 1967 essay entitled “Education After Auschwitz,” Adorno argued that pedagogy aimed at preventing a repetition of the horror of the Holocaust must concentrate on nurturing young people’s ability to engage in “critical self-reflection.” Teaching children to question both adult authority figures and their own beliefs and opinions, Adorno hoped, would help them to resist the impulse to blindly obey orders from leaders whose schematic, us-versus-them worldviews dehumanize members of other groups.

Amid all the threats to American democracy that we currently face, the question of how adults regard young people might seem like the least of our problems. Yet if Adorno was right, then adopting a more egalitarian attitude toward children might be more important than we think. It’s very easy in our culture, which is already imbued with divisive thinking, to exaggerate how different children are from adults. The presumption of childish incompetence is so strong that, even when young people engage in activism and art that make the world a more democratic place, we often fail to recall their efforts. I’d like to argue against such forgetting. It isn’t enough to contest the authoritarian idea that children should be seen and not heard. We must also remember the ways in which children themselves have already challenged the status quo and changed the world as we know it.

Psychologist Adam Phillips has described “the child” as “our most convincing essentialism.” When we view childhood as a purely natural category defined by a set of fixed, innate qualities, we ignore the fact that social expectations also play a critical role in shaping “what children are like” in any given culture. Over time, we have grown more attuned to the potentially harmful impact of stereotypes related to race, class, and gender. Yet we often forget to include age on this list, no matter how many times thinkers like Adorno and Phillips remind us. I call this phenomenon aetonormative amnesia. Derived from aeto, the Latin prefix meaning “pertaining to age,” the term “aetonormative” was coined by children’s literature critic Maria Nikolajeva, who wanted to point out how age-related social norms can silence, demean, and disempower people. This terminology is general rather than child-specific because age-related cultural expectations and stereotypes affect the lives of older people as well as younger ones.

Aetonormative amnesia also refers to another form of forgetting. Here’s how it works: when a member of a particular age group accomplishes something that seems at odds with the stereotypes associated with that group, their achievement is often regarded as exceptional and then is promptly forgotten. When another member of that group comes along and does something similar, that too, is treated as an unprecedented event. This is perhaps most obvious in our treatment of the elderly. We consistently seem surprised when older people do commonplace things like curse or kiss or Tweet. This kind of forgetfulness allows our preconceived notions to remain intact: our beliefs about people in particular age groups persist, despite the existence of many, many exceptions.

Aetonormative amnesia impairs our understanding of activism on behalf of children, as well as activism by children. Most of us know that the post-World War II period witnessed the rise of an international human rights movement, as well as the flowering of the American civil rights and women’s movements. But we forget that a push for children’s rights was happening at the same time, led by people who regarded ageism as deeply intertwined with other forms of prejudice. In her 1970 manifesto The Dialectic of Sex, feminist Shulamith Firestone declared it “impossible to speak of the liberation of women without also discussing the liberation of children — and vice versa.” The capacities of both of these groups, she argued, are often underestimated. Male-dominated societies tend to exaggerate how different women and children are from adult men, caricaturing them as incompetent naïfs. That caricature is then used to justify oppression. “Because the class oppression of women and children is couched in the phraseology of ‘cute,’” Firestone observed, “it is much harder to fight than open oppression.”

Children themselves participated in post-World War II social justice movements in ways that scholars have only recently begun to appreciate. In If We Could Change the World: Young People and America’s Long Struggle for Racial Equality, historian Rebecca de Schweinitz alerts us to how often her colleagues have failed to credit the work of African-American youth during the Civil Rights movement. Children were not just used as empathy-engendering props by their elders. They also functioned as self-motivated “agents of change” — organizing their own protests against Jim Crow laws, and often pushing adult-run organizations such as the NAACP to adopt more militant positions.

In 1951, for example, 16-year-old Virginia resident Barbara Johns and her classmates banded together to protest how inferior the facilities of their all-black public high school were compared to those of its well-equipped white counterpart. The school-wide walk-out they organized later became part of the famous Brown v. Board of Education case. Virginia’s white superintendent of schools reacted to this student-led strike by insisting that Johns and company “were pawns in an adult conspiracy.” In fact, the young people had organized the protest in secret because — as Johns put it — “we knew […] that if we had asked for adult help before taking the first step, we would have been turned down.”

De Schweinitz brilliantly illuminates how Johns and other African-American schoolchildren engaged in a struggle for civil rights built on a “youth organizing tradition that began in the 1930s.” Yet by citing the ’30s as a starting point, she, too, falls prey to aetonormative amnesia, since that origin story overlooks the working-class children who spearheaded 19th-century labor protests. In 1828, child mill workers in Paterson, New Jersey, objected to having their dinner hour pushed back from noon to one o’clock; they organized a strike and had the meal changed back to the earlier hour. In 1836, young workers at a Lowell, Massachusetts, textile mill were preparing to strike. When the other girls had a sudden crisis of confidence, 11-year-old Harriet Hanson led the way. “I don’t care what you do,” Hanson declared. “I am going to turn out, whether anyone else does or not.” She marched out the door and they followed.

The young people who hawked newspapers on the streets of New York City also organized labor protests. In 1899, a successful strike by the young newspaper sellers forced publishing magnates Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst to raise their wages. Newsboys also managed to band together with local bootblacks to form their own professional theater company. They founded the loftily named Grand Duke’s Opera House, which held its performances in the depths of a run-down building in the poverty-stricken Five Points neighborhood. An impressed adult journalist noted that this was “emphatically a boys’ theatre, owned, built, and managed by boys — boys are the stage carpenters, actors, musicians, scene-shifters, money-takers, and the [greater part of the] audience.”

Like children’s activism, children’s art is also routinely forgotten. Even critics of children’s literature, like myself, have fallen into this trap. For decades, we have defined our subject of study as literature produced by adults for children. This sounds reasonable, right? And yet, this formulation exaggerates the difference between older and younger people. When we characterize adults as active, creative producers and children as passive, inert receivers, we set into motion both types of aetonormative amnesia. Children’s participation in the production of youth culture is forgotten — and so, too, are the insights of adults who helped to enable that participation.

Consider the case of Maurice Sendak. Many people think of him as one of the most important children’s book authors of the 20th century. We forget, however, that he launched his career by teaming up with a writer named Ruth Krauss on a series of picture books based on the sayings and stories of actual children. Trained as an anthropologist, Krauss invited children at local nursery and elementary schools to tell her stories. She then reworked their words into simple yet poetic vignettes, which Sendak adorned with lively images of tiny children cavorting, singing, and playing pretend. Several of the Krauss-Sendak collaborations — the first was A Hole Is to Dig: A First Book of First Definitions (1952) — open with a thank you to local schoolchildren, acknowledging their participation in the creative process.

Krauss’s decision to pay serious attention to what children were saying and doing was motivated by an awareness of the aetonormativity of American culture (though the term did not exist yet). In the 1940s, before teaming up with Sendak, she wanted to write children’s books that would illustrate how hard it is to be little in a world built and run by big people, or, alternately, the difficulty of being elderly in a world that privileges youth. The idea, as Krauss told her editor, was to show readers that “our concepts of how people think, feel, and behave at certain ages are, socially conditioned [and] practically as bad as race-prejudice, prejudice against women, immigrants, etc.” Krauss’s attentiveness to the potentially disabling effects of age norms was way ahead of her time. Nearly three more decades would go by before Firestone and other children’s rights activists aligned ageism with other forms of prejudice.

Krauss was prescient, but she was also intellectually indebted to earlier thinkers, particularly her artistic mentor Lucy Sprague Mitchell, who was in her turn inspired by philosopher John Dewey. Dewey believed that pedagogy — particularly pedagogy aimed at creating a truly democratic society — had to teach children how to engage with their elders in a shared search for knowledge, rather than accustom them to passively absorb information and silently do as they’re told. In keeping with that program, Lucy Sprague Mitchell founded the Bank Street College of Education, which advocated for more egalitarian teaching methods. Mitchell also experimented with the idea that children themselves could participate in the production of children’s literature. In Here and Now Story Book (1921), she featured children’s stories based directly on the suggestions, ideas, and questions of young Bank Street pupils. These short narratives were written in a language that closely echoed the children’s speech patterns. They were also read and tested out on student audiences before publication, so that they could be altered if they didn’t appeal.

Throughout the 1940s, Krauss was an active member of the experimental Writers Laboratory that Mitchell ran at Bank Street. Biographer Philip Nel notes that A Hole Is to Dig was inspired by Definitions, a game in which teachers invited children to supply their own accounts of what words meant. For the book, Krauss drew on definitions dreamed up by four- and five-year-olds enrolled in the Bank Street nursery school. The title A Hole Is to Dig was actually a direct quote. Reflecting back on that time and his work with Krauss in the 1950s, Sendak later wrote, “It was like being part of a revolution. This was the first time in modern children’s book history that a work had come more or less directly from kids.”

A quick survey of American children’s culture in the 1960s and ’70s reveals why Sendak saw himself at the vanguard of a new wave. During these decades, adults furnished young people with innumerable public platforms for creative self-expression. A plethora of children’s poetry anthologies appeared with titles like Here I Am! An Anthology of Poems Written by Young People in Some of America’s Minority Groups (1969). They included work by Native American, African-American, and Japanese-American youth, among others. In 1973, a new children’s magazine called Stone Soup began showcasing stories, poems, and drawings submitted by children. Its adult editors stressed in their call for submissions that they were “especially interested in printing stories by non-English-speaking American children.” A new television show called Zoom became one of the most popular children’s programs of the 1970s by inviting child viewers to send in all kinds of material for the multiethnic all-child cast to perform, including plays, songs, jokes, and topic suggestions for the serious conversations known as ZOOMraps.

Many of these projects garnered national news coverage that often portrayed them as exceptional or even — shades of Sendak — revolutionary. A little bit of digging, however, unearths evidence that belies the breathless “first time ever” rhetoric. Stone Soup, for example, was preceded by Kids, which announced itself to young readers in 1970 as “a new kind of magazine since nearly everything in it is created by kids like you.” Five years before that, six teenagers from Harlem had began working on What’s Happening, a magazine that eventually provided a forum for “young writers from all over the country” to contribute editorials, short stories, poetry, drawings, photographs, and comic strips.

We can find even earlier examples of these kinds of publications. In 1934, E. B. White published a witty and heartfelt New Yorker essay in which he marveled at the wealth of material that American children had contributed to a much older children’s periodical. He traces “the fierce desire to write and paint that burns in our land today” back to 1899, when the popular children’s magazine St. Nicholas introduced a new section devoted to showcasing poems, prose, puzzles, pictures, and eventually photographs submitted by young readers. White was himself published in St. Nicholas when he was 11. This early success, he jokes, was due to a calculated decision: he had made kindness to animals a key motif of his essay because another kid had tipped him off that the adult editors favored this theme. Still, White’s deep appreciation for the forum and how it enabled childhood creativity is evident. “The Pulitzer Prize was a pleasant reward to Edna St. Vincent Millay, I have no doubt,” he muses. “But it was faint fun compared to her conquest in 1907 when, [at] 15 […] she opened her August number of St. Nicholas” to discover her poem about the glories of “a gold, gold sun” emblazoned on the page.

Clearly, children’s participation in children’s culture wasn’t a new phenomenon in the mid-20th century. Yet Sendak’s sense that something revolutionary was afoot isn’t completely incorrect. What seems notable to me about youth culture in the post-World War II period is how many adults —working in all different artistic genres — made it a priority to help young people participate in youth culture and worked to align the act of amplifying children’s voices with a broader egalitarian ethos.

Ella Jenkins, often called “The First Lady of Children’s Music,” exemplifies this trend. Building on the now-forgotten work of early ’50s predecessors such as Beatrice Landeck and Tony Schwartz, she released a series of children’s albums in which young people helped her sing a mix of material from all around the world. She borrowed a call-and-response style from African and Cuban musicians, teaching children everything from Hebrew songs to American folk tunes to West African chants calling Muslims to worship. Her goal, she explained, was “to give all children a traveling experience in sound, moods, and rhythms of cultures that maybe [sic] far removed from their own.” This commitment sprang from a keen awareness of recent history: Jenkins and her contemporaries acknowledged the connection between nationalism, religious intolerance, and the rise of authoritarianism in Europe before World War II. In an effort to promote open-mindedness and international understanding, they actively attempted to increase children’s knowledge and appreciation of cultural diversity.

At that time, amplifying the voices of children from around the globe was a high priority for the adults who anthologized children’s writing. Alongside the collections of poetry composed by American youth that came out in the 1960s and ’70s were more international anthologies such as Have You Seen A Comet? Children’s Art and Writing from Around the World (1971). Several of them (including Comet) were actually funded by the United Nations as part of a concerted effort to get American families to recognize the shared humanity of people all over the world.

The idea that a child’s voice might engender cross-cultural empathy had historical precedent. We can trace it back to the 1950s, when Anne Frank’s diary — and a popular play based on it — exerted a powerful effect on international audiences, even those who had previously resisted reckoning with the full horror of the Holocaust. Frank, we should recall, was neither the first nor the only child to leave behind an account of Hitler’s deadly regime. Miriam Wattenberg, a 15-year-old who lived in the Warsaw ghetto, kept a journal that was serialized by American newspapers during the war and published as a book in 1945. An anthology of poems and drawings composed by the young inmates of the Terezin concentration camp was first published in English in 1959.

In light of this grim history and the very visible struggles of Civil Rights activists and protestors against the war in Vietnam, it shouldn’t surprise us that the burst of children’s creativity and art in the 1960s and ’70s was accompanied by political activism. Harlem teenagers started What’s Happening in order to publicize how roughly police treated them when they participated in an antiwar demonstration in Washington, DC. The first issue of Stone Soup finds Lisa Coury, age 10, fuming about the situation in Vietnam and fantasizing that she has the power to “pick up President Nixon and throw him in the ocean.” Also in that issue, a poet named Doyle Turner, age 11, displays a more clear-eyed view of one of America’s original sins than many adults today.


Slavery is cruel slavery
is bad it made are people
very very sad.

Who made this slavery
I want to know why couldn’t
they let are people go.

It’s easy to think of Turner’s idiosyncratic spelling and grammar as ignorant or cute, but let’s take it seriously here. His use of “are” (a form of the verb “to be”) in place of “our” prompts readers to reflect on the relationship between being and owning. In the context of a poem that relentlessly repeats the word “slavery,” this error implies that treating human beings as property is a barbarous mistake.

There are also moments in these magazines when children themselves advocate the kind of anti-authoritarian pedagogy that Adorno deems vital to the development of critical thinking. A great example of this occurs in the first issue of Kids (1970), which features a transcription of a conversation between Sarah Wright, age 11, and Marc Aronson, age 10, whom the editors had invited “to discuss their feeling about the world today.” Sarah begins by making a censorious generalization. Adults, she declares, need to “grow up”: “They don’t like each other for stupid reasons. Blacks and whites, Democrats and Republicans are all blinded by hate just because they have a different idea about something.” This remark sparks a discussion about the importance of open-mindedness, during which Marc observes, “If parents tell you what they believe but don’t say ‘This is right and this is the only way [to think about it],’ then kids will begin to think for themselves.”

What’s wonderful about this moment is not just that Marc articulates the importance of adults giving children some space to think for themselves — it’s that Sarah’s response shows how having that space can actually facilitate critical self-reflection. She slowly moves away from her initial insistence that adults are clueless and closed-minded and grows more introspective and self-critical: “But while we are busy opening [adults’] minds, maybe they are trying to open ours. We may be close-minded [sic] while we are trying to open them. We should try to listen to them, too.” Sarah’s involvement in a creative venture in which adults listen respectfully to her words leads her to recognize that she owes them the same courtesy. She shifts away from aggressive, us-versus-them thinking, just as her adult transcribers have done by taking childen’s opinions seriously enough to solicit, record and publish them.

There’s a reason why I keep highlighting the work of adults, even though my goal is to recollect children’s participation in art and activism. Dewey’s vision of education as a training ground for democracy entailed treating children not as autonomous agents, but as valued members of an interdependent community. What inspires me most about children’s culture in the ’60s and ’70s is that so many creative people were building these kinds of interdependent communities. Flip open a current issue of Stone Soup and you’ll see that it now only publishes children’s writing. But initially, its editors tested out the idea of putting work by artists and book reviewers of all ages into conversation in the same journal. This effort to democratize both children’s literature and literary criticism was short-lived. But it’s worth remembering because it exemplifies an ethos of inclusiveness and interconnectedness, not a fantasy about one age group achieving artistic autonomy from the other.

This groovy vibe has not completely disappeared from our culture. It pervades the films that children and adults co-create for the 90-Second Newbery Film Festival and infuses the pages of Dreaming in Indian, a 2014 anthology featuring the voices of young and old Native American artist-activists. And yet opportunities for what literary critic Victoria Ford Smith calls “intergenerational collaboration” are few and far between. Often, it even feels like we’re moving backward.

Conservative media outlets often represent youth activism in a disturbingly retrograde way. In a segment on the Parkland students, for example, Fox News host Tucker Carlson declared to millions of viewers that “wealthy and powerful” adults were “using” the young advocates for stricter gun-control laws as pawns. Carlson even insisted that 17-year-old David Hogg “shouldn’t be involved in formulating a response” to the shooting “because he is a kid.” In this case, the assertion that young people lack the capacity to engage in meaningful, self-motivated activism serves as a means of silencing and sidelining them — of trying to prevent them from participating in the public sphere. Of course, this claim is no more true now than it was back in 1950s, when Virginia’s white superintendent of schools mischaracterized black teen activists as “pawns in an adult conspiracy.” All these decades later, and even the most blatantly aetonormative comments are still being aired in prime time.

There are many means to counteract aetonormative nature of our culture. Newspapers can open their editorial pages to young columnists, as The New York Times recently did by publishing a piece by 16-year-old Kelly Pinos, who recounted how inhumane US immigration policies have broken up her family. Arts organizations can sponsor more events like the 90-Second Newbery Film Festival. Anthologists can include work by children alongside that of adults. Curators can follow the lead of the Indianapolis Children’s Museum, which devotes serious space to an exhibit that chronicles how child artists and activists have worked with adults to make the world a more humane place. Universities can do more to support age studies across the disciplines. And all of us can lobby our legislators to support public funding for arts education and enact more child- and family-friendly social policies.

We talk a lot about children, often invoking their well-being as a cherished social and political goal. But actually living up to that ethics of care requires us to attend more closely to what they say and do. By listening to their words and remembering their activism, we emulate their efforts to make the world a more egalitarian place.


Marah Gubar, associate professor of Literature at MIT, is the author of Artful Dodgers: Reconceiving the Golden Age of Children’s Literature (Oxford University Press, 2009).

LARB Contributor

Marah Gubar, associate professor of Literature at MIT, is the author of Artful Dodgers: Reconceiving the Golden Age of Children’s Literature (Oxford University Press, 2009). She is currently working on a second book entitled How to Think About Children: Childhood Studies in the Academy and Beyond. It attempts to generate a theoretical framework for thinking about what it means to be a child that could function as a shared language, enabling researchers across the arts, sciences, and humanities to communicate their key insights about children and childhood not only with each other, but also with people outside of academia.


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