[The New Child]

7:30 AM

Samantha was feeling very angry with grown-ups. Grown-ups took her friends away and never even told her why. ... Then suddenly, even before she knew she was going to, Samantha blurted out, "I know why Jessie left."

Grandmary looked surprised. "You do?"

"Yes. She had a baby," Samantha said. ... "Nellie and I went to her house at night, and we saw." Samantha was sure Grandmary would punish her now.

But Grandmary looked more troubled than angry. "You were very wrong to do that, Samantha," she said.

"Well, you were very wrong not to tell me," Samantha answered. She was not feeling very respectful. ...

Grandmary put her teacup down and nodded slowly. "Yes, Samantha, I think you are right. I should have told you." -- Meet Samantha, by Susan Adler

Most of my acquaintance with this child comes from reading American Girl books (which are typical of fiction for children which is neither twaddle nor literary) and children’s mysteries. The New Child embraces modern thought that the next generation is somehow wiser than their older generations.

To this end some common trends can be seen:

1. Children are portrayed as more tolerant and adults (parents especially) more cold.

2. Children are active in social reform and bringing on the climax; adults are more passive and complacent and prone to giving up.

3. The climax involves solely children, usually after disobeying strict orders not to act.

4. Children are the heroes in the end, and when confronted with disobedience or lack of prudence, point out the adults’ mistakes.

5. The character development of the children is akin to autonomy and self-actualization; the adults’ is tolerance.

A common thread in children’s books where mystery, social justice or adventure is central runs along the lines of this: Children fail to spark adult help or interest or lose it soon afterwards. They take matters into their own hands. Parents and authority figures are not consulted. If they are, they (usually) “absolutely forbid” the children from doing anything risky. Children receive it sullenly, not daring to argue. When it’s time for the risky action, children blatantly disobey or justify their disobedience. Children save the day. Their disobedience is excused in light of their heroism.

This child makes up the bulk of main characters in children’s fiction today, and that plot is present in some form or another. The reason is because children want to read about children doing interesting, heroic things—perfectly natural. Yet those fictional children as well as those fans know very well that adults and authority figures play a very big part in children’s lives. We can’t have all stories about homeless orphans. Therefore, almost all plots nowadays involve disobedience, for that is almost the only conceivable way for a child to skirt protection and take on the role of hero.

Much like Ms. Feminist empowers girls over boys, the New Child empowers children to shirk parental authority and doubt the tradition of morals of previous generations. There are some notable books that involve children, excitement and obedience; and there are some interesting literary selections that avoid the problem altogether (The Chronicles of Narnia). To some extent, almost all children’s fiction will contain disobedience and conflicts with previous generations: those are central problems in children’s and young adults’ lives. But do be very discerning, especially for younger children. A diet of anti-parent involvement builds a foundation of rebellion.

Some books containing the New Child:

• all the American Girl books
Because of Winn-Dixie
Junie B. Jones series

Books that avoid or constructively address this:

Magic Tree House series
The Boxcar Children series
Little House of the Prairie series
Elsie Dinsmore series
Kathleen McKenzie series
• books by Roald Dahl

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13 impressions

  1. You did not include Jane Austen in your list of books that contain the "New Child". Don't you think that Emma is the proto-type of the "New Child"?

    She spends most of the book encouraging children to disobey their parents and guardians. Her treatment of poor old Robert Martin as a dirty farm boy is a glaring example of this.

  2. Junie B. Jones books have another strike against them--the horrific grammar!!! ; )

  3. Hey Bailey!
    I'm enjoying these posts! Identifying attitudes like these in books I read is not something I do very often (unfortunately), and it is good for me to have my eyes opened to that! Even just being aware that the character(s) in some of the novels I read are sporting unbiblical attitudes and/or behaving badly and taking note of that goes a long way. With all of the books I go through it gets easy just to read passively and not really think about the character faults and realize, "Hey, this person is acting in a way that is certainly not glorifying God!"

    Too often, I think, I read books with the mentality that, "This is just a book," or, "This is just a fictional character," and get unconsciously steeped in examples I certainly wouldn't want to follow. However, if I can pick out the character flaws and realize, "The way this person behaving is wrong", it can give me a new perspective on the story and help me to decide if it's really worth reading!

    Thanks for opening my eyes to that!


  4. You are so right on these posts. I love it when someone agrees with me on these things :)
    In our church library there are a lot of books that have these traits.(not to pick on it, it does have a lot of good books) I see a lot of girls reading these books, and loving them and thinking of them as really good. The charectors are usually Christian, so they must be fine, right? It frusterates me so much. A diet of these kinds of books isn't good for anyone.

    As you can tell it is something I feel strongly about ;)
    PS, I just started following your blog and I love it! Thanks for being couragous enough to write about some many issues.

  5. Tragedy101 :: No, not really -- perhaps she is disobedient and encourages others to do so, but I wouldn't call her a New Child for two reasons: (1) She isn't a stock character and (2) the entire book doesn't support her misunderstood (and potentially disobedient, if you see her as that) doings. I didn't pick up the attitudes you mentioned (except her treatment of Robert, of course -- made my blood curdle). The New Child, to my mind, is less about a disobedient child, per se, than a presentation that children intuitively knows better than authorities: a sort of "Johnny knows best" instead of "Daddy/Mommy knows best." Child empowerment, if you will.

    But I'm going to have to re-read Emma now and make a more informed opinion. ;o)

    Mrs. Green -- You made me laugh so hard at that. Preach it!

    Julia -- Thank you so much for that. This is my hope for this "series": not to discourage people from reading books with these characters, necessarily, but to just get people to take a second think before mindlessly imbibing. With all the discussion going on in the past two posts, I'd say that part has been successful. :P

    Allison -- I think that Christianity will put on a much stronger front the day we stop thinking the label "Christian" automatically means "all that is good and holy." I'm glad to feel strongly about this together with you. :o)

    Thank you for all the thoughtful comments and discussion these past two posts, friends. You definitely are my favorite part of blogging.

  6. As for censoring and the appropriateness of books and content, I am a mother and nothing has made me cringe more than looking down the church pew and noticing a child reading from an Old Testament book -- like Leviticus. Next thing you know said child will be asking a question during lunch such as . . . (nope . . . I can't bring myself to do it).

    I think we read for a variety of reasons. But I think some of the best reasons for reading is to develop imagination, empathy and compassion. By nature of being human (fallen) we are selfish. We tend to see most everything from our own perspective. We lack the imagination to put ourselves in others' shoes. Good fiction takes us outside ourselves and allows us to see through eyes that are not our own. Jesus knew that -- hence the parables that pull us in and then turn the tables on us. Now, I'm not going to compare Caddy Woodlawn with Jesus' parables, but if you read a book looking for what you disagree with you shall find it. If you read a book looking for truth and beauty -- with very little exception you will find it. I know we call it discernment, but if we read every book to judge the characters and deem it Christian or not, or worthy or not, or anthing else or not we are using reading as an exercise in honing up on our self-righteousness. I prefer to read to see from another perspective even if I don't agree with it -- I prefer to read to strenthen my weak compassion, understanding and truth and beauty seeking muscles.

    This is too long. Yes? One more thought. I work with children and families. These families are not like my family or yours or the like most of the commenters here. Maybe if I put myself in the place of a child that lives with her mother, her mother's boyfriend and her half siblings one week and her father, stepmother and stepsiblings the next week maybe I might have a different insight into why the authors of children's books write what they write.

  7. That reminds me of another quote from "Meet Samantha". When Nellie was leading Samantha to Jessie's house, Samantha wondered why the houses in Jessie's neighborhood looked so run-down.
    "This is the black part of town," Nellie tells her.
    "You mean Jessie HAS to live here?" Samantha asks.
    Shrug from Nellie. "It's just the way grown-ups do things."

    See? You're right! The kids are displayed as more accepting and tolerant than the adults.

    This post really made me think, Bailey! Come to think of it, I see the New Child all over the place, in movies even more than in books. The kids are portrayed as the smart ones, while the parents are just oblivious.

  8. By the way, Bailey, I'm really exited to see the next episode in this series!

  9. Anon -- Thank you for pointing that out. I think it's a mistake to assume that discernment automatically equals censorship and that censorship automatically equals discernment. Personally, well-written literature has been one of my favorite ways to explore different worldviews, cultures, opinions and personalities. You're so right when you say that literature is an open invitation to step into someone else's shoes.

    But just because we step into someone else's shoes and see things from their point of view does not mean that their POV is right, truthful or even realistic. So I don't see anything wrong with evaluating literature (or the lack thereof, in most cases). In this series, I'm kind of just fiddling with rather worn-out and pervasive ideas I've found during my lifelong children's fiction stint. It's not a call to stop reading them -- it's just calling attention to different things I've found interesting (like the repetitious plot I noted in this article -- it was amusing to keep running into it).

    And with children, I'd say the rules change a bit. As a sixteen-year-old I have more of a solid understanding of what's right and wrong, what I believe and how to empathize without compromise than I did as a six-year-old. What we read does influence who we become (I found that out the hard way), and fiction is a valuable tool to shape a child's understanding and character -- for good or bad. It's not something to check our brain at the door, in other words.

    And by the way, there's no word limit on this blog, either for posts or comments. :o)

    Aemi -- I think Meet Samantha is the worst in the entire American Girl series, bar non. ;o)

  10. I want to write stories that have a young protagonist, who has flaws and who maybe disobeys, but not to show it as good. And I also want to give my stories deep, interesting adult characters, who are not always right, but try hard, and deserve respect and trust from the child.

  11. While I agree with your assessment of the American Girl books, I'd like to say that they ARE superior to the Boxcar Children books, even if the latter series avoids parental disobedience. The American Girl books are educational and better literature. Also, I'd rather have a child disobey a parent's strict orders than have no adult authority whatsoever involved. The only reason the Boxcar children don't disobey is because they're allowed to do practically whatever they like.

    I read both series when I was younger. The first 18 or so Boxcar children books, which were written by the original author, are fine. However, I regret reading the rest of the series and am embarrassed for liking those books as much as I did.

    The American Girl series has much greater intrinsic value. I don't at all regret reading them, although I do wish I had been a little bit more discerning. I'd read the American Girl series to my hypothetical daughters, although I would want to discuss things with them. The Boxcar series really isn't worth the time.

  12. Panda! -
    As the pleasantest of different opinions, I would like to present mine: I handed my seven-year-old brother "The Boxcar Children" and said, "Read it. You'll love it." I think that because most children who read them won't be in the situation of having no parental authority, it doesn't present a problem. I haven't read the books in a while, but from what I remember, they don't do anything wrong while out from under authority.
    And about the books written after Gertrude Chandler Warner's death ... I don't even count them in the series. They *definitely* aren't worth *anyone's* time, and that's that, for me at least.
    I find the constant strains of feminism, disobedience, and warped history in the American Girl books harmful. When I was about seven to eleven, I devoured them - to my detriment, I believe. While they might be all right for some people, I wish I hadn't read them. =(

    Don't take me as argumentative, if you please. =)

  13. Thank you for pointing this out to me, Bailey =)

    It's something to think about! I'll be keeping it in mind as I write...

    In Christ,
    Taralyn Rose~


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