Teaching Good & Evil & Critical Thinking to Children Through Literature
April 19, 2008 10:10 AM   Subscribe

Please help me find resources and information about Good and Evil in children's literature.

I will be taking an interesting course to discuss this; however, I personally -- for the time being -- do not believe in Good and Evil; therefore, I would like to defend my position or challenge it through the course. I can usually defend the idea well enough amongst adults, yet I am pondering the effects on the minds of children. I am trying to find various resources that would help me see many different sides of these issues. I would like to look at everything from morals/ethics, psychology, philosophy, current scientific understanding versus out-dated Christian morality (I will be heavily critiquing Religious values in favour of non-theist atheism), ethnocentrism + other -centrisms, etc. How can I argue against good and evil while also encouraging pro-social behaviour in children?

Any books, book criticisms, children's books, internet resources, metafilter posts+comments, etc. would really help me e.g., "The Golden Compass" versus "Narnia"

Thank you for helping me refine and challenge my thoughts and understandings of Good+Evil in Children's Literature.
posted by Knigel to Society & Culture (12 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I doubt you would like the Narnia Books by C. S. Lewis, or The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien?
posted by lungtaworld at 10:28 AM on April 19, 2008

The hard part about answering your question is figuring out what particular meanings you're assigning to "good" and "evil" such that you want to criticize them. I'm sure that there are at least some definitions of the words under which you do believe in them. Christian morality does not have a monopoly on these words' meanings. Believe it or not, scientists sometimes seem to be the last to realize this, leading to (in my view) rather dubious psychology and neurobiology.

For many philosophers, "good" is much, much harder than evil. So one sees many more books about evil. Some of the most intriguing ones I've found recently are Maria Lara's: Lara's views are deeply indebted to Kant, particularly in his Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone and Hannah Arendt's famous view on the "banality" of evil in Eichmann in Jerusalsm. Also essential to a modern understanding of evil is Nietzsche's Beyond Good and Evil. But Nietzsche also assumes that Christian notions of good and evil are his targets.

As far as children's literature goes, the "Dark is Rising" series by Susan Cooper was a favorite of mine as a child. And it's pretty original, as far as I can tell. And don't forget about Harry Potter.
posted by ontic at 11:38 AM on April 19, 2008

Brono Bettleheim's The Uses of Enchantment looks at the moral lessons in fairy tales and how they teach good/evil behavior to children.
posted by dog food sugar at 11:49 AM on April 19, 2008

I usually try to avoid citing Wikipedia, but the article on Children's literature criticism has a helpful bibliography which touches on some of these issues. If you want a more comprehensive bibliography, I recommend Perry Nodelman's Bibliography of Children's Literature Criticism, particularly the section on 'Culture, Ideology, and Children's Literature'. Or if you want a single book to help you get started, you might try John Stephens, Language and Ideology in Children's Fiction (1992).

Personally, I don't think it's very helpful to interpret children's fiction in terms of an opposition between 'religious values' and 'non-theist atheism'. These categories don't really make much sense when applied to, say, The Lord of the Rings (not overtly religious, but strongly providentialist), or The Dark is Rising (dismissive of Christianity, but still structured around a conflict between good and evil), or His Dark Materials (non-theist, but with a highly developed supernatural metaphysics). So I think you may need to reconsider some of your assumptions. Perhaps it would be helpful to step back a bit, and think in more general terms about fiction and story-telling; perhaps look at Marina Warner's From the Beast to the Blonde or Alison Lurie's Don't Tell the Grown-Ups to avoid falling into the trap of assuming that fiction is simply a tool for the production of values.

Or, stepping back a bit further, look at John Gardner's On Moral Fiction (1978), or Mary Gordon's essay Moral Fiction, and think about the distinction between 'moral certainty' and 'moral complexity' and how it might be applied to children's literature. (My own view is that good children's literature will have something of both.) You might also be interested in an old Crooked Timber thread from several years ago, on Good Childhood, which has some very pertinent thoughts on what it might mean to talk about a 'good' or a 'bad' childhood, and what exactly are the values we want to instil in children.
posted by verstegan at 11:55 AM on April 19, 2008

what age group(s) are you looking to address?

for young adults, for example, M.T. Anderson's "The Life of Octavian Nothing: Traitor to the Nation" is an extraordinary & very challenging interrogation of the concepts of good/evil, civilized/savage, freedom/slavery & much more

also, Castle Waiting by Linda Medley is a wonderful fantasy tale in comix format that plays all manner of witty & subversive tricks with the conventions of standard fantasy - instead of being about the struggle between good & evil the emphasis here on community, tolerance & the redemptive power of simple kindness - really delightful

for an alternative to Bettelheim's Freudian analysis you could check out Jack Zipes - especially Sticks & Stones: The Troublesome Success of Children's Literature and Breaking the Magic Spell

lastly, Herbert Kohl's Should We Burn Babar? is a good collection of essays looking at cultural/political messages in children's lit

posted by jammy at 12:00 PM on April 19, 2008

Struwwelpeter is hilarious. Examples:

In "Die Geschichte vom Daumenlutscher" (The Story of Little Suck-a-Thumb), a mother warns her son not to suck his thumbs. However, when she goes out of the house he resumes his thumb sucking, until a roving tailor appears and cuts off his thumbs with giant scissors.

"Die Geschichte vom Suppen-Kaspar" (The Story of Kaspar who did not have any Soup) begins as Kaspar, a healthy, strong boy, proclaims that he will no longer eat his soup. Over the next five days he wastes away and dies.

Pretty funny, eh?
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 4:47 PM on April 19, 2008

Response by poster: weapons-grade pandemonium, that looks like a really cool book. Now you've invoked a curiosity and needs for other books like this. What other children's books really push the boundaries? What books are almost too honest about things like sexuality and adult life?
posted by Knigel at 5:45 PM on April 19, 2008

Roald Dahl's books can have a bizarre, challenging sort of amorality you might find interesting; they blur the boundaries between good and evil while flirting with anti-social behavior. See, e.g., some of the appalled reviews at Amazon of George's Marvelous Medicine, an astonishingly funny and obnoxious little children's book.
posted by mediareport at 7:21 PM on April 19, 2008

I read Struwwelpeter as a child, and it gave me screaming nightmares, night after night, until my parents took it away from me. Calling it 'hilarious' or 'really cool' is the reaction of an adult, not the reaction of a child.

The trouble with looking for children's books that 'push the boundaries' is that the boundaries keep on changing. In the earliest versions of Little Red Riding Hood, the little girl is killed and eaten by the wolf. In The Fairchild Family, one of the bestselling children's books of the nineteenth century, a father takes his children to inspect a rotting corpse. Today we are much more protective of children's sensibilities -- which is not necessarily a bad thing, but it means that children's literature today is blander, more sanitised and less transgressive than at any time in the last four centuries.
posted by verstegan at 7:45 AM on April 20, 2008

> Struwwelpeter is hilarious.

And featured in an episode of The Office, when Dwight Schrute brings it in to read to the children on Take Your Child to Work Day.
posted by WCityMike at 3:13 PM on April 21, 2008

I read that book as a child, and I wouldn't necessarily say it pushes the boundaries of 'good' or 'evil' per se; it's an old book and scare tactics were simply the way to go in terms of morals. Think of Hans Christian Anderson and Brother Grimm Tales, un-Disneyfied. They're mostly fairly gruesome and morbid.
posted by Phire at 7:18 PM on April 21, 2008

one more you might be interested in, just came out: Minders of Make-Believe: Idealists, Entrepreneurs, & the Shaping of American Children's Literature by Leonard Marcus

posted by jammy at 1:31 PM on April 24, 2008

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