The dark side of children’s literature; Propaganda and a child’s perception of the world


   Children learn by repetition. This is a point conceded by most pedagogues and while there are certainly other methods by which a child might learn repetition is the oldest, most reliable across a diverse spectrum and for the purposes of this study the most easily subverted to the purposes of altering a child’s perception.  Thus when a child embraces a book so eagerly that he or she reads it over and over again we as adults must be aware of the subject material and its potential effects on the child.

   In 1938 Julius Streicher, the publisher of Der Sturmer the weekly Nazi newspaper whose name translates to the Stormer (or the Attacker) turned his hand to children’s literature. The result was the notorious Der Giftpilz or Poison Mushroom.  Unlike the official state paper the Völkischer Beobachter (translatable as The People’s Observer), Der Sturmer was overtly anti-semitic, featuring caricatures and anti-Jewish articles approved by the Nazi ministry of propaganda. It was a tool for the re-ordering of the German people’s perceptions. It is little wonder then that Jules Streicher’s contribution to the world of children’s literature would follow suit.

   The Poison Mushroom was written by Ernst Hiemer, a contributor and co-founder of Der Sturmer with Streicher whose books all featured strong anti-Semitic themes and illustrated by Philipp “Fips” Rupprecht whose Jewish caricatures were instrumental in altering the German people’s perceptions of their Jewish neighbors. It is a collection of stories told in an amusing way, instructing children how to recognize the Jew. It goes on to warn children to stay away from Jewish men because of their desire to molest young children, that they use children in blood sacrifices and (in a resurrection of an old anti-Semitic idea) that the Jews killed Christ, who was their greatest enemy. Its tone was so aggressive that it was scorned even by some ardent Nazi official’s. However its value was realized and put to good use. The Poison Mushroom, along with other anti-Semitic books for children paved the way for a complete altering of perceptions of an entire generation of German children. Without books such as these the Nazi party would have had difficulty in mainstreaming their ideology.  Children were the key to the thousand-year Reich.

Historical precedents

   Neural pathways build up with repetition. These pathways become our perception, which is to say the modes with which we connect to reality. We see what we expect to see because the tool with which we perceive was honed through repetitive observation. Can we, through deliberate effort rewire these pathways in a way that allows us to perceive reality in a different way or to alter another’s perception of reality?

   We know from history that so-called cunning men and women used the power of speech to effect other peoples perception of their surrounding world. Oral tradition makes this ability implicit. Storytellers, Bard, Skalds’, etc all used speech to effect perception in ways both subtle and profound. By recounting tales the teller could bring about a change in his audience, an awareness of the “other” existing just beyond our normal range of perception. It was not speech alone that accomplished this but the whole range of tools attached to speech, including vocalization and mimicry. The hunter employs this perception altering ability in luring prey. By mimicking the noises of animals he creates a false animal which the prey would except as being perfectly real.  Greek Theater was set aside as a sacred place, where the actors (whose memorized lines were often in the thousands) enacted sacred events. It was through repetition they were able to bring an audience into the sacred space and it was the repeated participation by the audience which brought the stories to life.

   This ability can likewise be employed through writing. To understand this we must understand that writing is only a symbolic representation of the spoken word. Even when we read silently the symbols on the page are transformed into spoken words in the brain. When this is combined with children’s literature and its power to fascinate (which is I have argued elsewhere one of the primary hallmarks of literature for children) we have the ingredients for a fundamental altering of the perceptions of children. And that is propaganda.

Theology, Owl’s and two Mommies

   A propaganda story is one in which the purpose of the story is to deliver a specific point of view to the reader by demonizing opposing points of view. Let us look at three examples of propaganda and attempt to refine what propaganda actually means.

   Carl Hiaasen wrote the story “Hoot” which is an unashamedly unapologetic eco-propaganda story. In it the main characters are portrayed as good because they are helping an owl population while businessmen are portrayed as bad because they want to build over the site of the owls nesting ground. It fails to offer nuances of thought but oversimplifies the issue and slanting a moral force towards the author’s viewpoint. In takes it for granted that business people are bad and thus demonizes them. What the book fails to do is to illustrate how the ethical motivations of the stories protagonists are actually positive based on their own merits. It is the assumption of the other as bad which makes this negative propaganda.  Let me explain what I mean when I say negative in this light.

   Is it propaganda to espouse one set of moral virtues over another? This is a difficult question to answer as to some extant it requires knowing the motivations of the author separate from the story being told. It also requires a nuanced understanding of the dual nature of propaganda itself. Propaganda can be classified in two distinct but separate classes which I would call negative and positive. Positive propaganda is any work that attempts to sway thought, opinion or perception to a specific ideology by detailing the merits of the ideology in question.  A book for children that addresses some social concern by calling to attention the issue and arguing for a particular set of solutions is positive propaganda. It is not concerned with impartiality or fairness of facts but it does not seek to break down or demonize opposition. Conversely negative propaganda seeks to bolster ideas at the expense of others by giving primacy of place to perceived deficiencies within other ideas. The Poison Mushroom is good example of this. It claims the higher virtue of Nazi thought only by demonizing and discrediting what it argues is the lower virtue of the Jewish people.. It is destructive and not constructive, negative and not positive. Carl Hiaasen’s book “Hoot”, while certainly not as destructive actually serves the same type of ideological end.  Both Hiaasen and Streicher are attempting to bolster their own ideology at the expense of others through demonization. 

   How can we identify those stories that are negative and those that are using positive propaganda? Let us look at the writings of the church designed to introduce children to a predefined set or moral behaviors. The early books for children that came out of the Puritan ideology of the 17th and 18th centuries were not generally negative propaganda . They pronounced the superiority of Christian virtues as defined through a Puritan lens. Certainly, those virtues not in line with that definition were demonized but the prima fascia was always on the positive or creative aspect of “good” morality rather than the negative or destructive aspect of opposing morality.  To put it succinctly. Such literature while talking about the bad  and its consequences focused on the good and the rewards of good behavior. This is the difference between moral literature and propaganda literature. There were a few exceptions, among them.  Puritan books which made some mention of Catholicism, or vice a versa.  And even these tended to focus on the dogmatic differences involved. (Catholics were perceived as being bad not because they were themselves bad but because they subscribed to a flawed mode of religious thought. Contrast this with Nazi propaganda literature which subscribed to a belief that a person could be bad on account of their birth or physical makeup, or to Hiaasen’s story ‘Hoot” which depicted the developers as bad simply because they were developers) But it should be noted, these were rare and did not represent the mainstream or even cross currents of literature for children of the age. 

   The last book I wish to look at deals with alternative sexuality and how it relates to children. It is called Heather has two Mommies and was written by Leslea Newman a feminist and lesbian author of books for both children and adults. The inspiration for this book was…

“one day when I was walking down Main Street in Northampton, Mass., a town known for its liberalism, tolerance of difference, and large lesbian population. On this particular day I ran into a woman who, along with her female partner, had recently welcomed a child into their home. “We have no books to read our daughter that show our type of family,” the woman said. “Somebody should write one.”

The book describes heather and her lesbian family during her time at day care and attempts to show that every ones family is different. Is this negative or positive propaganda? While Heather and her two Mommies is intended to alter the perceptions a child in regards to homosexuality it is not itself negative propaganda as it does not seek to demonize heterosexuals or heterosexual families.  Its only real weakness is in its attempt to create a story for a new type of family. Those stories that are successful deal with the emotions behind family and not the composition of families be it new or old. To that end the child of lesbian parents really has no need for a book about their special kind of family as this only creates the very differences in thought which such books claim to be against. The consequences of this type of literature for children, literature that attempts to redefine anything more narrowly is certainly negative but as a work of propaganda it is in fact positive.

   When we select reading material for children, either our own or at the classroom level we should keep in mind that all literature is in some way propaganda. It is  of the utmost importance that we understand the nuances of propaganda and the potential consequences it may have on the mind of a child.  History has multitudinous examples of just how dangerous negative propaganda in children’s literature can be. The damage is far-reaching and long-lasting as parents, teachers and scholars it is our responsibility to know what books fascinate the mind of a child and to see how perceptions of the surrounding world can be altered by something as seemingly innocuous as a book for children.

END

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This entry was posted in Education, History of Children's Literature, Philosophy and Childrens Literature. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The dark side of children’s literature; Propaganda and a child’s perception of the world

  1. This was a very insightful blog post. Thank you for sharing.

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