Reviews 2015

Audacious Kids: The Classic American Children’s Story

Audacious Kids: The Classic American Children’s Story. Jerry Griswold. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University, 2014. 339 pages. $24.95 (paperback).

Audacious Kids, by Jerry Griswold, is a compelling study of twelve classic children’s books from the Golden Age of American children’s literature (1865-1914). The book first appeared in 1992 and was published later in 1996 as The Classic American Children’s Story: Novels of the Golden Age. In addition to being praised by a wide audience including scholars, teachers, critics, students, as well as general readers, Audacious Kids was recognised as a landmark in children’s literature and childhood studies when the Children’s Literature Association honored the book as an outstanding contribution to children’s literature scholarship and criticism in 1992. Over the course of twenty-two years, from the first publication in 1992 to the revised edition in 2014, Audacious Kids has been acclaimed nationally and internationally and has found a permanent place in scholarship on American children’s literature. Yet, one may ask whether the publication of the revised edition in 2014 is accessible to contemporary readers and the content is still audacious.

In 1992 version, Griswold devotes a chapter each to The Wizard of Oz, Huckleberry Finn, Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, Little Lord Fauntleroy, Tarzan of the Apes, The Prince and the Pauper, Tom Sawyer, Little Women, Toby Tyler, Hans Brinker, The Secret Garden, and Pollyanna to examine their ‘fundamental similarities’ (3). Through his insightful analysis of these well-known titles, Griswold takes on the challenge of studying not only each novel but also of scrutinising the culture of childhood in America reflected in these disparate classics. Audacious Kids embarks on the grand voyage of examining literature for children in nineteenth-century America—between the Civil War and the First World War—then focusing on the emerging patterns as the voyage proceeds. As he indicates in the 1992 version, ‘the similarities are, in fact, so extensive and so remarkable that it seems possible to say that each of them tells the same story over and over again’ (4). Studying American childhood in these classics and discovering their ‘shared story’ (5), Griswold discerns a structure he refers to as ‘The Three Lives of the Child-Hero’ (6). The ‘three lives’ include experiencing orphaned life, struggling with the Oedipal complex, and realising that resolution and return is possible. As Griswold examines this template, he applies a psychological lens onto the master plot of the twelve novels and demonstrates that throughout all of these books the uniformity of child-hero characters, their subversive behavior, and their approach toward adults are much more striking than generic and thematic differences between these texts.

Similar to the 1992 version, the 2014-revised edition is divided into four thematic sections: Oedipal struggles, American values, emotional control, and optimism. Like the older volume, the book has twelve chapters and each chapter deals with one of the twelve well-known classics. In the new edition, Griswold revised the text without changing his argument or scope of the book. Compared to the earlier version, he added a new preface and a new introduction and concluded with a new bibliography selection. The 2014 introduction, an insightful essay in itself, offers a brief history of American childhood and children’s literature. In reviewing the history, Griswold discusses how the child-hero departs from the Golden Age and enters into ‘a second golden age of children’s books’ (xii). Furthermore, the select bibliography recommends a cluster of scholarly sources published after the 1992 edition. These sources include books and journals responding to the critical climate represented either within or by Audacious Kids, and referencing its ideas directly or indirectly. Griswold’s notes section is extensive and valuable and is almost identical to the early version except for some additional notes to the 2014 preface.

In his preface to the 2014 edition, Griswold maintains that the last few decades have thrust children’s books and their critics into the limelight and in particular ‘scholarly interest in American children’s books has widened considerably’ (xi). He believes, for instance, that the literature and literary genres emerging at the turn of the twenty first century offer provocative new insights into the history of both children’s literature and American perceptions of childhood. Also, the discussion of methodologies and theories of childhood has become more prominent and therefore new ways of thinking about orphaned and non-orphaned children have started appearing in literature. In particular, the popularity of children’s literature among children and adults confirms that ‘the phenomenon of stories shared by the young and old is a hallmark of our own era’ (15).

Audacious Kids has foregrounded innovative ways of analysing childhood in American classics and has paved the way for scholars interested in the field. However, ‘despite the book’s having established itself, in the eyes of some, as a classic or definitive work in the field of American Children’s Literature, it’s been out of print since the late 1990s’ (xiv). The book is too valuable to disappear into library archives. The 2014 edition of Audacious Kids narrates a double story: one of the time-period it portrays, and one about the time of its reception. By no means is the book an exhaustive study of all canonical classics, nor even the most widely acclaimed, and thus some readers are likely to encounter titles that they have not previously considered as canon, distinguished, or even favorite. In his 1992 study, Griswold chose those books that seemed to him to have lasting value and he remained faithful to that decision in his 2014 revision.

One of the real delights afforded by Audacious Kids is that it is scholarly, convincing and highly accessible to a range of academic and nonacademic readers. Griswold is able to captivate his readers with simple yet insightful text. The content is concise, ambitious, informative, provocative, and of course still audacious. In summary, the new edition of Audacious Kids is most successful when viewed as a welcome-home note to contemporary American scholars. The invitation was already sent out in 1992. The 2014 edition welcomes home those critical minds because ‘There is no place like home’ (Baum 45).

Taraneh Matloob
Oakland University, USA

Works Cited

Griswold, Jerry. Audacious Kids: Coming of Age in America’s Classic Children’s Books. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.

Baum, L. Frank. The Wonderful Wizard of Oz: 100th Anniversary Edition. New York: Harper Collins, 2000.