Sticks and Stones: The Troublesome Success of Children’s Literature from Slovenly Peter to Harry Potter
Jack Zipes
New York & London: Routledge, 2001.
$ 24.95, 213 pages, ISBN 0415928117
£15.99 HB, £12.99
PB .

Virginie Douglas
Université de Rouen


Zipes, Professor of German at the University of Minnesota, is one of the most prominent scholars specializing in the field of children’s literature today. His work mainly focuses on the fairy tale: his publications include a translation of the Grimms’ tales, some collections of traditional or modern fairy tales, like Don’t Bet on the Prince: Contemporary Feminist Fairy Tales in North America and England (1986) or The Trials and Tribulations of Little Red Riding Hood (1983), as well as scholarly works like Fairy Tales and the Art of Subversion: The Classical Genre for Children and the Process of Civilization (1983) or, recently, The Oxford Companion to Fairy Tales (2000). But Zipes’s interest in the fairy tale has also led him to the study of one of the categories in literature which has most extensively drawn upon the tradition of the fairy tale (although the latter was not itself aimed at a child audience) by reworking and subverting it — namely children’s books. He is in particular the editor of Garland’s book series Children’s Literature and Culture.

By not restricting itself to a literary or historical analysis, Sticks and Stones stands apart from Zipes’s other works. The book tries to exemplify the author’s statement that giving a true image of children’s literature implies “crossing if not violating boundaries and forming links with critics in other disciplines in our theoretical and pedagogical work.” (36) And indeed Zipes not only borrows widely from all kinds of theory, but also refers to newspaper articles or even personal anecdotes (the example of his own daughter is occasionally alluded to) so that his approach to children’s books should be as much in touch with social realities as possible.

The fact that most of the chapters were initially talks also accounts for the rather informal tone of the book. Indeed it actually consists of several unpublished papers and a previously published article about Struwwelpeter (or Slovenly Peter), with the addition of a newly written last chapter about Harry Potter. The compilation of these papers originally given on different occasions is no doubt responsible for a possible weakness of the book in that the first four chapters, because they concentrate on children’s literature in its relation (or its lack of a satisfying relation, the author suggests) with the American socio-economic system from a very general point of view, contain a few repetitions, especially about the capitalization of children’s books. The following chapters achieve a better balance by illustrating the general statements of the beginning through the study of more specific topics or works.

The link between the various texts gathered in this book is to be found in the “troublesome success” mentioned in its subtitle. The success of children’s books, which is particularly striking today in the Harry Potter phenomenon but has in fact rewarded some works at all stages of the development of this literature, is unsettling since it points to the uncontrollable or undesirable aspects that these books may convey to young readers.

In the first chapter Zipes stresses the paradoxical dimension of American society. It may claim that its values are freedom, independence and multiculturalism, what its cultural practices eventually bring about is “The Cultural Homogenization of American Children”. Children today, especially in the United States, have been turned from potential readers into potential consumers of books (and of the spin-offs of these books). Paradoxically, American society does not encourage creativity in its children. The books which are most widely distributed are formulaic and unoriginal. The civilizing process to which children are subjected is so much based on the ability of these works to induce the repetition of patterns governed by economic success that young readers are educated into thinking of themselves and of others as mere commodities. In books as in films, sports or at school, American society imposes adult criteria on its children. The system is based on selling products (to children) which, through the ideological message they contain, will generate (in children) a need to replicate this consumer behaviour.

The second chapter, “Do You Know What We Are Doing to Your Books?”, considers the gap there is between the position to children’s literature of the small portion of population specializing in books for the young (scholars, librarians or teachers) and that of the vast majority of real or potential consumers of children’s books, whether they be adults or children. Zipes insists on the huge proportion of children that cannot be reached by the books we specialists recommend as being good, either because these children belong to a social background in which books are seen as inaccessible or superfluous, or because the books they do read do not influence them in the way we think they should. If the children possess the necessary literacy to read the books, they may not have the critical distance they need to appreciate them fully. So that those books specialists support as desirable are not necessarily what children are asking for or what they are capable of tackling.

This leads to the provocative statement of chapter three: “Why Children’s Literature Does Not Exist”. The author considers children’s literature is all the more a figment of the imagination as even the child is only a construct. Moreover the genitive in “children’s literature” does not reflect the reality of books which belong to adults rather than children: it has often been stressed that adults are the main actors of children’s literature from the stage of the writing and production to the buying and even the reading. Zipes describes children’s literature as an “institution” outside the grasp of the young. It seems to him more realistic to apply the phrase “children’s literature” to the kind of texts children actually read or appropriate, from cheap series like Goosebumps to examination papers, posters, graffiti or the texts of video games (though we could here question Zipes’s definition of the literary object).

In the fourth chapter Zipes addresses the problem of assessing the quality of children’s books, wondering what “The Value of Evaluating the Value of Children’s Literature” may be. The commercial success of some old or new books has shown that what we adults hold to be a good book does not correspond to children’s own criteria or needs. Even among adults, why should the judgment passed by those who specialize in children’s literature be more valid than the assessment expressed by others? The variety of points of view about some children’s books or about children’s literature at large is all the more obvious since within the academic institution itself some scholars still show contempt for a discipline they dismiss as “kiddie lit”. Thus the notion of a value of children’s books is shifting not only according to the individual but also according to the socio-historical context.

The following chapters are more specific, chapter five dealing with “Wanda Gág’s Americanisation of the Grimms’ Fairy Tales”. Wanda Gág, an American of German origin, translated freely and illustrated some of the Grimms’ tales into English in the 1930s. Zipes shows Gág exemplifies what he calls the “contamination” of fairy tales by American artists. Following a renewal of interest for the fairy tale after World War I, American versions of these flourished. In 1937, Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and its book counterparts triggered off a debate among librarians and commentators of children’s books, because Disney’s version was so obviously personal and unfaithful to the original. Gág’s version of the same tale was encouraged as a way of counterbalancing the Disney film. Yet Zipes successfully argues that Gág’s tales, although mostly respectful of the storyline, lead to the same American contamination as Disney’s: through their free translation, their basic, concrete, idiomatic language, their slight alterations in the narrative and their simple, utopian illustrations, the tales perfectly illustrate the success America has drawn from the appropriation and personalization of international, traditional narratives and culture.

Chapter six develops this idea of “The Contamination of the Fairy Tale”. After showing that contamination (a term used by folklorists to refer to the incorporation of alien elements into a formerly homogenous narrative) is as useful to literature in the cultural and artistic field as immigration is to a country in the political field, Zipes goes on to show that the Grimms’ tales, often wrongly believed to be purely and restrictively German, have gradually reached worldwide popularity and relevance thanks to the rich and diverse new versions (or reversions) of themselves that they have generated. Contemporary reworkings of the Grimms’ tales are examined here, both picture books and novels, for adults or/and for children, including — among others — Janosch, Lore Segal and Maurice Sendak, Tanith Lee or Jon Scieszka. Zipes shows that in all these cases the subversion of the pre-text have challenged debatable notions or explored neglected aspects of the original works.

As there is no “genuine” version of a fairy tale, Zipes demonstrates in “The Wisdom and Folly of Storytelling” that there is no such thing as genuine storytelling. The author questions the modern assumption, often tinged with nostalgia, that storytelling was doomed by the current globalisation and disappearance of small, close communities. Zipes argues that storytelling still exists, even if it serves different purposes and that it is wrong to believe that traditional forms of storytelling were more valuable: “Oral storytelling was always functional and purposeful and remains so today.” (132) It is the way a tale fits its audience on a particular occasion that makes it genuine. The very tendency to revive a pure form of storytelling, which has led, since the 1970s, to the professionalization and commodification of this activity in the United States and, more recently, in many other Western countries, undermines storytelling because the goal is rather to please the audience than to influence it in any way.

Chapter eight, “The Perverse Delight of Shockheaded Peter”, compares the modern “junk opera” by the Tiger Lillies called Shockheaded Peter (1999) with its original version, one of the most famous books in German children’s literature, Struwwelpeter (1845; or Slovenly Peter) by Dr. Heinrich Hoffmann. Although this chapter relates less directly to the argument of the book, it still examines the reasons for the (sometimes unexpected) success of a children’s book. Hoffmann’s picture book with its stories in verse appealed to its readership and to many generations of children and adults worldwide thanks to the perverse ambiguity of its cruel yet comical stories and pictures of children being punished sadistically for their disobedience and bad behaviour. Instead of being motivated by the love of children and the wish to please them, Struwwelpeter seeks to impose the codes of Western middle-class society on the young. The Shockheaded Peter production (which is for adults not children) emphasizes this permanent ambiguity in adults’ treatment of children. By magnifying the streak of sadism inherited from Hoffmann, the play shows how we tend to replicate with our children the adult behaviour we may have suffered from in our own childhood. The victimization may not be obvious because it is generally repressed, but it is still there.

The last chapter, “The Phenomenon of Harry Potter, or Why All the Talk?”, offers a carefully considered assessment of the craze for Harry Potter. It is so refreshingly rare to hear anyone talk of the Harry Potter books as formulaic, sexist and conventional, which they are, however enjoyable they may be. Zipes successfully shows that the reasons for J. K. Rowling’s success have to be sought outside the strictly literary sphere. The conditions of the writing and marketing of the series in particular are to be taken into account. It is precisely because they conform to conventional standards and expectations in society that the novels have become so popular. As for the contents of the books, Zipes provides a summary which can equally apply to each of the first four novels, showing how repetitive and how close to the traditional pattern of the fairy tale they are. The characters, among whom the few girls and women only act as accessories, are one-dimensional and serve the Manichean plot. By concealing the richness and variety of children’s books of quality more than it reveals it, Harry Potter’s huge popularity participates in the current homogenisation of the young.

Jack Zipes’s book answers a need in today’s children’s studies. Although he is an academic and academics, as he stresses, tend to have rather unrealistic notions of what children’s books should be, he provides a down-to-earth picture of what is at stake when one talks of children’s literature. Above all, Zipes does not flinch from examining what has become one of the essential elements — if not the major element — in the conditions of production and reception of these books, i.e. financial profit.