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DON’T TELL THE GROWNUPS <i> by Alison Lurie (Little, Brown: $19.95; 229 pp.) </i>

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“There exists in our world an unusual, partly savage tribe, ancient and widely distributed, yet, until recently little studied by anthropologists or historians. All of us were at one time members of this tribe; we knew its customs, manners and rituals, its folklore and sacred texts. I refer, of course, to children,” writes novelist and English professor Alison Lurie in this collection of essays on children’s literature. There are two kinds of children’s books, she asserts: improving and subversive. The latter category constitutes the texts her “partly savage tribe” holds sacred.

And rightly so, Lurie maintains. She remembers discovering very early on that the moralistic story books that passed for appropriate children’s entertainment in her own youth were quickly proven useless: “The simple, pleasant adult society they had prepared us for did not exist. As we had suspected, the fairy tales had been right all along--the world was full of hostile, stupid giants and perilous castles and people who abandoned their children in the nearest forest. To succeed in this world you needed some special skill or patronage, plus remarkable luck; and it didn’t hurt to be very good-looking.”

The best children’s stories fly in the face of convention, Lurie argues, and these essays survey the various ways in which this delicious subversion has been practiced. What is Tom Sawyer but the story of a boy who wins a Sunday-school prize by fraud? What good did it do Peter Rabbit to be terrified in the farmer’s garden if he returns entirely unrepentant? Lurie also takes up the “watershed” author, E. Nesbit, who wrote in her 1898 “The Treasure Seekers”: “Of course, as soon as we had promised to consult my father about business matters, we all gave up wanting to go into business. I don’t know how it is, but having to consult about a thing with grown-up people, even the bravest and the best, seems to make the thing not worth doing afterwards.”

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The goals of subversion naturally change over time. Lurie points out that while today it is generally demure little girls who read “Little Women,” for at least five generations of girls, the book’s heroine, Jo, was “a rebel and an ideal.” When Louise Fitzhugh, author of “Harriet the Spy,” published “The Long Secret” in 1965, it was censured because for the first time in children’s literature menstruation was mentioned. And Richard Adams, whose “Watership Down” was rejected by all the major London publishers, Lurie writes, introduces subversive ideas about ecology.

But by the same token, Lurie takes on feminists who dismiss fairy tales as patronizing to women. Walt Disney’s versions may reduce girls to princesses who wait patiently for their prince to come to the rescue, she sneers gently. But in the Grimms’ original “Children’s and Household Tales” (1812), she writes in a characteristically playful--and yes, subversive--lampoon of scholarly method, “there are 61 women and girl characters who have magic powers as against only 21 men and boys; and these men are usually dwarfs and not humans.”


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