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Don't Tell the Grown-Ups: The Subversive Power of Children's Literature

3.73  ·  Rating Details ·  260 Ratings  ·  31 Reviews
In sixteen spirited essays, Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Alison Lurie, who is also one of our wittiest and most astute cultural commentators, explores the world of children's literature--from Lewis Carroll to Dr. Seuss, Mark Twain to Beatrix Potter--and shows that the best-loved children's books tend to challenge rather than uphold respectable adult values.
Paperback, 256 pages
Published July 20th 1998 by Back Bay Books (first published March 24th 1990)
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Sep 15, 2013 skein rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction, 4-star, 2013
Read in one sitting and late into the night because it was SO MCUH FUN, although, yes, uneven, and difficult to follow in places if one hasn't read the original books. Children's literature (Lurie says) runs under the radar, and the authors of children's literature often possess the same attribute, being commonly women; they are able to critique the social world, the world of adulthood, in a way that only outsiders can do.

They are able to get away it because they are only women, and their stori
Jun 24, 2008 Katie rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: People who love books
Recommended to Katie by: A fellow student in Lurie's class on Folklore
Shelves: favorites
Back in the day, this book was subtitled "Subversive Children's Literature," which I think is more a propos. But maybe someone didn't like the double entendre. The chapter on "The Folklore of Childhood" (which is in my edition, if not the current one) certainly suggests that children are pretty subversive, with their jumprope rhymes about sex and booze, and their pervasive myths about the adult world, and this certainly squares with my own memories pretty well.

Certainly my own favorite childhoo
Destinee Sutton
For me, this book didn't live up to its title. Sure, it's kind of about "the subversive power of children's literature," but it's actually mostly about the biographies of certain children's authors and how certain children's stories are archetypes for adult literary fiction. And it's not a cohesive book at all. It's a series of essays that were probably originally intended for lit crit mags. When Lurie does address subversiveness, it's usually historical (the book was published in 1990, so I did ...more
Feb 11, 2013 Amy rated it really liked it
Shelves: british, nonfiction
My favorite quotation from the book: "The Secret Garden is the story of two unhappy, sickly, overcivilized children who achieve health and happiness through a combination of communal gardening, mystical faith, daily exercises, encounter-group-type confrontation, and a health-food diet." I think this book is mistitled, but I recommend it to people who are interested in Victorian life & literature. There are some amazing biographical facts about J.M. Barrie, John Ruskin and so on. There is als ...more
Dawn Allbee
Sep 12, 2016 Dawn Allbee rated it liked it
Shelves: bookclub, non-fiction
It took a while to get into the book. Despite the title each chapter was devoted more to a mini-biolgraphy of children's author who wrote works that weren't the "norm" for the times. They did talk about the books but at times it seemed the "subversive" part was a stretch. Granted that could be our society has changed quite a bit since some of these novels came out. I'll warn you the chapters dedicated to the first 1-2 authors weren't as interesting and in one case disturbing so I'd advise to sti ...more
Adriane Devries
Sep 09, 2012 Adriane Devries rated it liked it
Shelves: teaching
Sometimes grownups want us to read what is Good For Us. They prefer us to read history textbooks rather than historical fiction; classic literature rather than Stephen King; or the pure unadulterated King James Bible rather than Eugene Peterson’s The Message translation. There’s always someone to tell us that what we’re reading is wrong. But Alison Lurie, author of Don’t Tell the Grown-Ups, The Subversive Power of Children’s Literature, shows us that all truly transformative works of literature ...more
This was an uneven book which I still mostly enjoyed reading. Most chapters are about individual authors, the big names of childrens' lit. The rest is inconsistent analysis of past and present. Most conclusions I disagreed with, but I was pleased that the author while standing by her own claims, didn't automatically try to trash other viewpoints. On the other hand, she regards older standards of literature as having a form of contrivance to them but then ignores that more modern lit also has its ...more
Lisa Houlihan
May 07, 2013 Lisa Houlihan rated it liked it
Alison Lurie's collection of essays is entertaining and at times thought-provoking, but mostly her analyses were too Freudian for me. And inconsistent: she says death was absent from children's literature until the 20th century. In context, it's possible she meant absent in the first half of that century, but she's not clear and says this just after mentioning Little Women. People die left and right in Louisa May Alcott, Frances Hodgson Burnett, L.M. Montgomery, and Elizabeth Enright, and even N ...more
Kirsti S.
Mar 08, 2011 Kirsti S. rated it it was ok
MCL. I was searching for something else and couldn't resist the title. Unfortunately that was the best part of the book. Lurie's definition of subversive is extremely broad. Some of the authors' life stories were interesting.
Favorite quote:
"Many of my students at Cornell, though they come from prosperous backgrounds, have grown up with no better nourishment for their imaginations than the crude comedy and plastic adventure stories of films and television: Disney and Star Trek instead of Pooh an
Oct 23, 2013 Jeffrey rated it liked it
Interesting but, as I've learned about Lurie, full of silly flaws - she rebukes Ford Maddox Ford for writing too much because he needed to earn a living but has no problem with Frances Hodgson Burnett for doing the same thing - she paints Ruskin as a predator but doesn't tarnish JM Barrie who was much worse in many ways - I find her readings often superficial but still there is something worthwhile in her endeavour to bring a serious critical eye to children's literature in pieces mostly written ...more
Aug 04, 2008 Janis rated it it was ok
I was disappointed by this book, which promised to tell "why kids love the books they do." The author offers a premise but does not follow through. She touches on interesting topics (how fairy tales influenced certain adult classics) and shares lots of juicy information on literary figures (John Ruskin...kind of a pervert...) but spends surprisingly little time discussing children's literature. She's a good writer, her ideas are interesting. But this book put me in mind of a particular fairy tal ...more
Robin Kirk
Jul 23, 2013 Robin Kirk rated it liked it
Shelves: craft
Lurie points out interesting ways of interpreting classics of children's literature, and illuminates some of the personalities behind famous books. For instance, I didn't know the author of Peter Pan was himself preternaturally young, possibly suffering from a condition that prevented him from completing puberty. Many of the most popular children's tales are subversive and flout tradition, rules and, most importantly, parental authority.
Jul 20, 2013 Aya rated it liked it
Not a very deep examination and somewhat uneven. It's not light enough really to just be a popular piece, sometimes it veers into serious scholarship and sometimes it skims right through whole concepts.
But a good beginning. I was also conscious that most of my dislike came from how dated the approach now seems.
Jan 18, 2013 Alison rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
There were a few chapters that were interesting, but overall this book felt like snippets from biographies on children's lit authors rather than essays. There were also a few chapters I couldn't follow at all (the one on folktales made no sense to me...).

Also it loses points for the casual racism (Chinaman and gypsy... really?).
May 19, 2008 Rae rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Not as sensationalistic as the title suggests, this book describes mostly Victorian and Edwardian classics in children's literature and how they mocked the social mores of their day. I really enjoyed the chapters on fairy tales, as well as Peter Pan, Peter Rabbit, Pooh Bear, Kate Greenaway and John Ruskin.
Mar 06, 2008 Miriam rated it liked it
Shelves: education, sociology, kids
Lurie writes about the fact that many of the most beloved books in children's literature poke fun at, ridicule, or deeply question the culture that the book was written in. Alice in Wonderland, Winnie the Pooh, Peter Pan and many others have a subversive edge to them. I enjoy that and so I liked the book.
Jul 02, 2009 Janie rated it really liked it
Different than I expected. It wasn't essays about the literature itself so much as the authors of subversive children's literature, but it was entertaining nonetheless. It inspired me to look for the some of the books mentioned.
Thom Dunn
(2-11-2011) Amazon doesn't know "when or if" will be available. Listed as an import. Could it be a British title ?

Not mentioned at all in the Wikipedia article on Lurie....HOWEVER, the title of a children's book, Not in Front of the GROWN UPS, may be what the poster of this title intended ??
Elizabeth Bradley
Mar 21, 2011 Elizabeth Bradley rated it liked it
Like the little girl with the curl in the middle of her forehead, when this book is good, it's very, very good, but when it's not, it's ....plodding and academic. Still, I came away w/a new appreciation for Beatrix Potter - who knew she was a gifted botanist? - among other favorite authors...
I only read one or two essays before returning this book. It was dated due to its publication date. Interesting concept, and relevant for in depth research on the topic, but not for exploration on the current state of children's literature.
Jun 21, 2010 Melodie rated it it was amazing
This was recommended to me someplace when I thought I wanted to be a children's author, and it was a tremendous inspiration to me then. However! It's a brilliant read regardless. Very enlightening.
Apr 25, 2016 LMill rated it liked it
Shelves: non-fiction, children
A nice survey of the history of children's literature and collection of lesser known facts about famous children's authors, including Beatrix Potter, Kate Greenaway, J. M. Barrie, and A. A. Milne.
May 05, 2015 Jane rated it liked it
Lurie is a excellent critic and historian of children's books. These essays were a pleasure to thumb through.
Deb (Readerbuzz) Nance
Little biographical and psychological sketches of well-known children's authors. Not as edgy as I'd hoped; closer to a series of lectures by a university professor on children's literature.
Mar 07, 2008 Treasure rated it it was amazing
Shelves: grown-up-books
I really enjoyed this book on a variety of levels-- the professional, academic, reminscient, and of course, down right subervise sides of me all got something out of this work.
Feb 18, 2014 Sylvia rated it it was ok
This had been on my to read list for years. Finally I get it and find all these negative book reviews?! Yikes!!
Chris Meger
Jun 02, 2008 Chris Meger rated it really liked it
I love the idea that children's stories are dangerous to the status quo. And thank god they are. This is a great book that adds a wonderful sub-text to pretty much the whole world.
Aug 12, 2011 Greg rated it liked it
Nothing groundbreaking (though it's 20 years old and I've read a disproportionate amount of this sort of this), but quite good. Especially liked the chapters on Nesbit and Tolkien/White
Brownthrasher rated it really liked it
Dec 04, 2011
Jonathan rated it really liked it
Jun 04, 2016
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Alison Lurie (b. 1926) is a Pulitzer Prize–winning author of fiction and nonfiction. Born in Chicago and raised in White Plains, New York, she joined the English department at Cornell University in 1970, where she taught courses on children’s literature, among others. Her first novel, Love and Friendship (1962), is a story of romance and deception among the faculty of a snowbound New England colle ...more
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“The great subversive works of children's literature suggest that there are other views of human life besides those of the shopping mall and the corporation. They mock current assumptions and express the imaginative, unconventional, noncommercial view of the world in its simplest and purest form. They appeal to the imaginative, questioning, rebellious child within all of us, renew our instinctive energy, and act as a force for change. This is why such literature is worthy of our attention and will endure long after more conventional tales have been forgotten.” 9 likes
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