The Looking Glass : New Perspectives on Children’s Literature

Sheila Egoff’s

Shutting the Window: the Loss of Innocence in Twentieth-Century Children’s Literature

by Isaac Gilman

Isaac Gilman is currently in the final year of his MLIS program at UBC. Prior to attending UBC, he worked as a security aide/student advocate at Hockinson High School in Hockinson, WA, USA and as a mentor/teaching assistant at the Clark County Juvenile Court in Vancouver, WA, USA. Upon completion of his program at UBC, he hopes to return to working with teens, either in an academic or public library setting.

For children, a story is never just a story. Stories can call children to imagine the extraordinary, to believe the impossible, to experience the unfamiliar, and to see themselves in the lives of the characters. Stories can show children the possibilities, and the freedom, which childhood offers them. Sadly, that offering has been greatly diminished with the passage of time. Over one hundred years ago, when J.M. Barrie created Peter Pan, childhood was often portrayed as the ultimate space of freedom—a time of fantasy, of imagination, of minimal responsibility. Yet, today, it is unlikely that Peter would want to remain a little boy forever. If children’s literature over the past century is telling us any story, it is the story of the loss of childhood as a time of wonder, of guiltless exploration, and of unquestioned stability. It is the story of a loss of innocence.

At the end of the nineteenth century, the unique innocence of childhood was a thing to be cherished. As Anne Scott MacLeod notes, “Children’s innocence, emotionality, and imagination became qualities to be preserved rather than overcome; a child’s sojourn in childhood was to be protected, not hastened. By implication, romantic literature made childhood the high point of life.” (156) There is no piece of literature that is more indicative of this romantic view of childhood than Barrie’s Peter Pan. Peter’s Neverland is a child’s dream. Though it is not without its dangers (the nefarious Captain James Hook) or complications (the jealous Tinkerbell), it is ultimately a land of imaginative adventure, of limited responsibility and of eternal childhood.

Peter’s stance on growing up is clear: “‘I don’t want ever to be a man,’ he said with passion. ‘I want always to be a little boy and to have fun.'” (36) For Peter, childhood is equated with freedom and fun, while adulthood is a place where one must “learn solemn things.” (228) Peter’s aversion to adult thought echoes other contemporaneous works for children, such as Edith Nesbit’s Five Children and It, where Nesbit notes that “Grown-up people find it very difficult to believe really wonderful things.” (20) This seems to be the general consensus of romantic children’s literature: it is only in childhood that wonderful things happen, and only as children are we free to engage them. In Peter Pan, the Darling children are only too glad to join Peter on a wonderful adventure: “‘Pirates,’ called John, seizing his Sunday hat, ‘let us go at once.'” (49) And with that, they are off to Neverland.

Though fairy dust certainly facilitates the Darling children’s journey to Neverland, it is something else entirely that allows them to fly from their bedroom window without a backward glance. Wendy assures John and Michael that she knows that “mother would always leave the window open for her children to fly back.” (151) After these words of assurance, Barrie interjects, noting that, as children, “Off we skip like the most heartless things in the world, which is what children are, but so attractive; and we have an entirely selfish time; and then when we have need of special attention we nobly return for it, confident that we shall be embraced instead of smacked.” (151) Indeed, Wendy’s trust in her mother’s love is rewarded when Mrs. Darling reminds her husband that “The window must always be left open for them, always, always.” (220)

It is the knowledge that the window will always be left open, the knowledge of constant parental support, which enables the children to leave on their fantastical journey and embrace the freedom of their childhood. This being said, it could well be argued that it is the Darling children, and not Peter, who are truly free. Peter had returned to find his window shut, forcing him to seek the surrogate motherhood of Wendy. If it is true that he is free to be a little boy forever, it is equally true that he may not have a choice in the matter. For Wendy, John, and Michael, however, there is complete freedom from worry, and complete freedom to live in the innocent fantasy world of childhood, knowing they can return to a warm bed and a mother’s love at any time. Mrs. Darling is as supportive as she can be of her children’s “sojourn in childhood,” despite the fact that they neglected to seek her permission to sally forth.

The importance of parental support to children’s ability to fully embrace childhood as a space of imaginative freedom cannot be overstated. In the decades following the publication of Peter Pan, children’s literature continued to encourage this idea, portraying parents as willing, and necessary, accomplices to their children’s fantastical play. As Anne MacLeod states, “there was almost always the assurance that somewhere in a child’s life there was safety, security, and stability available from adults.” (199) Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons, published in 1930, is one of the clearest examples of this parent-child relationship. The children, John, Susan, Titty, and Roger, are allowed to camp out on an island near their vacation home. Their adventure is steeped in fantasy and imagination, as the children become Captain John, Mate Susan, Able-seaman Titty, and Boy Roger of the sailing ship Swallow, and engage in explorations that bring them into contact with “Natives” and “pirates.”

For John, Susan, Titty, and Roger, this imaginative space of freedom becomes reality: “Here and there, close to the shore, there were rowing boats with fisherman. But after all there was no need to notice any of these things if one did not want to, and the Swallow and her crew moved steadily southward over a desolate ocean sailed for the first time by white seamen.” (42-43) The children are only able to exist in this creative reality because they have the full support of their mother and father. It is their father who offers the initial consent for the adventure (“BETTER DROWNED THAN DUFFERS IF NOT DUFFERS WONT DROWN”{16}), and their mother who provides practical support, in the form of food, tents, and occasional visits to make sure that all is well. Their mother even goes so far as to engage in imaginative play with the children:

“Let’s go down to the harbour and overhaul the ship,” he said. “We can take her out now, can’t we, mother?”
“Yes. But I’d like to come with you the first time.”
“Come along. Do. You can be Queen Elizabeth going aboard the ships at Greenwich that were sailing to the Indies.”
Mother laughed.
“It doesn’t matter a bit about your not having red hair,” said Titty.
“All right,” said mother, “but I think we must leave Vicky with nurse.”

With this playful encouragement from their mother, and the understanding complicity of various other adults they encounter, the children are able to take full advantage of the freedom that their age affords them.
Though Swallows and Amazons is realistic fiction, as opposed to the fantasy of Peter Pan, there is a similar desire expressed in each work for the dream of an eternal childhood. In Peter Pan, it is seen in Peter’s declaration that he wants to be a little boy forever. In Swallows and Amazons, Mrs. Dixon asks Titty if “you’ll be coming again next year.” Titty’s response is eminently hopeful, and indicative of the innocence of youth: “Every year. For ever and ever.” Mrs. Dixon’s reply is equally wistful: “Aye, we all think that when we’re young.” (364) For Arthur Ransome, just as for J.M. Barrie, childhood is a time when eternal summers, and eternal adventures, appear to be within reach of innocent young hands and minds. And it is the place of parents to encourage those dreams until the time when they will naturally dissipate.

By the latter half of the twentieth century, this notion of childhood was beginning to change, as was its portrayal in children’s literature. Though the romantic ideal of childhood had originally been posited and cultivated in Britain (as seen in the work of Barrie, Nesbit, Ransome, et al.), it had also greatly influenced the tone of children’s literature in Canada and the United States. Somewhat fittingly, when the “revolution” against such romanticism began, it was not initiated by the British, but by American authors. Obviously, it is difficult to say with certainty that any one book changed the portrayal of childhood in children’s literature, but it is a sure bet that Louise Fitzhugh’s Harriet the Spy, published in 1964, had as immediate an impact as any other work. The character of Harriet M. Welsch stands in sharp contrast to Edith Nesbit’s apple-cheeked innocents or Arthur Ransome’s healthily respectful youngsters. As Gail Schmunk Murray remarks, “Neither Harriet nor her classmates are childlike or innocent in the traditional sense.” (190) Nor is childhood, for Harriet, a time of traditional play which she wishes could last forever. Her childhood is, if anything, a time of preparation for adulthood, when she can become a real spy:

She picked up her notebook:
As she began to fall asleep she thought, And then they’ll all be petrified of me.

Harriet’s quest for revenge, her disregard of acts of betrayal, her blatant disobedience, and, finally, her decision that lying is necessary all mark her as a historically significant figure in the timeline of children’s literature. For Harriet, childhood is not a time of innocence.

The reality of Harriet’s childhood is typical of what critics have termed the “new problem novel” that appeared in the 1960s and 1970s. Though the term “problem novel” was coined to describe books for slightly older readers, the attributes of this new portrayal of childhood hold true for Harriet and similar works. Sheila Egoff, as quoted in Gail Schmunk Murray’s American Children’s Literature and the Construction of Childhood, characterizes the problem novel as having, among other things, a protagonist who “is alienated from the adult world, and often from peers as well,” a first-person narrative, an urban setting, and parents who are absent—”either physically or emotionally.” (186) Harriet is indeed a solitary figure, setting herself apart from her peers and those around her through her spying activities. Her parents are largely absent, more concerned with their work than with their daughter’s life, trusting her upbringing to their household staff. It is only when Harriet’s activities warrant the attention of school officials and other community members that her parents are drawn, albeit briefly, into a sustained interaction with Harriet. Their presence in Harriet’s life is not in support of a free childhood, but a means of controlling and restraining what they see as threatening behavior and willful independence. This stands in direct opposition to earlier romantic portrayals of childhood, which figured parents in supportive roles dedicated to maintaining their children’s freedom and innocence (and ultimately, joy in childhood). It is unlikely that windows would ever be left open for Harriet.

Without the parental understanding necessary for a carefree childhood, Harriet the Spy and other “problem novels” introduced childhood as being an undesirably restrictive space. In an urban environment, and without parental support, children have less freedom for imaginative play and creative fantasy—the hallmarks of happy childhoods in romantic literature. In place of these freedoms, children often find themselves with greater responsibilities: Gail Murray notes that in most problem novels “adults do not make the world better or safer for children; children themselves shoulder the responsibility for learning how the world works and then finding a way to adapt to it. The child has become parent to herself.” (191)

The burden of this responsibility removes any possibility that the children in these books might wish for their childhood to last forever. These children can ill afford to skip off and “have an entirely selfish time,” as Barrie’s Darling children do with Peter. There is a wide pool of examples from which to draw when examining this harshly “realistic” portrayal of late twentieth-century childhood, but one author’s work in particular bears close examination. In 1981, Cynthia Voigt published Homecoming, the first book in what would become a highly celebrated cycle of books about the Tillerman children—Dicey, James, Sammy, and Maybeth. Unfolding through Dicey’s eyes and thoughts, Homecoming tells the story of the children’s abandonment by their mother and journey to find a home with their grandmother. Dicey must become parent not only to herself, but to her younger brothers and sister as well. There is little innocence, and much world-weariness, in Dicey’s eyes: “‘You always look for the worst,’ Momma had often told her. ‘I like to be ready,’ Dicey answered.” (7)

It is clear from the beginning of the story that there has seldom been room in Dicey’s childhood for fantastical freedom or youthful abandon; the reason for this is evident in her resignation to the fact that “Dump it all on Dicey, that was what Momma did, she always did.” (8) Throughout the story, there continues this “insistent message that the young cannot rely on adults to solve the difficulties of life, since adults are themselves bewildered and overwhelmed by circumstance.” (MacLeod 202) Few of the adults in Homecoming appear equipped (or even willing) to provide the carefree childhood that the Tillerman children so desperately need. Even their grandmother, who ultimately welcomes them into her home, makes it clear that their upbringing will be a partnership, full of responsibility for the children themselves.

Unduly burdened with the responsibility of caring for her siblings, Dicey’s youth is not a desirable asset to her, but a liability to be overcome. As a twelve-year-old girl, the world is not a space of freedom for her, but an oppositional reality to be confronted: “The whole world was arranged for people who had money—for adults who had money. The whole world was arranged against kids. Well, she could handle it.” (76) Forced into early maturity by this need to “handle” her responsibilities to her family, Dicey has little time, or patience, for the distractions of a more traditional childhood. While she realizes that James, Sammy, and Maybeth need the freedom and security inherent in the traditional ideal of childhood, she is barely able to indulge them. When James suggests that they pretend to be Revolutionary soldiers marching on Concord in order to distract them while they are trudging along the highway, Dicey has to stifle a “mature” response: “[She] didn’t say that wouldn’t make any difference, they’d still be walking. She agreed to go along with it.” (26)

In light of Dicey’s grudging agreement to play soldiers, it is hard to imagine that only fifty years earlier, Arthur Ransome’s vibrant children had been pretending to walk the plank as pirates. The divide between the childhood of John, Susan, Titty, and Roger and that of Dicey, James, Sammy, and Maybeth is made explicitly clear when Dicey, thinking to herself, decides that “Imagination doesn’t do any good.” (95) This statement, more than any other, illustrates the profound loss of innocent childhood that has unfolded gradually in children’s literature over the past century. For authors at the end of the nineteenth century, childhood was drenched in the naiveté of imagination and fantasy—these were what made childhood so incredible. It was a time when children could fly out of windows and battle with pirates, and still return home to a mother who loved them. Children’s authors today tell a vastly different story—of children who grow old before their time, who see their youth not as a time of possible exploration but as a hindrance on their journey to freedom as adults.

Even for British authors—those whose literary heritage runs to Wordsworth, Nesbit, Barrie, and Ransome—childhood, and particularly the entrance into adolescence, has become a time of intense turmoil. Junk (1996), Melvin Burgess’ award-winning novel about David and Gemma, two 14-year-old heroin addicts, is far removed from the portrayals of early adolescents by Nesbit and Ransome. David has been protecting his mother for years from his alcoholic father, and Gemma finds her parents to be oppressive: “They had no doubt at all that unless my life was made as miserable as possible, I’d be a junkie whore by midnight.” (54) There is no resemblance between Gemma’s attitude and Wendy Darling’s confident assurance that her mother would always leave the window open for her. Freedom, for David and Gemma, is not found in an innocent childhood that is supported by their parents, but in an early adulthood that they seize for themselves. In Gemma’s words, “It was…being on my own, having an adventure. Yeah. It was life. A big, fat slice of life.” (58) There is a sad irony to be found in the fact that only by leaving her parents, by proclaiming her independence, is Gemma able to have “an adventure.” This is, perhaps, the greatest tragedy in the loss of childhood—that exhilarating adventure is not found within it, but only by leaving it.

If we listen to the story that a vast amount of children’s literature is telling today, we will hear that childhood is no longer the high point of life. It is no longer portrayed as an ultimate space of freedom, but as a space of restriction. Without a doubt, this is in large part a reflection of the current state of the world. In an increasingly urban society, with a concurrently increasing decline in supportive familial relations, the innocence of childhood has become a far too precious commodity. In Homecoming, James awakens every morning with the same simple, yet damning, statement—”It’s still true.” For children today, there is no escaping the reality of the world around them. All too often, the hoped-for innocence of childhood is interrupted with all-too-real responsibilities. In the midst of this reality, though, there is hope. For, while children’s literature has always been adept at conveying current realities, it has always been even better at conveying hopeful possibilities. Childhood may never again be the time of wonder, of guiltless exploration, of unquestioned stability that it was when J.M. Barrie set pen to paper. But children’s stories will always stand with children in their experiences, good or bad, offering solidarity, comfort, and hope. In the midst of telling of childhood’s loss of innocence, children’s literature has never failed to offer the possibility of childhood’s redemption. Today, it may not be found by flying out an open window, by seeking out sand-fairies, or by playing at pirates. It may, however, be found in a much more real adventure:

“Ready to go home?” Gram asked Dicey. She was smiling.
Dicey just grinned back. “Ready,” she said.

Though the children’s literature of the past century may tell us that the innocence of childhood has been lost, it has always provided an assurance that childhood need not be. The window to Neverland may be closed, but, like Gram, children’s literature has never stopped leaving a door open.


Barrie, J.M. Peter Pan. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1911. Reprint, New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1949.

Burgess, Melvin. Junk. London: Andersen Press Limited, 1996. Reprint, London: Penguin Books Ltd., 1997.

Fitzhugh, Louise. Harriet the Spy. New York: Dell Publishing Co., 1964.

MacLeod, Anne Scott. American Childhood: Essays on Children’s Literature of the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1994.

Murray, Gail Schmunk. American Children’s Literature and the Construction of Childhood. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1998.

Nesbit, E. Five Children and It. Wordsworth Classics Edition. Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions Ltd., 1993.

Ransome, Arthur. Swallows and Amazons. London: Jonathan Cape, 1930. Reprint, London: Jonathan Cape, 1940.

Voigt, Cynthia. Homecoming. New York: Atheneum Books, 1981. Reprint, New York: Simon Pulse, 2002.

Isaac Gilman

About J.R. Robinson J.R. Robinson lives in Northern California with her epic husband and rock star daughter. Raised in the lower part of Michigan in the town of Monroe, she was an only child throughout much of her adolescence, a latchkey kid who learned the true magic and power of the imagination. A writer since the age of nine and a teller of many tales, J.R. Robinson is a believer, above all else.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: