Paula T. ConnollySlavery in American Children’s Literature, 1790-2010

University of Iowa Press, 2014

by Sherry Johnson on March 26, 2015

Paula T. Connolly

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The “peculiar institution” upon which the US nation was founded is still rich for examination.  Perhaps this is why it is a subject to which 21st century authors continue to return.   In this exploration of slavery, Paula T. Connolly, author of Slavery in American Children’s Literature 1790 – 2010 (University of Iowa, 2013), provides an expansive study of the ways in which proslavery and abolitionist literature framed discussions of slavery for the future of the nation:  children.

One of the questions to which Connolly’s investigation responds is whether US authors of children’s literature frame discussions of slavery in similar ways that writers of adult literature do.  In the course of our conversation Connolly notes, “Many of us like to believe that we frame slavery differently for adults and children, but it’s simply not true.”  Thus, readers will find that, similar to books for adults, children’s literature has conventional motifs of the subservient and grateful slave, or the kind and heroic master, for example.  Additionally, character demonstration that he can properly manage his responsibility as master — a rite of passage — remains a shared theme.

Connolly, Associate Professor of English at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, reminds readers of the various genres of abolitionist and/or proslavery literature.  She includes sharp analysis of popular plantation stories, slave narratives, postplantation novels, proslavery adventure novels, confederate textbooks, Freedman’s schoolbooks, and neo-abolitionist texts throughout the various historical periods of her extensive research.  Along the way, readers learn, interestingly, that at times both abolitionist and proslavery texts upheld the same old notions of white supremacy despite their oppositional goals.

That both adult literature and/or children’s literature frame slavery through similar cultural lenses makes sense.   After all, adults are the ones writing for children. Indeed, ideologies of the “white savior” or “needy slave” for example, remain firmly rooted as we learn that children’s literature long after the Civil War continues to reflect old beliefs.  It remains clear that the act of emancipation did nothing to destroy deeply entrenched white hegemony in the nation.

Slavery in American Children’s Literature, 1790-2010 — the first expansive study of slavery in children’s literature — is a fine example of the ways in which interdisciplinarity enhances the study of slavery in the US.   The text brings together History, Literary Studies, Education, studies in Visual Arts, and what results is an enriching, multi-dimensional perspective on US pedagogy of race.

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