I’ve had to spend more time than I usually care to spend justifying myself recently. Why do I care so deeply about literature for young people? Why do I believe that library science is where I belong? How do I reconcile them with my politics that could easily be construed as “radical”?
It’s something I’ve been struggling to articulate lately. I wasn’t sure how to explain how something as inconsequential as The Hunger Games or Winnie-the-Pooh could mean so much to me, especially without appealing to an elitist rhetoric of “cultivating young minds” or “understanding the implications of the text” (which the “common man” can’t do, right?) or even the “power of story” which only “cultured” people “get.” (Of course, those two texts in particular aren’t exactly inconsequential, given their commercial power. Also, I apologize for the use of scare quotes. I like them.)
Then, I finally took the time to revisit some of the things that I loved to read as a young(er) person; in particular, I pulled out a story-poem anthology that contained “The Owl and the Pussy-cat” by Edward Lear.
The owl and the pussy-cat are a perfect example of a queer couple–it’s hard to imagine one queerer. They’re entirely “illegible by dominant narratives” and all that jazz. (Don’t get me wrong. I love academic jargon probably more than the next guy. But I’m trying to link it to the sheer joy of reading a ridiculous poem.) For pete’s sake, they have to sail away “for a year and a day,/ To the land where the Bong-tree grows” in order to get married.
I love the power of this story. This one, beautiful, dangerous, silly, inconsequential story. It doesn’t make sense. It’s not supposed to make sense. And yet, we see people finding love, enjoying gustatory pleasures, dancing by the light of the moon, and imagining something different. The owl and the pussy-cat look around, see that the world isn’t as it should be, and they say, “Let’s build something different.”
One of my high school English teachers encouraged my literature class to create a list of the stories that “tell us who we are.” Until this moment, I don’t think I would have counted “The Owl and the Pussy-cat” as one of the stories that tell me who I am. But I don’t think I can ever forget what I have learned from it now. This is the reason I have chosen the path I am on. Because I see myself in the owl and the pussy-cat. I see myself getting caught up in love and life and making the world a better place. A place where it’s okay to be joyful and irreverent, even in the midst of a world that’s falling apart at the seams. They work to make a world that isn’t falling apart. They build something new.
Children’s literature, more than any other cultural artifact, helps us imagine something new. Sometimes, in the case of the YA dystopia, they help us imagine something new that is the frightening result of the things we’re doing in the world now. Sometimes, they help us imagine new ways of being in the world that’s shattered and broken by racism, sexism, heterosexism, classism, ableism, and all of the other icky -isms that cause people to be cruel to each other, that create winners and losers.
“The Owl and the Pussy-cat” reminds me who I am. It reminds me to dine on mince and slices of quince with a runcible spoon. It reminds me that there is hope in a harum-scarum world to dance in the light of the moon with the people you love. It reminds me that though the Child (referencing, of course, Lee Edelman’s polarizing polemic No Future) terrorizes “deviants” and “radicals,” real children–young people with bodies, hopes, minds, and wills–do matter. It reminds me to imagine something irreverent, something beautiful, something different. And I think that’s the best lesson we can learn.