In Learning from the Left: Children’s Literature, the Cold War, and Radical Politics in the United States, Julia Mickenberg argues that “by maintaining the democratic spirit of the 1930s through the Cold War, children’s literature became a kind of bridge between the Old Left and the New Left generations” and contributed to the youth rebellions of the 1960s. Working from a vast array of primary sources, including 33 author interviews, several hundred fiction and non-fiction books for children, and other archival materials, Mickenberg builds her argument by contextualizing close readings of children’s books in their historical time and place. While she is not the first to discuss dissent in a Cold War context, Mickenberg shows that this dissent was right out in the open in children’s books; its very accessibility points to pervasive “counterhegemonic impulses” and the survival of the Popular Front in the midst of McCarthyism.
According to Mickenberg, it was possible for children’s literature to become the medium of transmission for 1930s radicalism partly because it was a largely feminine domain of the book world. Publications rarely bothered to review children’s books, and the entire writing, production, distribution, and institutional dissemination system for children’s books was inhabited almost entirely by women (most kids’ books were and still are bought by school libraries; also, children’s books were more expensive during the Cold War.) Cleverly, many of these women were interested in introducing students to a “progressive” worldview and helping them be antifascist, antiracist, and more than a little idealist. This interest was partly a legacy of Old Left parents and partly a reaction to 1950s repression, and these women hoped their kids would be able to change that.
Children’s literature was also largely ignored because its target audience was children, who presumably wouldn’t understand any particular ideological slant. Thus children’s book authors foregrounded the contributions of African Americans, the working class, and other minorities in a critique of the whitewashed “American Way;” invented progressive dialogue for historical figures so that even Davey Crockett could be “an anticapitalist, antiracist, feminist friend of the Indians,” and emphasized the importance of sharing scientific discoveries for the benefit of all people. Conveniently, many of these messages also served Cold War needs, particularly where they intersected with federal policies on racial equality and scientific progress, while also delivering subversive, Old Left messages.
While some of Mickenberg’s close readings seem a bit too intent on locating radicalism in texts where politics are a bit of a stretch, her interdisciplinary methodology shows clear links between Old Left and New Left radicalism in and around Cold War children’s literature.