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Suffer the Little Children

Suffer the Little Children: Uses of the Past in Jewish and African American Children's Literature

Jodi Eichler-Levine
Copyright Date: 2013
Published by: NYU Press
Pages: 253
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  • Book Info
    Suffer the Little Children
    Book Description:

    "Illuminates the importance of fear and suffering in shaping African American and Jewish children's literature. . . . Gives a cogent understanding of how each community's difficult historical narratives coupled with their religious and social lives have helped to prepare children to engage an American civic life that has been hostile at times to their ethnic groups." - Anthea Butler, University of Pennsylvania This compelling work examines classic and contemporary Jewish and African American children's literature. Through close readings of selected titles published since 1945, Jodi Eichler-Levine analyzes what is at stake in portraying religious history for young people, particularly when the histories in question are traumatic ones. In the wake of the Holocaust and lynchings, of the Middle Passage and flight from Eastern Europe's pogroms, children's literature provides diverse and complicated responses to the challenge of representing difficult collective pasts. In reading the work of various prominent authors, including Maurice Sendak, Julius Lester, Jane Yolen, Sydney Taylor, and Virginia Hamilton, Eichler-Levine changes our understanding of North American religions. If children are the idealized recipients of the past, what does it mean to tell tales of suffering to children? Suffer the Little Children asks readers to alter their worldviews about children's literature as an innocent enterprise, revisiting the genre in a darker and more unsettled light.Jodi Eichler-Levineis Assistant Professor of Religious Studies and Women's Studies at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh. Her work has appeared inAmerican Quarterly, Shofar, and Postscripts.

    eISBN: 978-0-8147-2400-2
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. ix-x)
    (pp. xi-xii)
  5. INTRODUCTION: Wild Things and Chosen Children
    (pp. xiii-xxiv)

    Maurice Sendak, the renowned artist and author of children’s classics such asWhere the Wild ThingsAre andBumble-ardy,had a problem with the idea of Jewish chosenness. “We were the ‘chosen people,’ chosen to be killed?” he observed to aNew York Timesreporter in September 2008.¹ Sendak, the son of Eastern European Jewish immigrants whose families perished in the Holocaust, displayed a tense relationship to Jewish identity, yet echoes of the Holocaust and Jewish immigrant experiences stalked many of his interviews.²

    Chosen to be killed. This is one way to unpack chosenness, to question it in the modern...

    (pp. xxv-xxvi)
  7. 1 Remembering the Way into Membership
    (pp. 1-24)

    Crispus Attucks, the former slave killed at the Boston Massacre in 1770, was a martyr whose death ensured liberty for other Americans. This is what child readers are told in the 1965 textCrispus Attucks: Boy of Valor:“His death is significant because it demonstrates his loyalty to a country in which he was not actually free. His sacrifice serves as a rallying cry for freedom.”¹ In an America that still experienced both pride and horror over the events of World War II and that was embroiled in the tumultuous events of the 1960s, sacrifice was a precondition for freedom,...


    • [PART I Introduction]
      (pp. 25-28)

      Exodus journeys provide a narrative foundation for writing and reading African Americans and Jews as pilgrims and pioneers; the making of homes brings us to a Victorian mode of containing difference and expressing religious cultures according to recognizable tropes. The two chapters that follow show how “crossing” and “dwelling” metaphors drive these religious narratives.¹ We thus move from the introductory survey of chapter 1 to the push and pull of migration within and to the United States, followed by the makings of American homes in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

      Chapter 2, “The Unbearable Lightness of Exodus,” considers how...

    • 2 The Unbearable Lightness of Exodus
      (pp. 29-56)

      Molly and “Moses” are both pilgrims on the road to freedom. Molly, of Barbara Cohen’s 1980s classicMolly’s Pilgrim,is an elementary school student, the daughter of Russian immigrants whose classmates mock her family’s accent and the funny doll she brings to class before Thanksgiving. “Moses” is an imagined version of Harriet Tubman, featured in a recent picture book of the same name, walking to freedom in Philadelphia. We can imagine them strolling beside one another, as King and Heschel did, with tiny Molly reaching her hand up to grasp Tubman’s. The freedom they each seek has racial, cultural, and...

    • 3 Dwelling in Chosen Nostalgia
      (pp. 57-90)

      Miriam, Moses’s sister, who is so often a striking figure of crossing and exodus, has also taken up residence on the Jewish children’s bookshelf as an emblem of dwelling and domesticity. In Fran Manushkin’sMiriam’s Cup,she is a longhaired, dancing, almost “exotic Jewess” who represents Jewish women’s places at the Passover table. The text’s frame story is that of a contemporary family preparing to celebrate this holiday. It opens with the domestic imagery of women’s work before the festival: “Every spring, Passover arrives with a tumult and flurry—such a clanging of pots and a sweeping of rooms!”¹ The...


    • [PART II Introduction]
      (pp. 91-96)

      The next two chapters show us children who are bound to and unbound from violence, and how this binding is what most tightly lassos American Jews and African Americans into acceptance as upstanding, religious American citizens. We pay particular attention to how the biblical figures of Isaac and Jephthah’s daughter are entwined with such imagery. Thinking about the presence of violence in children’s literature through these two biblical characters alters how we frame these pains and make us more aware of the cruelty visited on children in contemporary texts. It is suffering citizenship and the macabre loss of children that...

    • 4 Bound to Violence: Lynching, the Holocaust, and the Limits of Representation
      (pp. 97-128)

      Fear, violence, and darkness are not new to the world of children’s literature, as numerous studies of fairy tales can attest.¹ Books about lynching and the Holocaust, however, cross the line between darkness and terror, moving us into a space that is paradoxically both unspeakable and iconic. On a narrative level, the chilling violence visited on Jewish and African American children through these two horrors is precisely what promises both communities American civic acceptance: these murdered youths have become part of stories of sacrifice and redemption. Representing Anne Frank and Emmett Till or their fictional doppelgängers, these books participate in...

    • 5 Unbound in Fantasy: Reading Monstrosity and the Supernatural
      (pp. 129-154)

      Is there a way out of the horrific logic by which Jewish and African Americans are written into American religious identities precisely because of their lost children? Strangely enough, one way of unbinding these identities from sacrifice comes to us from fantastic literature, particularly the sort that features monsters and Wild Things. Cultural monsters are always with us. Like Dracula, they return again and again, paralleling religious figurations of persecutions that occur repetitively, whether this comes in Jewish tellings of pogroms, in African American spirituals of suffering, or in haunting echoes of biblical horror.¹ In Maurice Sendak’s iconic picture books,...

  10. CONCLUSION: The Abrahamic Bargain
    (pp. 155-160)

    For Jews and African Americans, living, breathing children, children who thrive and grow and listen to stories, are a very real form of triumph over the fairly recent threat of genocide. The Middle Passage and the Holocaust stalk all of the tales in this book, even those that do not directly address them. In literature and imagination, possibilities of survival expand dramatically, yet the darkness of bound, suffering children remains a haunting presence. Rhetorically, it is suffering children who are framed as the vessels of communal salvation through their reception of embattled, but deeply and vociferously American identities.

    It is...

    (pp. 161-164)
  12. NOTES
    (pp. 165-204)
    (pp. 205-220)
  14. INDEX
    (pp. 221-226)
    (pp. 227-227)