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Issue No. 107 (May 2007) -- Mark Satin, Editor

Safety and love first:
The politics of children’s literature

Over the last 20 years, children’s books have dramatically changed their skin. What educator Nancy Larrick once called the “all-white world of children’s books” is now a 24 / 7 multicultural world. Thousands of children’s books now not only combat racial, ethnic, and gender stereotyping, but positively celebrate diverse cultures.

Impetus for the sea-change was the social movements of the 1960s. A whole book has been written tracing the connections between old social movements and the new children’s literature (Julia Mickenberg, Learning from the Left, 2005).

I think it’s wonderful that children’s books now exhort and, at best, inspire young people to care about those who are apparently different from them. But in our haste to correct the oversights of our fathers, I wonder if we’ve forgotten an equally important -- and infinitely more painful -- lesson from the movements of the 1960s.

Many of us worked and worked and worked to change the world, with few positive results. Eventually we figured out that you can’t change the world for the better if your motive is primarily subconscious rebellion against your family or your ambitious peers.

In the 1970s, the humanistic-psychology movement turned that street-level insight into a philosophy:

You can’t create positive social change -- you can’t meet your “second-level” needs for self-actualization and self-transcendence -- until you’ve met your “first-level” needs for security, love, belongingness, and esteem.

For a politics of children’s literature to be truly relevant to the 21st century, then, it is not enough for children’s books to be free of racism, sexism, etc., or to present differences in a positive light.

Children -- even very young children -- are going to have to be taught that they have an absolute right to feel secure, loved, and valued. And if they’re not so treasured, then they have to be made to understand (gently, of course, and with maximum sensitivity) that there’s something wrong somewhere . . . and it doesn’t begin with them.

Obviously, this is a lot harder than teaching kids that racism is bad and differences are good. But it’s at least as important if we want to raise a generation that’s psychologically capable of changing the world for the better.

Enter Barbara McClintock

Huge tomes have now been published describing some of the great new multicultural books for young readers (see RE:SOURCES section below). But where are the books helping young people come to grips with their psychological needs for safety, belongingness, and love?

For me, the best place to begin -- the most exemplary, the most moving -- is with three recent books from children’s author and illustrator Barbara McClintock.

Although McClintock’s books have won numerous awards, including four New York Times Best Illustrated Children’s Books awards, she does not get the attention she deserves -- no doubt in part because her audience is largely three- to eight-year-olds!

So far as I am concerned, she’s one of the most important political writers of our time. How I wish I could read her books to some of the distraught children I encounter in the streets of Oakland. How I wish I could go back in time and read them to the 6-year-old Mark Satin!

Three would have most resonance for them and the young me: Molly and the Magic Wishbone (2001), Dahlia (2002), and Adele & Simon (2006). Among them they can make even the least secure and accepted child know that life can -- and should -- offer them so much more. Among them they can give any child hope that, someday, if they just think straight and act right, the warmth of life can be theirs.

Molly -- or, love and belongingness

Molly is my personal favorite. It is (very) loosely based on Charles Dickens’s fairy tale “The Magic Fish-bone,” and it takes place in a big English city in the mid-19th century. If you’re like me, you’ll be swept up in McClintock’s gorgeous pictures of bustling street scenes, warm home scenes, and the five brothers and sisters, 4-10 (?) years old, Molly being the oldest, all with catlike faces and furry & expressive tails but all otherwise upright, nattily dressed, and on their best human behavior. (Many decades ago I told a girlfriend that I wished she had a tail, and of course she was offended. If she ever sees this book, maybe she’ll have a different take.)

You’ll be so swept up in the magical drawings that you won’t quite realize, at first, the magic that the story itself is exercising on you.

When Molly buys a fish for dinner, she runs into her Fairy Godmother, who tells her that the fish has a magic wishbone “worth one wish for anything you want in the whole world.”

After the fish is eaten, the wishbone is there!, and Molly has a great old time imagining all the material things she might wish for. So do her four younger brothers and sisters.

After Molly finally decides on a wish (for a closet of beautiful silk dresses, etc.) she is rudely interrupted. Phylis, the youngest of her siblings, has disappeared. A visibly annoyed Molly goes out to search for her in the swirling snow and the crowds.

But Phylis can’t be found, and when Molly gets back home she’s so worried that she feels sick. So she takes out the magic wishbone and wishes for Phylis to be returned safe and sound.

Phylis is returned of course, the Fairy Godmother sees to that. (McClintock’s drawing of the return has got to be one of the most affecting in all of contemporary children’s literature.) But what’s more significant for the young reader, not to mention the old, is what Molly says to Phylis once the Godmother returns her:

All the things in the world would mean nothing without you.

Any child who feels unappreciated at home will understand, on reading that line, that life doesn’t have to be painful -- that there are ways of living (e.g., Molly’s and her siblings’ way) where love and belongingness trump all.

And any older person who felt unappreciated growing up will resolve, on reading that line, to always give unconditional love and support to their own children -- even as their own heart melts away.

Dahlia -- or, self-esteem and acceptance by significant others

Charlotte is a young girl who enjoys making mud cakes with her sidekick Bruno, a stuffed bear; her room is full of dragonfly carcasses and found birds’ nests. One morning she receives the gift of a delicate and frilly doll from her apparently overbearing Aunt Edme.

Charlotte is less than delighted, but takes the delicate doll with her on her tomboyish rounds. And to everyone’s surprise, the doll -- christened Dahlia -- responds beautifully. She enjoys making mud cakes with Charlotte and Bruno, she enjoys racing down a hill in a wagon against the snickering neighborhood boys.

By the time Dahlia gets home, she’s muddy and torn, and water has smeared her prim mouth into a broad smile. She’s also become a great companion to Charlotte and Bruno.

Then Aunt Edme comes to dinner and asks to see the doll. What is Charlotte to do? She plucks up her courage and shows the muddy, torn, and smiling Dahlia to her very proper aunt.

In some (perhaps most) households, the equivalent of Aunt Edme would express disapproval or explode with anger. But McClintock wants us to expect more from each other than that. So she has Edme say,

When I saw your doll in a shop window, I thought she needed to be put out in the sunshine, and played with, and loved. I knew that is just what you would do for her. I only wish I could make mud pies and be tossed in the air, but I’m too old.

It is a beautiful, even a life-changing moment. It is as if McClintock is saying to the young reader, Here is how a REAL adult thinks and feels. Hold out for one or two or three in your own life, even if your own immediate prospects seem grim.

Adele & Simon -- or, security in the world

In Adele & Simon, eight- or ten-year-old Adele picks her five- or seven-year-old brother Simon up from school (in the middle of turn-of-the-century Paris!). On their way home, they pass through extraordinary venues, fabulously drawn by McClintock -- an old street market, the Louvre, the Luxembourg Garden, the dinosaur exhibit at the Museum of Natural History. But Simon keeps losing his things -- his books, his gloves, his knapsack, his scarf, and finally even the sweater off his back.

When they get home, Adele is tired and upset with Simon, and you can tell that their mother is going to be upset with Simon too. But then comes a knock at the door. Standing outside are many of the people Simon met along the way -- each holding one of Simon’s things.

The illustration is virtually wordless, as it should be. The effect is overwhelming. It is as if McClintock is telling her young readers, the world is ultimately benign. It is a good and decent place. It will respond, it will forgive. Or, if it doesn’t, then it should respond and forgive. And we should make it more that way.

Not a lesson that will be lost on her readers, young or old.

(Novelist Diane Johnson argues that the moral of the climactic scene in Adele & Simon is that “what is lost will be restored,” which she goes on to say is “the secret message of art (and of course religion).” See Johnson, “They Love Paris,” New York Times Book Review, November 12, 2006. But I don’t think Adele & Simon -- or McClintock’s work generally -- is primarily about consolation. I think it is primarily about raising real, life-giving expectations in us, which can sustain us personally and inspire us politically.)

The end

Mock on, mock on, multiculturalists. It is important to celebrate differences. But in the end, we are one species -- human -- and our needs are essentially the same; and if we want to act effectively in the world we have got to meet our needs for security, love, belongingness, and esteem, ideally while we’re still at home.

McClintock unforgettably reminds us of the importance of that, which is why she’s more than “just” a children’s book author. She is one of the most effective political authors that we have . . . and one of the most essential to the success of the next generation.



For a brief biography of (and by!) Barbara McClintock, go HERE. Her Wikipedia page is HERE.

The argument that healthy social change cannot be produced by individuals that are out of touch with their needs for security, love, belonging, and esteem was most famously made by Abraham Maslow in Motivation and Personality (3rd ed., 1987). For a brief summary, see the Wikipedia entry “Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.” For deep background, see Walter Truett Anderson, The Upstart Spring: Esalen and the Human Potential Movement (2004, orig. 1983).

Two prominent guides to the new “multicultural” children’s literature are Frances Ann Day, Multicultural Voices in Contemporary Literature: A Resource for Teachers (rev. 1999), and Daphne Muse, ed., The New Press Guide to Multicultural Resources for Young Readers (1997). Muse includes the Nancy Larrick essay referred to in the first paragraph of this article.


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