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The Wonderland Through a Looking Glass

Anuradha Kumar

By Seth Lerer
The University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London, 2008, pp. 385, $30.00


As a child, if I was sufficiently intrigued and yet impatient with a particular book, I would surreptitiously reach for the last page. As I did, initially in the instance of Seth Lerer’s informative, detailed and in the end, enchanting book. My reasons for my initial impatience are quite simple. For a South Asian reader, the territory covered would be largely unfamiliar though thanks to the osmotic process of cultural assimilation, we are already well acquainted with children’s literature of the West; the reverse is not true however. This is a work that engages primarily with the western child, beginning with ancient Europe and then the civilized West. Despite this, Lerer’s book however makes you think, as it traverses the entire gamut of children’s literature—production, the process of writing books, reading them, and how in turn these were transferred from one generation to the next.   It is not a book just on children’s books through history but about the history and culture of reading, the world of publishing and illustrating them, and also wider implications of what these books meant for children, the art and skill of parenthood. And in the few gaps that do exist, the book leaves behind questions, as any good children’s book does and as any good book on children’s literature should do.   Philippe Aries in his seminal work on childhood (1963) postulated that childhood was only a later day creation, a creation of the modern world, as leisure and industrialization set in. But Lerer argues otherwise, childhood was always a definite state, the child was something the state, parents, and the socio-political system invested in, especially in the civilized western world beginning from the ancient Greek city states itself.   Children’s literature for long an oral tradition was regarded as not literary. But it has since come to subsume an integral aspect of culture. Aesop tales popular with children grew out of slavery but their tales of moral enrichment, and instruction have endured. The original tales, as Lerer begins his own story, were adapted and circulated first in Roman and then in later periods. The word ‘pedagogue ‘ is actually an original Greek word, denoting the household slave who accompanied the child to school; just as it is with the word ‘vernacular’ that comes from the word ‘verna’, a female domestic slave. These were the people children originally heard ...

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