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Radical Children’s Literature for Adults and The Inner City Mother Goose

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Citation: Barnboken – tidskrift för barnlitteraturforskning/Journal of Children’s Literature Research, Vol. 42, 2019
http://dx.doi.org/ 10.14811/clr.v42i0.435
Julia L. Mickenberg
Radical Children’s Literature for
Adults and The Inner City Mother Goose
Abstract: This article explores the radical possibilities of children’s litera-
ture for adults, using as a case study The Inner City Mother Goose, a book
of poetry for adults written by Eve Merriam and published, with “visuals”
by Lawrence Ratzkin, in 1969. As one of the most frequently banned books
of the 1970s, a period in which children’s literature and childhood itself
saw dramatic changes, The Inner City Mother Goose is a good repre-
sentative of the children’s book for adults, suggesting the ways in which
parody, satire, and formal conventions of genres typically associated with
children’s reading (nursery rhymes, abecedaries, board books, picture books,
etc.) can function as aesthetic and formal cues that call the boundaries of
adulthood and childhood into question to humorous but also, at times, polit-
ically radical effect. In the slippage between audiences, especially as children
mischievously embrace texts that invite young people in while implicitly
or explicitly excluding them, children not only gain access to ostensibly
forbidden knowledge but also gain insight into adult hypocrisy. Most im-
portantly, they gain an incentive to act independently and autonomously
so as to eliminate contradictions between the “truths” and values they have
been taught and those they have discovered by reading a children’s book that
was ostensibly not intended for children.
Keywords: juvenile literature, satire, parody, audience, age in chil-
dren’s literature, adulthood, childhood, politics, radical children’s
literature, Eve Merriam, The Inner City Mother Goose
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Appearing during a period in which children’s literature and child-
hood itself saw dramatic changes, Eve Merriam’s The Inner City
Mother Goose (1969) was one of the most banned books of the 1970s.1
Despite (or because of) the controversy it generated, Inner City –
originally published, with “visuals” by Lawrence Ratzkin, as a trade
book for adultswas also a book with surprising longevity, given
the ways the book represents an artifact of its time: it was adapted
and staged both on and off Broadway in the 1970s and 1980s, revised
and reprinted in 1982 (in connection with a new dramatic adapta-
tion, Street Dreams), and reprinted with new illustrations by David
Diaz in 1996 (and an introduction by Nikki Giovanni), this time in
an edition for “young readers.” Though now out of print, people
regularly continue to reference the book.
Today Inner City is still relevant for many reasons, but here I want
to discuss the text as an emblematic radical children’s book for adults.
The book reveals ways in which parody, satire, and conventions of
genres and forms typically associated with children’s literature (eg.
nursery rhymes, abecedaries, board books, bedtime books, and pic-
ture books) can function as aesthetic cues that call the boundaries of
adulthood and childhood into question. As several recent examples
make abundantly clear, the children’s book for adults is not inherently
radical; in some cases, it might even be said to be anti-child. Howev-
er, when children, especially older children, read a truly radical chil-
dren’s book for adults, they gain an incentive to act independently
and autonomously so as to eliminate contradictions between the
“truths” and values they have been taught and those they have dis-
covered by reading a “forbidden” book that might as well have a sign
on its cover that says, in Alice-in-Wonderland-fashion, “READ ME.”
In the slippage between audiences, especially as children mischie-
vously embrace texts that invite young people in while implicitly or
explicitly excluding them, children not only gain access to ostensi-
bly forbidden knowledge but also gain insight into adult hypocrisy.
Adults, for their part, are uncomfortably reminded of the disjuncture
between what we tell children and what is actually true.
This article explores the capacity of children’s books for adults to
inspire progressive and/or radical social transformation on behalf
of, or on the part of, children. After reviewing relevant literature and
discussing both recent and historical examples in an effort to un-
pack my terminology, I will use The Inner City Mother Goose as a case
study for demonstrating the radical possibility of children’s books
for adults. I conclude by raising questions about the form’s potential
today, given the ways in which concern for prot often outweighs
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concern for children as well as the increasing politicization of both
children’s books (for children) and children themselves.
Dening the Children’s Book for Adults: Initial Speculation
In his extended attempt to dene children’s literature as a genre, The
Hidden Adult: Dening Children’s Literature (2008), Perry Nodelman
argues, “whether or not child readers do match how adults think
about them, the children in the phrase ‘children’s literature’ are most
usefully understood as the child readers that writers, responding to
the assumptions of adult purchasers, imagine and imply in their
works” (5). Here Nodelman is discussing authors who write books
for children, but his comment could also apply to writers of children’s
books for adults. These writers imagine a child who is the implied for-
bidden reader: even in the case of children’s books for adults that are
not wholly inappropriate for children, the form conjures a specter of
an implied child non-reader. To be sure, following Jacqueline Rose,
it can be argued that even children’s books for children are actually
books for adults. I am going to bracket this argument, but Rose’s
work reminds us that the categories of adult and child are always
unstable and contentious, especially around the matter of intended
readers and intended audiences; in the case of the internet and other
mass-media forms that are easily accessed by young children, this
is especially true. Nodelman defends the much-debated idea that
children’s literature is itself a genre, even as he acknowledges the
challenges inherent in dening a genre in terms of audience. Quoting
Torben Weinreich, he claims that children’s literature is character-
ized by the fact of its containing “something the child should learn
or be inuenced by” and its actively excluding “something the child
should be protected against or something society should prevent the
child from nding out about” (Weinreich qtd. in Nodelman 159).
However, apart from its “exclusionary and didactic” content, there
are clearly certain forms and formal conventions that we associate
with “children’s literature.”
Zohar Shavit’s Poetics of Children’s Literature (1986) is useful here:
Shavit discusses texts ostensibly geared to children but read primar-
ily (or even exclusively) by adults. Shavit denes “ambivalent texts”
as those that depart from the norms of both the adult and the child
“systems” but that, in doing so, can be accepted in each, opening the
way for new models of literature (63–70). Emer O’Sullivan builds
upon Shavit’s analysis of ambivalent texts, emphasizing narrative
communication (15–19) and form as well as any text’s relation to the
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adult or child “system” of publication and dissemination, or what
Robert Darnton calls the “communications circuit” (67). O’Sulli-
van cautions against holding universalist conceptions of the child.
However, in discussing various reasons why adults read children’s
books, she notes that although an adult “may adopt the role of an
implied child reader” for “regressive reasons,” they also, “aware of
their adult status,” may “long for or look back to an idealized child-
hood, at the same time knowing how impossible it is to realize this
longing” (18). O’Sullivan’s comment, despite her caution against
universalizing, seems to imply that children’s books, almost by de-
nition, reify idealized notions of childhood. Nodelman, Shavit, and
O‘Sullivan are not considering the children‘s book for adults per se,
but all help move us closer to a denition of that form. Certainly
many YA books break the norm of showing childhood as an ideal
state, but so do many children’s books for adults, while mirroring
narrative conventions of texts intended for very young children. In
the case of The Inner City Mother Goose, exposing the impossibility of
an idealized childhood for many children (in decaying urban ghet-
toes) was part of what marked the text as not for children, at least in
Merriam’s mind.
Discussing the popularity of “Adult Children’s Literature” in
the Victorian era – a period, like the 1970s, in which ideas about
childhood were rapidly transforming – Claudia Nelson suggests
that “such works do not constitute a genre, not because examples
of the form are few, but because the phenomenon is so far reaching.
It extended from sentimental ction, romance, and adventure to in-
spirational non-ction, humor, poetry and plays” (137), with Peter
Pan as the ur-example of the latter. Nelson adds that “the children’s
book for adults is often, but by no means always, about childhood
[…] Its purpose wavers between offering readers a vacation from
the burdens of the mundane world of adulthood and improving
them” (137). I would add additional purposes beyond those Nelson
mentions. Children’s books for adults also have the capacity to call
social norms and practices into question by presenting them in dis-
tilled, simplied terms and in a didactic form that highlights the
hypocrisy of those in power: would we, for instance, teach young
children about police brutality – and its exponentially higher occur-
rence when police are dealing with African Americans – in such a
way as to seem to normalize the phenomenon? If not, The Inner City
Mother Goose implicitly asks, why does police brutality still happen,
and why aren’t we doing more about it?
By appropriating or parodying the children’s book form (and, in
many cases, the didacticism and moralism typically implied within
5
that form) using adult content, writers of children’s books for adults
play on assumptions about children’s literature – and, by extension,
childhood. If children’s literature can be understood to condense a
society’s values down to their essence, the very act of putting “inap-
propriate” content into a form that emulates the conventions of chil-
dren’s literature calls that content into question, often to humorous
effect, and sometimes with radical implications.
Recent Children’s Books for Adults
The larger genre of children’s books for adults includes recent works
such as the best-selling and curse-lled illustrated board books Go
the Fuck to Sleep (2011), written by Adam Mansbach and illustrated
by Ricardo Cortés, and If You Give a Kid a Cookie, Will He Shut the
Fuck Up? (2011) by Marcy Roznick, with illustrations by Miranda
Lemming (subtitled, in case it wasn’t obvious, A Parody for Adults).
Related and equally inappropriate texts include Renee Charytan and
Rick Van Hattum’s If You Give Mommy a Glass of Wine (2016) and You
Have to Fucking Eat (also by Mansbach, 2014). And, from the United
Kingdom there is Goodnight Keith Moon (2011) by Bruce Worden and
Clare Cross, a parody of Goodnight Moon (1947) by Margaret Wise
Brown and Clement Hurd and a tribute of sorts to The Who’s Keith
Moon and his drug overdose-induced death: “Good night rock stars
/ Goodnight pills / Good night unpaid hotel bills.” At the far end of
the bad taste spectrum we nd works such as R. Swanson and Jess
Jansen’s Nobody Likes a Cockblock (2016) and Do You Want to Play with
My Balls? (2012) by the Cifaldi Brothers and Santiago Elizalde.
The genre also includes books that may be acceptable for children
but are more likely to be found in the humor section than in the chil-
dren’s literature section of bookstores. In this category we can in-
clude, for instance, A Child’s First Book of Trump (2016) by Michael
Ian Black and Marc Rosenthal; Trump’s ABC (2018) by Ann Telnaes
(marketed as “a children’s board book for adults”); and A Day in
the Life of Marlon Bundo (2018), a queer-friendly picture book about
United States Vice President Mike Pence’s pet rabbit. Published just
a day prior to another children’s book about Bunny of the United
States (BOTUS) – a play on the acronym, POTUS, for President of the
United States – by Mike Pence’s daughter, the book by Last Week To-
night with John Oliver staff writer Jill Twiss pokes fun at the vice pres-
ident’s anti-LGBT stance by turning his pet bunny into a gay-rights
poster rabbit.2 The number 1 bestseller on Amazon the day after its
publication, A Day in the Life of Marlon Bundo has been popular with
6
adults and kids alike; Max Mutchnick, creator of the gay-friendly TV
show Will & Grace, donated a copy of the book to every elementary
school in Indiana, hoping to “provide positive role models and a
story of inclusion for children in Pence’s home state” (Kilkenny).
Mutchnick’s gesture conrms that A Day in the Life of Marlon Bundo
can be, and often is, classed as “juvenile ction,” thus making it more
an “ambivalent text” or an example of cross-writing (Myers and
Knoepmacher). Still, the book’s very premise is an in-joke for adults.
Children’s picture books, though most often written for a child’s
pleasure, are just as often meant to be read aloud by adults to chil-
dren. Part of the humor in books like Go the Fuck to Sleep and Do
You Want to Play with My Balls? is the possibility that they will be
read aloud to children. And, in fact, Robin Bernstein has demon-
strated that adults do read Go the Fuck to Sleep to children, sometimes
skipping or censoring the f-bomb and sometimes, especially with
pre-verbal infants, including it.
As with A Day in the Life of Marlon Bundo, Do You Want to Play
with My Balls? is actually cross-written so that young children could
read the book without nding it to be funny at all. In the latter in-
stance, however, the effect is far less benign. One two-page spread,
for instance, shows a boy wearing a baseball cap, a sack lled with
balls beside him as he stands in front of a friend’s house, waving; the
accompanying text reads: “Hey Louie, do you want to play with my
balls?” Another page shows two children on a playground, standing
near a pile of colorful balls. One child is holding up a ball near her
face, and the text reads, “Wow! Your balls are so big, I can’t even t
them in my mouth!” The illustrations are poorly conceived and un-
sophisticated, evidently meant to evoke childlike art but betraying
an adult’s perception of what children’s art might look like; that is
to say, they are childish and juvenile in the negative sense of those
words, but not actually connected to children or real children’s cul-
ture. In this case the idea of an adult reading the book with a child
and laughing at what the child fails to “get” strikes me as cruel to the
point of abusive: a child reading the book with her parent can tell
the book is funny but doesn’t know why; indeed, the joke is on her.
Notably, the very notion of “adult” literature, like “adult” lm, has a
risqué connotation. But most books for adults are “not appropriate”
for children because they would be incomprehensible to them, not
because they are X-rated (i.e. what children “cannot know” rather
than what they “should not know”).
7
Audience/Parody/Politics
Teresa Michals makes clear that when children’s literature emerged
as a distinct literary form in the middle of the eighteenth century,
books for children represented the rst “commercially signicant
age-specialized publishing,” contrasting not with books for adults,
but, rather, with novels intended for a mixed-age audience (2). Books
written exclusively for adults emerged later, and books written for
a mixed audience of adults and children continued in the form of
chapbooks, dime novels, comics and a number of other forms, forms
that typically reinforced a link between children and politically sub-
ordinated, less-educated members of the working class (4).
For centuries authors have employed formal conventions asso-
ciated with children’s literature in works not intended for children,
doing so for comic and/or political effect. For example, discussing
George Cruikshank’s A Comic Alphabet (1836), Robin Hoffman notes
that by the time of this book’s publication, “there already existed a
tradition of parodying nursery rhymes in satiric prints and radical
propaganda, and ABC rhymes constituted a signicant subtype”
(137).3 Hoffman’s discussion of Cruikshank’s A Comic Alphabet is
especially revealing, for the book emerged at a moment in which
“conventions regarding the alphabet and its associations with chil-
dren that are now taken for granted were actively emerging in con-
temporary texts and education” (137). As such, Hoffman argues,
“Cruikshank’s parodic interpretation of the alphabet book form
reveals how Romantic and rationalist constructions of childhood
helped gloss over the fact that socioeconomic conditions, rather than
age, produced distinctions between ‘innocent’ pre-literacy and ‘ig-
norant’ illiteracy, and also constrained the character of what counted
as literacy in the rst place” (137). Hoffman concludes, “ultimately,
A Comic Alphabet demonstrates that a satirical alphabet can manipu-
late publishing practices and formal conventions in order to evoke a
child audience while primarily addressing an adult audience. And
because the rules of alphabet book design are so tightly scripted, play
with them extends to the literacy rules such books nominally teach,
revealing the fragility of their authority” (138).
Although Hoffman suggests A Comic Alphabet is less political than
other work by Cruikshank, it is almost impossible to view, for in-
stance, the illustrations for letters D, “Dining Out,” and E, “Equality”
(picture 1), without reading the book as a commentary on class dis-
tinctions. However, precisely what that commentary is may not be
easy to determine: is Cruikshank, in the former, mocking the lower
8
-class person eating out or the limited options available to those
without economic resources? In the latter, is he ridiculing the idea
that these two gures should be considered equal, or is he illumi-
nating conditions that make real equality between individuals im-
possible? In either case, the text evokes not just children (by virtue of
its genre) but also members of the working class – that is, politically
subordinate people, who are often associated with children.
Critical parody has also been employed in texts that are actually
geared to children “in order to throw the notion of an innocent text
and a unitary child reader back in question” (Richardson 124). Lewis
Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) offers an obvious
example, parodying, for example, Isaac Watts’ didactic and prescrip-
tive poem, “How Doth the Little Busy Bee” with “How Doth the
Little Crocodile”: as Alan Richardson argues, “the parody (taken as
Picture 1. From George Cruikshank, A Comic Alphabet. Pentonville, 1836. Note the
various ways this text can be interpreted, either as sympathetic to members of the
lower class, or as mocking them.
9
a whole) undermines not only Watts’ text and not only explicit didac-
ticism but also the more perversely disciplinary stance of children’s
ction as produced by adults” (124). Although works of children’s
literature can parody the conventions of children’s literature itself,
such texts, according to Richardson, are among “those most difcult
to t into prescriptive denitions of children’s literature” (124).
Certainly the tradition of literary nonsense can function to parody
conventions not just around children’s literature but also childhood
itself, exemplied by Edward Gorey’s The Gashlycrumb Tinies; or,
After the Outing (1963), which, as Emily Petermann argues, uses non-
sense, the cautionary tale (and a tradition of parodying it in verse),
and the abecedary to mock the moralizing imperative of children’s
literature and, likewise, to highlight the amorality of the universe:
bad stuff sometimes just happens. Notably, Petermann’s otherwise
excellent analysis avoids the question of Gorey’s intended audience,
or the fact that the book was originally marketed to adults, even if it
was adopted by children.
“Knowing,” or Not-So-Innocent, Child Readers
This point speaks to the fact that while children’s books for adults
are not always consciously cross-written in the sense of addressing
both adults and children, they are, nonetheless, often read by both
older and younger audiences, and perhaps especially by what Anne
Higonnet has called a “knowing child.” In this case I am not talking
about a child whose (sexual) “innocence” is compromised by a par-
ticular violation but, rather, about one who realizes that the very
notion of childhood innocence is a farce, especially in a society that
fails to protect children in so many of the ways that matter. In this
sense, the radical children’s book for adults, which typically utilizes
the conventions of children’s literature for the very young, may im-
plicitly address older children who, though lacking adults’ power, at
least have the power of insight into the ruse of adult infallibility, and,
hence, the contingency of (adult) rules and norms.
Annette Wannamaker’s observation of efforts “to vehemently po-
lice [the] imaginary border” between “what counts as a work for
adults and what counts as a work for children” (68) would seem
to suggest something innately subversive about the children’s
book for adults, given its apparent invitation to readers who are
ostensibly not the book’s intended audience. In some senses this is
true. Shel Silverstein’s Uncle Shelby’s ABZ Book: A Primer for Tender
Young Minds (1961) for example, invites mischief rather than prop-
10
er civilized behavior with its “S is for Spit,” celebrating the long-
distance spitting champion, who “SPIT ALL THE WAY FROM THE
KITCHEN TO THE LIVING ROOM,” and asking “WHO WILL BE
THE NEW CHAMPION?” and its “V is for Vacuum Cleaner” (“DO
YOU THINK THE VACCUM CLEANER CAN PICK UP THE CAT?
I DON’T THINK SO…”). Although the 1985 edition of Uncle Shelby’s
ABZ Book labeled it “A Primer for Adults Only,” the original edition
contained no such warning, and if this was, as Joseph T. Thomas Jr.
has argued, a book not for children, it was also one that was “dis-
guised as children’s literature” (“A Speculative Account” 32). In fact,
as Thomas notes, “part of the book’s aesthetic effect lay in the child’s
ability to recognizes the con, for the astute child knows she’s being
teased and can enjoy the humor nonetheless” (32). The text is hand
lettered in Silverstein’s inimitably anarchic scrawl and accompanied
by his familiar style of playful, jagged illustrations. Readers of the
men’s magazine, Playboy (with its “tasteful” photos of nude women),
would also know “Uncle Shelby” from Silverstein’s cartooning in
those pages. The very fact that the same author/illustrator not only
deigned to produce work for the adult Playboy as well as for chil-
dren, but also created a children’s book for adults, upended norms of
children’s literature. As it happened, these norms were being threat-
ened from within at around the same time, with texts like Maurice
Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are, published in 1963 (too scary for
young children) and Louise Fitzhugh’s Harriet the Spy, published a
year later (communicating questionable morals to middle graders),
scandalizing critics and shaking up the eld of juvenile publishing.
Somewhat more recently, “postmodern picture books” (Sipe and
Pantaleo) – from The Little Red Hen Makes a Pizza by Philemon Sturges
and Amy Walrod (1999), with lazy beatnik friends who clean up after
eating Hen’s pizza, to The Three Little Wolves and the Big Bad Pig by
Eugene Trivizas and Helen Oxenbury (1993) – which ends with a
shared home that is made of owers, remind us of the ways in which
“children’s culture is set apart by its playfulness and vulgarity” (Fle-
gar 170). It thus challenges the dominant culture of adulthood, rev-
eling in children’s position as “historically marginalized boundary
crossers” (170), and reminding us of children’s literature’s inherent
instability as a category.
Radical (Children’s) Literature
My own research on radical children’s literature, some of it in colla-
boration with Phil Nel, has emphasized work created by individuals
11
associated with left-wing political movements and especially mate-
rial that “encourages [children] to question the authority of those
in power . . . to take collective action to effect change, to trust their
own instincts, to explore alternative social arrangements, and to use
history to understand how and why today’s world has developed
as it has” (Mickenberg and Nel, Tales for Little Rebels 1).4 Consider
two pieces that Nel and I included in our collection of radical chil-
dren’s literature, Tales for Little Rebels (2008): Art Young’s The Socialist
Primer (1930) and Mr. His: A Children’s Story for Anybody (1939) by A.
Redeld, a pseudonym for Syd Hoff, whose illustrious career as a
juvenile author took off the year after Mr. His appeared in the Com-
munist New Masses.5 The subtitle of Mr. His, “A Children’s Story for
Anybody,” explicitly raises the issue of genre and audience. But both
texts use the didactic imperative of children’s literature for radical –
not simply subversive – ends, leaving open the question of audience.
As Claudia Nelson argues, “because literature for the young was
considered to have a responsibility to be didactic, writers who want-
ed to preach to adult readers might take children’s works as their
models” (141). Recalling the association of children with subordinat-
ed groups, especially the working class – in the sense of their sub-
altern status and their limited access to literacy – we can see such
texts utilizing the children’s book form as a kind of in-joke for adult
readers, allowing the simplied text and accessible imagery to be
easily comprehended by less educated adult readers, who are re-
minded by the form itself of their political and economic subordi-
nation. By virtue of this signal they are also invited to question their
subordination. They recognize that they are treated like children and
they know that they are not children. By packaging these political
message books as humorous parodies of children’s picture books,
The Socialist Primer and Mr. His read less like propaganda (which is
preachy and didactic) and more like humor. But the humor is decid-
edly political.
Kimberley Reynolds has proposed a more expansive (and com-
pelling) denition of radical children’s literature by exploring the
radical potential of aesthetic and formal innovations that can be
found in a great many works for children: as she notes, “Children’s
literature contributes to the social and aesthetic transformation of
culture by, for instance, encouraging readers to approach ideas, is-
sues, and objects from new perspectives and so prepare the way for
change” (1). She goes on to point out that “many children’s books
offer quirky or critical or alternative visions of the world designed to
prove that ultimate response of childhood, ‘Why?’ ‘Why are things
as they are?’ Why can’t they be different?’” (3).
12
The Children’s ’68 and The Inner City Mother Goose
The Inner City Mother Goose is radical in both its form and in its con-
tent, not because of what it is designed to provoke in children –
though children, from the time of its initial publication, did read it
– but because the book exposed deep fault lines in social expectations
around children, childhood and child protection at a critical moment
in American history. Design historian Steven Heller argues that “the
impact of The Inner City Mother Goose cannot be underestimated as
both a polemic for the civil rights cause and a model of expressive,
conscience-driven design” (85). He points to the fact that Merriam’s
book was “one of the rst ‘trade’ paperbacks” to criticize conditions
in the urban ghetto” (“inner city” itself being a common euphemism
for violent, deteriorating, and predominantly Black/Latino urban ar-
eas) and to “lampoon the powerful” who were responsible for those
conditions. He also highlights the ways in which Ratzkin “used pho-
tography and typography to communicate a poignant social message
and frame Merriam’s Mother Goose send-up” (83), which draws upon
conventions of nursery rhymes and picture books, as well as those of
visual poetry and documentary photography.
What would go on to be the second-most frequently banned book
of the 1970s (behind J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye) appeared
at a pivotal moment in the history of adult-child relations and in the
history of children’s literature. By the 1970s, as divorce rates skyrock-
eted, as authority gures (from the police to the military to the presi-
dent himself) came under public criticism, as long-held assumptions
about racial and gender hierarchies were attacked, and as crumbling
inner cities exposed poor, urban, and minority children’s exclusion
from the basic security and opportunity for growth we associate with
a modern ideal of childhood, the very landscape of childhood shift-
ed; several cultural critics even claimed childhood was “eroding”
or “disappearing” (Polakow; Postman). Government-sponsored
anti-poverty programs and legislation like Head Start and the El-
ementary and Secondary Education Act – as well as grassroots ef-
forts like a free breakfast program sponsored by the militant Black
Panthers – focused on children who were being denied their “right
to childhood.” At the same time, themes previously seen as inappro-
priate for young people increasingly made their way into children’s
and especially young adult literature. As Maria Nikolajeva notes of
this period, “Everything that had been taboo in children’s literature
suddenly makes itself manifest” (68).
13
In their project on the “Children’s ’68,” Sophie Heywood and a
larger group of scholars throughout Europe and the United King-
dom have documented instances from around the world of chil-
dren’s books and other material for young people registering and
participating in the youth revolts of the era. Heywood cites the
“manifestoes for revolt” published in Scandinavia, books that teach
children how to resist arrest, and a range of images like a child’s
raised st, with or without a lollipop. The advent of the 1970s
marked a break whereby the “permissive revolution altered what
children can do, how they are listened to, and what adults can do
to legally control them” (Thomson 1). This was the era in which, as
Bettina Kümmerling-Meibauer has discussed, the French-American
partnership Harlan-Quist published a range of unconventional and
confrontational children’s books such as Marguerite Duras’ Ah,
Ernesto! (1971), about a seven-year-old boy who refuses to go to school
because everything he learns there is useless, and works by the rad-
ical elementary school teacher Albert Cullum such as The Geranium
on the Window Sill Just Died, but Teacher You Went Right On (1971) and
You Think Just Because You’re Big, You’re Right (1976). Children’s poet-
ry, likewise, shifted “from the garden to the street,” with more urban
settings and with children and adults depicted in more realistic and
less attering terms (Styles; Thomas, Poetry’s Playground). This era
was also the beginning of a children’s rights revolution: new laws
afrmed children’s right to protest in schools, to obtain birth control,
and even to “divorce” their parents. That revolution encompassed
a radical (and in some ways highly problematic) “child liberation”
movement, which called into question basic assumptions about chil-
dren’s innocence and their need for protection, but which was also
premised on a fundamental distrust of authority gures (Foster and
Freed; Wilkerson; Holt; Vardin and Brody; Castle).
Eve Merriam (1916–1992), the author of The Inner City Mother
Goose, was herself actively involved in left-wing politics and a pi-
oneering feminist, but she was older than most prophets of the
women’s liberation and child liberation movements. At the time of
Inner City’s publication, Merriam was well-known as a writer for
children: she had published three juvenile biographies, over a dozen
poetry collections or picture books in verse for the young, and other
works for children. However, her writing for adults, in poetry, prose
and other genres, was widely known as well.
Merriam also had a history of questioning the very categories of
“adult” and “child,” the popular perceptions and treatment of chil-
dren, as well as the conventions of children’s literature. For instance,
14
in 1962 she had published the illustrated book, Basics: An I-Can-Read
Book for Grownups (I Can Read Books being popular basal readers for
children published in the United States), with poems like “Basics for
Cocktail Parties,” “Basics for Existentialist Playwrights,” and “Ba-
sics for Bigots.” A widely-cited and reprinted essay Merriam wrote
for Ladies Home Journal in 1964, “We’re Teaching Our Children That
Violence Is Fun: A Closer Look at Toys, TV and Movies,” criticizes
the violent nature of toys and mass media geared to children, asking,
“does any other society teach its children that violence is a form of
entertainment? What will happen to a generation raised upon such
an idea?” (44). And a satire she published in the New York Times in
1971 mocks the insipid nature of much that passes for children’s “lit-
erature”: her description of the “Poohlitzer Prizes, or ‘Winnies,’ as
they are affectionately referred to in the trade,” includes descriptions
of (fake) books like, under the category Biography, “A NEW LIFE
FOR JOANIE: Joan hears voices telling her to go forth and lead a
great army, but after a successful ear operation she is content to be
a simple shepherdess and housewife;” and, under Science: “LET’S
FIND OUT ABOUT DOUGHNUT HOLES. Fascinating and informa-
tion-lled. Answers to such questions as how do the holes get inside?
What makes a doughnut hole round? Where do the holes go? Science,
Science, Science Everywhere Series.”
Given Merriam’s history of writing for children – as well as the
usual conventions of Mother Goose rhymes – it is not surprising
that many readers were quick to assume that The Inner City Mother
Goose was (inappropriately) published for children. In reality, the
book was an artistic and satiric commentary for adults on our vio-
lent society and the hypocrisy of a system that claims to prioritize
children but in fact devalues their culture and fails to provide for
even their basic needs. Inner City explicitly draws upon the conven-
tions of Mother Goose nursery rhymes and picture books in order to
question the political and moral basis of a system that allows some
children to grow up amid poverty, violence, corruption, and envi-
ronmental degradation.
Both (Mother Goose) nursery rhymes and picture books are usu-
ally associated with children’s literature. However, both forms have
complicated origins and have been known to contain content that
is, arguably, inappropriate for children.6 They also have a history
of being re-written for satiric and/or political effect, through a pro-
cess that Bertolt Brecht (one of Eve Merriam’s heroes) and Walter
Benjamin called “umfunktionierung,” or “refunctioning” (Zipes), in-
volving attention to both the instruments of cultural production (for
15
example children’s literature and publishing houses) and particular
forms such as the Mother Goose tradition (Benjamin). Consider, for
instance, verses in “Mother Goose on the Breadline” (Hap) published
in the Communist magazine for children, New Pioneer, in the early
1930s, as well as 1970s parodies like Nursery Rhymes for the Times:
Ecology and Mother Goose (Sparks), the latter quite possibly inspired
by the success of Merriam’s book.7
Lucy Rollin points to the parallels between nursery rhymes and
jokes (and Freud’s concept of “joke work”), the former sharing jokes’
“plasticity of language and symbol, allusions, double meanings and
absurdity [which] are all useful in expressing ordinarily hidden
thoughts” (6). Jokes, of course, are also meant to be funny, and their
humor is often subversive: for a child, getting a joke is a kind of vic-
tory, a show of mastery over language and powerlessness, as Karen
Coats has argued in a discussion of poetry and humor (125).
Merriam’s Mother Goose rhymes are often humorous but the hu-
mor of both the verses and the “visuals” in Inner City is decidedly
black, an adjective that here has a double meaning: as Steven Heller
notes in his discussion of the book’s innovative design, “when the
euphemism ‘inner city youth’ was used it was clear that it referred to
young people of color and all this suggests” (83). Both Merriam and
Ratzkin were white and Jewish, but some readers assumed that Mer-
riam was African American, which she took as a compliment. Still,
the Black poet Gwendolyn Brooks, though agreeing with Simon and
Schuster editor Richard Kluger’s use of “‘extraordinary,’ ‘dramatiz-
ing,’ [and] ‘satiric’” to describe Inner City, and noting that she knew
and liked Eve Merriam, expressed concern that African-American
writers might interpret the book as one more incursion into what
was rightfully their territory: “Some of the writers among them –
those who care to be published by the New York white press (many
do not) will decry the fact that white writers, today, can easily get
these things published when black writers, many equally clever and
wry WITH a richer fund of black knowledgeability to sustain and
intensify the clever wryness, cannot.”8
The book’s frontispiece shows a blurred photograph of a locked
gate; this image expands onto a two-page spread that encompasses
the title page. Continue and the copyright page shares space with a
black and white photograph of the White House, home of the pres-
ident of the United States, behind an iron gate, also as a two-page
spread, positioned as if underlying “The Nub of the Nation,” a poem
that serves as preamble to the book:
16
In that nation is a city
In that city is a ghetto
In that ghetto is a street
On that street there is a house
In that house there is a stair
On that stair there is a door
Through that door there waits a room,
In that room there is a chair,
On that chair there is a person
Sitting staring there.
Sitting staring there
On the broken chair,
Chair in the cockroach room,
Room on the worn-out stair,
Stair in the no-care house,
House on the drop-dead street,
Street in the ghetto rot,
Ghetto rooted in the city,
City spreading everywhere:
And this is the nub of the nation. (n.p.)
Here there are no indications or invocations of children other than
the fact that the lines and meter themselves evoke a familiar nursery
rhyme, but readers’ expectations are quickly upended, their disori-
entation furthered by the contrast between the image of the White
House and the content of the poem. The second poem, “Boys and
Girls Come Out to Play,” brings the children implied by “Mother
Goose” directly to the forefront with biting satire. Merriam claimed
to have placed this poem near the front of the book so that adults
would immediately realize that it was not intended for children
(Merriam, introduction to 1982 edition). By repeating exactly the rst
ve lines of the original nursery rhyme, Merriam doubles the shock
produced by the sixth line:
Boys and girls come out to play,
The moon doth shine as bright as day.
Leave your supper and leave your sleep,
And join your playfellows in the street.
Come with a whoop and come with a call:
Up, motherfuckers, against the wall. (8)
This ending phrase, employed by student radicals in the 1960s, here
emphasizes a link between disillusioned youth and the false pieties
fed to children.
17
On the page opposite this one, with “Mary, Mary,” whose rst
words anticipate “quite contrary” and a growing garden, readers
instead see the words enmeshed in a strangely evocative image of
Barbies sporting 1960s party dresses but rendered garbage by the
language framed within the image (picture 2):
Mary, Mary
Urban Mary
How does your sidewalk grow?
With chewing gum wads
And cigarette butts
And popsicle sticks
And potato chip bags
And candy wrappers
And beer cans
And broken bottles
And crusts of pizza
And coffee grounds
And burnt-out light bulbs
And a garbage strike all in a row. (9)
Picture 2. “Mary Mary.” From Eve Merriam, The Inner City Mother Goose, with visuals by
Lawrence Ratzkin. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1969. Text copyright Eve Merriam,
image copyright Lawrence Ratzkin, used courtesy Merriam and Ratzkin estates.
18
As Elina Druker has noted, photographic picture books tend to pos-
sess an aura of realism and authenticity, despite the fact that “the
idea of objectivity in photography has long been a topic of debate”
(175–176). Ratzkin’s photographic images do not serve as documen-
tary images of the subjects in Merriam’s poems, but in many cases
they read as such, as in the image showing part of two policemen’s
torsos and framing the poem “Who Killed Nobody”: both men are in
uniform and the man on the left visibly carries a gun in a holster on
his hip. No wonder the book was called anti-police.
Besides the glaring f-bomb in “Boys and Girls” (a “motherfucker”
being even worse than a simple “fuck” or “fucker”) other poems
that drew particular ire from critics and would-be censors includ-
ed a variation on “Jack Be Nimble Jack Be Quick” (picture 3) – a
poem Merriam claimed was inspired by a neighbor’s having had
her “pocketbook wrenched at knifepoint” (Merriam 1982) but which
critics said would incite violence. Other poems criticize police bru-
tality, corruption, racism, and environmental degradation. Ratzkin’s
“visuals” include both jarring photographs (such as the picture of a
dark-skinned doll caught in a mouse trap), and attention-grabbing
graphic design that creates visual poetry or underscores the “urchin
verse” quality of pieces like “Hark, Hark” (picture 4) or “Oh Where
Oh Where Has My Little Dog Gone”:
NO
DOGS ALLOWED.
BALLPLAYING.
LOITERING.
PEDDLERS.
SOLICITING.
BICYCLING.
ROLLER SKATING.
ENTRANCE AFTER DARK
EXIT
THIS IS PUBLIC PROPERTY (32–33)
The layout and graphic design in the latter suggest street signs and
public spaces that might be for children if they were not unsafe and/
or unwelcoming. Incidentally, in this instance, although children
could quite easily pick up on the message of this poem, (even if not
all the words are comprehensible to them), they would presumably
miss the “No Exit” allusion to Sartre, which adds a whole new layer
of meaning to the poem.
19
Picture 3. “Jack Be Nimble.” From Eve Merriam, The Inner City Mother Goose, with visu-
als by Lawrence Ratzkin. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1969. Text copyright Eve Mer-
riam, image copyright Lawrence Ratzkin, used courtesy Merriam and Ratzkin estates.
Picture 4. “Hark, Hark.” From Eve Merriam, The Inner City Mother Goose, with visuals by
Lawrence Ratzkin. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1969. Text copyright Eve Merriam, image
copyright Lawrence Ratzkin, used courtesy Merriam and Ratzkin estates.
20
Despite critical acclaim and impressive sales (the paperback edi-
tion sold over 100,000 copies) The Inner City Mother Goose was wide-
ly condemned. Around the United States repeated attempts were
made, often successfully, to ban it, and especially to keep it out of
young people’s hands. The book was called “anti-police, anti-law
and order, and anti-government” (Jago); it was said to be obscene
and to be promoting crime, decadence, drug use, and bigotry. Mary-
land State Senator Frederick C. Malkus Jr., a conservative Democrat,
called the book “an insult to many residents of the Inner City and an
unfortunate example of how public monies should never be spent”
(Malkus), a reference to public and school libraries that had pur-
chased the book; in Baltimore outraged citizens as well as the City
Comptroller battled librarians at the Enoch Pratt Free Library, where
the book remained on shelves thanks to ongoing efforts by sever-
al librarians there. The Knights of Columbus in Pennsylvania con-
demned the book’s use in teacher training programs at Penn State,
and a Pennsylvania state senator followed with calls to investigate
elementary education curricula across the state.9 A teacher in Cali-
fornia was even red for giving a copy to a student (who had asked
for it); the student’s mother burned the book (Darling). The examples
go on and on.
Although Merriam would adamantly insist that The Inner City
Mother Goose was not for children (never before, she said, had she
found herself telling people not to buy one of her books), part of the
reason the book provoked so strong a reaction was that it was often
shelved in the children’s literature section and classied as a chil-
dren’s book; WorldCat, perhaps the premier database of material in
research libraries, currently classies it as such. Moreover, librarians,
parents, and teachers shared the book with children; indeed, School
Library Journal, Booklist, and Scholastic Teacher all recommended the
book for older children (Darling). And children, as young as 8 or 9,
used Inner City as a model for writing their own verses, verses that
spoke to what were self-evident and jarring contradictions between
an idyllic notion of what childhood is supposed to be like and the
world that children, especially poor children of color living in inner
cities, witnessed and experienced rsthand.10
The Inner City Mother Goose was reprinted in 1996 by Simon &
Schuster Books for Young Readers, with new illustrations by the art-
ist David Diaz (who would later go on to win the Caldecott Medal)
and an introduction by poet Nikki Giovanni; this edition also faced
banning, but I have found far fewer instances, which is ironic, given
that this time it was published for children. Perhaps by 1996 the book
21
was no longer so shocking. The 1996 edition contains some addition-
al poems (written for an intended Bantam Books edition that had
fallen through), and several had been taken out, but “motherfucker”
remains, as do most, if not all, of the poems that caused offense in
the past. Reviewing the new edition in The Horn Book Magazine, Betty
Carter insists that “both the triumph and the tragedy of the collection
lie in its power to evoke contemporary images of violence, distrust,
and racism for a new generation of readers.” Carter does caution
that the book is “not for young children” and is, indeed, most suited
to children who already appreciate fractured fairy tales like Fiona
French’s Snow White in New York (1986). Merriam’s rhymes are not
didactic or preachy, Carter notes: “There are no answers here, no
directions for living.” In that sense Inner City can be seen as both
a radical children’s book for adults and an even more radical book
for (older) children who refuse to accept that ignorance will protect
them from the horrors of a situation adults created and repeatedly
fail to confront.
Concluding Thoughts
Today we can nd an increasing number of books for children on po-
litical subjects, as well as attempts to limit children’s access to these
books (Russo). Such censorship is based on the same logic that, at
least in part, makes children’s books for adults on political subjects
seem funny: politics supposedly don’t belong in books for children.11
(Incidentally, censors seem to more frequently target “political”
children’s books than arguably more offensive children’s books for
adults like Go the Fuck to Sleep, perhaps because a barely-disguised
f-bomb on a book’s cover makes the intended audience more ob-
vious.) A trend toward politically-oriented children’s books (for
children) parallels the rise of groups like the youth-driven Sunrise
Movement, which, in their ght against climate change, implicitly
and sometimes explicitly make the case that adults have failed chil-
dren by making prot a higher priority than ensuring a viable future
for young people.
Adults wield both economic and political power and they have
a moral and ethical responsibility to use that power in the best in-
terest of children. What does that mean for the radical potential of
children’s books for adults? Books not for children (or not really for
children) that look like books for children because of the ways they
mimic conventions of the genre are potentially controversial precise-
ly because such books y in the face of what Nodelman claims is a
22
dening quality of children’s literature: that it protects children from
what “they cannot or should not know” (158). Still, what children
“should not know” is itself a matter of debate, and one with political
implications.
The example of Do You Want to Play With My Balls? suggests that
children’s books for adults are not necessarily radical and can even
be anti-child; indeed, this charge was leveled against Inner City. All
books for pre-literate children are written with an adult as well as a
child reader in mind, but the children’s book for adults taps into the
discomfort that adults (as well as children) sometimes feel when the
barrier between adulthood and childhood is deliberately breached.
That discomfort can produce humor (sometimes at the child’s ex-
pense) but it can also produce critical insights. Children, like other
subordinated groups, appreciate an opportunity to laugh at those in
control and to gain the power that comes from having insight into
hidden truths. Adults, meanwhile, are surprised – and potentially
motivated to act – when material evoking or apparently addressing
children reveals less than ideal realities.
By virtue of its simultaneously invoking, inviting, and forbidding
young people, the children’s book for adults has radical potential,
both for the adult provoked into questioning the status quo, and for
the older child who gains insight into adult hypocrisy. Indeed, rather
than any genuine wish to protect children, it was arguably the book’s
exposé of uncomfortable truths about urban America that produced
outrage about The Inner City Mother Goose. But those same qualities
make it a classic radical children’s book for adults.
Biographical details: Julia L. Mickenberg is Professor of American Studies
at the University of Texas at Austin. She is the author of Learning from
the Left: Children’s Literature, the Cold War, and Radical Politics
in the United States (2005) and co-editor (with Philip Nel) of Tales for
Little Rebels: A Collection of Radical Children’s Literature (2008) and
(with Lynne Vallone) of The Oxford Handbook of Children’s Litera-
ture (2011). Her American Girls in Red Russia: Chasing the Soviet
Dream (2017) was selected as a Best Book of the year by the Financial
Times (London).
23
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Notes
1 I would like to thank Robin Bernstein, Leslie Paris and Vanessa Joosen
for inspiration and references; Elina Druker and two anonymous readers
for invaluable feedback on an earlier draft; and Dee Michel, Guy Michel,
and Andrew Ratzkin for permission to reproduce poems and images from
The Inner City Mother Goose. Special thanks to Dee for reading a draft of
this article and offering useful corrections. And special thanks to Wendy
Nesmith and the Interlibrary Loan Services at UT Austin for Cruikshank’s
A Comic Alphabet and the scan of D and E and to Hanna Liljeqvist for care-
ful copy editing.
2 The Library of Congress catalog entry lists the rabbit, Marlon Bundo, as
rst author, and so I have followed their lead in the sources cited.
3 Hoffman cites The Political House that Jack Built, by William Hone and
illustrated by Cruikshank, The Political “A, Apple-Pie,” or the “Extraordinary
Red Book Versied: For the Instruction and Amusement of the Rising Genera-
tion,” (attributed to Cruikshank), The Constitutional Apple Pie: Or Rhythmi-
cal Red-Book by “Master Jacky-Jingle,” and A New Favorite Royal Alphabet
29
for the 17th of August by “Peter Pangloss,” all published in 1819 and bound,
by an “unknown collector,” into a single volume now held in the British
Library.
4 In addition, see Mickenberg Learning from the Left; Mickenberg “Radical
Children’s Literature”; Mickenberg and Nel “Radical Children’s Literature
Now!”.
5 The story was published on its own as a small book the same year. It is
this edition that I have cited.
6 Lucy Rollin maintains that all “nursery” rhymes began in folklore and
oral culture and were “originally intended for adults” (4). Gloria Delamar
notes that “the chants of childhood are invariably linked to the Mother
Goose tradition,” (2) but she also acknowledges that nursery rhymes often
contain violent and disturbing images that have inspired protests from
concerned adults since at least 1641. The ctional Mother Goose herself
comes from French fairy tales, popularized with the frontispiece to Charles
Perrault’s Contes du Temps Passé (1697), in which a picture shows an old
woman telling stories to three children with the words, “Contes de ma mère
l’oye.” Ever since British printer John Newbery published Mother Goose’s
Melodies in 1760, the name has been associated in Britain and the United
States with traditional nursery rhymes for young children. Even so, as
Marina Warner points out, forms in the “Mother Goose” tradition can be
traced back to fabulae or fables, “the late classical genre of comic folklore,
in which the classical unities are broken, and humour, tragedy, the real
and the marvelous dashingly combined in deance of classical propri-
eties” (3–4). A number of scholars have written on the “crossover picture
book” as well “picture books for adults” (which may or may not contain
features that distinguish it as a children’s book for adults). On the former
see Beckett and on the latter see Ommundsen.
7 One verse from “Mother Goose on the Breadline” offers a decent sense
of its tenor: “Yankee Doodle’s in the shop / He holds to it like blazes / He
lets his little wages drop / He gets his pay in praises / Yankee Doodle has
a boss / High Hat Uncle Sammy/ Uncles’ prot is his loss / Cock-a-doo-
dle, dam-me. . . .” (Hap).
8 Brooks’ concern speaks to what was an ongoing debate at that time (still
ongoing today) about whether it was ethical for authors to write about
racial and ethnic groups that were not their own.
9 There is extensive material about attempts to censor Inner City in Eve
Merriam papers, Schlesinger Library, Harvard University, MC 650, box 9,
folder 6 and box 36, folder 6.
10 For instance, a teacher at Eastside Elementary School in Denver Colo-
rado sent Merriam verses by nine, ten and eleven-year-old students that
were inspired by Inner City. In Eve Merriam papers, box 35, folder 10.
11 I have found only one instance of a concerned citizen questioning the
morality of having Mansbach’s book available in libraries, where children
might discover it even if shelved with books for adults (Paschal). Indeed,
Mansbach’s successful parody of a children’s book (for adults) led to sev-
eral contracts to write books for middle-grade readers, including Benjamin
Franklin: Huge Pain in My...! (2015).
ResearchGate has not been able to resolve any citations for this publication.
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