Hear My Cry: A Manifesto for Emancipatory Childhood Studies Approach to Children’s Literature is Galbraith’s argument for a critical look at children’s literature through an emancipatory lens. She claims that children are a social group whose rights we must protect, because they are young, naive, and dependent on adults. As adults, we hold natural power over children, who have not yet learned how to communicate/articulate all their thoughts. As a result, the children’s literature we give them is both incredibly influential as a form of emancipation or oppression. Galbraith critically looks at The Polar Express by Chris Van Allsburg. She finds parallels between the whimsical picture book and Nazi Germany, claiming that the adoration showed to Santa Clause establishes a “Great Man.” She says that the “Great Man” teaches children that, through irrational belief in a greater figure, we can get “what we need from the universe despite our depraved condition in reality” (197). This immediately recalls the Third Reich in that the depraved German children who grew up in poverty were able to look towards the songs, speeches, and jubilant rallies established by Hitler and his government.
According to Galbraith, once readers are aware of the “Great Man” in the Polar Express, the magical spell is “ruined as an innocent narrative” (197). We as adults are forced to address the difficult task of handling this book. Is it hidden with fascist connections that encourage an irrational belief in a savior figure? Is it a comment on the unbearable weight of loneliness that is only fixed once we find a figure to believe in? Is it simply a story about the Santa Clause figure we have always associated with Christmas? One particular position that caught my eye was the position of a “triumphant critic who ‘outs’ a hidden agenda” (198). In all fairness to Allsburg, any hidden agenda would be much more successful if the narrative had been more explicit in its “Great Man” theme. Galbraith even says that she is unsure of whether or not Allsburg or his editors saw the historical connection. If that is the case, how on earth could this reading of Polar Express hold water? Was the agenda so wonderfully hidden even the author didn't realize his emotional manipulation of children?
In addition, Galbraith’s article discusses the psychobiographical influence of authors on their works. How did an author’s childhood influence his/her writing of childhood or writing for childhood? While Galbraith claimed that the psychobiography of Allsburg could support her theory, she admitted that she knew nothing much of Allsburg other than his incriminating name. I decided to look the author up. Turns out he was born in 1949 (four years after WWII) and in America. While this may refute the direct claim that a “Great Man” Hitler connection to Santa Clause exists in the book, does it refute the “Great Man” theme entirely?
Over the summer, I went to the New York Public Library’s exhibition, “The ABC of It: Why Children’s Books Matter.” While it was incredibly inspirational I had seen, for the first time, an intensely critical view of certain children’s novels. There were theories and interpretations of some of my favorite works that I had never (repeat never) would have come up with. In a way, this connects to Galbraith’s point that once we critically look at one of our beloved childhood novels, we are forced to shed some innocence and see the darker truths hidden behind the text or pictures. The picture book, Love You Forever, concerns itself heavily with the passage of time and human mortality. Alice in Wonderland is as much about youthful self-discovery as it is about utter nonsense. Maybe The Polar Express could encourage a belief in a “Great Man,” but it doesn't necessarily have to be negative. Maybe it isn't Hitler – maybe it’s the concept of kindness and charity and comfort personified – that if children believe in these positive qualities then they can recreate them. Even if they’re not at the forefront, adult themes are central to a children’s book and can be as dark or as light as we wish to read them.