41kIdc+wIZLIts one thing to read literature, it’s another to read books about literature. Suffer The Little Children: Uses of the Past in Jewish and African-American Children’s Literature is sort of like reading a commentary on children’s books. Before this book I had never really thought of the mentality behind some genres of literature meant for children and the deep, and sometimes intense, experiences that went into the text of these books.

Perhaps the most striking chapter in this text comes on the coattails of lynching and the connections it has with the holocaust. At first glance it’s hard to imagine that literature for children could have been written on such subjects but the author is wise to make a connection between the memory of those events and the identities wrapped up in them.

“Shocking violence is the dark side of chosenness, and how we, as American readers and writers, grapple with this dubious distinction for both Jewish and African-Americans is an ethical conundrum in which issues of memory and identity overlap. Violent narratives bind groups together, reinforcing a sense of communal identity. This function is both ethically challenging and contains extra complications when children are both portrayed by and the intended audience of such stories.”

It’s hard to come to terms with the heart=-wrenching stories of children like Anne Frank and the like who lived through endless torment and danger. Another story of similar disgust and shock is the story of Emmett Till, who is contrasted and compared to Anne Frank. The two stories in themselves are almost tough to read but an interesting study ensues when the two are placed side by side and the similarities make themselves known.

Emmett Till was an African-American boy who was murdered in Mississippi at the age of 14 after reportedly flirting with a white woman. Till was from Chicago, Illinois, visiting his relatives in Money, Mississippi, in the Mississippi Delta region, when he spoke to 21-year-old Carolyn Bryant, the married proprietor of a small grocery store there. Several nights later, Bryant’s husband Roy and his half-brother J. W. Milam arrived at Till’s great-uncle’s house where they took Till, transported him to a barn, beat him and gouged out one of his eyes, before shooting him through the head and disposing of his body in the Tallahatchie River, weighting it with a 70-pound (32 kg) cotton gin fan tied around his neck with barbed wire. His body was discovered and retrieved from the river three days later.

Anne Frank is one of the most discussed Jewish victims of the Holocaust. Her diary has been the basis for several plays and films. Born in the city of Frankfurt am Main in Weimar Germany, she lived most of her life in or near Amsterdam, in the Netherlands. Born a German national, Frank lost her citizenship in 1941. She gained international fame posthumously after her diary was published. It documents her experiences hiding during the German occupation of the Netherlands in World War II.

The stories weave in and out of each other and have become, to their respective races, beacons of remembrance and consideration of what the past has taught us. They are also connected because of their ages. Their photographs are etched in time, young and full of life they shine on in the hearts of many as those who dared to go against the social structures, shining lights in history, born of untimely circumstances.

The authors end the text with a grand conclusion, taking note of 21st Century children and the role they will have in future literature.

During the twentieth century, children became increasingly sacralized. and this trend has continued into the twenty-first century. As future citizens, they gain great symbolic power, so much so that the conception, birth, and training of these prospective grown-ups is on some level constitutive of the very notion of citizenship, as their existence itself becomes a means of continuing the republic for a little while longer. 

This text was very helpful and insightful as to the structure of children’s literature and the role they played in bringing us great reads. The stories are tragic but bold and full of spirit. Let us remember these stories, particularly those of Till and Frank, and let us not let their lights grow dim in the face of similar circumstances today. I am thankful for NYU Press for allowing me to review this book. It was certainly not in my genre of normal reading material but immensely helpful was it to my studying habits of our history.


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