See how eagerly the lobsters and the turtles all advance!

“Will you walk a little faster?”said a whiting to a snail,
“There’s a porpoise close behind us,
and he’s treading on my tail.”

Thus begins the famous Lobster Quadrille from Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. In a juicy little book by John Goldthwaite, The Natural History of Make-Believe, this verse is quoted during a discussion of didactic intrusion in children’s stories, and interpreted as a commentary on that tricky balancing act. According to Goldthwaite, porpoise=purpose, and in much of children’s literature, the cetacean presence is painfully felt, “treading on my tail.”

Maria Tatar, in her book Off with Their Heads! Fairy Tales and the Culture of Childhood, writes, “Whenever a book is written by adults for children, there is a way in which it becomes relentlessly educational, in part because the condition of its existence opens up a chasm between the child reader and the older, wiser adult who has produced the book. Our current agenda and the wisdom of our time may seem vastly superior to [James] Janeway’s sanctimoniously lurid descriptions of dying children, or Dr. Heinrich Hoffmann’s unforgettable images of thumbsuckers getting their digits sheared off, but they are ultimately our own adult ideas about what is “for their own good.”

“The question,” agrees Goldthwaite, in a crucial distinction, “is not whether a book teaches but what and how and whether its intent is to humanize a child or merely to socialize him.”

The desire to socialize children with the “wisdom of our time” has become an eager, laudable advance in children’s literature. Many talented authors write stories with the idea that “children’s books are a wonderful way to begin the process of educating people about how varied human experience is, and about how all of it, all of it, is normal.” (Laurel Snyder)

Maria Tatar admits that “…to declare that adults should stay out of children’s literature is utterly unrealistic–adults write the books, publish them, review them, buy them, and read them…”

If, however, our proper focus is what a book teaches, and how, it is ironic that the “interference” of a parent or teacher with the literary choices of their charges often produces such cries of horror from the educated community.

Tartar is emphatic on this point. “To argue that adults should not interfere in the reading process is as misguided as arguing that they should not intrude on children’s lives. Letting children be wholly on their own as the readers of a story can, in some situations, count as a not-so-benign form of neglect that leaves children without any sort of compass to guide them as they enter, pass through, and exit a world of fiction….”

“The tales heard during childhood become fixed and lasting possessions,” reminds Katherine Cather, in an old manual on Educating by Story-Telling. “They stay with the hearer through the years, and because their ideals become his ideals, do much toward shaping his character.” Or, as Kathleen Kelly gushes in the 1998 film You’ve Got Mail, “when you read a book as a child it becomes part of your identity in a way that no other reading in your life ever does.”

With such high stakes, discerning between an author bent on humanizing a child and an author bent on socializing him becomes a task that cannot be ignored.

“The old-time raconteur swayed the destiny of nations because he was an artist, because he himself believed in the message he brought,” declares Cather. The future of young readers is still being swayed by storytellers, men and women who devoutly believe in the messages they bring, and in the “wisdom of our time.” Unfortunately, much of that “wisdom” is merely sugar-coated flimflam, spooned into young minds until every sweet lie tastes true.

It would be ridiculous to call for an elimination of porpoises in children’s literature. No matter how fast we walk, they will always be close behind. It is the nature of story to mold and illuminate. Every novel is part of the Great Conversation. But as children enter the world of a work of fiction, it is crucial that they have a compass in one hand and a guide within earshot. An ever-growing sense of True North must be nurtured, so that when they do feel the tread of a porpoise, they can turn around and exclaim with just indignation, “Do you mind? That happens to be my tail.”