Corduroy was one of my favorite books as a kid, but it wasn’t until I started reading it to children as an adult that I realized it has a political message.
My first adult realization about Corduroy was that Lisa, the little girl who brings Corduroy home from the department store, is Black. I don’t think I can remember a single other illustrated book from my childhood with a Black protagonist, or even a Black supporting character. Now, the existence of a Black character is not a political statement. But when the book was written, in 1968, and certainly even today, it was absolutely not the norm to see a mass-market children’s book displaying a middle-class character who happens to be Black.
But the real politics of Corduroy is what it has to say about homelessness, or perhaps the rejection of people who look like they don’t have money. At the start of the book, Lisa’s mother refuses to buy Corduroy for her because she has already spent too much money on other things, and because Corduroy is missing a button on his overalls. Corduroy then goes into the department store to find his button, but instead tries to take an upholstery button off of a mattress because he doesn’t know what a button looks like, since he didn’t even realize he was missing one. The department store security guard finds him, and puts him back on his shelf. But Lisa comes back the next day and uses the money she’s saved up to take Corduroy home, give him his own bed, and sew on a new button. The book ends with Corduroy telling Lisa how much he always wanted a home and a friend, and Lisa saying that she had as well. If you want to read this story as a full-on metaphor, it’s about the systemic injustice of homelessness, about how homeless people are judged for their appearance and punished by law enforcement, but are often unable to help themselves because they lack knowledge of what they don’t have. But if that’s too deep a reading for you, the surface text simply says that it’s good to befriend someone and help them, even if they don’t look nice.
Maybe I’m reading too much into this charming little book about a bear in overalls with a missing button. So I did a very surface-level search for information about Don Freeman, the author and illustrator of the book, and to see whether anyone has ever talked about Corduroy as a political story. The short answer to the latter was no. The closest I came was a book on queer theory in which the author’s daughter taught him about his heteronormative assumptions by pointing out that Corduroy doesn’t have to be male or straight – but I don’t have a lot of faith in this person’s argument, considering they think that Corduroy’s overalls are denim even though it’s in his name.
There’s a little more out there about Freeman himself. In fact, Freeman was an artist who wrote political cartoons and observations about daily life in New York from the 1930s until he began writing children’s books in the early ’50s. In that earlier period he made a living as a jazz coronet player. His work was explicitly social-realist, drawing attention to the realities of the working class through his depiction of Broadway glamor. So, while Freeman never explicitly said that Corduroy was about homelessness or social equity, it’s very much within his typical framework.
If we accept Freeman as a political children’s author, we accept him into the ranks of the likes of Theodor Geisel, aka Dr Seuss. While Geisel’s works for children were rarely explicit in their politics (with the exception of The Lorax), it’s well known to most adults that many of his books did have a coherent political message, and it’s possible that his buoyant style and celebration of bedlam was in itself an incitement to 1960s-style rebellion. And according to some scholars, there was an entire movement of leftist politics woven into children’s literature of the Cold War era. So the idea that innocuous books like Corduroy actually have social messages embedded in them isn’t much of a stretch. Children’s literature is and has always been about teaching through entertainment, whether the cautionary or morality tales of fables or stories about personal responsibility, love, and social values in modern picture books.
Why is it, then, that people seem to think children’s books got political all of a sudden? According to both those in favor and critical of the “woke” books trend, children’s books appear to be getting more political in response to demand by generally liberal-leaning families who want to see more diverse representation.
So, we return to Freeman’s quiet radicalism in making Lisa Black. But as I said before, representation is not a political statement. Simply existing while not being white is not a political statement. What makes these more recent books political is that representation and explicit education about current political issues are their only purposes. There’s certainly a lot to be said for educating children about current political issues in ways that they can understand but that are not overly simplistic.
But that’s not why this spate of overtly political children’s books is being written – it’s so parents can reaffirm their political engagement and signal it to other parents. Children of all ages have the capacity to understand current social issues to some degree – they can learn about what it means to be different from someone else, or what a country is at just about any age – but most children don’t have the experience or awareness of the world to understand why a particular political figure matters or why major issues like discrimination exist. Books that attempt to explain these things are explicitly indoctrination – they aim to present complex issues in terms so pared down that their intended audience doesn’t need any other context to come to the “right” conclusion. And that urge to indoctrinate our children, and to let other parents know that we’re doing it, is very much a product of our present moment of political divisiveness. So I wouldn’t say that children’s books have gotten any more political, but that political children’s books are less about children.