'A Little Child Shall Lead Them': Tasmanian and Victorian School Readers and National Growth

By McGennisken, Jane | Papers: Explorations into Children's Literature, May 2008 | Go to article overview

'A Little Child Shall Lead Them': Tasmanian and Victorian School Readers and National Growth


McGennisken, Jane, Papers: Explorations into Children's Literature


Reading, one of the 'three Rs' still fundamental to educational theory and reconceptualisations of literacy teaching and learning, is a complex socio-cultural practice. Recent attacks on critical literacy approaches to teaching English reveal that what children are taught to read, and how they are taught to read it, is value-laden and contentious (Slattery 2005, p.31). Critics argue for a 'back to basics' approach to teaching a love of reading, a reaction to the 'postmodern literary theory [that] has infiltrated our schools at the expense of comprehension and expression' (Ibid). Yet these same critics appear unaware that the link between children's literature and ideology was both recognised by, and institutionalised in, Australian school textbooks of nearly 80 years ago. Indeed, in the 1928 preface to the eighth book, the first of the Victorian Readers to be published, the editorial committee was explicit in its intended literary production of young Australians.

  The young readers were to begin at home, to be taken in imagination
  to various parts of the Empire, to Europe, and to the United States
  of America, and thus gain a knowledge of their rich heritage and
  acquire a well-founded pride of race. The inculcation of sound
  morality was always to be kept in view, and support given to the
  creation of a feeling against international strife and to the
  implanting of a desire for world-wide toleration. (1928, pp.v-vi)

This essay is framed by the quotation that appears on the first edition title pages of both the First and Second Books of the Victorian Readers published in 1928 and 1930 respectively: 'A little child shall lead them'. This child of the Readers, I argue, is the central element around which ideals of Australian nation and nationhood are constructed. In both the Tasmanian and Victorian reading books, encoded themes of national growth negotiate between innocence and knowingness, informed by the figure of the child, selective memories and collective imagining. In one of Australia's best-known children's books, Ethel Turner's Seven Little Australians, the significance of a symbolic association between the idealised child and reinvented national beginnings is overt: 'It may be that the land and the people are young-hearted together, and the children's spirits not crushed and saddened by the shadow of long years' sorrowful history. There is a lurking sparkle of joyousness and rebellion and mischief in nature here, and therefore in children' (1994, p.2). In an evolving discourse of children and childhood taken up by the school Readers, children are 'the spirited, single-hearted, loyal ones who alone can "advance Australia'" (Ibid).

The age of innocence: the lost child

The figure of the innocent child has a particular resonance for Australia as nation, a nation clinging to notions of its own innocence at the time the Readers were published in the late 1920s and early 1930s, especially in relation to Aboriginal displacement and genocide, the economic, social and political fallout of the First World War, and perhaps most powerfully, the legacy of a nineteenth century 'innocence' in regards to the Australian natural environment. In lost children narratives the Australian environment is not merely the 'mischievous' entity as envisioned by Turner. A dark and pervasive fear about the fragility of innocence underpins texts of lost children, especially children lost in the bush.

Peter Pierce's influential study The Country of Lost Children (1999) provides extensive analysis of two of the nineteenth-century texts reproduced in the Readers ('Lost in the Bush' and Marcus Clarke's 'Pretty Dick') as well as broader analysis of these mythographic stories as they relate to an Australian cultural heritage. Pierce reads narratives of lost children as 'metaphorical, for the figure of the lost child becomes a vital means for European Australians in the latter half of the nineteenth century to express and understand the insecurities of their position in a land that was new to many of them, and strange to all' (Pierce 1999, p. …

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