This post summarizes what I’ve learned about homeschooling in mainstream children’s literature, looking at some books I haven’t reviewed already to make a few points about the genre.
I first got interested in depictions of homeschoolers in mainstream children’s literature when I came across David Almond’s excellent 1998 book Skellig. It tells the story of Michael and his homeschooled friend Mina, who discover a mysterious owl-like creature and nurture it back to health. Early in the book Mina explains to Michael why she wasn’t in school. Michael is the narrator:
“I don’t go to school.”
I stared at her.
“My mother educates me,” she said. “We believe that schools inhibit the natural curiosity, creativity, and intelligence of children. The mind needs to be opened out into the world, not shuttered down inside a gloomy classroom.” (p.49)
Since then I have read many other children’s books with homeschooled characters, and the perspective of Mina and her mother is nearly always the approach described in the books. In Katherine Hannigan’s Ida B: . . . and Her Plans to Maximize Fun, Avoid Disaster, and (Possibly) Save the World (2004), for example, Ida B’s mother pulls her out of school after witnessing a regimented kindergarten class that Ida B summarizes this way,
There was a rabbit in a cage in the room, but we couldn’t pet it until it was time. There were books on the shelves, but we couldn’t read them until it was time. There was a big playground with slides and swings and balls, but we couldn’t play on it till it was time. There were lots of kids, but we couldn’t talk until you-know-when. (p.46)
Ida B is liberated from this “Slow but Sure Body-Cramping, Mind-Numbing, Fun-Killing Torture” (p.58) to stay at home with her parents, “living like always, and talking about things, and then we’d make the solar system out of vegetables.” (p.39)
In Stephanie Tolan’s Surviving the Applewhites(2002) the theme is similar. Jake Semple has been kicked out of all of his schools and is sent as a last ditch effort at reform to the home of the Applewhites, a motley clan of artists. Each Applewhite child has his or her own private curriculum tailored to his or her individual passions–one is busy choreographing a ballet, one holed up in his room sculpting, one photographing and charting every butterfly native to her state. Jake is thrown into this almost anarchic frenzy of creativity and gradually loses his tough exterior, revealing the inner artist that was there all along.
In several posts I have reviewed other children’s books with homeschooling themes, including Jerry Spinelli’s Stargirl and Love, Stargirl, Gordon Korman’s Schooled, Susan Juby’s Alice MacLeod series, Lucy Frank’s Homeschool Liberation League, and Wendy Mass’ Every Soul A Star. In each of these works as well the homeschooling situation allows for freedom from the confines of restrictive schooling, resulting in a more authentic individuality.
I have yet to come across a single mainstream homeschooling children’s book that even so much as mentions conservative religion and morality as motivations for homeschooling. To read these books one would think that all homeschoolers are creative-class scientists or left-of-center anti-establishment types who are into meditation, gurus, child liberation, back-to-the landism, artistic expression, and informal pedagogy.
Why is this so? Why are the ~85% of homeschooling families who fit a more conservative, usually Christian type and who often incorporate a far more structured pedagogy not represented at all in mainstream children’s literature? I have three guesses why this may be the case.
First, children’s lit has long had as its dominant theme the triumph of the self-actualized individual child over adversity of various sorts, be it natural disaster, horrible home life, accidental misfortunes, or societal oppression. The unschooled child fits this thematic template perfectly. The growth of Jake Semple from schooled hoodlum to unschooled artist for example, is the classic bildungsroman, and it is no surprise that Surviving the Applewhites made the Newberry Honor List.
My second guess is that it’s simply easier to tell an exciting story about hippie nature-children than about conservative Christian kids who do structured academic work at home all day and live in a community that values conformity to established moral principles over individual identity.
Third and finally, there are probably structural forces at work that would make it difficult for a children’s book whose protagonists are explicitly and radically Christian to be published at all by a secular press. These forces are legion, ranging from the self-segregation of conservative Christians into their own parallel publishing world, to a marketplace-driven fear among big publishers of potentially volatile religious themes, to a political climate in the world of children’s literature that values child autonomy over conformity to communal norms.
I believe, however, that the current state of affairs does a disservice both to homeschooling and to children’s literature. It seems to me that a sensitive portrayal of conservative homeschooling could make for a wonderful children’s book and could in fact draw a wide readership. It would do so, I think, by avoiding polemic and preachiness and concentrating instead on the inner lives of children who “grow up “born again”. The comic potential of this movement is immense (as illustrated by this youtube clip), and the subtle nuances of life at home in a community thick with social norms and expectations could be the stuff of great drama in the right hands.