In the 2012 spring semester, I taught my first section of a children’s literature course that has now become a staple for me. To be more precise, I only taught the first half of the semester: halfway through, I went on maternity leave with my first child. As a result, my growth as a parent has gone hand-in-hand with my growth as an instructor of children’s literature. While there have been many ways in which my understanding of children has helped me better understand the literature written for them, perhaps nowhere is this more apparent than in how I think of audience. When one teaches children’s literature in the college classroom, there are two levels of audience at play: the audience of young readers for whom the literature is marketed, and the audience of college students and instructors who read and interpret the works. The distance between these audiences can sometimes be quite significant, and teaching this class meant that I had to adapt by better understanding how children, rather than adults, might read a text. In this article, I use Robert Louis Stevenson’s poem “Foreign Children” to explore two levels of adaptation: the question of how to adapt a body of poetry for a new cultural context, and the more personal issue of how I adapted in response to a better understanding of childhood.
“Foreign Children” is written from the viewpoint of a privileged white British child, who considers the lives of children around the world and concludes that his own life is so much better that these “Foreign Children” must wish to be in his place. An adult reader, noticing the naiveté of the child narrator, may read the poem as an ironic critique of the ethnocentrism it portrays. But would a child reader recognize the irony? If not, is the poem at all appropriate for children? Every semester, my classes debate the question of whether “Foreign Children” should still be published, with some students in favor of retaining the poem in A Child’s Garden of Verses, and others of the opinion that it should not be published. In the past, I tried to stay neutral on the issue, being more interested in my students’ ability to think critically about the question than in their conclusions. The experience of reading to my own children, however, caused me to adapt my position to a more critical one. Knowledge of children and their developing literacy can challenge an adult reading of a text, and parenthood is an excellent place to encounter the child reader.
Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses, first published in 1885, continues to enjoy the status of a classic. Increasingly, though, publishers have opted to publish selected verses from the work, omitting poems with language or ideas that might be objectionable to modern readers. “Foreign Children,” (a poem that begins by asking “little frosty Eskimo” or “Japanee” children “O! don’t you wish that you were me?”) is, not surprisingly, one of the ones often omitted1 (32).
When new editions of the anthology retain this poem, adults who might recommend the book have sometimes noticed and remarked upon it. For example, a reviewer for The School Library Journal, in briefly reviewing a 2011 edition of the book illustrated by Barbara McClintock, tactfully notes that “Foreign Children” is one of “a few of the poems that show their age in interesting ways” and suggests that “Since there is no explanatory note in the front or end matter, here’s hoping that the adults sharing these selections will provide the necessary historical context” (Persson 92). Twenty-first century parents and educators are rightfully concerned about the poem.2 There are multiple problems with “Foreign Children.” First, the language of the poem is unambiguously racist (“Japanee”, and “little frosty Eskimo” etc.). Second, the poem displays childhood ethnocentrism. The unnamed speaker in the poem believes his life to be superior to the lives of the various “Foreign Children.” After detailing the colorful lives the speaker believes the children to leave, the poem claims that “Such a life is very fine/But it’s not as mine . . .” (32). The speaker explains that the “foreign” children’s food is inferior to the speaker’s own, as well, and the poem ends with the repetition of the first of stanza.
When I use this poem in a college classroom, initial reactions generally start with something along the lines of, “This poem is really racist.” Some students work to place the speaker in a specific historical moment, asking questions about the speaker’s own national identity (often, the assumption is that the speaker is an American child) and about the time period in which it was written, which some students already know to have been an age of imperialism. My students are not alone in reading the poem as a fairly straightforward depiction of imperialism. For critic Don Randall, for example, the poem “demonstrates and confirms Britain’s very real status as a successful imperial power [and] . . . articulates an envisioning of the cultural implications of Britain’s imperial status” (35). Randall contrasts Stevenson’s work with what he sees as the more aware work of Kiplings’ “We and They” and with Frances Temple’s The Beduin’s Gazelle to trace out a brief history of development in how children’s literature represents the foreign Other. It is an understandable reading, especially given that the poem did appear during the age of British imperialism. But it is not the only reading of the poem that is possible, and, I would argue, it is not necessarily the reading that makes the most sense given the context of the rest of A Child’s Garden of Verses.
Occasionally, one of my students will ask “Could the poem be sarcastic?” It’s a good question, though the word I might use to describe the tone of the poem is not “sarcasm” but “irony.” The first hints that the poem may be more complicated than it seems to be come when my students notice that the speaker seems almost to be jealous of the lives the “foreign children” lead. The second stanza, in particular, describes the sights and games the speaker assumes that children in other lands must play. And the third stanza, responding to this description, begins with “Such a life is very fine” before moving into “But it’s not so nice as mine.” Similarly, the fourth stanza tells the foreign children that “you have curious things to eat” before the speaker explains that “I am fed on proper meat.” To some readers, it seems as if the speaker may be trying just a little too hard to convince himself that his own life, in which he is deprived of “curious” things to eat, is superior. Once readers notice this, the child’s condemnation of other’s lives begins to look like sour grapes. The speaker may be boasting about how much better it is to have his own life precisely because the speaker wishes he could have the experiences imagined for the foreign children. If the poem is read as depiction of childhood ethnocentrism, it seems to imply that such ethnocentrism emerges from feelings of envy or even insecurity. As such, the poem may be seen as subtly critical of the speaker’s ethnocentrism.
The glaring holes in the speaker’s logic also suggest that “Foreign Children” may ultimately be questioning or undermining the speaker’s claims of superiority. In stanza three, the speakers claims “You must often, as you trod,/ Have wearied not to be abroad.” Similarly, stanza four concludes by telling the foreign children that “You must dwell beyond the foam/ But I am safe and live at home.” What the speaker fails to understand is that the foreign children they address are “abroad” only from a British perspective. “Home” and “abroad” are relative terms, and, of course, the foreign children are as “at home” in their own lands as the speaker is in Great Britain. The speaker, in childish ignorance, does not understand that, but the implied adult author and potential adult readers should. Robert Louis Stevenson would have experienced the relativity of “home” and “abroad:” A Child’s Garden of Verses was written after he had had the experience of living not just in multiple countries but on multiple continents.
Although this experience of travel is absent from “Foreign Children,” it is present elsewhere in the collection. Tellingly, one of the “Envoy” poems at the end of the book plays with the sense of distance between the English audience of the poem and a wider world in a very different way. The poem “To My Name-Child” explicitly invokes the distance between Monterey, California and London, England, as it addresses young Louis Sanchez, Stevenson’s bicultural namesake. The poem does not identify Sanchez as Stevenson’s relative, but he was the son of Nelly van der Grift Sanchez, Stevenson’s sister-in-law, and thus Stevenson’s nephew by marriage. Nelly married Adolfo Sanchez, a second-generation Californian whose father was from Mexico (Rowland 17). Though the poem does not label or categorize Sanchez according to his ethnicity, by today’s standards he would be considered Latinx.
“To My Name-Child” tells Louis Sanchez about the “foreign people” who will have read the book before little Louis has even learned to read (Stevenson 66). The “foreign people” of this poem are clearly identified as British children, who would appear as foreigners to a Californian. The poem is imagined as kind of literary bridge which connects these British children “in their homes across the seas” with Stevenson’s California namesake. The British readers are juxtaposed with an image of the older Louis Sanchez playing on California’s beaches, and the poem concludes that “while you [Louis Sanchez] thought of no one [because he was an infant at the time of writing], nearly half the world away/ Some one thought of Louis on the beach of Monterey!” (Stevenson 66). If it seems difficult to reconcile the affectionate depiction of “Little Louis Sanchez” growing up, learning to read, and playing in his native California with the ethnocentrism and racism of “Foreign Children,” this difficulty points towards the importance of reading “Foreign Children” not as a poem taken in isolation from its setting, but as part of a collection, a “garden of verses” in which the differing poems complement or challenge one another.
Readings of the poem as straightforward imperialist propaganda may also overlook the distance between the child speaker in the poem and the implied author of the poem. The majority of the poems in the book are clearly spoken by children. There are a few, however, that imply a different, older speaker. “To My Name-Child” is one such poem, delivered by an adult voice closely identified with Robert Louis Stevenson. Another such poem is the dedication poem “To Alison Cunningham, From her Boy” which refers to Stevenson himself as “the sick child, now well and old” who dedicates his book of poems to the woman who had nursed him in days of illness. As Jean Webb notes, Stevenson uses this poem to “locate himself as the author of the poems from the beginning” of the anthology (360), reminding readers that the author was himself a child but is now an adult. And the final poem of the book, “To Any Reader,” goes a step further and suggests that the child speaker of the poems has also grown up. “To Any Reader” informs readers that though they can see a child at play in the pages of the book, the child cannot be spoken to, “For, long ago, the truth to say,/He has grown up and gone away” (67). The poems depict a child’s perspective of the world, but the child who speaks in them has grown up. The child no longer plays as he did in the “garden” of verses. By extension, the childish opinions expressed in the poems cannot necessarily be assumed to be the opinions the speaker would hold as an adult. The racial superiority claimed by the speaker in “Foreign Children” cannot be assumed to be shared by the adult author, because it rests on a child’s misconception of what “home” and “abroad” mean.
In sum, the ethnocentric claims of the child speaker can be seen as evidence of childish naiveté rather than a straightforward endorsement of imperialist ideology. Yes, the speaker in “Foreign Children” thinks that his life is superior to that of foreign children—but he speaks from a position of imperfect understanding, because he is still a child with limited knowledge of the world.3 But the child’s naïve view of “foreign” children is not necessarily the only view informing the text. As Webb puts it, Stevenson creates “a construct of childhood which attempts to recall the nature of childhood as he experienced it, and also to add to it the experience of the reflective adult, producing, therefore, innocence and experience combined” (361). I argue that this gap between naïve speaker and more experienced author creates room for dramatic irony of the sort often associated with the dramatic monologue.
Irony, it is true, is sometimes in the eyes of the beholder, and there is a real danger of seeing irony where it does not exist. If “Foreign Children” were the only poem in the anthology that seemed to represent the child’s view as limited or naïve, this might be a more dubious reading. But a careful reading of the anthology reveals other poems that represent the child speaker as naïve. For example, the poem “System” depicts a child in the process of trying to come to grips with other children’s differing socio-economic conditions. In the first stanza, the speaker describes the “system” in their home: if one is good, one is rewarded with an orange after a meal (Stevenson 25). At first, the speaker assumes that all children live under the same system of rewards that they do, and that a child who appears deprived must be being punished for naughtiness. The final line of the poem undercuts the entire stanza, however, by posing an alternative: perhaps children who are dirty, hungry, and lacking toys may be deprived due not to their own fault but to the financial circumstances of their parents:
The child who is not clean and neat,
With lots of toys and things to eat,
He is a naughty child, I’m sure—
Or else his dear papa is poor.” (25)
In “System,” the speaker begins from a relatively immature understanding of poverty to a more sophisticated one.
The speaker in “Foreign Children” makes no such move from childish naivety and egocentrism to a more mature view of the difference between children’s lives. But it is possible that the intent of the poem is to move readers from such naivety to greater maturity. A reader who notices the flaw in the speaker’s assumption that the foreign children are unhappy because they are not “at home” may come to realize that the answer to the question “O! don’t you wish that you were me?” is, in fact, “no.” In other words, the poem might work not to increase its readers sense of superiority but to make them question the ethnocentric view endorsed by the speaker.
But would it actually have that effect on its intended audience? Asking how the poem is likely to affect child readers is a very different question from asking whether the poem can be read ironically by adult readers who are trained to look for nuance, contradiction, and complication in literature. Even if the ironic reading I describe above is a tenable one (and not all readers may find it convincing!), “Foreign Children” remains a problematic poem. In the next section of the essay, therefore, I want to move from talking about the text of the poem to talking about its audiences, especially the elementary school audience for whom A Child’s Garden of Verses continues to be marketed.
I teach this poem in an upper division college course, as part of a thematic unit that focuses on children as they relate to society. Part of the purpose of teaching this poem is to explore how children are depicted in literature as thinking about other ethnic groups or nationalities. For “Foreign Children,” however, we also discuss questions related to audience and censorship or adaptation. Given that A Child’s Garden of Verses remains a classic still in circulation, I ask my students, how should problematic poems like “Foreign Children” be handled? Is it appropriate for twenty-first century children to read, or should it be removed from new versions of the collection? In some semesters, I organize discussion of this question by dividing the class in three groups and assigning each group to explore one of three broad approaches to the poem, using the following instructions:
Students have responded to the exercise by generating a number of thoughtful arguments on all sides of the issue. Student assigned in favor of removal of the poem have stressed the importance of not encouraging children in racist or ethnocentric attitudes. Students arguing for preservation have approached the position from widely different perspectives. On the one hand, some students have suggested that an adherence to artistic integrity of a work requires that “Foreign Children” be retained. In other words, this argument goes, it would be doing a disservice to Robert Louis Stevenson or to his literary work to present the collection without a poem that he had chosen to include. Other students have argued that the real harm of removing “Foreign Children” is that it risks whitewashing imperialist history. Removing an objectionable poem from a beloved collection to adapt the book to modern sensibilities presents an edited, sanitized version of Stevenson and his work that essentially covers up Anglo-American imperialism. Instead, some students suggest, it would be better to retain the poem and use it as a discussion tool to help educate children about the legacies of racism and imperialism.
As an instructor, I try to stay neutral in these discussions, preferring to help draw out the pros and cons of various positions. Privately, my original position was that of the preservation side. As a Victorianist, I was sympathetic to arguments about the authenticity or integrity of the text. I felt that it was important to present Stevenson’s work as he had chosen to publish it, even if that reflected badly on him. At some point, though, my position began to change. I did not realize it until the day when, after discussing arguments in favor of the poem’s preservation, I concluded “But I wouldn’t want my son to read it.” Reflecting back on my words, I realized that despite my own interest in the poem as an ironic critique of ethnocentrism, I had essentially fallen on the “removal” side when it came to the case of my own young child.
Why the change? There are multiple reasons, but perhaps the largest factor is that when I began teaching the poem, I did not have a very clear sense of how children might react to the poem or what they might understand it to mean. In the case of my own child, I was reluctant to read the poem to him because I was afraid that it would encourage him to think or speak of children from different cultures in inappropriate ways. But I also tried to put myself in the position of families who might be affected by the poem in other ways. If I had been a Japanese-American parent, for example, would I have wanted my child to read a poem that referred to Japanese children as “Japanee”? Or, if I were a Native parent, would I want my child to read the references to “Sioux” and “Crow” children whose lives are presented as inferior to British children? Of course not. Regardless of whether the intent of the poem was to support or to critique ethnocentrism, the very language used to describe the “Foreign Children” was potentially hurtful.
In a best-case scenario, such as the one described in Lauralyn Persson’s review of A Child’s Garden of Verses, a child would encounter this poem by reading with an adult who could guide the child’s reactions and use the poem as a teaching point. But sometimes, classic books are purchased for children as gifts from well-meaning relatives, and they may be passed on without mediation or explanation. In the case of A Child’s Garden of Verses, the suggested reading age may add to the problem. Amazon.com suggests that the book is appropriate for 4-8 year olds, though the book’s Lexile score is a fairly high 1250L (“Product details”).4 The high Lexile score is undoubtedly due to the nineteenth-century language in the book, but the contrast between reading level and recommended age levels may also be relevant with regard to the ironic reading I have proposed earlier in the paper.
Children are not born understanding the different forms of irony. Recognizing irony is a skill that develops over time. Psychologists suggest that awareness of irony may emerge around age 6 and continue to develop into the tweens or early teens (Pexman and Glenwright 179). Philosopher Gareth B. Matthews has challenged this claim, suggesting that preschool children are amused by stories that use irony. Matthews’ first example of a story displaying irony is particularly interesting because it rests on the same type of gap between the character’s understanding of a situation and the child reader’s understanding of the reality; it is, as Matthews notes, related to dramatic irony (85, 88). However convincing an argument Matthews makes, however, he is drawing from personal anecdote rather than reliable data. Moreover, the first example he gives is of a much more obvious type of irony than the type I have suggested may be found in “Foreign Children.” Matthews may be right that preschoolers can grasp some forms of dramatic or verbal irony, but this does not guarantee that they would recognize all such irony. Recall, too, that most of the college students who have discussed “Foreign Children” with me have read it as straightforwardly racist or imperialist. It is only a few of them who suggested the possibility of some kind of irony in the poem before having the idea introduced to them. Professional reviewers and critics of the poem, likewise, have not always seen it as displaying any form of irony. If adult readers often find it “Foreign Children” to be straightforwardly racist, ethnocentric, and imperialist, it seems unlikely that a preschool or elementary school audience would understand the poem as a critique of those views.
This was the great flaw with my reading of the poem as ironic, and it was not until I had experienced parenthood (and the reading of a great many stories to my own preschooler) that I realized how complicated the issue of audience was. Perhaps a college instructor with a background in English Education or Child Development would have approached the subject differently, but I was a literature scholar who delighted in close readings of texts. Though I had always been concerned about how “Foreign Children” might be read and interpreted by twenty-first century children, I did not have a background in Child Development or literacy theories to help me think through the possible reactions of a child audience. Both the experiences of parenthood and the reading about child development that I casually undertook to support parenthood have made me more keenly aware of the many ways in which young children can read even a relatively simple text, as well as the extent to which reading is a slowly-emerging skill.
Does this mean, then, that “Foreign Children” should simply be removed from all new editions of A Child’s Garden of Verses? That is one of the solutions to the problem the poem poses. For many parents and educators, the harm caused by the poem may outweigh any educational value, particularly the threat posed to minority or Native children. Not every edition of A Child’s Garden of Verses needs to contain “Foreign Children.” However, I don’t think removal is the only reasonable solution. Though I do not think the poem should be included as-is (unaccompanied by aides) in editions intended for children, there is still the category of “middle ground” we discuss in my classroom exercise (see Figure 2). Though I would rather not leave young children to encounter “Foreign Children” without guidance, I agree with those of my students who think that in the right context, the poem has value as a tool to prompt critical thinking about racism and ethnocentrism.
Encountering “Foreign Children” in a classroom setting that allows for critical analysis would be one possible approach, but the addition of explanatory material in anthologies that choose to carry the poem is another alternative. Ideally, this would not be limited to a content warning or statement about the poem’s original imperial context. Rather, what might be most helpful would be the inclusion of questions parents or teachers could ask children about the poem. Even elementary-aged children could be led to see the poem from the perspective of the “foreign” children to whom England and English ways are not “home.” Pushing on the confusion about “home” and “abroad” might lead children and the adults who read with them to see the poem in a critical light. And a note encouraging parents to read “To My Name-Child” as a counter-part or response to “Foreign Children” could potentially lead to the realization that “foreign” life is in the eye of the beholder. With some adaptation, “Foreign Children” might speak more clearly to a new generation of readers, not merely as a poem that “tends to instill in the Caucasian child an attitude of racial superiority” as one concerned blogger put it (Schmidt), but as a poem that tends to challenge readers to think about how what seems normal to them may appear “foreign” to others. At least, that’s how I’d want my son to read it.
1 For example, the 2017 reproduction of the Golden Books edition omits this poem, along with several others. Interestingly most of the personal “Envoy” poems found at the end of the original have been removed, too, including the poem “To My Name-child.”
2 See also Debbie Reese’s discussion of “Foreign Children” on her blog, American Indians in Children’s Literature. Reese includes images of the page from previous editions, documenting the way in which illustrations of the poem have helped it perpetuate stereotypes of Native people.
3 Of course Stevenson, too, had an imperfect understanding of the world, and he was indeed a product of his time. It would be a mistake to assume that he shared our twenty-first century values. It may also be relevant that although Stevenson had traveled across Europe and parts of the United States prior to writing A Child’s Garden of Verses, he did not undertake his famous South Sea travels until a few years after the poems were published (Dury).
4 A Lexile rating above 1200 would typically be associated with the upper grades of high school, not with elementary school or with preschool (“Lexile-to-Grade Correspondence”).
Dury, Richard. “Robert Louis Stevenson and the Cascoe Cruise.” RLS Website, robert-louis-stevenson.org/casco-cruise/
“Lexile-to-Grade Correspondence.” The Lexile Framework for Reading, www lexile.com/about-lexile/grade-equivalent/grade-equivalent-chart/
Matthews, Gareth B. “Children, Irony, and Philosophy.” Theory and Research in Education, vol. 3, no. 1, 2005, pp. 81-95.
Persson, Lauralyn. “Rev. of A Child’s Garden of Verses.” School Library Journal, August 2011, p. 92.
Pexman, Penny and Glenwright, Melanie. “How do typically developing children grasp the meaning of verbal irony?” Journal of Neurolinguistics, vol. 20, no. 2, 2007, pp. 178-196.
“Product details” for A Child’s Garden of Verses. Amazon.com, www.amazon.com/Childs-Garden-Verses-Robert-Stevenson/dp/0689823827
Randall, Don. “Empire and Children’s Literature: Changing Patterns of Cross Cultural Perspective.” Children’s Literature in Education, vol. 41, no. 1, 2010. pp. 28-39.
Reese. Deborah. “New Edition of Robert Louis Stevenson’s A CHILD’S GARDEN OF VERSES.” American Indians in Children’s Literature, 26 April 2017, https://americanindiansinchildrensliterature.blogspot.com/2017/04/new-edition-of-robert-louis-stevensons.html
Rowland, Leon. “Little Louis Sanchez Had Grandfather Here.” Santa Cruz Sentinel, 14 September 1952, p. 17.
Schmidt, Rob. “Stevenson’s Little Indian Poem.” Newspaper Rock: Where Native America Meets Pop Culture, 3 June 2010, newspaperrock.bluecorncomics.com/2010/06/stevensons-little-indian-poem.html
Stevenson, Robert Louis. A Child’s Garden of Verses. NY, Simon and Schuster, 1999.
--. Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses. NY, A Golden Book, 2017.
Webb, Jean. “Conceptualizing Childhood: Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses.” Cambridge Journal of Education, vol. 32, no.3, 2002, pp. 359-365.