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Critical theory … for kids?

New title releases show the spreading influence of a controversial academic framework

Critical theory … for kids?

“CRITICAL THEORY” is the umbrella term for various branches of academic thought that grew out of 1980s postmodernism. A basic tenet of critical theory: All the arts and social sciences—and to some extent hard sciences—can be understood as a vast scheme of oppression by a privileged group (chiefly straight white males). Children’s literature largely escaped the influence of critical theory until 2017, when the push for youth activism opened the floodgates. Here are several examples.

Postcolonialism, the most venerable form of critical theory, casts Western civilization as the oppressor of the globe. The young-reader adaptation of Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz’s An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States, published in 2019 to wide acclaim, narrows that view to the story of Native American persecution by whites and their “Christian god.” The book joins Howard Zinn’s People’s History as a standard school text.

Critical race theory, or CRT, examines the history of black slavery and discrimination in the United States. Advocates like Ta-Nehisi Coates and Ibram X. Kendi have topped the bestseller lists for years, but the death of George Floyd gave their work new urgency. Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You is a young-reader edition of Kendi’s Stamped From the Beginning. Co-author Jason Reynolds, a popular children’s novelist, “remixed” Kendi’s CRT perspective on America into an informal history for middle grades. Though its accuracy is sometimes in question, its influence may be huge: Classroom modules, a shorter version for younger grades, and a series of Netflix documentaries are in the works.

Critical theory is problematic, perhaps more for what it leaves out than what it teaches.

“Feminisms” refers to the range of university women’s studies, from liberal to radical. In 2017 #MeToo became part of the lexicon, soon sifting down to young adult literature. 2020 saw an increase in high-profile novels about sexual abuse for middle graders. Fighting Words by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley, Chirp by Kate Messner, and A Game of Fox and Squirrels by Jenn Reese are tactful and well-written, and all include sympathetic male characters. But the latter two also feature lesbian relationships and subtle indictments of “toxic masculinity.”

“Queer studies” covers the LGBTQ spectrum in academia. Children’s publishing has seen a surge of novels featuring homosexual, bisexual, nonbinary, and transgender characters as protagonists. Until a few years ago, the “Rights Report,” a regular feature of the Publishers Weekly Children’s Bookshelf newsletter, listed perhaps two such projects per month. Now five or six is the norm.

Disability and fat studies is the latest critical theory frontier, represented in pop culture by the body positivity movement. Publishers Weekly recently recommended 15 recent or upcoming body-positive titles, including The (Other) F Word and Every Body Shines: 16 Stories About Living Fabulously Fat.

Critical theory is problematic, perhaps more for what it leaves out than what it teaches. Oppression has sown tragedy the world over—not exclusively by the West. Men in power often take advantage of the vulnerable (as do powerful women). Savagery marked white and Native American relations, on both sides. Slavery and Jim Crow have blighted American history, but the civil rights movement created a platform for progress. Body positivity is one thing; unhealthy habits are another. There’s plenty in American history and culture to criticize, but critical theory casts a pall of blame more defeatist than progressive.

—This story is part of WORLD’s 2021 Children’s Books of the Year coverage.

Janie B. Cheaney

Janie B. Cheaney

Janie is a senior writer who contributes commentary to WORLD and oversees WORLD's annual Children's Book of the Year awards. She also writes novels for young adults and authored the Wordsmith creative writing curriculum. Janie resides in rural Missouri.