The readiness of children to take into their hearts the books of their choice, while others apparently worthy lie neglected, has perplexed writers and publishers, booksellers and book buyers ever since the turn o
f the century. No formula will solve the uncertainty and the bewilderment of adults as to what children are looking for in the books they read. It cannot be confidently asserted that "children like this kind of book" or "children do not like that kind."
There is a certain kind of magic in these "chosen" books that have earned their place on the self next to time worn classics such as Tom Sawyer and Alice in Wonderland, which enchants them much as the tune of the Pied Piper lured the children of old Ham
elin. The essence from which it is distilled can best be discovered in those books which generations of children have taken into their hearts and have kept alive; books which seem to have an immortality that adult books, so soon superceded by the latest
best-seller, seldom attain. Kay Thompson's Eloise a Book for Precocious Grown Upspublished in 1955, has enjoyed close to fifty years of popularity because it appeals to both adults and children alike, hence it attracts a broader reader base than t
he average children's book. First editions of the Eloise series are valued collector's items usually priced well over one hundred dollars, and contemporary releases of limited editions continue the Eloise craze that began in the late fifties after the fi
rst publication. The book's popularity can be attributed to Thompson's exuberant six year old star Eloise, and Hillary Knight's vivid illustrations which bring her to life. Eloise is widely known for her outrageous exploits in New York's Plaza Hotel an
d is praised by readers and critics alike for her individualistic spirit. Her unusual circumstances appeal to young and old readers' sense of fantasy and adventure. Eloise's family structure and life-style in a hotel contrasts the suburban culture of th
e fifties encouraged by television sitcoms such as the "Donna Reed Show" and "Leave it to Beaver." The book's popularity lies in its ability to transcend social norms of the 1950's and to remain a relevant, yet playful commentary on contemporary gender
roles and family structure.
Thompson's book manifests the long evolution of children's literature beginning at the turn of the century. The years leading to 1910 reveal the decline of the didactic "good godly" books of the puritans and turns to an emphasis on educating children abo
ut American ideology. Children's books instructed male heroes about manners, morals, history and geography and taught girls the importance of appropriate behavior in order to become "the perfect lady." Later in the decade children's literature sees expe
riences beginning of the imaginative story as well as pictures which carry the story apart from text. Children were no longer expected to read literature aimed at adults, but rather were encouraged to develop their own sense of American ideals and their
individuality within the country. The period between the years of 1925 and 1940 is entitled "The Golden Age of Children's Literature" which exhibits a "volcanic eruption in book for boys and girls" (Smith, 39). After World War I there was an increase in
the quality and production of books as a result of new printing press technology brought back from Europe. The upsurge of hope that the world was now safe for democracy and the notion that the time was ripe for attention to the things of the spirit encou
raged innovative children's literature. Subject matter for children's books ranged from moral responsibility to international understanding (an issue supported by elementary school texts as well as in pleasure reading). American children were not only e
ncouraged to embrace the cultural differences of children around the world, but also encouraged to understand the cultural differences within America which make up the country as a whole. In the 1930's "real" American children begin to appear in books ab
out the pioneers and the frontier. It is here that stories such as Caddie Woodlawn introduce the notion that girls can occupy non-traditional roles contrary to the established conventions at the beginning of the century. World War II during the
1940's triggered a pro-reading movement in order to prevent the perversion of established values by outside sources. New books spoke of dignity of the individual and regard for the human spirit in relation to individual freedom. Comic children's literat
ure such as Curious George and books by Dr. Seuss, emerged for the first time in an effort to brighten the war years for little children. This movement was diluted by the fifties which experienced the rise of television and motion pictures as oth
er mediums for children's entertainment. Children's authors of the fifties had to come up with a wide variety of subjects for children of all ages in order to maintain readership. Television made children more involved in the adult world than they had be
en previously, because they watched the same programs that the adults did and engaged in discussion with the adults about the programs. The advancement of technology and television encouraged interest in subjects such as submarines rather than red wagons
thus gave way to a more sophisticated child reader than had been seen in the past. The children of the fifties were consumed with a desire to "know" and so there was a "two fold challenge: first, to spur the gifted on to greater heights and depths in re
ading, and second, to provide less difficult but mature and authentic materials for boys and girls whose age and level of maturity exceeded their ability to read. Another trend in the publishing of children's books had its inception in the newly aroused
public concern for the teaching of beginning reading and expansion of individual reading beyond the text book materials. One fortunate outcome of this movement was the appearance of attractive, lively, ?easy' books, controlled in vocabulary, yet full of
interest and well illustrated at their best, but sometimes silly and insulting to the intelligence of children and wooden in story and illustration at their worst" (Smith, 63).
Eloise embodies the ideals of the movement within children's literature of the 1950's, through it's simplistic nature yet socially relevant themes. In addition, the book reflects the evolution of children's literature throughout the century, in bo
th its structural and thematic presentation. The "perfecting of the picture book" which evolved throughout the century, no doubt aided Eloise in holding the child's interest during the initial stages of learning to read. Eloise in many ways is th
e new female American who, after the settling of the west and two world wars is a far cry from the "perfect lady." The book reveals the changed attitudes towards children and the process of growing up. Children are now treated with respect by authors as
they were neither talked "at" nor "down to." Forces within them were to be stimulated through imaginative presentation of experience and not through preaching and moralizing. Eloise represents a real human personality rather than a type and subtly intr
oduces the notion of diversity within a society trying to impose conformity through social establishments such as suburbia.
In retrospect, we can see that Eloise is one of the first "modern females" because Thompson frees her from gender roles defined by sexism, during a time when sexism was not entirely discussed or defined. Very few female characters in children's literatur
e displayed Eloise's individual characteristics that one might term as "feminist" today. Her socially liberated persona and her non-traditional family structure make her an ancestor of the children of the late eighties and nineties as well as an intrigu
ing character even for readers today. Sexism is defined as "the predetermination of people's choices in life on the basis on sex, without regard to individual differences" by the Joint Organizations Seminar Discussion Papers of the three Victorian Teac
her's Unions in September of 1975 and typical female characteristics include: dependence, passivity, fragility, subjectivity and over empathic tendencies. Eloise does not embody the traditional characteristics that previous female characters in children's
literature personified, but rather exhibits male characteristics such as: independence, aggression, leadership, task orientation, courageousness and confidence (Wignell, 9). Eloise, through the inversion of gender roles, offers the girl reader a
positive image of woman's physical, emotional and intellectual potential by encouraging her to reach her own full person hood, free of traditionally imposed limitations. However, the author's circumspection not to shock her contemporary readers by stray
ing too radically from the social norms also attributes to the popularity of the book. Eloise displays some of the archetypal characteristics of a socialized female child through her dress and hair ribbon as well as her ownership of dolls. She wears a t
ypical female outfit, but is not the picture of physical beauty (as seen by her untidy hair and attire) like many of her literary counterparts. This allows female readers to identify with her, yet also admire her individuality and vibrant spirit.
The lack of traditional parental influence in Eloise, makes the book a thematic predecessor and serves as commentary to the renewed interest in parenting techniques of the 1960's and 1970's. Attention to child raising strategies emerged during th
e turn of the twentieth century, because families migrated to the cities from rural areas. Since fathers were no longer in the home during the day due to urban jobs, women became the head of households and the primary parent in charge of child rearing.
Many pamphlets and "experts" in the area of child study began to appear, thus the permissive and laissez-fare child rearing era of the previous century was over. The parent-education movement developed into a "well-organized social movement" and reached
millions of people for the first time. A utilization of scientific methods in the 1920's replaced prior reliance on biblical references in regard to child raising. As the movement grew, and as parenthood lead to increasing frustration, the number of p
arent-education programs increased as a result of the studies conducted by experts such as Skinner, Spock, Ginott, and Dreikurs (Smith, 96). The civil rights and the women's movement of the 1960's brought with them a social awareness of the changing role
s of parents. Federal legislation and funding encouraged parenting programs and studies about alternative family life-styles. Eloise, published at the tail end of the "baby boom" reflects the beginning of the nation's recognition of nontraditiona
l families and life-style variations. In the 1930's through the 1950's, sociological studies of the single parent families multiplied. These studies were primarily about single mothers and their problems intrinsic in single parenting and the effect of t
he father's absence on children.
Eloise's situation is unique even among the social deviant families of the time. Her family structure differs from the majority of single parent American families, because the sole parent does not head the family, but rather entrusts Eloise's upbringing
to "Nanny." Additionally, Eloise does not suffer from the economic hardships that studies have shown most single parent families endure. According to studies of the time, "Employment is the major source of income for single mothers; two out of every t
hree are in the work force" (Hamner, 194). It is not clear from the text whether Eloise's mother is independently wealthy (Eloise tells us that she own a considerable amount of AT&T stock) or whether she works at an easily defined job. If we assume tha
t she is independently wealthy and leaves her child to live in a hotel with a nanny, the scenario becomes so unusual that it is the result of an unrealistic eccentric family, rather than reflective of the struggling families of the time. In this way, Tho
mpson puts a humorous and positive spin on an unfortunate situation. She quietly comments on society while keeping the subject matter light in order to avoid alienating her reader, and instead attempts to ignite imagination and fantasy within the common
adult and child reader.
However, if we rise above the book's apparent light hearted nature, it is clear that Eloise is a child without a real home and family and yet apparently happy. Thompson places Eloise's home within a public area, to comment on the literary trend throughou
t the century of the "separation of spheres." For Eloise, there is no distinction between the public and the private realms, because her home incorporates the two. Thompson's failure to mention a father influence, as well as Eloise's mother's absence, ne
gate the traditional notion of mother in the home and father in the workplace. Moreover, she is a product of public life rather than of family life because she spends her days in the hotel attending public events. Her precocious attributes are derived f
rom her daily interaction with adults rather than with children of her own age. It is interesting to note that Eloise actually attends debutante balls and weddings; coming of age events for upper class girls, yet imagines that she attends a General Motor
s meeting. Thompson is again careful not to be too overt with her social commentary through support of accepted socialization procedures and norms. We can infer from this that Eloise's independence and unusual characteristics for a girl of the 1950's, ar
e a result of her liberation from the traditional home based within the "cult of domesticity."
The book was a best seller in the 50's because Thompson introduced new characteristics to the female character on the brink of social reformation, and remains popular today because Eloise embodies many of the characteristics women continue to strive to at
tain. Thompson's caution in openly introducing radical social ideas attributes to the book's popularity because it allows readers to absorb change in ideology, rather than abruptly force them to accept the change. Eloise appeals to both children and adu
lts because she is an assertive and independent female child, yet retains her sense of imagination common to most children her age. Regardless of whether or not Eloise is seen as a child within a healthy environment, her introduction of new gender roles
and family structure is emblematic of social reformation which began during the late fifties and continues today.
Hamner, Tommie J. Parenting in Contemporary Society. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall, 1990.
Smith, Dora V. Fifty Years of Children's Books. Champaign: The National Council of Teachers of English, 1963.
Wignell, Edna. Boys Whistle Girls Sing. Richmond: Primary Education Publishing, 1976.