Wednesday, February 4, 2009


Utopia - 1: an imaginary and indefinitely remote place. 2 often capitalized : a place of ideal perfection especially in laws, government, and social conditions. 3: an impractical scheme for social improvement.

Where are the Utopias in our children's books? They are surprisingly scarce on the ground. Justifiably, I guess, as it is probably oxymoronic to have a Utopia and dramatic tension. Happy endings - Yes. Quests for some better place - Yes. Dystopic worlds - by the galaxy full. But descriptions of an ideal place - pretty thin on the ground.

Why should this be? Well, perhaps it is that when our children are young, we shield them from painful realities; we are still coaxing them into a difficult world trying to use excitement and happiness. Our real world efforts to build Utopias have had a pretty dismal track record and don't fit too well with that agenda of happiness and excitement.

Part of it is perhaps disposition. Those authors that are fully engaged with the weakness of human nature and can, without jaundiced eye, view our strivings and shortfalls and capture them most artfully are the ones least likely to believe in a Utopia which by its nature is predicated on the rational perfectibility of man. Those writers that believe in the perfectibility of man through reason are perhaps a bit didactic and prone to write treatises rather than rip-roaring adventure stories.

All our collective modern efforts to achieve an engineered state of affairs where happiness and fulfillment reign, have ended in tragedy - Nationalism, National Socialism, Communism, Fascism. All are predicated on the belief that man can be educated or forced into a perfect world. All have end up being exercises in totalitarianism.

From our earliest writings, we have the pattern that has remained true down the ages: the Bible instructs that Utopia/Eden cannot be attained through man's efforts alone. Virtually all our stories follow this model. An ideal world is postulated to exist, people strive to get there or bring it into being. If they do, though, it always proves to be illusory. Something core to being human has been abandoned (H.G. Wells' The Time Machine) or the achievement is a temporary one before human nature reasserts itself (Mallory's Morte d'Arthur and the full panoply of the Arthurian legends of Camelot).

Utopias of whatever kind usually end up being used by authors as a foil for illuminating the nature of man.

There is, though, another aspect of Utopias that makes them almost inherently misanthropic and that is an incapacity to accommodate variety or the unexpected. Almost all Utopias are predicated upon some form of predictability (often enforced as with Aldous Huxley's Brave New World or George Orwell's Animal Farm or 1984) or capacity to shield themselves from undesired change (such as James Hilton's Lost Horizon).

Change and engagement with the world are part of the human condition and part of the excitement for children growing up. They look forward with varying degrees of trepidation or excitement to the next big adventure, the next big milestone of accomplishment.

So most of the stories about some idyllic Utopia are really cast as a morality tale - Be careful what you wish for. That message, particularly for younger children, is usually delivered through rhymes, folktales and legends. We don't really need Utopias to carry that meme along.

There are a couple of utopia-like stories at the picture book level but most of the candidates are with Independent Readers and most especially at the Young Adult level. The slings and arrows of middle school have sensitized children to some of the more Machiavellian and dark elements of the human condition. It has predisposed them to regard the heartfelt plea "Can't we all just get along" as a nice sentiment with little probability of eventuating on its own accord.

For all that there aren't all that many Utopia based books out there, I think it is worthwhile having them around. They are actually an entertaining introduction to the questions underpinning all philosophy - how do we regulate our affairs to lead a good life. Getting children to consider these issues in the context of a story is a good launching point for more serious philosophical considerations.

Lord of the Flies was my introduction to this very narrow subgenre. I read it at perhaps twelve or fourteen and initially read it solely as an action/survival story. Having read it though, I found myself rereading it a number of times, fascinated by this idyllic paradise in the South Pacific, trying to understand what went wrong and how to deal with a situation where your opponents don't want to negotiate or resolve or compromise. They just want you to die or submit. Oddly pertinent to the conundrum we face on the world stage at this time.

For somewhat older readers there is always the practical lessons of managing affairs as relate by Machiavelli in The Prince and Ayn Rand's massive but still intriguing and relevant Atlas Shrugged.

There are other well-known tales which either skirt around the issues of god governance and the nature of man (Gulliver's Travels for example) or which explore the dangers of a putative utopia (Brave New World, 1984, and Animal Farm for example). I can only think of a couple truly cheery utopia like places in the independent reader levels, specifically The Wizard of Oz and Twenty-One Balloons.

We have put together a list below that is heavy on stories for IR and YA. What books can you think of that introduce children to the idea of an ideal world and how to achieve it?

This book list is divided into three sections:

(1) Picture Books

(2) Books for Independent Readers

(3) Young Adults

The list begins below with Picture Books, but you can use the following link to skip directly to the Independent Readers or the Young Adults sections.

Go to books for Independent Readers

Go to books for Young Adults

Picture Books

Hey, Al by Arthur Yorinks and illustrated by Richard Egielski Highly Recommended

Independent Reader

The Wonderful World of Oz by L. Frank Baum Highly Recommended

Twenty-One Balloons by William Pene Du Bois Highly Recommended

Lord of the Flies by William Golding Highly Recommended

Brave New World and Brave New World Revisited by Aldous Huxley Highly Recommended

1984 by George Orwell Highly Recommended

Animal Farm by George Orwell Highly Recommended

Gulliver's Travels by Jonathan Swift Recommended

Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien Highly Recommended

The Time Machine by H. G. Wells Highly Recommended

King Arthur and His Knights of the Round Table by Roger Lancelyn Green and illustrated by Aubrey Beardsley Highly Recommended

Gulliver's Travels by Jonathan Swift and illustrated by Scott McKowen Recommended

The Swiss Family Robinson by Johann David Wyss and illustrated by Louis John Rhead Recommended

Young Adult

The Restaurant at the End of the Universe by Douglas Adams Highly Recommended

The Mysterious Island by Jules Verne and illustrated by N.C. Wyeth Highly Recvommended

Lost Horizon by James Hilton Recommended

The Prince by Niccolo Machiavelli Recommended

Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand Recommended

Four Plays by Aristophanes by Aristophanes and translated by William Arrowsmith Suggested

The City of God by Saint Augustine and translated by Marcus Dods Suggested

Erewhon by Samuel Butler Suggested

Ecotopia by Ernest Callenbach Suggested

Island by Aldous Huxley Suggested

The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin Suggested

Utopia by Thomas More Suggested

News from Nowhere and Other Writings by William Morris Suggested

The Republic of Plato by Plato and translated by Allan David Bloom Suggested

Ten Days That Shook the World by John Reed Suggested

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