The concept of character has two uses in children’s literature discourse. One use belongs to literary criticism, as the critic and reader observe the people in a story or novel as “characters,” that is, as agents or actors (Burke 1973) whose actions move a story through time. The other use refers to the moral qualities of a person. These uses of “character” are related, as the root of the English word lies in a Greek word for a tool used to mark or engrave a material (Oxford English Dictionary [OED]).

By the seventeenth century, the English word came to mean both “the individuality impressed by nature and habit on man or nation; mental or moral constitution” and a “personality invested with distinctive attributes and qualities, by a novelist or dramatist” (OED). In his 1927 lectures later published as Aspects of the Novel, E. M. Forster distinguished “flat” from “round” characters, the former being relatively simple and predictable in their thoughts and actions, such as the Wolf in the Grimms’ “Little Red Riding Hood” (1812) or the title character of The History of Little Goody Two-Shoes (1765). The latter kind, such as Anne in L. M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables (1908) or Jin in Gene Luen Yang’s American Born Chinese (2006), are more complex, full of tensions, contradictions, and human unpredictability—in short, more like real people. The complexity of characters in children’s literature has increased over time. As adults came to see children as more complex people, not just as “miniature adults,” so the authors for children came to write more complex and “real” characters in the twentieth century.

The concept of character as a moral quality of the individual reflected bourgeois gender arrangements in the nineteenth century. Historians see this very masculine concept as a product of the changing nature of men’s work in the Industrial Revolution, in the creation of “separate spheres” of life (men in the workplace, women at home to take care of the moral education of the children), and in the related “crisis in masculinity” in the waning decades of the century. The concept also weds religious—especially Protestant—ideas to work and manliness. The idea of “muscular Christianity” arose in this era. As exemplified by fiction such as Thomas Hughes’s Tom Brown’s Schooldays (1857), “muscular Christianity” saw physical fitness, sports, and outdoor recreation as good for the boy’s mind and morals as well as his body. Related to the concept of character were the concepts of honor and duty. The ideal man of the era demonstrated “good character,” which meant that he understood and met his responsibilities to family, work, and the nation.

Boys and young men received instruction in good character through a number of genres. Between 1870 and 1910, for example, there was a flood of new nonfiction “success manuals” offering advice to young men on the virtues of “honesty, frugality, industry, reliability, and loyalty” (Hilkey 1997). These manuals, along with novels of the period, proclaimed the central truth of Andrew Carnegie’s (1889) famous essay “Wealth”—namely, that the man of good character, the man who practices the social and moral virtues, will enjoy tangible and intangible wealth.

The advice manuals were for young men, but the fiction reinforcing these messages reached down to even younger boys. Horatio Alger, Jr.’s stories of young men whose fortunes improve through hard work, moral virtue, and some luck, as told in novels beginning with Ragged Dick (1868), became so famous that the phrase “Horatio Alger story” has come to signify the formulaic “rags-to-riches” story popular in American culture. Edward Stratemeyer’s syndicate mass-produced hundreds of formulaic novels, usually in series, written by a stable of authors who worked under pseudonyms (Billman 1986; Johnson 1993). Stratemeyer began in 1899 with his own Rover Boys novels, but the syndicate eventually produced some of the most famous younger reader series in American history, including the Hardy Boys, Tom Swift, and Nancy Drew (Greenwald 2004; Rehak 2005; Connelly 2008).

By the early twentieth century, some adults were worrying that the adventure and violence in these novels were having adverse affects on young male readers. A few decades earlier there had been a “moral panic” about sensational “dime novels,” and by 1910 the new concern was about the sorts of novels that the Stratemeyer syndicate was producing. In 1914 the Boy Scouts of America (BSA) enlisted Grosset and Dunlap, the publishers of juvenile series novels, in a project to create a series known as “Every Boys Library—Boy Scout Edition.” The series bore the imprimatur of the BSA and published a range of wholesome fiction meant to demonstrate good, strong character, from reprints of novels by Jack London and Ernest Thompson Seton to new works (e.g., Dimock 1912).

The novels of Percy Keese Fitzhugh (1876–1950) stand out as more complex fictional accounts of moral dilemmas and how boys might try to employ virtue to act as men of character. Beginning with Tom Slade, Boy Scout (1915), over the next two decades Fitzhugh wrote dozens of series novels with Boy Scouts as the central characters. These novels, published with the approval of the BSA by Grosset and Dunlap, departed from the simplistic moral didacticism of some of the other juvenile fiction. Fitzhugh uses humor and seriousness to explore the difficulties of applying rules (such as the twelve points of the Scout Law) to real situations, where the rules might conflict (e.g., in Fitzhugh 1920). The Fitzhugh novels show the boy reader that a man of character can face moral or ethical dilemmas, can act according to his best judgment, and (most important) can accept the consequences of his decision “like a man.”

Historians see that first decade of the twentieth century as a watershed era, when American society moved from a production-oriented economy to a consumer-based one, and the nineteenth-century concept of “character” gave way to the twentieth-century concept of “personality” (Susman 1984). Whereas “character” was attached to masculine social virtues, including honor and duty, “personality” invoked a “real self” apart from social roles and even from the restricting rules of society—and, unlike “character,” “personality” included feminine selves, too. So “character” largely disappeared from children’s literature from the 1920s through the 1970s. More precisely, while some authors of children’s literature still promoted social and personal virtues, talk of “character” seemed old-fashioned and even oppressive. It took the “culture wars” of the 1980s to revive the concept.

The election of Ronald Reagan to the presidency in 1980 and the role of the Religious Right in that victory signaled to many that the United States was experiencing new culture wars pitting social and religious orthodoxy against progressivism (Hunter 1991). As happened nearly a century earlier, many adults perceived a “character crisis” in young people and vowed to restore moral education, “character education,” to schools and other institutions socializing the young (Hunter 2000). At the center of these efforts are the “Character Counts!” movement and network, created by the Center for Youth Ethics, a project of the Josephson Institute of Ethics (founded 1987), and the Center for the Fourth and Fifth Rs (Respect and Responsibility) at the Cortland campus of the State University of New York.

Character Counts! and related organizations recommend fiction for children and youth on their websites. On the Character Counts! website is a list of “children’s books that build character,” coded by reading level and by one of the six “Pillars of Character” (trustworthiness, respect, responsibility, fairness, caring, and citizenship) that the particular novel or storybook reinforces. Schools and public libraries put similar lists on their websites, often using the same “Pillars” to help parents or young readers select books. On these lists appear some familiar authors, such as Betsy Byars, Louis Sachar, Armstrong Perry, and Cynthia Voight. Sachar’s Marvin Redpost: Why Pick on Me? (1993b), for example, receives praise for its attention to trust, while his Marvin Redpost: Is He a Girl? (1993a) teaches children about caring. Some lists include more controversial authors, such as S. E. Hinton and J. K. Rowling, both of whom have experienced attempts to remove their books from school libraries and curricula.

The periodical banning of books for children and youth signals the very political nature of reading fiction amid the culture wars. Few adults would argue against the six virtues touted by Character Counts!, nor would many object to children’s literature that values the virtues. The politicizing of children’s literature, dragging authors and books into the culture wars, harms this project of communicating virtues to children and young readers, especially when some of the recommended literature presents simplistic didacticism and some sites steer parents and teachers away from juvenile fiction that is more complex and morally conflicted.

The gender issue permeates the debates over character education and literature in the early twenty-first century. The sense of a character crisis and the response by juvenile fiction writers a century ago was distinctly male. The present-day adult moral panic about character includes girls, but the term “character,” with all of its historical contexts, seems not quite right in talking about the qualities the society now desires in girls and young women. Juvenile fiction for girls dealing with bullying, sexual abuse, teen pregnancy, and drug use—unlikely to appear on Character Counts! and related lists of recommended reading—certainly addresses the qualities of “strong” girls.

The concept of good “character” is so tied to the culturally conservative position in the culture wars (Hunter 1991, 2000), and is so locked into a nineteenth-century masculine concept of moral behavior, that the term no longer seems useful in thinking about the role of literature in the moral education of both boys and girls in the twenty-first century. Fieldwork-based research on the everyday lives of children and adolescents that seeks to understand how youth experience and deal with moral dilemmas in their everyday lives (e.g., Goodwin 2006) now sees boys and girls as much more alike than previously thought in the ways they deal with problems. If, as this research suggests, girls are becoming more like boys in their friendship cultures, and if both boys and girls actually practice more nuanced moral reasoning than the rigid, absolutist positions advocated by most “character education” experts, then reader-response criticism needs to respect the “native” categories young people use in thinking and talking about negotiating challenges, conflicts, and moral dilemmas in their everyday lives. Whether or not the term “character” is a native category among young people, male or female, remains to be seen.

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