Remembering Jean Merrill, and Her Political Children’s Books

It’s been a year when many of the people whose art shaped my childhood and young adult years, from Maurice Sendak to Nora Ephron, have shuffled off this mortal coil, but I was particularly sad to learn this weekend of the death of Jean Merrill, who wrote books that treated children as if they were more than capable of thinking about politics. If Sendak trusted children to reckon with the fact that the world could be a frightening place and that they had responsibilities within it, Merrill expected her young readers to have worldviews and ideas and allegiances.

Her best, most famous book, The Pushcart War is almost entirely out of print now, which is a shame, both because it’s a terrific, detailed allegory for urban politics, and one in which children play a critical role. In that novel, New York City’s pushcart peddlers find their livelihood, and indeed their lives, under threat with the introduction of bigger trucks by a number of trucking companies. The trucks block the spaces where they sell their goods, and have started pushing and injuring peddlers who refuse to relinquish the spaces that have been theirs for years. The trucking companies, of course, have financial sway with the mayor, so the peddlers begin a lobbying campaign that involves everything from a civil disobedience and sabotage campaign that sends one of their number to prison, a high-stakes poker game with the mayor and trucking moguls that creates a fund to support the peddlers’ activities, the enlistment of a pretty but dippy celebrity, and the independent mobilization of children on the pushcarts’ behalf.

The pushcart peddlers, as it turns out, played a significant role in city children’s lives, selling them toys and snacks, and acting as part of a community safety net while their parents were at work. That adult politicians and businessmen fail to see their interests and the possibility of their mobilization opens space for New York children to assert their loyalties and preferences, and helps shift the campaign. It’s a great long-term story about organizing, and one that provides a great template for children to think about the conditions that govern their homes, schools, and parks as political issues every bit as worthy as the adult interests that tend to govern decision-making.

Then, there’s The Toothpaste Millionaire. The story of a friendship between a white girl and an African-American boy, it’s another story about the ability of children to see opportunities that adults miss, and their ability to shift markets and communities when they’re underestimated. Rufus Mayflower, the main character of The Toothpaste Millionaire, in a series of events narrated by Kate Mackinstrey, his best friend, gets irritated by the price of tubed toothpaste and sets himself the challenge of manufacturing a gallon of a similarly effective product for the same cost. It’s a funny little story, but like The Pushcart War, an allegory about corporate complacency, and about respect for what children can accomplish in their own communities.

We trust children and young adults to handle a wide array of concepts, from choosing your family as an adult in the Twilight novels to torture and bigotry in the Harry Potter series. But there’s something odd about the standard demurral of young adult fiction to engage with political and economic systems, except in a cursory or fantastical way that’s at a remove from the levers of power in our own society. Children are affected by politics long before we give them a voting say in them. And if they can advocate for the right for their parents to marry or act as symbols of the need for health care reform, it would be nice if more authors followed Merrill’s lead and treated their readers as citizens.