“Today Was a Difficult Day”: Reading Power in Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse

Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse, like most children’s literature, is about power. From desks in a semicircle to Lilly’s fathers’ no-frills cheese balls, nearly every aspect of the book explores some facet of what power looks like in a classroom setting. In order to understand the nature of the adult-child power dynamic at the heart of the book, it is useful to conduct a close reading using not only the aetonormative framework articulated by Maria Nikolajeva[1] but also Clémentine Beauvais’s metacritique of this theory. Coupled with Nikolajeva’s theory, a synthesis of the “most prominent works of post-Rosean children’s literature criticism,” Beauvais’s criticism enables us to “solve” the central problem of Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse in a way that aetonormativity alone cannot (Beauvais 2012, p. 75).

On the surface, Lily’s Purple Plastic Purse appears to encourage children to embrace the positive traits of creativity, individuality, and self-expression. These traits allow them to explore their own ideas and develop their own identities. Mr. Slinger, Lilly’s beloved teacher, encourages his students to think creatively; his classroom space reflects this, from the Lightbulb Lab in the back of the room to the students’ semicircle of desks. He apparently wants make school a welcoming, fun place for students to learn, as reflected in his positive attitude and classroom practices. At the end of the book, he even joins Lilly in her interpretive dance. Power, it seems, lies in the hands of the children, who are given nearly unlimited imaginative freedom; thus this book seems an example of subversive children’s literature[2].

However, closer reading reveals that Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse does in fact reinforce adult power. Joseph Schwarcz articulates two categories of relationships between pictures and texts: “congruency,” in which illustrations and texts complement each other, and “deviation,” in which illustrations oppose the text (1982, p. 16). The deviations we see in Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse articulate what we should really think of Lilly and Mr. Slinger. From the onset, Lilly declares that she loves school, though it quickly becomes apparent that her reasons for doing so are based in a desire for control and attention. When we learn that Lilly loves pointy pencils, the accompanying image depicts her testing their sharpness with a sneaky smile—what does Lilly intend to do with these pencils, exactly? She doesn’t seem particularly interested in writing with them. We also learn that Lilly loves squeaky chalk, or rather, using it to elicit a reaction from her classmates; clicking her boots on the shiny hallway, which she does as an onlooking adult chastises her for running; and having her own desk, which she enjoys because it is hers alone to control—as emphasized by her self-satisfied exclamation of “Mine!”. Lilly is thus presented from the onset of the book as being attuned to and interested in dynamics of power.

Her fascination with power is reflected in her desire to not only win the approval, but ultimately follow in the footsteps, of her teacher. Mr. Slinger is first introduced in terms of his unconventional yet welcoming physical appearance and classroom practices. However, the accompanying illustration of Mr. Slinger depicts him unsmiling, standing at the head of his classroom beside a sign that reads “The boss is in,” ordering students to “Listen up!” He holds a globe, subtly reinforcing the scope of his knowledge and power as he literally holds the whole world in his hand. The chalkboard reads: “The Global Village: One World!” There is an obvious analogy between world and classroom, applying the “one world” value of unity and cooperation to an educational setting in which all participants are responsible for working to maximize learning. The regulatory power enforcing this cooperation seems to belong to Mr. Slinger. Once we know to look for it, we see evidence of Mr. Slinger’s power everywhere: from the Lightbulb Lab—which prescribes where, when, and how students are allowed to generate ideas—to the semicircle of desks, which perfectly exemplifies perceived choice, a “strategy that allows kids to feel they have a choice while at the same time keeping their choice within the structure you’ve decided is best for them” (Kolari 2010). Even the snacks he provides for his students reinforce moments when the teacher and students are in agreement—similar to the common practice of using treats when training puppies.

Lilly seems not only aware of Mr. Slinger’s power but actively drawn to it. She demonstrates her eagerness to earn his approval and validation by working hard to seem extra creative and helpful—traits prized by the classroom-level model of education which Mr. Slinger regulates—by writing stories that portray her teacher as a hero and staying after school to clap erasers. She also demonstrates an awareness of the fact that Mr. Slinger has power over his students, and perhaps more impressively, she has a sense of the locus of his power. When she pretends to be Mr. Slinger, she acts as an authority over her baby brother rather than over her parents, suggesting that she realizes the power of a teacher is rooted in age difference. She also declares that “Teachers know everything!” and expresses a desire for a set of picture encyclopedias, suggesting that she correlates both knowledge and age with teachers’ power. Lilly, we can conclude, is not only acutely aware of adult power but hopes one day obtain this power for herself.

The real conflict of the book occurs when Lilly feels as though Mr. Slinger has abused his power by taking away her new possessions. When Lilly challenges normative adult power by asserting her own, she is shut down and punished—despite theoretically being encouraged to express her passions and identity within the classroom. She is not allowed even temporary freedom and power; when the class observes her new things, Lilly is not validated or empowered. She is no longer in agreement with Mr. Slinger about the rules he imposes, a fact emphasized by her inability to eat the pre-recess treats as usual. What follows in the narrative is Lilly’s shift from shame to anger at Mr. Slinger, whom she literally demonizes in her new drawing and accuses of “stealing” and being a “thief.” It is Mr. Slinger, not Lilly, who deserves punishment for violating the rules, she believes, asserting that she no longer wants to be a teacher and rejecting the prospect of being like Mr. Slinger in any way. However, after realizing that he has slipped a note and bag of treats into her purse, she tells her parents what happened and, the next day, repairs the relationship after apologizing and giving him a new drawing. She even gets the freedom she was denied earlier when she is allowed to bring her things back to school and gets to show them off during Sharing Time—but this is a freedom granted to her, and only as long as she continues to abide by Mr. Slinger’s rules. Upon close reading, we find that Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse in fact confirms adult normativity and adult power.

Yet one critical aspect of the narrative is lost in this reading. Lilly moves from sad to angry to furious as a result of thinking, but we as readers are not allowed to know her thoughts. She then moves from being angry to feeling guilty and small as a result of Mr. Slinger’s olive branch of forgiveness. And when she expresses contrition, she emphasizes how sorry she is by using the word “really” a total of 27 times in her writing and speech. But what is it, exactly, that Lilly has done wrong? Lilly’s parents know, Mr. Slinger knows, even Lilly knows—but to the reader, her infraction is much less clear. Wolfgang Iser articulates a concept of “gap-filling,” in which the reader acts as co-creator of a work by supplying that which is implied but unwritten (1978). Here, we can fill in the gaps to surmise that Lilly is either sorry for breaking Mr. Slinger’s rules or for creating a hurtful picture of him, or both. But these actions are understandable, considering Lilly’s age and preoperational cognitive development, and even justifiable, considering that Lilly conceptualizes adult power as something to be used for good—and she would not consider limiting her self-expression a good use of power. (Hansen 2005, p. 43). Are these two actions really worth such a degree of regret and apology?

Here it becomes useful to turn to Beauvais’s critique of Nikolajeva’s aetonormative theory. Beauvais argues that children’s literature articulates an adult-child power dynamic “of a sophistication that precludes any easy attribution of ‘empowerment’ or ‘disempowerment’ to one or the other party” (2012, p. 78). She argues for a more nuanced conception of “power” as either “authority” or “might.”[3] Beauvais uses Hannah Arendt’s conceptualization of authority as being “a stable hierarchical relationship finding legitimacy in…the recognition by both parties that each finds in this relationship an advantage” (Arendt 1960, p. 93). Authority is legitimate, and it is “traditionally augmented [by knowledge and experience] as time passes” (Beauvais 2012, p. 81).

Returning to Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse with an understanding of “power” more nuanced and complex than the umbrella term itself suggests, we can now understand why Lilly might be so contrite. Under this reconceptualization of “power,” Mr. Slinger is an authority figure within a system in which Lilly herself repeatedly agrees to participate. Even when her things are confiscated, Lilly is the one who gives them up. There is no coercion, persuasion, or force at play. When we recognize Mr. Slinger as a legitimate authority rather than an oppressive power, Lilly’s reaction to his note and treats becomes comprehensible. Instead of filling in the “gaps” by reading Mr. Slinger’s note as reminding Lilly that she cannot have a good day unless she submits to his rules, we can instead surmise that his note is reminding Lilly of her agreement to follow the rules, which are designed to make the classroom a productive learning space. In this case, Lilly’s guilt is not simply a result of regretting her disruptive actions or misplaced anger; Lilly feels guilty because she sees how each of her actions rejects the authority of Mr. Slinger that she accepts through participation in class. Additionally, Lilly’s earlier connection between knowledge, age, and power is much more coherent under this nuanced definition of the term; as people grow older and more knowledgeable, they gain authority. In this way, clarifying “power” explains a critical discrepancy in the aetonormative reading of Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse.

Perhaps more importantly, Beauvais’s criticism is useful because it treats with subtlety and thoughtfulness the notion that children’s literature is fundamentally about adult-child power dynamics. She cautions that our impulse as children’s literature critics to assert that “adult power” is at the core of the discipline is a “double-sided assertion: primarily, a sophisticated demonstration of an analytical mind, not fooled by literary tricks; but also, perhaps, an ambiguously celebratory affirmation that the adult is always in control” (2012, p. 84). The solution, it seems, is to interrogate the notion of “power” and extract from it more precise and nuanced meanings. In Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse, reframing “power” more specifically as “authority” allows us to view the book as a model of how legitimate authority should look—a particularly important conclusion given the book’s audience of young readers and the didactic nature of the medium. While this book may not be subversive in the sense articulated by Nikolajeva in her theory of aetonormativity, it is undoubtedly challenging the notion that all power is oppressive, in much the same way as does Beauvais’s critique. Perhaps it is through reading books like these that we can teach more children to reconceptualize power as Lilly does: with critical awareness, reflection, and affection for no-frills cheese balls.

 

Notes

[1] Nikolajeva defines aetonormativity as “adult normativity that governs the way children’s literature has been patterned from its emergence until the present day” (2009, p. 16). By “asserting age-related normativity as the essential characteristic of the children’s text,” Nikolajeva asserts that “the children’s book displays representations of the adult-child relationship from the point of view of the adult, [thereby effectively reinforcing] both the hegemony of adulthood and the othering of childhood in various oppressive ways, affecting multiple aspects of their coexistence” (Beauvais 2012, p. 75).

[2] Related to aetonormative inquiry is Bahktin’s concept of the carnival (1968), in which children, who are usually oppressed and powerless, are “allowed, in fiction written by adults for the enlightenment and enjoyment of children, to become strong, rich, brave, powerful, and independent—on certain conditions and for a limited time” (Nikolajeva 2009 p. 17, emphasis in original). These temporary conditions can allow narratives to “have a subversive effect, showing that the rules imposed on the child by the adults are arbitrary” (p. 17). Although “adult normativity is subjected to scrutiny even if it is still presented as normative,” Nikolajeva asserts that “considerably more often [children’s literature] is prescriptive and confirms rather than interrogates it” (pp. 17, 22).

[3]Might is dependent on potential; “children are mighty because their specific form of ‘power’ is dependent on the existence of a future for them in which to act,” Beauvais explains (2012, p. 82, emphasis in original). She sums the distinction up in saying: “To be mighty is to have more time left; to be authoritative is to have more time past” (2012, p. 82).

 

References

Arendt, H. (1960). Between Past and Future: Six Exercises in Political Thought. London: Faber & Faber.

Beauvais, C. (2012). The Problem of ‘Power’: Metacritical Implications of Aetonormativity for Children’s Literature Research. Children’s Literature in Education, 44(1), 74-86.

Bakhtin, Michail. (1968). Rabelais and His World. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Hansen, C. C., & Zambo, D. (2005). Piaget, Meet Lilly: Understanding Child Development through Picture Book Characters. Early Childhood Education Journal, 33(1), 39-45.

Henkes, K. (2004). Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse. New York, NY: Greenwillow Books.

Iser, W. (1978). The Act of Reading: A Theory of Aesthetic Response. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Kolari, J. (2010). Connected Parenting: Set Loving Limits and Build Strong Bonds with Your Child for Life. New York: Avery.

Nikolajeva, M. (2009). Theory, Post-Theory, and Aetonormative Theory. Neohelicon, 36(1), 13-24.

Schwarcz, J. H. (1982). Ways of the Illustrator: Visual Communication in Children’s Literature. Chicago: American Library Association.