harriet the spy cover

Kids Reading Children’s Books from the ’60s and ’70s Don’t Understand Why The Characters Got to Go Outside without Adults

Harriet the Spy. Encyclopedia Brown. Meg and brother Charles Wallace, Ramona, Beezus, Pippi, and that My Side of the Mountain Kid (what WAS his name?). They all shared something other than spunk.


Freedom of movement was a given in mid-century children’s literature. Of course the kids starring in books did more than most of their human peers. They solved crimes, befriended beavers, saved parents stuck in other dimensions. But the NORMAL stuff they did — hopping on their bikes, walking into town, playing outside — THAT has become almost as mythic as the ability to fly or cast spells.

Over at Let Grow today I’ve re-published an essay by a Free-Range fan about how strange it felt to read A Pocketful of Cricket to her son…knowing he would not be growing up in an era affording him anything like the freedom she’d had as a kid.

You know, it is sad to write that, but it is also infuriating. There is no REALITY-based reason kids today can’t be part of the world that is so interesting — that is theirs. Our culture seems to think nothing of depriving the people we ostensibly love the most — children — of the chance to be fully alive when they are young. Having adventures. Meeting crickets. Making some memories when something goes totally wrong or totally right.

We say we can’t let them have the freedom their parents and grandparents had because we are trying to keep them safe. But this relentless focus on safety only makes sense if we are talking about a Rembrandt. Might was well keep it safe in a dimly lit, temperature-controlled room. There’s no upside to it being outside. All it can do is get hurt.

Our culture persists in thinking about kids as Rembrandts, not Ramonas, Harriets, Pippis or Encyclopedia Browns. We have lost our minds.

So go check out that beautiful essay on children’s lit at Let Grow. And then tell me some new ideas for unlocking the vision/prison of perfect safety called modern childhood. You can always post a comment here, or write to me: [email protected] .

3 Responses to Kids Reading Children’s Books from the ’60s and ’70s Don’t Understand Why The Characters Got to Go Outside without Adults

  1. ClemenceDane April 16, 2021 at 2:19 pm #

    There is a lot that kids today won’t understand, and it seems absolutely tragic to me. If I have kids I will be going out of my way to expose them to as many different books, cultures and viewpoints as I can, and helping them to come to their own conclusions about them. I will also make sure I live in a community where they can have some measure of freedom, both physical and intellectual. I will make sure we have all the banned books available on our bookshelves.

    What our society is becoming terrifies me as a Big L Liberal. I will do my part to fight it from my own little corner.

  2. Corey Widen April 16, 2021 at 3:06 pm #

    This is so timely for me – I just got my daughter to watch my fav childhood movie Disney’s Escape from Witch Mountain – the opening scenes there are a bunch of kids playing a baseball game (no adults watching or coaching). We were watching and my daughter said – “where are all the parents?”

  3. Margret April 22, 2021 at 2:11 am #

    “That My Side of the Mountain kid” was Sam Gribley. I even remember the name of his falcon: he called her Frightful.