By CAROL BRYANT
KEARNEY – Comics, fairytales and children’s literature.
Although it may appear that Susan Honeyman is a traditional English professor who writes scholarly articles about classic authors such as Henry James, Honeyman’s literary interests are far from ordinary.
Honeyman’s fascination with how children are depicted in literature started with James’ works. But they have diverged to topics such as studying how Halloween has changed from a trick-focused holiday to a treat-dominated holiday that the candy industry controls, to examining how children are depicted in the comic strip “Sugar and Spike.”
Early in her academic career, the English professor at the University of Nebraska at Kearney focused on Henry James and 19th- and 20th-century American fiction. She became fascinated with the representation of children in Henry James’ works, which led to her focus on the representation of children in literature.
James’ novel, “What Maisie Knew,” describes the life of Maisie Farange beginning with her childhood, when her parents are divorced. Maisie spends six months of the year with each parent. Because of the instability in her parents’ homes, Maisie eventually chooses as a teen to live with Mrs. Wix, a more reliable adult guardian.
“The point of the novel is that we can’t know what Maisie knows,” Honeyman said. A film based on “What Maisie Knew” was released in 2012.
Honeyman’s research focusing on traditional literature shifted to more contemporary topics such as Halloween and comic strips.
CANDY INDUSTRY CONTROLS HALLOWEEN WITH SWEET TREATS
In the article “Trick or Treat? Halloween Lore, Passive Consumerism, and the Candy Industry,” Honeyman describes Halloween as a holiday once led by children who threatened to play tricks – but now controlled by the candy industry that peddles sweet treats.
“Sweetness has always been used as a way of making both the physical and ideological palatable – a process that seems especially relevant in child rearing and commercial child culture,” according to Honeyman. “I investigate representations of children’s initiations into consumer society at the subtle level of appetite, especially through tempting sweets.
“To my mind a most interesting background for exploring this issue can be found in the commercialization, urban legends, childlore and rituals surrounding Halloween, a holiday that ranks second (after Easter) in the United States for candy consumption and no doubt as such plays an important role in socializing young children as future consumers.”
Honeyman notes that tricks were once widely tolerated as part of a permissive holiday ritualizing an aggressive outlet for the young, and have been preserved longer in rural areas where the “treat” part seemed like begging. In fact, some people call Halloween “Beggar’s Night.”
“The perception of trick-or-treating as begging exposes the problem with the ‘treat’ – it encourages passive consumerism rather than the empowering play of tricking or potential, active, enlightened consumerism,” she wrote.
Honeyman uses examples from sources such as Grimms’ fairy tales, “The Wizard of Oz,” “Meet Me in St. Louis” and the TV shows “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown” and “Malcolm in the Middle” to illustrate her points.
“The candy industry’s hold on Halloween guarantees much commercial control” of the holiday. “It should be no surprise that the vehicle of control is sweetness.”
SUGAR AND SPIKE
Honeyman wrote about Sheldon Mayer’s comic strip “Sugar and Spike” for an article scheduled to be published in “Children’s Literature Association Quarterly” in January 2014. Sugar and Spike was a syndicated DC Comics series from 1956 to 1971. The comic series features two toddlers, Sugar Plumm and Spike Wilson, who communicate with each other and baby animals through baby talk that adults cannot understand.
Honeyman said comics have been called “the folklore of the times.”
Mayer includes baby talk dictionaries within the comic series, defining the vocabulary such as “big doggie” (horse), “meow doggie” (cat) and “little doggie” (mouse).
‘‘Sugar and Spike’’ directly followed heated censorship debates that peaked with 1950’s hysteria concerning juvenile delinquency, according to Honeyman.
“Sugar and Spike’’ was created at a time when the Comics Code Authority (formed in 1954) determined what could and could not be printed in comics, putting complex pressures upon all comics producers, but especially on those addressing young readers,” she said.
Imprisonment is a constant theme in ‘‘Sugar and Spike.’’ The toddlers are often trapped
in playpens, halters, animal cages and anything with bars.
“Ultimately, we don’t want ‘Sugar and Spike’ to unlearn baby talk, speak to their parents, or learn to read. Instead, we can fantasize that they exist in an endless but visually imaginable liminal social space that language and word-literacy cannot contain,” according to Honeyman.
LOVE FOR LANGUAGE
Honeyman’s path to becoming an English professor was non-traditional, just like her choice of topics for journal articles. She describes herself as a remedial reader when she was a child growing up in Wichita, Kan.
“I didn’t understand why reading was relaxing for some people to do. I did love language, such as lyrics to songs. I wrote poems as a child,” Honeyman said.
Although she loved language, her struggles with reading and migraine headaches led her mother to enroll her in an alternative school in Wichita for fourth- through sixth-grade students that promoted the arts. Students did not receive grades, and her migraines became less severe.
“I was encouraged to fall in love with the arts,” Honeyman said.
She knew when she set foot on a college campus that she wanted to be an English major. Honeyman received bachelor’s and master’s degrees in English from the University of Kansas, studied film and comparative literature at the University of Hull in England and earned a doctoral degree in English from Wayne State University in Detroit, Mich.
Honeyman noted that identity politics commonly shape the content of English courses, such as courses that focus on women’s literature. When Honeyman regularly taught an African American literature course at Wayne State University in Detroit, students often wondered “what a white girl from Kansas would know about African American literature” because she had not experienced life as an African-American.
However, even though she is not a child, students do not probe her legitimacy in teaching children’s literature.
“No one has questioned why I am teaching a children’s literature course,” Honeyman said. “Adult authority is rarely questioned when it comes to representing children. It should be.”
Susan Honeyman SIDEBAR
Honeyman has written two books: “Consuming Agency in Fairy Tales, Childlore and Folkliterature” and “Elusive Childhood: Impossible Representation in Modern Fiction.” Routledge published Consuming Agency in 2010, and Ohio State University published Elusive Childhood in 2005.
Her articles have been published in The Henry James Review; Mosaic: A Journal for the Interdisciplinary Study of Literature; Children’s Literature in Education; Marvels and Tales: Journal of Fairy-Tale Studies; The International Journal of Comic Art; The International Journal of Children’s Rights; the Modern Language Association’s Children’s Literature; and International Research in Children’s Literature.
She presented papers at three international conferences and five national conferences and has also delivered presentations and invited lectures at nine events.
She was elected for a four-year term for the Children’s Literature Association’s Committee for Article Award and serves as a reviewer for Children’s Literature, An Annual Publication of the MLA; International Research in Children’s Literature; The Henry James Review; Children’s Literature Association Quarterly; The Lion and the Unicorn; and Marvels and Tales.