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The Lion and the Unicorn

Volumne 26, Number 3, September 2002

Makman, Lisa Hermine. Child Crusaders: The Literature of Global Childhood

The headline reads "Child's Death Stirs Another's Crusade" (Coleman B1). The article, which appeared in the Boston Globe in March 2001, is one of hundreds published since the mid-1990s in the American and Canadian press focusing on the figure of Pakistani youth activist Iqbal Masih. Born into an impoverished family, Masih worked as a debt-bonded laborer in the Pakistani carpet industry from the time he was a small child in the 1980s. After weaving carpets for six years, Masih heroically escaped his employers with the help of a nongovernmental organization, the Bonded Labor Liberation Front (BLLF). Not long after, working with the BLLF, the preadolescent Masih became an internationally renowned advocate for child workers. Eventually, in 1994, when he was twelve years old, he traveled to Boston to receive the Reebok Human Rights Youth in Action Award. Only five months later, he was killed under mysterious circumstances near his home in Muridke, Pakistan. Although there is controversy surrounding the cause of his death, it is often reported that he was murdered for speaking out against the powerful rug industry, "killed by people who wanted to silence a small voice who was a threat to huge profits" (Grow 2B).

Since his death, Masih has become the emblematic victim of global child oppression and a powerful model for a generation of "child crusaders." The Globe piece introduces one such "crusader," an American teenager, Elizabeth Bloomer, who was inspired at the age of twelve by the life and death of Masih "to passionately pursue the fight to end child labor abuses worldwide" (Coleman B1). Similarly, another piece describes the activism of fifteen-year-old Laura Hannant, who was also inspired by Masih: "She heard the story of Iqbal Masih, a Pakistani boy who campaigned against child labor, and was killed to stop him from speaking out. His story made her a crusader for children's rights" [End Page 287] (Kienlen C3). Yet another article, printed in the Los Angeles Times in 1997, describes the work of Craig Kielburger, a Canadian teenager who "launched his crusade [against global child labor] after learning the story of Iqbal Masih, a Pakistani boy who was sold into bondage as a carpet weaver at age 4" (Helfand B3). Keilburger has become the most prominent child "crusader" motivated by Masih. At the age of twelve, Kielburger founded an organization called Free the Children, which raises money to fight child labor in developing countries. In the organization's first five years, it grew to include more than 100,000 children, with chapters in twenty countries.

How can we account for this fascination with Iqbal Masih? Not only are children in industrialized countries drawn to the figure of Masih, but adults in these nations are enthralled both by Masih and by the spectacle of child crusaders. What cultural need or fantasy does Masih's story satisfy? How does he fit into contemporary understandings of the nature of childhood and the problem of global child labor? In this article, I will draw upon representations of Iqbal Masih's story in order to explore contemporary fantasies about global child labor in the media and in literature produced for children. To provide a context for this discussion, I will situate his rise to iconic status within the recent history of the international movement to eradicate child labor. I will also locate his story amidst the emergent genre of multiculturalist children's literature. Whereas this latter genre tends to celebrate children's connection to their ethnic communities, the story of Iqbal Masih—along with its attendant rhetoric of crusading—tacitly reasserts the idea of a universal childhood. Masih's story thus points to the limits of the discourse of multiculturalism. I will contend that the rise of Masih as an iconic martyr of child labor reveals our ongoing investment in the idea of childhood as sacred and as the source of the possible regeneration of adult society. 1

I. The Movement for International Children's Rights

The development of the mythology of Iqbal Masih must be considered in relation to the rise of an international antichild labor discourse and the concomitant development of international laws limiting child labor. Political theorist Jude L. Fernando calls international children's rights advocacy "one of the most powerful social movements of the twentieth century" (10). Throughout the previous century, the International Labor Organization (ILO) and the United Nations—since its formation mid-century—have gradually developed international laws regulating child labor. The ILO was the first international institution to introduce such [End Page 288] laws. In 1919, it passed Convention 5, establishing fourteen years as the minimum age for working in industrial establishments. Nine other conventions—or international treaties—have been adopted subsequently by the ILO that set minimum age of employment in other kinds of work activities. For instance, the Minimum Age Convention, number 138, adopted in 1973, requires member states to establish minimum age laws for agricultural labor. Most recently, in June 1999, the ILO adopted Convention 182, "Concerning the Prohibition and Immediate Action for the Elimination of the Worst Forms of Child Labor." These conventions arise from the growing sense that child labor constitutes a discrete category of labor abuses. Moreover, they ratify the notion that childhood ought to be treated as a universal endowment and that its defining feature is the absence of work. In a document published by the 1998 International Labour Conference, entitled Child Labour: Targeting the Intolerable, child labor is deemed "the most important source of child exploitation and child abuse today." The writers add that "Work is totally inappropriate to [children's] growth" (100). Childhood is thus linked with freedom, specifically freedom from work.

The investment in the notion of universal childhood is particularly evident in legal discussions of child labor that invoke the category of "rights." The first international legislation to address children's rights as a subset of human rights was the Declaration of the Rights of the Child, which the League of Nations adopted in 1924. A second Declaration of the Rights of the Child was drafted by the United Nations in 1959. The crowning statement of this latter declaration was that, "The best interests of the child shall be of paramount consideration." Both this effort and the previous one were, however, criticized for openendedness and indeterminacy. Indeed, they were largely ineffectual. Since 1979, the year that the United Nations declared "The International Year of the Child," children's rights has become an increasingly publicized issue, gaining prominence as a pressing issue for labor activists of all kinds. The phrase "the world's children" has since this time entered the vernacular, finding its way into the official discourses of international agencies such as UNICEF and WHO. This broad change was celebrated at the 1998 International Labour Conference. In Report VI (1) from that conference, the writers observed that the 1990s had "witnessed an increase in the number of countries adopting national policies and programmes [to stop child labor]. These have formed the basis for mobilizing broad public support as well as for developing the institutional framework and capacity to carry out research and data collection, awareness raising, training and legislative reform, and to identify target populations and strategic action [End Page 289] programmes" (Child Labour 99). According to the ILO, in the international community before the 1980s, child labor was commonly equated with children's work more generally (i.e. work that takes place in the context of family life) and perceived as good for children. Now, they declared, this misconception had been rectified.

The developments of the 1990s were initiated by what was perhaps historically the most significant single assertion of children's rights: the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), adopted in 1989. This piece of international legislation was both an indication of changing perceptions of child labor and a cause of these changes as well. Since the CRC was adopted, child labor has been a key subject in the discussions of the United Nations Committee on Human Rights. Moreover, since 1989 the cause has received unprecedented media attention. The CRC, which defines a "child" as any human under age 18 (unless the age of majority is attained earlier in a given country), is the most comprehensive Convention on children's rights to date, protecting a broad range of rights including the right of the child to compulsory, free primary education (article 28); the right to freedom of expression (article 13); the right to health services (article 24); the right "to engage in play," the right to "leisure, recreation, and cultural activities" (article 31); and the right "to be protected from economic exploitation and from performing any work that is likely to be hazardous or to interfere with the child's education or to be harmful to the child's health or physical, mental, spiritual, moral or social development" (article 22). Overall, with regard to labor, the Convention protects children from exploitation and from hazardous work, and it guarantees their right to play. Furthermore, unlike earlier Conventions, the CRC also requires states to take measures to implement the treaty. Critics of the CRC have often raised questions about the feasibility of implementation. One problem frequently cited is that the CRC, like all other treaties dealing with children's rights, relies on the idea of "the best interests of the child." The Committee on the Rights of the Child, which was established in 1991 to monitor compliance with the CRC, has deemed "best interests" of the child "'the guiding principle' of the entire convention" (Alston and Gilmour-Walsh 1). 2 Thus it remains unclear what the concrete result of these conventions will be.

Some of the most effective measures taken to address the problem of global child labor have been deployed in the context of the antiglobalization movement. Over the course of the last twenty years, the question of child labor has reached the fore of debates about globalization. Responding to the concerns of consumers in industrialized nations, corporations such as Reebok, Sears, and Levi Strauss have investigated [End Page 290] the conditions under which their products are produced. Among the most concrete and broadly publicized victories of the movement to contain globalization has been the attachment of special labels to consumer products made "without child labor." Organizations that supervise manufacturers and mark products were formed after the United Nations Human Rights Commission produced a report in 1991 that recommended such labeling for "products such as carpets whose manufacture is liable to involve child labor," to encourage consumers to "demand products bearing such a mark." 3

The precipitous rise of the issue of child labor to the forefront of the international human rights agenda can be understood in relation to anxiety that the institution of childhood—not only in developing countries, but in developed ones as well—is itself in crisis. Since the 1970s, the American mainstream media have consistently represented the institution of childhood as threatened and in decline. 4 A recurrent claim in these discussions is that childhood is disappearing, or, to quote the title of two recent studies, "eroding." 5 Anxious observers frequently argue that because of developments in technology and the media, children find out too much too fast, and as a result they effectively cease to be children. Seen in light of this pervasive anxiety, efforts to fight child labor may function to assuage this fear that childhood is being eroded. At the very least, the campaign for international children's rights has provided a sphere of activity upon which to displace these anxieties.

II. Multiculturalism and Children's Literature

Even though the issue of global child labor is such a powerful concern in American culture overall, realistic depictions of child labor do not appear in American children's literature. Rather, the relativistic biases of multiculturalism dominate American children's books that deal with non-American cultures. Whereas children's rights discourse privileges and celebrates universal ideas about childhood, multiculturalism privileges and celebrates cultural difference. Multicultural literature, often defined as literature "by or about people of color" (Horning, Kruse, and Schliesman 1), tends to celebrate children's work as emblematic of children's connection to their ethnic communities.

For example, Louise Erdrich's novel for children, The Birchbark House, set among the Ojibwa Indians who live on an island on Lake Superior, tells the story of the child protagonist's gradual discovery of her gifts as a healer, which provide her with her future "work" in the community. Omakayas, seven years old, learns to listen to plants, [End Page 291] animals, and dreams, and learns the art of storytelling by helping her grandmother. Not only is the telos of the novel generated by the discovery of this calling, but the entire narrative centers around the child's work in her community (searching for birch bark, maple sugaring, tanning hides, etc.), work that is presented as a healthy and organic part of everyday collective life. This work ties the child to her community and to her family. Although over the course of the narrative Omakayas discovers that she is an adopted orphan, she also finds that she has "inherited" the ability to heal others from her adoptive grandmother. Thus her work brings her into a community, overcoming the solitude of orphanhood.

Likewise, in Ted Lewin's picture book, The Storytellers, the central figure inherits his vocation from a grandparent. The book begins: "Down the dark streets of the ancient walled part of their city, Abdul and his grandfather are walking to work. It is early morning, and the haunting cry of the muezzin drifts in the air, calling the faithful to prayer" (2). As the book traces this morning walk through a bustling Moroccan marketplace, the central character, Abdul, a boy about nine years old, surveys and remarks on people engaged in a range of trades: he observes metal workers, cloth dyers and even carpet weavers (the weavers are adults, though they work with "their children at their sides" [13]). Abdul compares these varied modes of labor to his own vocation, without disclosing its nature, generating suspense.

The last half of the book describes his work: he and his grandfather are storytellers. Their mode of storytelling discloses an overall attitude toward work; work is unalienated, creative, and linked to the rhythms of the natural world. They sit on a rug at the gates of the city, with a white pigeon perched on Abdul's head. After a crowd has gathered, the bird repeatedly flies high into the air and then returns to the boy, each time "bringing with it a story from the sky" (18). Emphasizing the identity between grandfather and grandson, "Grandfather props an old photo of himself ...[on the carpet, in which] he is as young as Abdul, and a white pigeon sits on his head" (22). Lewin concludes the book with Abdul's affirmation of his work: "'We have the best job in the whole Medina,' says Abdul, and Grandfather nods as the two of them walk back through the gate into the ancient walled city" (30).

Work in multicultural children's literature is not a dangerous domain for children. In fact, children's work generates a positive identity for the child, a sense of belonging to a community. It often provides the child with an opportunity to participate in an "ancient" tradition; thus the model for the child's work is frequently not a parent but a grandparent. 6 [End Page 292] For instance, in Leyla Torres's Saturday Sancocho, a gifted grandmother educates her granddaughter during a trip to the market, where they engage in barter. Generally, the children's work is creative and voluntary, as it is in The Storyteller and in Omar S. Castaneda's Abuela's Weave. In Abuela's Weave, a young Guatemalan girl learns to make tapestries from her grandmother, a Mayan elder. These recurring patterns in contemporary multicultural children's literature contrast sharply with the negative images of child labor that dominate discussions of child labor and international law.

This division between the discourse of multiculturalism and that of international law may be summarized as a division between cultural relativism and juridical universalism. The tension between these two approaches to the problem of child labor has led some critics to conclude that multiculturalism ultimately functions as a conservative force, absolving wealthy nations and freeing them from the responsibility to assist children in poorer nations. A forceful voice to raise this charge has been Jude Fernando, who asks, "Can cultural relativism actually be helping to absolve the forces of neoliberal globalization of the responsibility for the negative impact it has on children?" (19). According to Fernando and others, the emphasis on cultural specificity in works that come under the banner of multiculturalism overemphasizes the idea that communities in developing countries have retained their autonomy. The fact that such communities have more often than not been torn apart by the forces of globalization tends to be obscured by stories that celebrate cultural continuity.

On the other hand, proponents of multiculturalism have criticized the discourse of universal children's rights for its blindness to cultural specificity. Alison James and Alan Prout, for example, argue that universalism fails to acknowledge cultural differences in the meanings given to childhood, meanings that necessarily determine children's rights. Multiculturalist children's literature, exemplified by the Lewin and Erdrich books, suggests a critique of the universalist juridical model on which international legislation regarding children's rights is predicated.

The story of Masih is particularly interesting in the context of this debate, since it is a representation of child labor in a developing country that deviates from the multiculturalist approach. Indeed, whereas critics like Fernando insist that political complacency follows as an inevitable result of relativistic multiculturalism, Masih's story has had the effect of inspiring political action, especially among Western children. How, then, is Masih represented as a child laborer? How are the strategies for representing Masih different from those we have seen used in multicultural children's literature? [End Page 293]

III. Iqbal Masih: A Double Image

The version of Masih's tale recounted in the March 2001 Boston Globe article is in many ways typical of representations of his brief life history: "Twelve-year-old Iqbal Masih freed himself from slavery in a carpet factory, fought to get more than 3,000 other children to do the same, came to the United States to accept an award, and became a symbol of the fight against child labor, only to be murdered while riding his bike outside his grandmother's house in Pakistan on Easter Sunday, 1995" (Coleman B1). Not only does Masih figure as one who "fights" against child labor in this narrative, but he figures as one who motivates others to join the "crusade." The article celebrates the occasion of a speech the fifteen-year-old Elizabeth Bloomer prepared to present at the United Nations: "[She] will speak before 900 high school delegates from around the world. Her twenty-five minute speech will be broadcast on the World Wide Web, and her words translated into six languages. She will plead that more be done to help children. And, she will tell the story of Iqbal Masih" (B1). The article concludes by quoting Bloomer, who declares that all children who fight to end child labor "are [Iqbal's] voice." The article at once celebrates the power of Masih (he "frees" himself; he "fights"; and he "inspires" others), and celebrates the power of Bloomer, whose voice is amplified by its conflation with Masih's. The story calls upon the reader to imagine a child's abjection—his enslavement, his murder—in order to imagine his power as a moral authority and a forceful influence. The mythology of Masih highlights both children's powerlessness (they are passive objects, exploited by adults) and their extraordinary power (they are powerful subjects, who can accomplish things that adults cannot achieve). In a talk given to children at the James Monroe High School in North Hill, California, Kielburger said, "Young people have power...Whether you are 12 or 16, you have the power to change the world" (MacGregor B1).

The mythology spun around the events of Masih's life has proved to be potent and persistent. Not only has it been recounted frequently in the media, but also in nonfictional writings produced for children. Two of these works focus almost exclusively on Masih. The first is a biography of Masih by children's writer Susan Kuklin, which includes a more general discussion of child labor in South Asia: Iqbal Masih and the Crusaders Against Child Slavery. The second is a memoir by Canadian teenage activist Craig Keilberger, which relates how Masih inspired him to fight to end child labor by starting Free the Children: Free the Children: A Young Man's Personal Crusade Against Child Labor. Both [End Page 294] works not only produce a mythology around Masih's life story, but also generate a new discourse on global child labor. Several books for children on slavery also incorporate Masih's story; these include works such as Shirlee P. Newman's book, Child Slavery in Modern Times, which begins with a typical rendering of Masih's story, and Richard Watkins's Slavery: Bondage Throughout History, which concludes with a section on "slavery today" that foregrounds Masih's story.

The pattern of Masih's story that appears in the press and in these works of nonfiction is almost always the same: it recounts Masih's slavery, his emancipation, his work to deliver other enslaved children, his death—a sort of martyrdom—and his role as an inspiration to children to join the "crusade" against child labor. Moreover, just as certain plot elements recur in various tellings of Masih's story, so do particular words and phrases. Like the Globe piece and others, this article, which focuses on child activism in Los Angeles, uses the term "crusade" to describe the work of Kielburger and of other activist children inspired by Masih to fight global child labor. The recurrent use of this term in accounts of Masih and his followers points to the Christian overtones of the mythology.

The word "crusade" came to be commonly used in association with the movement to eradicate child labor from the time of Masih's death, and it often appears when his name is invoked. The term is employed with particular frequency in reference to efforts by children (almost always nonlaboring children from developed countries) to succor other children (always laboring children from developing countries). In addition to appearing in the titles of the books by Kuklin and Kielburger, it appears in the titles or subtitles of many other works for children about child labor published in the 1990s, such asRussell Freedman's Kids at Work: Lewis Hine and the Crusade Against Child Labor,and Stephen Currie's We Have Marched Together: The Working Children's Crusade. The term "crusade" clearly has religious and martial connotations. The Oxford English Dictionary offers one definition of "crusade" as a Christian "holy war." A "crusade" implies a pilgrimage, a voyage to defend or to recover something sacred. Of course the sacred object of the activist children's "crusade" is childhood itself. Childhood is the lost holy land, and only children are adequate to the task of retrieving it. Implicit in this concept of a "crusade" is the opposition between a civilized West and a barbaric East. The barbarism, it suggests, lies in an attitude toward the sacred institution of childhood. 7

Other aspects of the Iqbal story support this Christian reading. The frequent emphasis on the day of Masih's death, "Easter Sunday"; the Biblical language used in descriptions of his enslavement (like the [End Page 295] Joseph ofGenesishe was "sold into bondage"); and, finally, his very name, Masih, which—as works that discuss Masih point out—means "Messiah" in Urdu. Furthermore, and not insignificantly, Masih's family belongs to a small, oppressed Christian minority in Pakistan; when this is noted explicitly in the myth, Iqbal Masih's Christianity points to his own figuration as Christ.

While this discourse tacitly links the "barbaric East" with the negligence of childhood, it attributes to childhood itself inherent qualities that bridge the East/West divide. Childhood becomes the symbolic common denominator underlying global divisions. When The Boston Globe characterizes Bloomer as "the voice of Iqbal," it bypasses the problem of representation altogether, suggesting that children can "become" the other through an act of empathic identification.

Images of Masih have played an important role in the construction of the mythology that surrounds him. McKenzie Wark points out in "Fresh Maimed Babies: The Uses of Innocence" that the image of the injured innocence of poor children in the media renders the viewer "childlike," and conjures innocent "feelings" (36). The two photographs of Masih that appear on the cover of Kuklin's book are prototypical representations of the dual nature of Masih as an icon. 8 At the top of the dust jacket appears a large black-and-white close-up of the young Masih with a soulful expression on his face. The edges of the picture are torn in an irregular pattern. The photograph is also ripped both horizontally and vertically across the boy's face and then, apparently, clumsily taped together. Below this, there is a color picture of Masih, intact except for the edges, which have been torn. It depicts a smiling, triumphant boy, with arms raised, just after he received his Reebok award. The juxtaposition of the torn and intact pictures and their positioning on the page is telling. The pattern of the rips also draws attention to the boy's face at the center of the image. The fractured picture suggests a relic of a saint; it suggests the book's attempt to reconstitute Masih as an aesthetic whole from fragments. Moreover, the close-up encourages the reader to conceive of Masih as a victim and object of empathic identification. By contrast, the color photo suggests Masih's power and celebrity, while at once indicating its precariousness; the picture is tilted so that it looks as if Masih is falling off the page. Furthermore, a large adult arm appears in the photograph, holding up Masih's elbow, emphasizing the child's diminutive stature. At age twelve Masih was the height of an average six-year-old, a peculiarity emphasized in the mythology.

Like Christ, Masih constitutes a site of identification and provides a model for the Western child. Kielburger can be seen as the emblematic [End Page 296] convert. As he tells his story in his memoir, he creates a corollary transformation narrative. This emphasis on empathic identification distinguishes the writings on Masih from multiculturalist texts. Unlike The Storyteller, for example, which retains an insular frame of reference and cast of characters, the writings on Masih always invoke those in the West whom his story has inspired. Masih is thus a figure that transcends the boundaries of any specific cultural site.

IV. The Child Crusader: A New Icon

Kielburger's book begins with a conversion narrative. Like St. Augustine in his Confessions, Kielburger "converts" as a result of a chance reading; looking for the comics in The Toronto Star, he comes upon a picture of Masih and the headline, "Battled Child Labour, Boy, 12, Murdered." The image of the suffering child produces a transformation and a recognition of the self.

Although they are superficially quite different, Kuklin's and Kielburger's books share many qualities. First of all, both convey the notion that children can and should save children; they suggest that the only proper "work" for children is to save childhood. Kielburger begins his book with an expression of his shock at the idea that children were not involved in organizations working to help combat child labor; he asks, "Shouldn't other children be speaking out in defense of children?" (9). Also, both Kielburger and Kuklin use the category of an objective and universal childhood to point to the horror of child labor and to the imperative to "crusade." For instance, Kielburger, at the beginning of his book, reports that his activism was spurred when he read Iqbal's story: "these few words shattered my ideas of what childhood was all about—school, friends, time to play" (9). Finally, both writers proselytize; their shared aim is to motivate readers to join the crusade. Each book ends with a call to action. Kielburger writes, "I hope [this book] will awaken in many people, especially young people, the urge to do something to end exploitative child labour" (307). Kuklin concludes her book with a similar plea: "This book does not end here. Now it is our turn to stand up so that everyone can shout the words of Iqbal Masih: we are free!" (107).

Kielburger's narrative encourages empathic connection between laboring child and crusading child. Moreover, it illuminates links between anxieties about contemporary Western childhood and the children's crusade. In the final chapter of his book, entitled "What is Childhood?" he asks, "What is a normal and good childhood in the world today?" (290). Although he finds this paradisaical normality nowhere, he does discern a utopian commonality between would-be crusader and laboring [End Page 297] child. Both figures, he claims, are "exploited," misused for the gain of others—adults, presumably. Laboring children, of course, are exploited for their labor power. Children in industrialized countries are exploited by the culture of consumption; he writes, "Through the media they learn to be consumers, to gain their self image through the electric toys they own and the labels they wear" (290). The divide between the two types of children is bridged both by their position as "exploited child" and by the possibility of their empowerment. Just as both sorts of children are "exploited," both can be "freed." He suggests that as crusading children liberate and empower laboring children, they also liberate and empower themselves. According to Kielburger, when children from industrialized nations cross the border into this new role—the role of the crusader—they have "power," and are no longer "exploited." Thus Kielburger posits a new social role for these children, and, effectively, for all children. His book teaches the child reader about ways in which children can "work" as opposed to consume. He claims that the "work" of Free the Children is "not only to free children from abuse and exploitation but to free children from the idea that they are powerless and have nothing to contribute to changing the world" (314).

Kuklin's book shows another way in which children's border crossings can be redemptive. Whereas Western children like Kielburg are redeemed by crossing the border into Masih's world through an empathic identification, Kuklin shows how Masih is redeemed by crossing over the same border. Kuklin's book tells the story of the restoration of Masih's childhood during his trip to America. Early on in her narrative, she reports that Masih's childhood was "lost" when he began to work in a carpet factory. Kuklin describes the scene when Masih first arrives in Boston to receive his award:

He [was]... met at the airport by Sharon Cohen, the vice president of Reebok's public affairs division, and her friend Leonard Fein.
Sharon said to Iqbal, "I've read so much about you, I don't know whether to speak to you as a child or as a man."
"I am a child," he told her. (78)

Not only does Masih assert his child-status, but, once in America, he engages in childlike antics, which Kuklin emphasizes: for instance, she writes, "He would spin around on Sharon's swivel chair. Then he would dive into Sharon's lap, wrap his arms and legs around her, and cuddle ... At one point he said to Sharon: "You—Mama, me—son" (78). A myth of the redemptive force of crossing cultural borders.

The social and political function of the child crusader can be illuminated by Lauren Berlant's theorization of the political role of feeling in [End Page 298] her essay "The Subject of True Feeling: Pain, Privacy, and Politics." Berlant asserts that "painful feeling" seems to move across political and social divides. She identifies in American culture "a rhetoric of promise that a nation can be built across fields of social difference through channels of affective identification and empathy" (53). And, Berlant suggests, this display of common feeling masks power relations. As we have seen, the child crusader creates such "channels of affective identification and empathy." However, instead of consolidating a national identity, these identifications create a mirage of global community, if only among children. Kielburger presents the Free the Children "maxim": "Who can better understand and sympathize with children than children themselves?" (165).

V. Crusaders in Contemporary Literature

Like the works of nonfiction we have examined, various contemporary works of fiction for children also recount the stories of children who exchange one form of work—adult work—for another—the work of salvation. The figure of the child savior appears in several recent Newbery winners. In The Giver, Lois Lowry's popular dystopian novel, the twelve-year-old hero Jonas abandons the grown-up "work" he performs in his community in order to work to save the life of the baby Gabriel and to effect the moral salvation of his society. 9 Similarly, in Louis Sachar's novel Holes, Stanley Yelnats escapes from his forced labor digging holes at a camp for wayward boys to work to save another child, Zero. As a consequence of Stanley's efforts, the camp, which exploits the work of children, is shut down. He thus saves himself and a troop of children from the exploitative labor in which they were engaged; simultaneously, he rescues his family—and Zero's as well—from poverty. Likewise, in Philip Pullman's fantasy The Golden Compass, a British work popular with both adults and children in America, the child protagonist Lyra leaves a childhood of play in order to work to save a large group of children who have been abducted and pressed into service as objects of scientific experimentation. Her deliverance of these children leads her to save the entire universe from forces of evil. In the two Newbery winners, the narrative plays out a displacement of one form of work with another. And all three heroes, in embracing the work of salvation, save not only other children but their entire communities. The proper labor of the child, it seems, is that of a "crusader," whose true work is to "save" other children and, more broadly, society.

This idea of children as agents of their own salvation has also surfaced in works of cultural criticism. In his popular book, The Disappearance of [End Page 299] Childhood, Postman bewails the "waning" (5) of childhood in the Western world. Despondently, he details "how the printing press created childhood and how the electronic media are 'disappearing' it" (xii). Book culture, he argues, creates childhood by limiting access to knowledge. Children in such a culture can only acquire the "adult" knowledge hidden in books gradually, as they become more advanced readers. Postman asserts that television and electronic media more generally "erode" the division between child and adult because of what he calls their "undifferentiated accessibility."

Throughout his book, Postman promotes the "preservation" of childhood as a noble goal, an ethical objective, while he also emphasizes his own inability to formulate a solution to the problem of childhood's disappearance and thus to help effect this "preservation." After arguing that the "childhood-annihilating media" have almost entirely usurped parental power and authority, Postman concludes his work with a weak appeal to parents to "resist the spirit of the age" (153), to combat the assault on childhood by teaching their children traditional values. However, ultimately, Postman finds the conservative childhood-sustaining force he seeks not in parents but in their children. In the preface to the 1994 edition of The Disappearance of Childhood, he contends that contemporary children function as a "moral force," a power of resistance "preserving childhood" (viii). He asserts, "American culture is hostile to the idea of childhood. But it is a comforting, even exhilarating thought that children are not" (ix). For Postman, contemporary children, it seems, can adopt the authority their parents now lack and "save" childhood.

The rise of the icon of the child crusader thus points to the breakdown of faith in adult authority. The transformation narratives, both the ones that discuss Masih's liberation and those that bear witness to the new vocation of Western child crusaders, perform the therapeutic cultural work of reassuring adults that children will supply the authority that they themselves lack. The figure of the child crusader suggests, moreover, that the ultimate purpose of child advocacy is not so much justice or the equitable distribution of resources, but the preservation of childhood—a separate sphere characterized by an almost utopian freedom from work.


Lisa Hermine Makman is an assistant professor of English at William Paterson University of New Jersey. She writes about children's and adolescent literature and theories of human development. She is currently working on a manuscript entitled, "Childhood Lost and Found: Locating Children in British Culture."


1. The idea that children can heal an ailing society has its roots in Victorian literature. Salient examples may be found in Silas Marner and A Christmas Carol. Exploring the representations of Masih, I will describe a new version of this motif.

2. The "best interests" principle has been criticized for begging the question of the nature of these interests. It also raises the problem of who determines the child's best interests. Philip Alston and Bridget Gilmour-Walsh have argued that the best interest principle can be used "to justify almost any conclusion" (26). John Eekelaar, family law specialist, has argued that there are two ways to determine "best interests": an "objective model" based on the values of a "decision maker," and "dynamic self-determinism," in which the child contributes to the outcome.

3. One of the most developed labeling efforts has been the Rugmark campaign, targeting child labor in South Asia. The rugs approved by Rugmark are woven by adult workers who earn at least the local minimum wage. In order to join Rugmark, manufacturers must consent to surprise visits by local human rights and child advocacy groups. See Anderson and Cavanagh.

4. The examples of this genre from the popular press are literally countless. For example, see Newsweek's cover story, "Are They Growing Up Too Fast? The Truth about Tweens" (October 18, 1999); see also Time'scover stories "Armed and Dangerous" (April 6, 1998), and "Too Much Homework! How it's hurting your kids and what you should do about it" (January 25, 1999); The New York Times makes frequent contributions: see, for example, the 1994 series "Children of the Shadows," about "lost" urban children. Academic writers have made ample contributions to this genre as well: for instance, see Sommerville, Postman, Polakow, and Richardson.

5. Two books written within ten years share the title The Erosion of Childhood. While one of these works identifies childhood's "erosion" in the present, the other locates this "erosion" as beginning in the nineteenth century. The first is Valerie Polakow's exploration of the way in which contemporary children experience the "loss" of their childhood in caretaking institutions; the second is Lionel Rose's study of child oppression in Britain between 1860 and 1918.

6. There are a few books that do not fit into this paradigm. For example, Linda Jacobs Altman's Amelia's Road tells the story of a Mexican migrant worker, a girl who longs for escape from the "road" and her difficult work.

7. Hardt and Negri suggest that there is an analogy between Christian missionary work and the work of NGOs, which they dub the "mendicant orders of Empire." They write, "Like the Dominicans in the late Medieval period and the Jesuits at the dawn of modernity, these groups strive to identify universal needs and defend human rights. Through their language and their action they first define the enemy as privation (in the hope of preventing serious damage) and then recognize the enemy as sin" (36). While I disagree with their categorical rejection of all intervention by NGOs, I concur with their perception of the Christian dimension of these groups.

8. A full-page picture of the exultant Masih, arms raised, having just received the Reebok award, appears on the first page of Newman, Child Slavery in Modern Times. Watkins's Slavery: Bondage Throughout History culminates with a drawing of Masih.

9. The Giver is part of many elementary school curricula.

Works Cited

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Berlant, Lauren. "The Subject of True Feeling: Pain, Privacy, and Politics." Cultural Pluralism, Identity Politics, and the Law. Ed. Austin Sarat and Thomas R. Kearns. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1999.49-84.

Castaneda, Omar S. Abuela's Weave. New York: Lee & Low, 1993.

Child Labour: Targeting the Intolerable. ILO Conference, 86th Session Report VI (I). Geneva: ILO Publications, 1998.

Coleman, Sandy. "Child's Death Stirs Another's Crusade." Boston Globe 2 Mar. 2001, B1.

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———. Human Rights Commission Report. Geneva: Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, 1991.

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The Lion and the Unicorn

Volume: 40 (2016)
Frequency: 3 issues
Print ISSN: 0147-2593
Online ISSN: 1080-6563