The best contemporary children’s literature is usually not preachy. If there are good lessons in the book, they are natural byproducts of a good story. That’s how we best absorb what they have to teach us.
A book that most influenced me for the lesson it taught about optimism was Pollyanna, written by Eleanor H. Porter. Published in 1913, the book is 100 years old this year. Happy Birthday, Pollyanna!
Pollyanna didn’t teach through preachiness, although there is a preacher in the book. While it is sentimental, the characters, especially Pollyanna herself, are vital and memorable. I also fell in love with the beautiful dresses Aunt Polly bought for her niece, with the crystal prisms at Mr. Pendergast’s mansion, and with my identification with Pollyanna herself.
My first introduction to the story was the Disney movie starring Hayley Mills, which I saw the summer before I started school. I read the book a couple of years later when I found my mother’s old copy at my grandparents’ house. There are many sequels to the book, written by various writers. I read my mother’s copy of Pollyanna’s Jewels, by Harriet Lummis Smith, which is about Pollyanna’s children. This was eye-opening to me that a happy, independent girl like Pollyanna could turn into somebody’s mother. But I digress . . . .
1943 edition of 1913 book
A few weeks after I saw the movie and near the end of the summer, my mother was working in the kitchen, while I sat at the table, finishing my lunch. Mom handed me some Ovaltine in a coffee cup and said, “I have exciting news.”
“Is it about school?” I said, staring down at the murky liquid.
“No, but it is exciting that you are going to start kindergarten, isn’t it?”
Winter resistance? That sounds scary!
“Ye-es.” The idea of starting school thrilled and terrified me at the same time. My hands got gooey just imagining the experience. Mom had raised my suspicions by serving me Ovaltine right at this moment. It was supposed to be a chocolaty treat, but in truth, it tasted like molasses and made me gag. Mom always said I had to swallow it down because it was good for me. What if school turned out to be like that?
“You’re going to love school, LuluBelle.” Mom nodded at me.
I raised my shoulders and brought them down heavily, sighing just loud enough so that I wouldn’t sound too dramatic.
I thought of Pollyanna. What would she think about school? Whenever something bad happened, Pollyanna played The Glad Game to make herself and other people feel better. This game is merely a positive attitude and a determination to find something good in the midst of something bad. A silver lining, so to speak. Pollyanna’s deceased father taught her the game and she eventually teaches it to the citizens of her new town.
I struggled to come up with the reason to be glad about starting school when the idea made me anxious. “Ooh!” I said, as a happy idea came into focus. “I’m glad I’m starting school because I’ll get to take the school bus with all my friends.”
Mom changed the subject. “My news is that I got a job! I’m going to be the personal secretary to an important man at The Upjohn Company.”
“That’s good. Right?”
“Yes, it’s very good. Kindergarten is half day, so you will be staying with Grandma before and after school.”
“I love them!” Even as I said that, anxiety flickered at my hands and feet, fluttered across my stomach. I loved Grandma and Grandpa Zuidweg and Aunt Alice and their house, but especially Grandma. What I didn’t love was Aunt Alice’s English Springer Spaniel Sandy. Not that he and I had had any run-ins to my memory, but when he was near me, people rustled me away from him, with panicked admonitions of “Don’t go near the dog,” and a whispered story about a jealous Sandy biting off my eyelid when I was a baby.
“Yes. It also means you’re going to go to kindergarten at McKinley school because it’s across the street from Grandma’s house,” she explained.
“Is that where Debbie and Judy and the rest of them go to school?” I listed the neighbor kids in my mind.
“No, they go to Gull Road School.”
There went the buoyancy of the latest gladness I’d invented, popped like a birthday balloon by a pin. Now I had to find a reason to be glad to go to some school where I didn’t know anybody.
That’s the problem with The Glad Game. You have to keep playing it–over and over and over again.
Just my little dose of sarcasm for the day!
My good friend and foe Wikipedia lists some interesting facts about the influence of this story on popular culture:
“When you look for the bad in mankind expecting to find it, you surely will find it.”
Although a quote similar to this was attributed to Abraham Lincoln and inserted by the director into the 1960 Disney movie version of the story, it is actually, as written here, from the original book and not attributed.
The novel’s success brought the “Pollyanna principle” (along with the adjective “Pollyannaish” and the noun “Pollyannaism”) into the language to describe someone who seems always to be able to find something to be “glad” about no matter what circumstances arise. It is sometimes used pejoratively, referring to someone whose optimism is excessive to the point of naïveté or refusing to accept the facts of an unfortunate situation. This pejorative use can be heard in the introduction of the 1930 George and Ira Gershwin song But Not For Me: “I never want to hear from any cheerful pollyannas/who tell me fate supplies a mate/that’s all bananas.”
The word “pollyanna” may also denote a holiday gift exchange more typically known as Secret Santa. This term is used in Philadelphia and the surrounding areas of Pennsylvania. It can instead mean a gift exchange rotation in which several families each give gifts to one other family in the “pollyanna” each year. This is often done when siblings in a large family begin to have children of their own.
Pollyanna is still available in reprint editions. At the height of her popularity, Pollyanna was known as “The Glad Girl”, and Parker Brothers even created The Glad Game, a board game. The Glad Game, a type of Parcheesi, was made and sold from 1915 to 1967 in various versions, including: “Pollyanna – The Glad Game”; “Pollyanna – The Great Home Game”; “Pollyanna – Dixie”; and “Pollyanna”. The board game was later licensed by Milton Bradley but has been discontinued for many years.
“Glad Clubs” appear to have been popular for a while; however, it is questionable if they were ever more than a publicity gimmick. Glad Clubs may have been simply a means to popularize The Glad Game as a method for coping with the vicissitudes of life such as loss, disappointment, and distress. Nevertheless, at least one “glad club” exists today, in Denver, Colorado.
In 2002 the citizens of Littleton, New Hampshire unveiled a bronze statue in honour of Eleanor H. Porter, creator of the Pollyanna books and one of the town’s most famous residents. The statue depicts a smiling Pollyanna, arms flung wide in greeting. Littleton also hosts a festival known as “The Official Pollyanna Glad Day” every summer.
The vocalized version of the song “Pollyanna” for the video game Mother characterizes a cheerful girl that believes in fairy tales and optimism, but disregards any comments towards her sanity. The girl rejects the negative opposition against her and the mockery that comes with it, saying “You can call me ‘Pollyanna’/Say I’m crazy as a loon”. The name of the song, and that of the girl in the song, is most likely a direct characterization of Porter’s character. Another theory is that the name is based on Ana, a character in the game.
The celebrated American science fiction writer Ray Bradbury described himself as “Janus, the two-faced god who is half Pollyanna and half Cassandra, warning of the future and perhaps living too much in the past—a combination of both”.