Cub Reporters: Children's Reporting in America's Golden Age as Artifice and Identity-Creation
In this post, Dr. Paige Gray offers excerpts from her research on children's reporting in America's Golden Age as part of the contribution to artifice, and how their involvement in journalism shaped identities and cultural contexts of childhood.
The following material is an abridged excerpt from the introduction of Dr. Paige Gray's book titled Cub Reporters: American Children’s Literature and Journalism in the Golden Age, which discusses how American children occupied niches in journalism and literature as a method of contributing to artifice (the deliberate creation of an idea, phenomenon, object or context). It appears here with a personal introduction by the author.
Years ago, when I first decided to leave my position as a newspaper editor and return to
graduate school to specialize in children’s literature, I received more than a few confused
responses. Many did not understand the connection between my love for journalism and my
enthusiasm for works of literature for children and young adults. And frankly, I was not exactly
sure at first, either. But I soon came to see an overarching narrative in my professional,
academic, and literary pursuits. The words “investigation,” “truth,” “knowledge,” and
“exploration” ran continuously through my head, leading me to the idea of curiosity.
But I was, of course, also moved by the ways in which books of my youth stirred and
buoyed my imagination. When I was a kid—I’m guessing it was second or third grade—I
desperately wanted Peter Pan to fly through my bedroom window and take me to Neverland. I
could not grow up. I had to stay a child—I refused to abandon imagination and play and whimsy
for what I discerned to be the doldrums of adulthood. I convinced myself so absolutely in this
possibility of Peter Pan showing up at my window that I wore only fancy pajamas to bed for a
time. No grubby old t-shirts for me—if I were to relocate from Indiana to Neverland and remain
a child for perpetuity, I wanted to do so in fashionable sleepwear.
Just like so many other countless children who read J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan (first published as Peter and Wendy in 1911) or watched Mary Martin’s spritely rendition of the eternal boy, or maybe repeatedly played a VHS copy of Disney’s 1953 animated adaptation, I accepted a story of childhood predicated on a host of assumptions—white, middle-to-upper class assumptions that root childhood in a myth of innocence.
Though I was led into the academic study of children’s literature and childhood based on
my nostalgic adoration for texts like Peter Pan, I now work to unpack the intricacies of these
stories and the ways they have shaped an understanding of youth that often flattens or ignores the
multitude of childhood experience across time and space. My infatuation with journalism since
my days as an inquisitive 10-year-old producing my own newspaper in my basement, along with
my subsequent journalistic and academic training, have pushed me to examine how culture
creates childhood—and how childhood helps shape culture.
So what do we mean when we talk about childhood? We now exist during a time in
which large segments of the general public question the social categories of race, gender,
sexuality, and class. But what about age? Why does this cultural and social construct go largely
unquestioned? Literary scholar Beverly Lyon Clark points out that in the United States and
elsewhere, “we tend to assume that what it means to be a child, what it means for an adult to
understand a child––never mind what it means to write from or for a child’s perspective––is
In what ways does the narrative—the story—of childhood liberate and beneficially
protect young people, and in what ways does it limit both them and our overall understanding of
adulthood? And how do race, gender, and class inform our ideas of childhood?
The idea that childhood and its literature are “unproblematic” not only diminishes its complexity
and richness, it also risks oppression and dehumanization. We see children as “other.” But ideas
on childhood and youth affect us all—and not only because we have all been children and may
now be raising children of our own. The ways in which we construct, legislate, and police the
ideas of “child” and “adult” ultimately determine the manner in which we believe individuals
should exist in the world.
My research manifests itself in my wider approach to knowledge, learning, and
community engagement. Indeed, the introductory phrase of my book––“Cub
Reporters”––encapsulates the role of engagement with the world that I hope children seize
through their own writing. Through participating in various forms of “cub reporting,” young
people can better see that their voices are part of a larger conversation, and that they—their
voices and their actual selves—matter.
EXCERPT Idea (from Introduction):
Cub Reporters shows children’s literature of the Golden Age subverting the idea of news;
journalism, in these works, is not a reporting of fact, but a reporting of artifice––cub reporters
report the truth of artifice. In general, I use “report” and “reporter” in a broad sense. Some
examples have child characters literally engaging in journalistic behavior, and in other instances,
the text works as symbolic “reporter” by showing the process of artifice. … The texts discussed
signal an embrace of artifice as a means to access individual agency. This is significant as such a
move encourages child (and adult) readers to deconstruct and create the world anew for
themselves––to find agency through artifice.
Artifice, as I employ the term in Cub Reporters, broadly refers to human-made
apparatus—artistic, technological, psychological, cultural, or otherwise—devised and used to
both communicate ideas and compel others into acknowledging those ideas. It can refer to works
of individual invention or the production of larger social constructs: gender, race, class,
childhood, adulthood. Generally speaking, artifice exists in contrast to the natural, biological world and showcases the human power of creativity. That proves a lot of work for one word. But
by allowing artifice to serve as an umbrella term for human creativity in all its senses, I hope to
erase the adverse implications of the word that associate it with mendacity and malicious intent.
Instead, I aim to use the term’s wide reach to reinforce individual agency. …
Newspaper reporters, as Mark Twain has written in his journals, tell our most durable
stories, and in children––and literary representations of children—we find our most curious
reporters. I appropriate the popular journalism term “cub reporter,” or a rookie journalist, in
order to signify the cross-section between children’s literature and the newspaper during a time
period considered to be a “golden age” for both, and in order to show how children function as
reporters of artifice. In addition to considering American children’s literature as a response, in
part, to the rise of the newspaper, I also discern the reciprocity between journalism and
children’s culture, highlighting the ways in which these two realms inform one another through
the period’s children’s literature. In other words, a national ethos finds expression through
American children’s literature, and children—and our ideas of children—react to and revise
these texts. …
In analyzing selections of the era’s children’s literature through a contextualization of
journalism history, I show how children’s literature can operate as social-change agent through
its depictions of young people as reporters of artifice. …
[To do this, I focus on] American children’s texts of the late nineteenth or early twentieth
centuries that deal with reporting and newspaper production. The authors considered had varying
degrees of professional involvement with journalism. By looking at newspaper-centric texts, I
distill the reciprocity between journalism and children’s literature (and, by proxy, culture)––the
ways in which these two realms inform one another. However, I do see the cub reporters of artifice extending beyond newspaper-centric examples of children’s literature. The rise of
American fantasy and comics in the twentieth century, in addition to narratives that detail youth-
directed empirical searches for knowledge, namely detective stories, extend from my argument
in the ways that they overtly deconstruct and reassemble social artifice through creative artifice.
In this sense, I hope the ideas presented here prove applicable to the ways we think about
children’s and YA literature more broadly, but my aim is also to expand the ways we talk about,
legislate, and educate the lives of young people. Perhaps most importantly, I would like Cub
Reporters to contribute to the ongoing academic scholarship, cultural conversations, and public
engagement seeking to empower young people themselves.
I begin by looking at the cultural place of the newspaper in the late nineteenth
century—or, more specifically, those young people who delivered and edited the newspaper
headlines to the public. When considering turn-of-the-century children’s literature and
newspapers, it is impossible to ignore Horatio Alger, Jr. Yet the rags-to-riches mythos of Alger’s
novels has overshadowed many of the historical nuances his works present. Chapter One,
“Carrying the Banner: Horatio Alger, the Newsboy, and the Paper,” explores the historical and
fictional construction of the newsboy, a figure that embodies the relationship between the
newspaper and the child and challenges ideologies of power.
Chapter Two moves on to think about the figure of the reporter. Perhaps the most
recognized newspaper reporter of his day, Richard Harding Davis found early success with a
string of widely read stories that illustrate newspaper life and the art of reporting. In “Making
News and Faking Truth: Richard Harding Davis, the Reporter, and American Youth,” I discuss
how and to what ends writer-reporter Richard Harding Davis conflates the romanticized ideals of
the child and the reporter in his popular stories “Gallegher: A Newspaper Story” (1890) and “The Reporter Who Made Himself King” (1891), stories that feature and were read by young
In Chapter Three, I’m interested in considering how the ideas of artifice, journalism, and
children’s literature operate in terms of specific cultural ideologies. Here, I explore how artifice
contributes to social progress in terms of feminist thought. L. Frank Baum, author of The
Wonderful Wizard of Oz and another turn-of-the-century newspaperman (albeit a failed one),
often alludes to newspaper production in his novels, especially in his popular fiction for girls. “A
Spectacle of Girls: L. Frank Baum, Women Reporters, and the Man Behind the Screen in Early
Twentieth-Century America” looks at the ways Baum’s girl series, Oz, and the work of turn-of-
the-century women journalists inform and reflect one another through their use of the artifice of
After examining the cultural work of artifice in children’s novels, I move on seeing how
actual children become reporters of and for artifice through interaction with the newspaper. “Join
the Club: African American Children’s Literature, Social Change, and the Chicago Defender
Junior” takes a different approach than previous chapters, given the lack of literature written
specifically for Black children and the intense racial disparity faced by African Americans
during (and after) the first decades of the twentieth century. Here, I suggest that through the
acknowledged artifice of the Chicago Defender, a newspaper with a stated objective to promote
racial equality, its previously overlooked children’s page, the Chicago Defender Junior, operates
as a form of children’s literature—one written by children—and contributes to the development
of Black youth identity.
Paige Gray is professor of liberal arts and writing at the Savannah College of Art and Design. She is the author of Cub Reporters: American Children’s Literature and Journalism in the Golden Age (SUNY Press 2019). Her work has appeared in academic journals such as Children’s Literature and Children’s Literature Association Quarterly, as well as popular press outlets including Time.com, Chicago Tribune, and The Conversation, among others. Her current book project considers how Black youth is the U.S. created community and representation for themselves through periodicals during the twentieth century. She lives in Atlanta and can be contacted at blankPaige@gmail.com.