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Barbara Dafoe Whitehead

The Children's Story of Divorce

Barbara Dafoe Whitehead's April 1993 Atlantic Monthly cover story, "Dan Quayle Was Right," was one of the most widely discussed articles in the past decade. With that provocative polemic, Whitehead, who holds a Ph.D. in American social history from the University of Chicago, initiated a profound shift in the "family values" debate. While bitter argument continues, there is a growing recognition of the negative consequences of divorce, whether in affluent suburbia or the poverty of the inner city.

In her new book, The Divorce Culture (Alfred A. Knopf, 224 pp.; $24), from which the following essay is adapted, Whitehead extends and deepens her analysis, tracing the growing acceptance of divorce in America and showing how, "as the sense of divorce as an individual freedom and entitlement grew, the sense of concern about divorce as a social problem diminished."

There has been only one sustained effort to chronicle and attend to children's experience of divorce, and that effort has been undertaken by the writers of children's books. Few scholars have paid close attention to the emergence of a children's literature devoted to divorce, much less credited it as an important source of evidence. Yet this literature provides a remarkable account of children's experience of divorce, a story radically at odds with the story told in the scores of books on divorce for adults.

Children's literature was innocent of the theme of divorce until the last third of the twentieth century. But as divorces with children became commonplace, as more and more American youngsters were summoned by their parents to hear a speech that began with some version of "Mommy and Daddy are so unhappy they cannot live together anymore," divorce started to invade the world of children's storybooks.

Divorce books for children began pouring from the nation's presses in the 1970s. The books came in all sizes and shapes and genres. There was a divorce book for every age group. For the youngest children, there were ...

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