Show Summary Details

p. 1Introduction: what is children's literature?free

  • Kimberley Reynolds

Abstract

Outside academia, the term ‘children's literature’ has a largely unproblematic, everyday meaning. From newspapers and other media to schools and in government documents, it is understood to refer to the materials written to be read by children and young people, published by children's publishers, and stocked and shelved in the children's and/or young adult (YA) sections of libraries and bookshops. Occasionally, questions are asked about whether something is suitable for a juvenile audience, a question usually provoked by concern about content – is it too sexually explicit? Too frightening? Too morally ambiguous? Sometimes questions of suitability reflect concerns about style – will grammatically incorrect or colloquial language or writing that includes swearing or abusive language or experimental writing counteract lessons taught in school or instil bad habits? More recently, as large numbers of adults have been reading books that were originally published as children's literature (the ...

Outside academia, the term ‘children's literature’ has a largely unproblematic, everyday meaning. From newspapers and other media to schools and in government documents, it is understood to refer to the materials written to be read by children and young people, published by children's publishers, and stocked and shelved in the children's and/or young adult (YA) sections of libraries and bookshops. Occasionally, questions are asked about whether something is suitable for a juvenile audience, a question usually provoked by concern about content – is it too sexually explicit? Too frightening? Too morally ambiguous? Sometimes questions of suitability reflect concerns about style – will grammatically incorrect or colloquial language or writing that includes swearing or abusive language or experimental writing counteract lessons taught in school or instil bad habits? More recently, as large numbers of adults have been reading books that were originally published as children's literature (the Harry Potter books, His Dark Materials, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, The Book Thief, Persepolis), there has been some debate about whether such books are suitable for adults, and if this kind of reading is a symptom of the dumbing down of culture. For the most part, however, what children's literature is, is taken for granted.

p. 2For those who research and teach children's literature, by contrast, the term is fraught with complications; indeed, in one of the most controversial studies of children's literature of the last century, Jacqueline Rose (1984) referred to the ‘impossibility’ of children's literature. Rose was in fact referring to the nature of the adult–child relationship in children's fiction, and her concerns, as well as other of the more theoretical issues that complicate the study of children's literature, are discussed in Chapter 2. But in many ways, even at a practical level, children's literature is ‘impossible’: impossibly large and amorphous for a field of study. In truth, there is no clearly identifiable body of ‘children's literature’ any more than there is something that could be called ‘adults’ literature’, nor are the two areas of publishing as separate as these labels suggest. Both reflect ideas about the purpose, nature, and modes of writing at any given moment; they share a technology, a distribution system – often the very producers of works for adults and children, and even some of the texts, are the same. Nevertheless, the term ‘children's literature’ is widely used, and so before it can be discussed, how it is used needs to be understood.

Currently, everything from folk and fairy tales, myths and legends, ballads and nursery rhymes – many of which date back to preliterate epochs – to such embodiments of our transliterate age as e-books, fan fiction, and computer games may come under the umbrella of children's literature. Additionally, as an area of research and teaching, children's literature encompasses all genres, formats, and media; all periods, movements, and kinds of writing from any part of the world, and often related ephemera and merchandise too. It addresses works that were specifically directed at the young, those that came to be regarded as children's literature by being appropriated by young readers, and those that were once read by children but are now almost exclusively read by scholars. Chapter 2 looks at the consequences of this variety on how children's literature is studied; here it is important to establish that there is no single, coherent, fixed body of work that makes up children's literature, but instead many children's p. 3literatures produced at different times in different ways for different purposes by different kinds of people using different formats and media.

Despite its vagaries, there is much consensus about what is studied by those who work in the field, and one purpose of this Very Short Introduction is to map out some of the common assumptions about what children's literature is as an area of research and teaching. A sense of the range of material classified as children's literature – and so the impossibility of doing justice to it in the kinds of surveys that typically constitute introductions to this field – can be gained by looking at how histories of the subject are organized, and considering what has been classified as writing for children and how that has changed over time. There are several intrinsic problems with taking a historical approach, not least the fact that it risks implying that there has been a progressive evolution culminating in the understanding and production of children's literature as it exists today. It is difficult to avoid this impression when organizing material chronologically, but the history provided in the first chapter attempts at least to limit such an implication by presenting material in terms of change and continuity rather than progress.

Another point to bear in mind is that until recently, histories of children's literature were almost exclusively produced in and about those Western countries that had strong traditions of publishing for children, and it tended to be scholars, collectors, librarians, and enthusiasts from those countries who organized conferences, launched journals, and developed terminology for discussing texts for children. This legacy has shaped attempts to define children's literature, what has been included in histories of the genre, and how it is valued and approached by scholars, to such an extent that in many countries where children's literature is studied, it is often works from Britain, other parts of Western Europe, and the USA that tend to dominate. This obscures many other traditions and the extent to which Western children's p. 4literature has been enriched by stories and characters, writers and illustrators from many parts of the world. Globalization and use of the Internet have further skewed this trend in favour of Anglophone publications, and so, while on one level it grossly misrepresents the history of children's literature, the outline history set out in Chapter 1 is based on works published in English, even if they were first written in another language. In fact, long before the current phase of globalization, as a consequence of migration, colonization, missionary and trade activities, or occupation, there was considerable commonality in what children read in many parts of the world, so this broadly Anglo-American history will have a family resemblance to histories of children's literature in many countries.

The cultural value of children's literature

Because children's literature is one of the earliest ways in which the young encounter stories, it plays a powerful role in shaping how we think about and understand the world. Stories are key sources of the images, vocabularies, attitudes, structures, and explanations we need to contemplate experience; because when directed to children they are often bound up with education of one kind or another, they can be important carriers of information about changes in culture, present and past. Indeed, its long history and the fact that writing for children straddles the domestic and institutional, official and unofficial, high and mass cultures, and often includes visual elements, means that material written for children can be a particularly valuable source of historical information about everything from how children in the past looked and the environments they occupied, to shops, servants, the treatment of disease, religion, wars, migration, scientific development, exploration, and much more.

Children's literature's links to the past work at multiple levels, too. Just as the children we once were continue to exist inside and to affect us, so writing produced for children continues to resonate p. 5over time and to be implicated in the way societies are conceived, organized, and managed. This is not a straightforward process; traditional ideas may be preserved in earlier texts, or deliberately promoted in conservative contemporary works or unconsciously perpetuated in those that uncritically hold up a mirror to current social trends. At the same time, many stories given to children today are retellings of traditional stories in which writers and illustrators set out to expose, critique, and adjust the schemata by which we interpret the world. The dialogue they create between old and new ways of thinking can be another way both to sow and to nurture the seeds of social change, as seen in the way children's literature has contributed to developments in the areas of equality and diversity. This capacity was of particular interest to Walter Benjamin, who collected children's books and valued the potential of writing for the young to radicalize rising generations, encouraging them to resist established ways of thinking promoted through formal schooling. Whether radical or conservative, meritorious or meretricious, writing for children is a rich but for long undervalued source of information about culture as well as a contribution to it.