Table of Contents
1 What is children’s literature?
2 The History of Children’s Literature: from ‘Instruction’ to ‘Delight ‘
3 The situation of children’s literature today: economic factors and social changes
4 Children’s Literature and Modern Media
5 The educational value of children’s books: what’s the use?
6 The politically correct(ed) book
7 What should children read? What should they not read? Questions of censorship
9 Language and ideology: the study of style
10 Schema theory
11 The child reader
2 ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’
3‘Kelpie’: Childhood experience as children’s literature
5 In conclusion
I have never stopped loving children’s literature, and I have been interested in it as a field of research ever since I took a course on the history of children’s literature at the University of Toronto. When I started out on this paper I had little idea what it would be about, only that the focus would be on language. I knew I was fascinated by the subject so I started exploring the issue in general terms, reading more or less randomly about children’s literature, and reading children’s literature, before I decided on the structure of the paper and the texts I would use for it. My fascination for children’s literature is grounded in its potential for change and for development which is one of its major aspects. The fierce attempts to control children’s readings, adults’ prescriptions of what is good for them and what is not, have to do with this aspect of children’s literature which has always been considered dangerous by some adults, because there is nothing more powerful than the potency of the literary imagination. Fairy tales, which were viewed as suspicious for a long time, as the history of children’s literature shows, are a good example of this perceived threat.
The question of what children should read, how much freedom they should have to choose, which ultimately comes down to the question if they should be allowed to have an imagination or not, has had to do with changing notions of childhood, on which the emergence of imaginative literature for children depended, but to which it has contributed a lot in turn. The question really is if children’s natural liveliness, curiosity, and open-mindedness should be suppressed, if children should be frightened, and kept in their place, taught to accept everything unquestioningly, or be offered what they need to develop and grow at their own pace, and develop into critical, self-confident, open-minded adults. This issue goes beyond the scope of this paper, and the subject of children’s literature, but it more than touches on the debate and is reflected in it, as well as explaining the passion with which the question on what children should read or rather should not read has always been discussed. A good example of how these issues interrelate is the zeal of some American parents when it comes to banning books like ‘Huckleberry Finn’, which I will talk about in chapter 6. They have obviously been stunted in their own development, and fearfully try to protect their children from what they think is the cause of all evil, thus unfortunately ensuring that the deficit is passed on.
The complexity of the relationship between children and books has often been underestimated, and the effects books can have on children have been simplified. If children grow up to realize their own potential or are stunted in their growth certainly depends on many factors, but a development of appreciation for literature is in my opinion part of this process, not to forget the role literature can play in developing and giving space to children’s imagination.
In the first and theoretical part of this paper I will explore issues connected with the social and literary context of children’s literature, in view of the complex relationship between children and books. I have found it useful to look at this relationship in the light of Guy Cook’s (1994) schema theory, as it is an exploration of the complex effects literature can have on the reader on a cognitive level.
According to this ‘theory of discourse deviation’, of ‘schema refreshment and cognitive change’ (1994: 181), which I will more fully discuss in chapter 10, discourses can have three kinds of effects on the reader’s schemata, they can be ‘schema-refreshing’, ‘schema-preserving’, or ‘schema-reinforcing’. What distinguishes literature from other discourses, and is the reason for why it is specially valued, according to Guy Cook, is that it allows the readers’ schemata to be refreshed. How this relates to children’s literature is interesting, because it seems that children, because of their lack of experience, by necessity have fewer schemata, and more unfinished ones than adults, and would therefore need literature that accounts of this difference, while initiating them into schema-refreshing effects of adult literature. It certainly should not limit them by only reinforcing conventional assumptions while feeding them with effects.
In the second and practical part of my paper I will look at two very different texts, Roald Dahl’s ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’ (1964/1995), and William Mayne’s ‘Kelpie’ (1993) to explore these issues empirically and see where they fit into the context of social/historical conditions of the production and reception of children’s literature discussed in the first part, also in view of schema theory and ideology.
In the course of this paper, my empathy with Lucy’s growing awareness of herself and the world around her, with her newly developed self-confidence and self-awareness at the end of the story has grown. Regarding the gradually clarifying take on my topic and my paper I feel a little like Lucy, who, after her journey of discovery, looks at herself on photographs of the trip. ‘Once, Lucy thought, I would not have been able to recognise myself; but now I think I could.’ (Mayne 1993: 79)
1 What is children’s literature?
What exactly is ‘children’s literature’? This question, which appears to be so easy to answer, turns out to be more difficult than it seems at first sight, when we consider all the different books subsumed under this category. For instance, does ‘children’s literature’ refer to books written for, or read by children, or both?1 The first definition, ‘written for children’, would only focus on the author’s original target audience and therefore include historical ‘children’s books’ which are not read by children anymore and are only of interest to a few literary adults. The second, ‘read by children’ would encompass anything ever read by children, including books which were intended for adults and later adopted by children, as for instance ‘Robinson Crusoe’, as well as comics and other material children read but most adults would not associate with children’s ‘literature’.2 What about books intended for children but read by adults? What about textbooks, encyclopedias or other non-fiction written for children? Do they count as children’s literature?
Knowles and Malmkjaer (1996: 2) define ‘children’s literature’ simply as ‘any narrative written and published for children’, a definition that excludes some poetry written for children and also assumes that ‘written for children’ and ‘published for children’ are synonymous. This is not necessarily the case, as some books are published as children’s books in one country and as books for adults in another - for instance Philip Pullman’s ‘Northern Lights’ which was sold as a book for adults in Britain and as a children’s book in the USA (cf. ‘The Children’s Bookseller’: 22.). And of the recently published ‘Harry Potter’ books there are children’s and adult versions available, even in the same bookstore, the only difference lying in the packaging and the price, which is higher for the adult version. This may be a recent phenomenon, but the demarcation lines separating children’s and adult literature have never been clear-cut and texts have always passed from one ‘system’ to the other over the course of time (cf. Shavit 1986, 65f.)3. Publishing indeed plays a crucial role in the classification of books as children’s books. If the writer’s intention is left out entirely we arrive at Townsend’s pragmatic definition, quoted by Knowles and Malmkjaer (1996: 1).
If he [the publisher] puts a book on the children’s list, it will be reviewed as a children’s book and will be read by children (or young people), if it is read at all. If he puts it on the adult list, it will not – or at least not immediately (Knowles and Malmkjaer 1996: 1).
In my view, as a definition, this is not satisfactory enough for our purposes. If we talk about ‘children’ and their ‘literature’, we should be as clear as possible of what is meant by these terms. Why is it that children’s literature is so difficult to define, the field has such hazy boundaries? This question leads right into the center of the issue.
The definition of children’s literature lies at the heart of its endeavor: it is a category of books the existence of which absolutely depends on supposed relationships with a particular reading audience: children (Lesnik-Oberstein 1996: 17).
Children’s literature as a field tends to resist clear-cut definitions, it is ambivalent, an oddity, ‘a species of literature whose boundaries are very hazy’ (Hunt 1990: 1). This has to do with the fact that both terms, ‘children’ and ‘literature’, are culturally and historically determined concepts. When we look at the children of ‘children’s literature’ we realize that their first and foremost defining characteristic, namely age, has varied considerably over time. Up to what age a person is regarded as a child has changed much in the history of childhood (e.g. cf. Ariès 1975). It seems that the characteristics we regard as typical of children, that is, lack of experience, resulting in a certain behavior, time for play, no responsibility, and in particular, our ideas of the sweetness and innocence of children go back to the Romantic period, while our conviction that children are in need of adult supervision originated in the middle of the 18th century (cf. Shavit 1986: 26). It is important to keep in mind that our ideas of what children are and what makes them children, is constructed.
‘Notions of the ‘child’, ‘childhood’ and ‘children’s literature’ […] embody the social construction of a particular historical context […] such notions today are bound up with the language and ideology of Romantic literature and criticism (Myers 1992, in Watkins 1996: 35).
What constitutes a child is therefore a culturally determined concept and subject to change. One critic’s idea of what ‘children’ are or what makes them children may be very different from another’s, and the same is true for writers. And then there are the children in the books, and the reading children who may be very different children indeed if notions of childhood have changed.
For this reason there can be no ‘intrinsic’ definition of ‘children’s literature’, as the cultural and social context always comes into play. Lesnik-Oberstein (1996: 17) goes so far as to say that the two constituent terms-‘children’ and ‘literature’ - within the label ‘children’s literature’ cannot be separated and traced back to original independent meanings, and then reassembled to achieve a greater understanding of what ‘children’s literature’ is. Within the label the two terms totally qualify each other and transform each other’s meaning for the purposes of the field. In short: the ‘children’ of children’s literature are constituted as specialised ideas of ‘children’ […]
In short, both ‘children’ and the ‘literature’ written for them, are shaped by ‘the views held within the adult population about children and young people themselves and their place in society’. (Hollindale 1988?)
Over the following pages I will look closely at both terms in their context to gain a better understanding of their meanings and the way they interact to result in ‘children’s literature’.
Children’s literature and children’s literature criticism define themselves as existing because of, and for, ‘children’, and it is these ‘children’ who remain the passion of – and therefore the source of conflict for – children’s authors and critics (Lesnik-Oberstein 1996: 29).
Looking at the issue from the ‘literature’ side, however,
[...] there is an implicit definition of children’s literature which has little necessarily to do with children: it is not the title of a readership but of a genre, collateral perhaps with fable or fantasy (Hollindale 1988: 26).
In my opinion the integration of these two ways of looking at the subject will bring us a considerable step closer to a comprehensive understanding. For this reason, I will take a short look at the term ‘literature’, which raises as many questions as ‘children’. The conventional, in many contexts still prevalent, underlying ‘definition’ or understanding of literature as ‘the inaccessible, the pretentious, the difficult’ (Hunt 1991: 23) that only the ‘self-elected’ with ‘trained intuition’ (Hunt 1991: 50) can access is particularly detrimental in the context of children’s ‘literature’, in fact it would actually exclude it, as it has done for a long time when children’s literature was excluded from the canon. Unfortunately, it is still in the back of the mind of many who write about children’s literature and is responsible for their hostile attitude against ‘literature’ (cf. I, 5). Over the last decades this conventional notion of ‘literature’ has been deconstructed (cf. Hunt 1991) and it has been pointed out that the label ‘literature’ has been applied as a ‘value’ term (e.g. Hunt 1991: 51), which is embedded in a context of culture and power and cannot be defined in terms of its linguistic features.4 The question linguists and critics have then been concerned with is, if literature can be defined at all or if it is essentially no different from other discourses. I think it is a different discourse. Cook’s ‘idea of schema refreshment through discourse deviation’ (1994: 206), which I will discuss in chapter 10, provides an explanation for the special status of literature compared to other discourses, and is particularly interesting in regard to children’s literature.
In conclusion, both terms ‘children’ and ‘literature’ are cultural concepts and it is ‘the cultural context that dominates the categorization’ (Hunt 1991: 51) of books as children’s books.
2 The History of Children’s Literature: from ‘Instruction’ to ‘Delight’
Aesthetic quality has always been seen as a very important characteristic of the literary text. The special pleasure that can be derived from reading such a text makes it different from a merely informational text. Texts written with the sole intention to instruct or inform children are therefore usually excluded from the field ‘children’s literature’. The purpose to teach children, however, comes in many disguises: it is rarely explicitly stated (except in some non-fiction) and more often than not intertwined with the purpose to amuse in one and the same text. The history of children’s literature, as the field in general, is characterized by this opposition between literary qualities that ‘delight’ the reader, and didactic purposes aiming at ‘instruction’, c.f. for instance the title of the Oxford anthology of children’s literature I will draw on, ‘From Instruction to Delight’. (Demers and Moyles 1982), which interprets the whole history of children’s literature as a journey from the one to the other.
The book regarded as the beginning of children’s ‘literature’ in this anthology is Newbery’s ‘Little Pretty Pocketbook’. The decision of what counts as the first children’s book is of course to some extent arbitrary, as such decisions invariably have to be, in this case it is based on the opposition between ‘instruction’ and ‘delight’: The ‘Little Pretty Pocketbook’ is the first book targeted at children that explicitly brings in ‘delight’, as it is ‘intended for the Instruction and Amusement of little Master Tommy and pretty Miss Polly [...]’ (Newbery in Demers and Moyles 1982: 104) and it is the second term that makes it a landmark of children’s literature. By our standards this is rather surprising, after all there seems nothing more natural than a writer’s expression of his intention to amuse children, (an expressive intention to instruct would more likely be kept quiet nowadays). When we take a short look at the history of children’s literature, however, we realize that this idea is very ‘modern’ and the production of literature (that is material written with the aim to delight) specifically for children a comparatively recent phenomenon.
For the emergence of a literature especially for children certain social and cultural conditions were necessary. It was not possible in a world in which the child was seen as part of the adult world (Shavit 1986, 6f.). According to Ariès ‘Geschichte der Kindheit’ (1975) this was the case in medieval society, which had no awareness of the child as a being with separate, and special needs, no concept of childhood. As soon as babies could live without the constant attention of the mother or nurse they entered society at large without a transitional period (Ariès 1975: 209). The period before the child was able to take part in adult society was very short, as the lifespan in general was much shorter than it is today, and it did not count much: infant mortality was very high, so one had to expect that very young children would die anyway and for this reason were not important. This attitude can still be found in the 17th century (209).5
According to Ariès (1975: 210), it was in the 14th century that a tendency developed in art to assign the child more importance; there were for instance portraits of children. Over the next centuries this changing view of childhood slowly spread to other areas of life. In the 16th and 17th centuries awareness of childhood as a separate state can be seen in the dress of upper class children, which for the first time differed from adults’. The beginning polarization of the world of children and adults brought with it different notions of childhood. At first children came to be seen as a source of pleasure and amusement. Adults began to find the naivety and cuteness of children amusing and on a large scale began to take pleasure in hugging and cuddling them (Aries 1975: 210f.). They might have done this before but now it was spoken about. It was also in the 17th century that a second notion, propagated by moralists and educators, began to develop, which emphasized the importance of the ‘spiritual well-being’ of children. Psychological and moral interest in the upbringing and education of children began to replace the view of child as toy (Ariès 1975: 217), and characterizes attitudes towards childhood to this day (Ariès 1975: 215). This is where the origins of children’s literature lie, even though there was nothing published specifically for children before 1700 (cf. Hunt 1991: 21).
John Locke’s treatise ‘Some Thoughts Concerning Education’ (1693) reflected the change in attitudes towards children (cf. Hunt 1995: 12). The Puritan notion of the child as a vessel of sin was replaced by the new Enlightenment view of the child as ‘tabula rasa’, a blank slate that could be written on (cf. Townsend 1996: 677). Locke’s educational philosophy advocated instruction in combination with pleasure, and saw the possibility that ‘children could play themselves into what others are whipped for’ (Townsend 1996: 677). Slowly this began to be reflected in the literature for the child. It had started with the Puritans’ ‘Hell-Fire’ tales, which were now followed by stories written by the ‘Rational Moralists’ (cf. Demers and Moyles 1982) in the tradition of Locke. However, these tales were still predominantly instructional, and at times just as gruesome as the Puritans’ tales.6 Newbery, a shrewd publisher and businessman, and admirer of Locke’s educational philosophy perceived the gap in the market and began to publish children’s books. His first title, ‘A Little Pretty Pocketbook’ (1744), is, as mentioned above, generally regarded as the beginning of ‘children’s literature’, as it was the first book expressly written to delight children, while attempting a compromise between the interests of parents and children. Its proclaimed motto is ‘Delectando monemus: Instruction with Delight’ (Newbery in Demers and Moyles 1982: 105).
[Newbery’s] many titles brought together the pleasurable and the instructive, frequently between the same covers. The two aims – to teach and to please – have remained twined together ever since (Townsend 1996: 677).
Of course Newbery was not the first to delight children, only the first to do so expressively. Fairytales and folktales were always told to children and enjoyed by them but also by adults. Bottigheimer (1996: 152) distinguishes between the original stories about fairies enjoyed by adults, and fairy tales. Tales about fairies are ‘elaborate narratives that depict the fairy kingdom and elfland; the leprechauns, kobolds, gnomes, elves, and little people […] based on surviving Celtic lore’ (152). They often have ‘amoral consequences and conclusions’. In the seventeenth century, versions of these tales about fairies were in fact intended for French adult aristocratic audiences but soon found a child readership. The lower classes also told their children fairy stories. After 1700 fairy stories intended for a child audience began to appear.
Fairy tales, unlike tales about fairies, more often than not, do not include fairies in their cast of characters and are generally brief narratives in simple language that detail a reversal of fortune, with a rags-to-riches plot that often culminates in a wedding. Magical creatures regularly assist earthly heroes and heroines achieve happiness, and the entire story is usually made to demonstrate a moral point […] (Bottigheimer 1996: 152).
Folk-tales include many genres, for instance animal tales, nonsense tales, jests, burlesques, chapbook romances and many more (cf. Bottigheimer 1996: 161). Some folk tales, like Robin Hood, Tom Thumb, Jack and the Giant, ‘thematize the confrontation of small, weak, poor but witty hero against a large, strong, rich, but stupid real or metaphorical giant’ (Bottigheimer 1996: 162). Folk-tales are difficult to distinguish from fairy tales, except that almost all of the folk-tales, according to Bottigheimer (1996:162) ‘enjoy a truly ancient literary lineage’. Both fairy tales and folk-tales are important components of children’s literature. In fact, the history of children’s literature is to a large extent the history of fairytales and folktales. For a long time they were for the most part children’s territory, it was even thought that children understood them better than adults (cf. Bottigheimer 1996: 162).
It seems natural that children, because of their comparatively powerless social position, would particularly empathize with the weak disadvantaged hero/ine who wins out in the end. Moreover, fairy tales and folk-tales are radical and extreme not only in the heroes’ reversals of fortune, but also in the punishment of evil, thus affording pleasure in justice (which may have to compensate for lack of it in the real world). The weakling wins, often by defeating a powerful figure that can be compared to the parent or any other powerful adult in the child’s life. This rise to power of the disadvantaged hero/ine can be seen as a possibility that children could throw over the adult order, at least symbolically, and serves as a reminder that there is justice, which wins in the end, and despite the apparently greater power of the giant/witch or whoever it is who is conquered. This has probably always attracted children, and put off many adults who passionately opposed these tales as reading material for children in the name of protecting them.
Fairy tales and folk-tales were part of an underground tradition and attacked from all sides, at different times for different reasons: they were ‘regarded by the Tudor and Stuart literati as ‘peasant absurdities’ (Townsend 1996: 680), the Puritans railed against them because of their fictional nature and because they feared they might ‘disgust... children with what is useful and of real importance’ (Demers and Moyles 1982: 78), besides having ‘not even the shadow of common sense in them’ (Demers and Moyles 1982: 78), and, ‘by the 18th century [they were regarded] as contrary to reason’ (Townsend 1996: 680). As much as their predecessors, Locke and his followers, including Newbery, opposed the old tales, the ‘Ballads and foolish Books’ already deplored by White in 1671. In fact, efforts were made till well into the 19th century to ban fanciful adventurous tales such as folktales and ballads of legend and romance once and for all from the nursery.
Despite these attacks, the old tales survived and were passed on from generation to generation. Aside from the oral tradition, this is largely due to their preservation in ‘chapbooks’7, ‘slim, cheap pamphlets sold by pedlars throughout the country that contained romances, dramas, and histories (Hunt 1995: 27). Towards the end of the 18th century there were chapbooks published specifically for children but even before that children read them. As everything published for children was heavily instructional, there was no competition for these little books (Demers and Moyles 1982), until Newbery set up the tradition of publishing books that tried to please both children and adults, while (in his own interest) opposing the original tales as fiercely as anyone else.
It was not till Romanticism that the rehabilitation of these old tales began: their emergence into respectable print is probably associated with the rise of Romanticism, the greater esteem for imagination that had followed the Age of Reason, and the replacement to some extent of classical influences by Nordic ones’ (Townsend 1996: 680).
The Romantics’ preference of fairy tales over more realistic fiction (cf. Hunt 1992: 12) helped to make them again socially acceptable and contributed to their later re-establishment as literature which was considered ‘proper’ at least for children. Contemporary notions of the child as innocent, sweet, closer to God and in some way wiser than adults, as well as the glorification of childhood as a state of innocence can be traced back to ‘Romantic ideologies of childhood’ (Hunt 1992: 12), which regarded childhood as a somewhat mythical state, more natural than adulthood, because yet unspoilt.8
By the mid-nineteenth century a number of authors, to differing degrees associated with the Romantic movement, had appeared, who signalled important changes in children’s literature, and, according to Demers and Moyles (1982: 219ff.), ushered in the Golden Age of children’s literature.
Unlike their doctrinaire contemporaries they were willing to endorse entertainment as a creditable goal in their works for the young, and were capable of fashioning delightful vehicles to ensure success (219).
Blake’s ‘Songs of Innocence and Experience’ (1794), Roscoe’s ‘The Butterfly’s Ball and the Grasshopper’s Feast (1807), Lamb’s ‘Poetry for children’ (1809), and Lear’s ‘The Book of Nonsense’ (1846), among other works, survived from that time. Interestingly, it was these books that were by no means typical of children’s literature of the time, which were heavily influential, tasting as they did ‘more of honey than of medicine’ (Demers and Moyles 1982: 221). According to Demers and Moyles (1982) and also Knowles and Malmkjaer (1996: 3), a number of writers of instructional and moral tales, now forgotten (except in histories of children’s literature), remained in the majority for a long time to come. Examples are Thomas Day’s ‘The History of Sandford and Merton’ (1783-9) and Mrs. Trimmer’s ‘Fabulous Histories’ (1786), later renamed as ‘The History of the Robins’.
In the 19th century, there was for the first time ‘a mass output of popular juvenile fiction’ (Knowles and Malmkjaer 1996: 3) and the emergence of what came to be called ‘traditional juvenile fiction’ which can be divided into the ‘adventure story’ and the ‘school story’. Both offered role models the reader could identify with. Representatives of the adventure story are Ballantyne, Kingston, Marryat and G.A. Henty. With Stevenson the genre reaches its height, and is at the same time transcended. The school story became a popular genre with Thomas Hughes’s ‘Tom Brown’s Schooldays’ (1857).
In the early nineteenth century, the output of books for children continued to grow, but emphasis was still largely on the didactic and instructional […] By the mid-nineteenth century, imagination was in favour among the more forward-looking writers (Townsend 1996: 680).
The second half of the 19th century (and beginning of the 20th century, up to the outbreak of the First World War) is generally regarded as the ‘Golden Age’ of children’s literature with authors such as Ruskin, Dickens, Wilde, Grahame, Rossetti, in different genres casting off the restraints of hundreds of years of instruction. Lewis Carroll’s ‘Alice in Wonderland’, published in 1865, is often regarded as the final victory of the imagination. At the same time, there was still a large output of heavily instructional, didactic literature for children, ‘the work of third-and fourth-rate writers turning out what the market demanded’ (Townsend 1996: 680).
The Victorian ideal of childhood, in brief, was that children should be good and do as they were told. Piety, often to an unrealistic degree, was approved of; the activity of tract societies and the growing trade in Sunday School ‘rewards’ resulted in a torrent of ‘goody-goody’ books. To look at the Victorian children’s books still familiar today is in one way misleading but in another way illuminating: the survivors are far from representative of the entire output and come almost invariably from the minority that ignored, bent or broke the rules (Townsend 1996: 680).
The First World War ended the Golden Age of children’s literature. Compared to the years before, both wars and the interwar period were an impoverished period of children’s writing, with less importance and status assigned to children’s books and their writers9 (cf. Townsend 1996: 682).
The stresses of war and post-war shortages restricted publishing during the second war as they had done in the First, and the decade of recovery was the 1950s (Townsend 1996: 683).
The 1950s led up to a very prolific period of writing, often called the second ‘Golden Age’, with a large number of books published in many different genres, such as the adventure story, historical novel, fantasy, realistic fiction (cf. Townsend 1996: 684f.). The major writers representing the ‘Golden Age’ include Lucy Boston, Philippa Pearce, William Mayne, Alan Garner, Jill Paton Walsh, Leon Garfield, and Joan Aiken among others (cf. Hollindale and Sutherland 1995, 256ff.). Hollindale and Sutherland (1995: 259) attribute the flowering of children’s literature at the time to the remarkable freedom of non-artistic influences authors enjoyed. This ‘period of exceptional artistic licence for the children’s author’ (259), however, ended in the 1970s with the arrival of a new agenda of political correctness, thus opening again the debate on ‘instruction’ and ‘delight’, this time in a modern dress. While authors of children’s books these days are not so much in danger of being openly criticized for the morals they propagate, they may be accused of a number of different –isms. This may be even more dangerous because it is often not made obvious that different morals/politics are at issue and that the standards of ‘political correctness’ against which works are measured are ideological as well. This is not to say that ideology in children’s literature should not be discussed, but on a different level (cf. I, 6,7).
This short overview of the historical development of children’s literature is important for the discussion that follows because it shows the war that has been fought over the bodies of children over the question if children are allowed to have an imagination or not. It also shows the roots of the issues discussed today, and the similarities, and this is important because our own immersion in our cultural climate means that we are far less able to see contemporary issues like the debate on political correctness from a distance than we are able to see historical issues. The split between more or less didactic writing for children and books that feed the imagination has always been of interest. It is important to bear in mind that the children’s books that survive and become classics are often the delightful ones, those that go against the rules of the time, while instructional works tend to be forgotten, unless they are particularly gruesome and disgusting as some cautionary tales. Fairytales have been favorites with children for a long time and have survived the different morals that have at different times been attached to them. This goes to show that children’s inclinations are not so easy to influence or divert as adults think (or would wish), and that they like or dislike stories for their own reasons, no matter what the ‘moral’ is, as adults would have it.
3 The situation of children’s literature today: economic factors and social changes
There can be no doubt that children’s literature continues to occupy a prominent place in the modern world of children and of adults. If proof was needed one could point to innumerable books, articles, and online discussions about books, as well as the interdisciplinary discussion of issues connected with children’s literature, involving adults from different spheres of society. The adults in some way involved in the production of children’s literature and in public debates about it, are not only writers and publishers, but also the booksellers, teachers, and, parents, as well as educationalists, psychologists, and literary critics. Over the last decades children’s literature, after having been ‘recognized as part of the mainstream of literature’ (Watkins and Sutherland 1995: 293), has received much serious critical attention, a number of journals have been established and it has been finally acknowledged as a subject worthy of study in universities, though very interestingly courses were offered at first in education and only later in literature departments.
Apart from the social, educational and literary importance, there is also an economic dimension to the production and reception of children’s literature that is not to be overlooked. For instance, in the 1970s, the number of new titles published began to rise while print runs were decreased.10 According to Hunt (1991, 17), 5.000 new children’s books are published every year in Britain alone, with 55.000 titles currently in print. For the USA the figure in the early 1990s was 6.000 new titles per year (cf. Watkins and Sutherland 1995: 319). The dependence of the production of children’s literature on economic circumstances is considerable: rise in prices of paper, for instance has a direct effect on the system, the same is true for budget cuts in money for public libraries, as happened in Britain in the 1980s (cf. Watkins and Sutherland 1995, 290). A positive opposite example would be the government funding to schools and libraries in the USA in the 1960s, which allowed publishers to ‘expand their lists’ (Watkins and Sutherland 1995: 291). There is some critical disagreement on the economic situation of children’s literature in the 1990’s. Watkins and Sutherland (1995: 320) find it promising:
There is a wider audience of children’s books [...] And there is a ripple effect as bookstore and mass market sales increase: the range of books carried in bookstores has broadened, since a healthy sales volume encourages publishers once again to take risks. It is a satisfying spiral.
Townsend’s (1996: 687) assessment of the 1990s is less positive. Schools and libraries in Britain had less money to spend, while books got more and more expensive. ‘The chill economic wind seemed to cause, or at any rate to be accompanied by, a fall in the numbers of good new writers’. Children’s literature does not exist in a vacuum but depends on a number of social and economic factors. That there often is a correlation between the emergence of good children’s books and a favorable economic situation is important to bear in mind because it shows how much books depend on a market, and therefore children’s reading on the amount of money parents, schools, and libraries can afford to spend on them. How much money there is to spend also depends on adults’ priorities and if they think children’s reading is the right place to save money, as they seem to do, which has negative consequences on the whole system.
A negative voice, as far as the quality of the new children’ s books is concerned, is Carpenter (1985: 222), who, in his book ‘Secret Gardens’, about the Victorian classics of children’s literature, even speaks of ‘the gradual disappearance of notable new fiction for children between seven and twelve’. He attributes this to a change in the current notion of childhood. Drawing on Neil Postman’s ‘The Disappearance of Childhood’ (1983) he argues that ‘the ‘idea of childhood’ has been largely eroded by television, a medium which makes no real distinction between childhood and adults’ (222). He concludes with a nostalgic statement that ‘we may revisit those Enchanted Places [of the Victorians] ourselves, but we cannot create new ones’. This rather gloomy assessment of the situation does not mean the ending of children’s literature. There are still many children's books and children do read them, though perhaps not so much anymore the ones that would qualify as ‘notable’ in Carpenter’s terms, or in anyone else’s, whose views of what constitutes a good book are formed by Victorian standards.
At the same time it is true that we may in fact be witnessing ‘change in progress’ in the prevailing views of childhood, as Griswold (1996: 880) cites evidence11 that, particularly in the USA ‘the concept of childhood [...] is being dismantled before our eyes’. And, if we don’t know anymore what a child is, how can we know what the literature for the child should be? On the other hand, adults are taking increasing interest not only in the production and evaluation of children’s literature, as they always have, but also in reading children’s literature as a leisure time activity. These adults are part of the ‘wider audience’ Watkins and Sutherland (1995: 320) refer to. It seems that the two phenomena are interrelated. Noting an ‘extensive adult interest in children’s literature’ in the USA during the last two decades, Griswold (1996: 880) attributes adult fascination with childhood and children’s literature to nostalgic feelings about this ‘disappearance of childhood’ in our society.
While the number of children in the population has dropped precipitously […] children’s books have been selling in extraordinary numbers (for example, sales quadrupled between 1982 and 1990) and marketing surveys indicate that as many as a third of all sales are made to childless customers in their 20s or 30s who don’t mean to pass these purchases along to a minor (Griswold 1996: 880).
Nostalgia and ‘anxieties of the middle-aged and a wish for rejuvenation’ (Griswold 1996: 880) may be reasons for this phenomenon. If there is a tendency that children are arguably no longer allowed to be children (in the traditional sense), it is an ironic fact that Western mass culture idealizes the state that comes right after childhood, namely youth, ‘being young’, and everything associated with it, one of the few taboos left in Western societies being certainly death.
This trend towards and striving for a universal state of ‘youthfulness’ independent of age may be reflected in a change in the audience that actually reads children’s literature as well as in the blurring of the demarcation line between children’s and adult literature. There are ‘crossover books’ for instance, like J.K. Rowling’s ‘Harry Potter’ books (first published by Bloomsbury in 1997), which have been called a ‘phenomenon of the publishing world’ (The Children’s Bookseller: 22) and have appeared atop children’s and adult bestseller lists alike. Interestingly, a special adult version has been published which only differs in the price, which is higher, and the cover picture it shows, perhaps to make it more ‘respectable’ for adults to be seen reading a children’s book. The ‘Harry Potter’ books may or may or may not only be worth referring to because of their immense success but the phenomenon at any rate reminds us that the children’s book is far from dead, and on the contrary can still have an enormous hold over the minds and imagination of children. But the fact that this success came as such a surprise, and the astonishment it caused in the book world shows how rare it is. It was greeted – and not only by booksellers – by a relieved ‘children do read after all’ or ‘it makes children read’, and this was often as of itself regarded as an enormous achievement. If the Potter craze really initiates children into the reading of other books or just into the buying of Potter paraphernalia is a different question but this response may be indicative of a general insecurity about and concern for the role of the children’s book in a world dominated by modern media, as well as for the future of reading – an activity that has always been regarded superior to the watching of television for instance. This is not surprising as children are living in a multimedia world dominated by visual images, by television shows and video games, a world in which reading is increasingly becoming associated with elitism, an activity that has not only to be taught as always, but also to be continually encouraged and is then self-consciously practiced. Hollindale and Sutherland (1995: 259) take a more positive view on the ‘effect’ of television of ‘supplanting books as the lowest level of escapist entertainment for the young and therefore raising their prestige’. In my opinion, however, this tendency involves the danger that reading once again becomes the privilege of a few elect and a strong class marker, serving as a ‘label’ of group membership. Some of the ‘cultural’ and ‘elitist’ connotations of reading today are reminiscent of the ritual it was in medieval times.
Undoubtedly, the book culture stands in opposition to the more populist medium television, and reading has very different connotations than watching television - imagine anyone saying about a television series, for instance, ‘finally a show that makes children watch television...’
How do these two cultures interrelate? What is the relationship between children and books now in comparison to what it was when the book proved to be an important – or even the only – source of entertainment for children, and how has modern media influenced it?
4 Children’s Literature and Modern Media
When we think of the possible effects of visual media, in particular television, on children’s literature, the first question that comes to mind is, if television is responsible for a gradual decline in children’s reading, which may possibly lead to the replacement of the book by television. Do children actually spend less time reading because of television? To even ask this question may seem unnecessary as a positive answer appears very obvious. And indeed, the figures available to me (from ‘Children and the Media’ 1996) tend to confirm this common feeling at least for the USA: if the average 2-11 year old spends almost 22 hours a week watching television (Heintz 1996: 176), or, according to a different source 3 hours a day (McGill 1996:73), there seems not much time left for leisure time reading. At least it is difficult to imagine how the hours spent watching television do not take their toll on the time spent reading.
Some studies, however, suggest that the activities replaced by television are usually those of a similar kind, activities that can be put into the category relaxing and do not ask for much attention, hanging around, in the sense of ‘doing nothing’, listening to the radio, but also ‘comic book reading’ (Heintz 1996: 164). This divides activities into serious and fun or relaxing ones, a distinction that in my opinion is impossible to uphold when it comes to reading. A finding that rather surprised me is that, according to ‘By the numbers – What Kids Watch’ (McGill 1996: 74), children in the USA spend less time in front of TV than adults, and watch less television than ten years ago (this however, is attributed to the rise in popularity of video games and the VCR). The time spent watching television seems to decrease as children get older and develop other interests, going down to two hours a day in the age group of the 14-19 year olds (Wartella 1996: 30). This still seems a lot but not all programs are awarded the same kind of attention, some only serve as background to other activities and family interaction. The highest attention level is reached when programs are ‘challenging’ and ‘unpredictable’ (Heintz 1996: 164f.).
A thorough discussion of the interaction of children and television goes beyond the scope of this paper. These findings, however, which rather surprised me, are nevertheless relevant if only because they suggest that while it is true that children watch much television, a number of myths about the role of television in children’s lives will have to be rethought. It seems that the relation between children, television, and other activities, like reading, is more complex than often supposed.
So, even though the question of how much of the time spent watching television would otherwise be spent reading cannot be answered with any certainty, there can be no doubt that the existence of visual media like television must have an enormous impact on children, on the books written for them, and on the relationship between children and books which it is likely to have changed. In the following, I will first look at some of the characteristics of television (as the most widespread visual mass medium) – both at the nature of the medium and its contents – and the kind of role it plays in our society, and then look at the possible effects of all this on the relationship between children and books.
As television is a visual medium, the succession of images presented is of extreme importance. Even though in television the words are more important than in film because of the size of the screen and forms like the news broadcast and documentaries (cf. Scheunemann 1996, 176), for the most part they function in relation to the pictures, complement and add to them, in contrast to books where the written words contained within the covers hold all the power and the picture-making is left to the imagination of the reader. It is the ‘perfect view’ the audience has of what is happening on the screen which may induce an illusory ‘sense of omniscience’ (Fiske: 1998: 1091) in the viewer and further an acceptance as truth of all that is presented, as people, used to believe in what their eyes show them, may be conditioned to accept as reality what they see, rather than what they only hear or read. This is something we all hear frequently: ’It’s got to be true…I’ve seen it’. For this reason television is said to exercise a very strong emotional hold over the viewer who is unaware of the parameters that determine the medium and the ‘codes’ it works with. In ‘Television Culture’ Fiske (1998: 1087-1090) analyzes two scenes from an episode of ‘Hart to Hart‘ and demonstrates how ‘camera work’, ‘editing’ (time, number, length of shots), ‘music’, ‘casting’, and ‘setting and costume’ in combination strongly influence the viewer to make certain meanings rather than others. To give only one example, the camera angle and distance can influence our sympathies: close-ups for instance may prejudice us against somebody who is being interviewed or make villains appear more villainous – the exact effect depending on the context (cf. Fiske 1998).
All this has to do with the medium and does not yet say anything about the content, or the kinds of meanings likely to be produced by the viewer. In terms of content, it is true that anything that is ‘transmittable technically’ (Fiske 1998: 1089) could be on television. As far as concerns the nature of the medium, for instance, it is possible to imagine that viewers’ contributions and feedback could play an important role. We are so used to television the way we know it that accounts which envisage a different future for the medium may come as a surprise. As late as 1985, Kadelbach (1985: 235), for instance, deplores the monological nature of television and the passive, subordinate position of the viewer and expresses his optimistic hopes for a future in which the recipient also turns producer and thus takes a more active stance towards what is being offered. In the year 2002 we know that these hopes have been disappointed, although a two-way communication is definitely imaginable in technological terms. The recipient is still the passive receiver, except in shows that ask for audience participation, which is usually minimal and concerns ratings. In terms of the specific content, what is shown on television and the way it is shown are obviously governed by principles of selection. A lot has been written about their ideological basis in our society, beginning in the 1960’s with Horkheimer and Adorno’s ‘The Culture Industry as Mass Deception’ (1998), according to which we are all victims of a huge entertainment machinery, of which television is a part, which only serves economic interests and overfeeds us with ever the same clichés, kills ‘imagination and ‘spontaneity’ (1039) and makes impossible ‘sustained thought’ by drowning it in a ‘rush of facts’. Television obviously plays an essential role in this, furthermore allowing the same message to be repeated endlessly in different countries, spreading the same capitalist values everywhere. (Seen in this light digitalization and other new media technologies developed since then have furthered globalization even more, and are nothing but the next steps in the same direction.)
In ‘Cultural Studies’ (cf. Rivkin and Ryan 1998: 1026), media is seen as a tool of power and domination, which serves the dominant interests in a patriarchal and capitalist society. This is essentially agreed on. The argument is as to what extent the viewer/consumer is a passive receiver who is at the mercy of the manipulative nature of the medium/product. There are two different perspectives outlined by Rivkin and Ryan (1998: 1026), which I think complement each other. The optimistic perspective takes into account the ‘permanent possibility of eruption, of dissonance, and of an alternative imagination of reality’ – subversion that lies in the viewer’s eye. According to Radway (1998: 1048), we should not assume that those commodified objects [in her case romances...] exert such pressure and influence on their consumers that they have no power as individuals to resist or alter the ways in which these objects mean or can be used.
I think in principle this is beyond a doubt, but the question is to what extent it happens. Because it is also true, and this is the more negative perspective, that the viewer who identifies with what is being offered and takes it as he finds it is rewarded. By ‘adopt[ing] the same ideological practice in the decoding as in the encoding’ (Fiske 1998:1094) the viewer is rewarded with ‘easy pleasure’ (Fiske 1998: 1094) thus becoming the ‘‘reading subject’’ constructed by the text’ (1094). However, according to the ‘Theorie der kognitiven Dissonanz’ as explained by Kadelbach (1985: 231), the viewer is likely to unconsciously seek conformation for already existing attitudes and opinions to avoid the displeasure of an internal conflict, therefore, put simply, seeing what he wants to see.
In terms of Guy Cook’s schema theory (cf. Cook 1994) this would attribute an essentially schema-reinforcing quality to television. The nature of the schemata that are being reinforced depends on the viewer’s already existing schemata. Television satisfies the viewers’ immediate needs, it is entertainment which is easy to consume and offers compensation and reassurance for the viewer, making him again comfortable in his world, creating an illusion of togetherness, of common purpose with other people by strengthening conventional views.
If the nature of television is essentially schema-reinforcing, and I think it is, what effects does it have on the relationship between children and books? On television, children are exposed to a world ruled by money and glamour that abounds with stereotypical representations of sexuality and positively connoted violence, the latter two most heavily criticized for their potentially damaging effects on child-viewers12, followed by gender-stereotyping and mis- (or non-) representation of minorities. (These questions are also relevant when it comes to children’s reading and will be taken up in chapter 7 on censorship.) Undoubtedly, television is a powerful influence on children and has had an effect on both children’s cultural context and mode of reading.
For one, it has profoundly changed the culture in which children grow up and therefore the cultural context in which children have always interacted with books, as well as children’s own culture. Meek (1982: 169), for instance, speaks of the influence television has on the ‘culture of childhood’, with its ‘underground’ (170) oral tradition of story-telling, ‘recit[ing], threaten[ing], [...] word-calling’ (171), which ‘lay the foundations of literature’ (171) as written text, as we, who have already grown into a book culture, know it. However, as most children nowadays encounter children’s books long after they have encountered television and learnt its conventions, their references have changed:
Any significant theory of children’s literature cannot ignore the texts children hold in common, for on these is their view of literature founded, and from these are their literary competences developed (172).
Because of television, children nowadays have a different intertextual background than the generations before them. Meek argues that what follows from this is that the conventions of children’s literature have changed as well and are based now on television rather than other texts.
The style and narrative conventions adopted by modern writers for children develop less from earlier books than from the shared texts of television, where new codes are made and learned as universally as in the medieval art of stained glass (Meek 1982: 172).
Comparing the television drama ‘Grange Hill’ with the ‘Oresteia’ and finding similarities Meek emphasizes the necessity to investigate this and similar ‘cultural artifact[s] that dominate contemporary childhood’ (1982: 172), and the challenge this presents to the children’s book critic. The question is if television artifacts like ‘Grange Hill’ can exist side by side with the ‘Oresteia’ or if they gradually come to replace it entirely. Rather than a contradiction Meek (cf. 1982: 172) seems to see a natural progression from one to the other, meaning that the children who watch ‘Grange Hill’ on television grow into the young people who enjoy the ‘Oresteia’ in the theater. This seems to me too optimistic. There may be a continuation from ancient to modern epic (cf. Ong 1984), but I doubt that the transition from television show to theater is an easy one or comes naturally (perhaps only because of the association of theater with ‘high’ culture). Between book and television culture there seems to be even a larger gap that cannot be bridged without a great personal effort and/or what we call ‘education’. And this is because the required effort is different. For somebody used to the presentation mode of television, reading may be frustrating at first. Television tends to present everything as entertainment; there is a ‘predominance of the effect’ (Adorno 1998: 1039). Television is also frequently (cf. for instance Goetsch’s discussion of ‘The 1992 Presidential Debates’ in the U.S.) designated as a ‘medium of emotions’ (Goetsch 1996: 135) not ideas, that by its nature is ‘story hungry’, favors a ‘relational style’ and therefore lends itself well to fulfilling the ‘emotional needs of people’. The exact influence this has on mode of reading is a difficult question but it seems obvious that children, used to the easy pleasure of watching television, in its attractive and easily accessible presentation of every subject matter, will have problems with the different kind of effort asked for by literature, an effort in terms of concentration and discipline that is not matched by the effort required to process the endless flow of entertainment via television or other electronic media. And if a child is used to ‘user-friendly’ media and being served information only in small bits and pieces it is hard to imagine how this would not affect her expectations from books, perhaps less in terms of contents but certainly in the way they are presented.
For this reason I think television programs that try to teach children how to read or motivate them to read, which are used occasionally as a pro-TV argument (cf. Chen 1996: 81), are somehow problematic. It is true that television programs and books often work hand in hand, and if there is a book featuring the show for instance, the child who likes the show may be motivated to read the book. I see two problems involved in this: the first is the question if the kind of book being propagated is more than just a regurgitation of the television program, and if it initiates the reader into the codes needed for reading other books not based on television programs. It seems more than doubtful if one medium can do that for another (after all, in order to learn how to swim one does not go hiking).
Another reason why television cannot initiate children into reading books, or is even counter-productive, has to do with the consumer-oriented nature of television, which involves the book as part of a commercial ‘supersystem’ (Kinder 1991, in Heintz 167ff.), in which the same character features in television programs and books, and is also used to promote other products like toys and really anything imaginable. These character-based products are what children have in common and share, and they have therefore contributed to the creation of a culture that belongs only to children, a culture that emphatically rejects the adult world and celebrates the differences and the separation between the worlds of adults and children13, fostering disapproval of ‘adult’ or ‘high’ culture. At the same time it is a culture created not by children themselves but by the big companies14 (cf. Heintz 172, Seiter 1993) that sell the comic books, toys, and chocolate Pokémons and take a very material interest in inviting the identification of children, and teaching them to be consumers. Books are not always the by-products in such a supersystem, but may also be the starting point, as the ‘Harry Potter’ craze has shown, which started out as a series of books and soon included a whole promotional package of lightning-bolt shaped tattoos and other items from the story world, and, by now, the perfectly timed film version of the first book.
The practice of advertising and selling to children as well as to their parents is of course nothing new, and something the production of children’s books has always depended on. It may be surprising to note in this context that as early as 1744, Newbery, trying to please both parents and children, advertised his ‘Little Pretty Pocketbook’, often regarded as the first children’s book, with the words:
A Little Pretty Pocketbook, intended for the Instruction and Amusement of little Master Tommy and pretty Miss Polly; with an agreeable Letter to each from Jack the Giant-Killer; as also a Ball and Pincushion, the Use of which will infallibly make Tommy a good Boy and Polly a good Girl (June 18 1744, London Penny Advertiser, in Demers and Moyles 1982, 104).
Even though most of today’s children would probably refuse to have anything to do with toys that claim to make them ‘good’, the parallel is obvious: there is the book as part of a package, even though it is true that Newbery could not have dreamt of finding an enormous audience, an audience of millions, of the kind the Harry Potter books, for instance, have done, something that has only become possible in a highly globalized world. And this makes an enormous difference. As Newbery marks the beginning of children’s literature, a time in which children’s books needed all kinds of moral justifications in order to be sold and reach their audience, one might perhaps compare this to the situation of children’s literature today, only now it is the children and not the parents that have to be persuaded to choose the book over other things, a marketing situation caused by the new media competition for the book. But the parallel goes further. In both cases adults prescribe what children have to be: at Newbery’s time it was to be good and virtuous, and nowadays it is to be different and separate from adults in every possible way because this is how companies make the most money.
At any rate, never was there so much competition for the book as today. According to Scheunemann (1996, 163), who discusses ‘the challenge to an existing art-form emerging from an advance of cultural technology’, in particular that to film from television, there are different stages in the accommodation of old media to new ones […] the first one characterized by a ‘demarcation of the domains and differentiation of the functions’ (164) as well as ‘separation’ (165). At this stage there is often a lot of underlying resentment and rejection of the new medium. This is generally followed by creative and constructive attempts to deal with the new medium, by incorporating aspects of it and reassembling them artistically, in the way ‘photomontage’ for instance, was developed in visual arts (164) as a comment on photography. When it comes to books and television, however, this is problematic because of the essentially different and competitive nature of the media just discussed. Scheunemann only discusses the impact of technological progress on already existing visual arts/media (painting-photography, theater-film, film-television), but nevertheless this throws an interesting light on the relationship between literature and television. It does leave aside, however, the possibility of one medium or art form really being pushed aside by another.
The central question concerns the place children’s literature will take in the 21st century and if and how it will be able to defend its position of high regard next to multimedia. To survive it may have to defend and make better known its importance for the child, which lies in giving children who live in a world of pictures something that multimedia cannot. In short, it should not only be privileged children who have access to a book culture and have a real choice between the book and the television show, knowing the different kinds of pleasures of both.
5 The educational value of children’s books: what’s the use?
Alice was beginning to get very tired of sitting by her sister on the bank, and of having nothing to do: once or twice she had peeped into the book her sister was reading, but it had no pictures or conversations in it, ‘and what is the use of a book,’ thought Alice, ‘without pictures or conversations?’ (Carroll 1970: 25)
This famous child character’s criteria of what constitutes a good book are in my opinion the right beginning for a chapter of adults’ opinions on the uses children’s books should have for children. It is an ironic commentary on the following discussion because it brings together the serious and very adult word ‘use’, with something many children like, ‘pictures and conversation’. It is important to keep in mind that children’s books are written for children, and their ideas of usefulness can go in quite different directions from those of adults, and ones that certainly do not make less sense than the various ‘uses’ adults have at times assigned to children’s books.
One assumption underlying the debate on books-versus-television is that the child should profit from whatever it is he or she spends time doing. This unfortunately usually either means that it should help the child to acquire specific knowledge or be educationally/morally valuable in a narrow sense. Both of these functions have at times been assigned to children’s books, as they have always been thought to play an important role in the socialization of the child, by some this is even regarded as their first and most important function. Even though there are educational, and more or less didactic television programs for children many parents would still prefer their children to read even if only because of a feeling that books somehow belong to school or the education system and have therefore important things to teach children, help them to prepare for school or society at large. Watkins and Sutherland (1995: 319), in line with this, identify a trend towards a replacement of more and more ‘textbooks’ by ‘trade books’ in schools, which has positive sides but may also lead to children’s literature being more and more associated with school. As the image of literature is already burdened by a ‘high culture’ heritage, this might make it harder for children to find their own access. (Of course this depends on the child’s attitude towards school, and the teacher’s ability.)
The idea of instruction is certainly not embedded as deeply in television, which started out as and continues to be a popular medium, as it is in children’s literature, which belongs on the one hand to a book culture that seems mythical and elitist to many, and on the other to the educational establishment. Shavit (1986: 35) goes even so far as to say that the children’s book belongs more to the ‘educational apparatus’ than to literature. She points out the comparatively low status of writers of children’s literature who at times are asked to respond to the child reader’s needs and write about whatever it is that is important for the child (cf. Shavit 1986: 36ff.), something that would be unthinkable in adult literature. Very often prizes are awarded along similar lines: Paula Fox, for instance, was awarded the Hans Christian Anderson Medal because her books ‘help children to develop understanding for one another [...] and also help the many adults [...] to find a way of teaching the child and the adolescent’ (Binder 1978; in Shavit 1986: 36f.). A book may well have this effect on readers (among many), but elevating this to the standard against which it is judged, and awarding it a prize for this reason, means seeing it as a self-help book or teacher’s guide and not as literature. At the same time no one seems to want to believe that these are the standards against which children’s books are judged.
Shavit explains this confusion of educational with literary values, which we encounter so often in comments on children’s literature, by reference to the history of children’s literature.
The educational system and various educational ideologies responded to the demands of the new reading public [...] Thus it was a cyclical process, fueled by the increasing demand from a new reading public and the legitimation from within the educational system that made the development of children’s literature possible...unlike adult literature, canonized children’s literature began to develop in response to the needs of the educational system, the result of which is the strong grip of the educational system on children’s literature and the major part it plays in its formulation (Shavit 1986: 137).
The important point is that children’s literature needed this educational legitimization in order to be accepted. At any rate it seems that since the 18th century the ‘educational system [has been] a major frame of reference for children’s literature’ (Shavit 1986: 35), which has implicitly shaped not only expectations of the works but also the works themselves more than we normally suppose. This helps to explain why unfortunately didacticism is far from dead in children’s literature.
A clear distinction [between recreational and instructional books] is drawn [...] on the publishers’ lists; but the urge to instruct the young is deeply built into human nature, and at all times there have been supposedly recreational books which have had, consciously or unconsciously, a didactic element (Townsend 1996: 677).
Despite the historical journey from ‘instruction’ to ‘delight’ and the final victory of ‘delight’ in the 19th century, if we agree with the interpretation of Demers and Moyles (1982), children’s books still have didactic purposes, only now they are made less explicit. In fact, the very terminology ‘instruction’ versus ‘delight’ conceals the extent to which ‘children’s books are [...] determined by their social and historical context’ (Meek 1982: 169).
Hollindale (1996: 30), however, in my opinion goes too far when he says that ‘all children’s literature is inescapably didactic’. The history of children’s literature, on the contrary, has shown that indeed there is an escape from didacticism: imagination. But it is true that the adult ‘urge to instruct’, which is often misdirected because of the adult’s own deficits and therefore harmful to children, evidently finds a manifestation in children’s literature. The heavy emphasis on use (cf. for instance Hunt 1992: 6) for some means that it can even be paraphrased as ‘literature that is good for children’. The question ‘Is this good for children?’ seems to be at the center of many discussions of children’s literature and the most important yardstick against which it is measured. What is really good for children, however, may very well be delightful, imaginative books without the kind of straightforward ‘use’ that is the only kind imaginable to some adults. Questions of the aesthetic quality of a work are often pushed into the background by this overwhelming concern for the more obvious and conflicting (and also more transitory) uses children’s books may have for children.
This issue is the basis of an ongoing critical controversy that occupies a prominent place in publications about children’s literature and has resulted in a now almost legendary division of critics and writers into two camps: the so-called ‘child people’ and the ‘book people’ (cf. for instance Hollindale 1988: 20-22). ‘Child people’ are (typically) educationalists, psychologists, librarians, teachers, and other professionals interested in children, who are most concerned with the effect of a book on the child: ‘children’s judgments and their importance’15 and ‘the influence on readers of a book’s social and political values’ (Hollindale 1988: 21). They take a practical interest in children’s literature (cf. Hunt 1991: 22) and ask questions like ‘what is good for children, while ‘book people’, on the other hand, ask ‘what is good?’ (cf. Hunt 1991: 42ff.). Their emphasis is on ‘adult judgments and their importance’ and ‘differences of literary merit’ (Hollindale 1992: 21). According to Townsend (1996: 684), the division between ‘book people’ and ‘child people’ originated in the 1950’s when there were attempts to extend the readership of children’s books, and it was ‘‘the book people’ who drew attention to the excellent books available and the ‘child people’ who pointed to the large numbers of children who did not willingly read them’ (684). The ‘child people’, in particular teachers, made children’s books responsible for this, claiming, that as they were mostly written by middle class writers for middle-class readers they alienated children from disadvantaged sections of society (cf. Townsend 1996: 684). They felt that many of canonized books that academics love so much for their complexities, in particular the classics, should not be forced on children. Book people objected to this on the grounds that, far from liberating children, it would in fact patronize them by restricting what they are supposed to be able to read, thus limiting them and depriving them of valuable experience. In the course of the debate child people have become connected with ‘the propagation through children’s books of a ‘progressive’ ideology expressed through social values’ (Hollindale 1992: 21), as well as anti- intellectualism (cf. Hunt 1991: 23). ‘Book people’, on the other hand, have become associated with the literary establishment and ‘a broadly conservative’ and even ‘reactionary’ ideological position’. (21) Hollindale (1992) points out the absurdity of the situation in which concern with the child has come to be connected with disregard of quality and, conversely, concern for quality with disregard of the child reader (cf. 21). This artificial binary opposition dangerously simplifies the complexities of the issue, as both sides are concerned with both questions but place their emphasis differently. And both sides may be right, in fact even complement each other.
The question of what ‘good’ means when it is applied to children’s books is likely to be tied up with political values and not just with questions of literary criteria alone, as didacticism, overtly or covertly, looms in the background.
‘There is, I think, a tension between what is ‘good’ in the exploded abstract, what is good for the child socially, intellectually, and educationally, and what we, really, honestly think is a good book (Hunt 1991: 15).
A debate has arisen as to which of these ‘good’ is the most relevant, and the most important yardstick for children’s literature. I think they have more in common than we suppose. In a sense this is a question of trusting one’s instincts: I do not think that what we ‘honestly think is a good book’ is likely to be bad for the child ‘socially, intellectually, and educationally’.
On the contrary, book people’s concern for the aesthetic quality of children’s books is always also connected with the children. It seems that in children’s literature the question ‘what is good’ always ends up as ‘what is good for’. There are just differences in opinion as to what books should teach children, and if ‘teach’ is to mean the handing over of conveniently packaged bits and pieces of knowledge or the development of critical thinking and judging for oneself, admittedly less graspable entities, and less convenient for those in power. The emphasis for book people is clearly not on social virtues but on the literary skills books can teach children, by showing them ‘how their story is to be read’ (Meek 1982: 176).
Clearly, if children nowadays grow into a television, rather than a book culture, they might feel that books their parents may still have enjoyed are too difficult and are being forced on them. (Hunt 1991: 23) points out the problem:
On the one hand, it is understandable that something seen as out of the range of children should not be forced upon them; on the other, there is an anti-intellectualism which leads directly to an implied restriction upon what children should be able to read.
The problem is the question of how to decide on what is ‘out of the range’ of children (and who is to decide!). I think this problem would not arise if children were given what they need and ask for at the right time – they are naturally curious – and once they had gotten into the habit of reading, left to choose and decide for themselves. (This presupposes an ideal situation, not one in which the parents’ prejudices, limitations, and other emotional deficits are passed on, and enforced by neurotic teachers.)
The argument goes that sometimes the books that are thrust on children are too difficult or outdated, and often both. It is true that the middle class children depicted in many children’s books are romantic, fossilized versions of more or less ideal children that no longer exist (cf. Meek 1982). Children may in fact find a world very different from their own when they read E. Nesbit’s books, where there is a social structure that no longer exists. This may alienate them or be interesting for them but it seems unlikely to present great difficulties for understanding the stories (at least in Nesbit’s case). In other cases the effort required may be greater. As with historical adult literature the decision to read something or not has to do with cost-benefit, of how much effort is warranted by the satisfaction the text gives. When the effort the engagement with the text asks of readers becomes too great it may become obsolete for anyone but the specialist, this is relative and depends on the reader. So I think that, while nothing should be forced on children, there is no need to keep the difficult, or what adults perceive as difficult, away from them.
This is not to say there should not be literatures that take into account the changing notions of childhood. If all the children’s books written today were in the same vein as Nesbit’s (with the same frame of references) this would be more a question of ideology, being more of a conscious choice (or at least hopelessly nostalgic).
The solution, in my opinion, is not to expose children only to what they presumably know, what they can identify with. I agree with Leeson (1977, in Lesnik-Oberstein 1996: 28) that ‘the good book for the ‘child’ offers not only the ‘child’ back to itself, but also needs to offer the ‘child’ that which it is not itself.’ And this is a major quality of literature. And why should the working class or middle class child in principle not want to read about worlds different from their own? The question raised again is if the child’s natural curiosity was encouraged or quenched at an early age. How much suppression it takes to kill a child’s curiosity also depends on the child’s natural talents, but I think there can be no doubt that it is always there in the first place, and therefore it is unfair to reduce children to their social origins and then try to fit them up with the ‘correct’ literature.
‘Identification’ cannot account for reading which is not a perpetual reading of the self; and, finally, it cannot account therefore for other hypothetical processes in reading such as a possible learning of the new, or escapism, or what D.W. Harding has called ‘’imaginative insight into what another person may be feeling, and the contemplation of possible human experiences which we are not at that moment going through ourselves’’ (Lesnik-Oberstein 1996: 28).
This is the recreation which can be brought about by schema refreshment, in Cook’s (1994) terms (cf. I, 10). If a real access to these experiences is still largely a prerogative of some middle-class children, as I think it is, in combination with other factors mentioned above, it is a serious social problem. According to Townsend (1996: 684), in spite of all efforts the aim of extending the readership base has not been achieved as fully as might be hoped. Book buying and reading remain largely characteristics of middle-class homes.
One might even have to go further and say that the enjoyment of literature, as opposed to the buying of books for representational purposes, is probably restricted to some middle-class homes only.
The question is, if, and to what extent schools and libraries can compensate deficits children bring from home, and in what way this can be done. Common sense says that forcing anything on them will be counter-productive; they would need the right kind of introduction, and this is where the difficulties and the arguments begin. The ideal seems to be neither to limit children nor to force them into reading something they do not want to, which is not necessarily a paradox. In my opinion it is most important to introduce children to the enjoyment books can give them, and to give them the affection and space to develop emotionally and intellectually, (which is most difficult if they come from disadvantaged homes): but if once they are on the right track, I think, both ‘book people’ and ‘child people’ underestimate their ability to judge for themselves, to accept the challenge that the difficult presents at times, and to enjoy the simple or ‘trivial’ at other times - after all we read at different times for different reasons (cf. I, 6).
6 The politically correct(ed) book
What happens when books are changed, to fit the child, or rather the editor’s idea of the child, as it were, Hunt (cf. 1991: 26ff.) exemplifies in reference to the new Ladybird edition of Beatrix Potter’s ‘Peter Rabbit’ which was republished with a new text and new pictures. Anything that arguably does not fit into a modern child’s view of the world, in this instance archaic words, plots, characters, were edited out and changed. On the one hand, it may be regarded as elitist snobbery, or showing the ‘book’ as a cultural artifact too much reverence, to keep to the letter of the original at the risk of alienating possible readers, on the other hand, once we have decided to change anachronisms, where do we draw the line? Anything that does not fit mainstream morals and values may be edited out on the pretext of making things easier for the reader, as is in fact done: in the new edition of ‘Peter Rabbit’, for instance, a reference to death was edited out (cf. Hunt 1991: 26ff). It may be better to leave books the way they are and leave it up to children to read them or not. If a book for them is not worth the effort they will put it aside, take up a different one, and possibly, return later. This presupposes that they already have been ‘initiated’ into a book culture.
These questions of principle are particularly relevant in regard to ‘the three political missions which are seen as most urgent in contemporary society: anti-racism, anti-sexism and anti-classism’ (Hollindale 1988: 22) which started in the 1970s and have led to frequent re-writings of older texts and the production of new ones which are ostentatiously politically correct, anti-sexist and anti-classist. However modern these missions may seem to us we can trace them back to moral endeavors in the 19th century, a time when fairy tales without a spelled out moral were not considered suitable reading material for children and frequently changed and rewritten for the purposes of instruction, the fairy tale form serving as the famous ‘spoonful of sugar’. The fierce debate about their legitimization reached its height with Dickens’ critical commentary ‘Fraud on the Fairies’ (1853 in Hunt 1990: 24), an attack on Cruikshank’s ‘Fairy Library’ which had appropriated old tales for moralistic purposes. The following extract is of particular relevance today, and seems almost prophetic:
Imagine a Total abstinence edition of Robinson Crusoe, with the rum left out. Imagine a Peace edition, with the gunpowder left out, and the rum left in. Imagine a Vegetarian edition, with the goat’s flesh left out. Imagine a Kentucky edition, to introduce a flogging of that ‘tarnal old nigger Friday, twice a week. Imagine an Aborigines Protection Society edition, to deny the cannibalism and make Robinson embrace the amiable savages whenever they landed. Robinson Crusoe would be ‘edited’ out of his island in a hundred years, and the island would be swallowed up in the editorial ocean... Frauds on the Fairies once permitted, we see little reason why they may not come to this, and great reason why they may [...]The world is too much with us, early and late. Leave this previous old escape from it, alone.
What seems incredible and ridiculous to Dickens, who seems to anticipate the political climate of the 1970s, does not seem so strange to us who are used to retellings of the kind he attacks. But we notice how relative and subject to change such movements are when the morals promoted are not our own, even though they may be very similar. Cruikshank’s ‘Fairy Library’, for instance, went to ridiculous lengths to attack drunkenness, something that at least seems strange to Europeans today. Anyway, though it is easy to ridicule the extreme excesses of ‘political correctness’ this does not relieve us from taking it seriously and raising the broader question that is behind the debate, namely, what is ‘good’ for children to read? Where do we draw the line? And, not to forget, how much control is justified?
7 What should children read? What should they not read? Questions of censorship
Control over children’s reading can take many forms, some very obvious, others more subtle: it can be public or private, manifest itself in changes or rewritings of older texts of the kind just discussed, in the choice of texts that are published, in exerting pressure on authors to change texts. On the receiving end it can mean not making texts available to children or preventing them from reading them, for instance by influencing teachers, parents or the public in general against them. This does not necessarily mean that children’s literature has been monopolized by moralists. In a sense, any publisher’s choice of one text over another is a form of control if it means that the other text is the one that will not be available, or not be promoted, and therefore not be read. This is something that happens all the time and not only in children’s literature.
In children’s literature, however, questions to do with any form of ‘control’ are particularly at issue because of the crucial point that makes children’s literature different from other literatures: the audience age. There is a basic human/adult ‘urge to instruct’ (Townsend 1996: 677) children as the younger and less experienced members of society as well as to protect them from harm, which manifests itself in a tendency towards more control than in adult literature. And it cannot be denied that children are in a less powerful position than adults when it comes to choosing and judging reading material, and making sense of it. It is the ‘imbalance of power between the children and young people who read the books, and the adults who write, publish and review the books’ (Sarland 1996: 41) that calls into action those who wish to protect children from being corrupted – and in their mind justifies control. It is the very same imbalance that calls into action others who wish to protect children from the protectors. The question is, how this quite natural urge to protect children manifests itself: the range goes from advice to attempts at absolute control. And this is essentially bound up with our view of and respect for children.
1 (p.1) Of course the term could also refer to ‘written by children’ (Lesnik-Oberstein 1996: 17), but this is of marginal, if any, importance in discussions of children’s literature, which of course is very telling. There have been, however, a few attempts to give children a voice, for instance in magazines and yearbooks of children’s literature. For German speaking children’s contribution to children’s literature cf. Gelberg (1985, 243-259) ‘Kinder als Erzähler, ihr Einfluß auf die Kinderliteratur’.
2 (p.1) Or would ‘read by children’ in this context only refer to canonized ‘literature’ chosen by adults and then read by children, if it is not to mean everything read by children? To avoid this association Charles Sarland (1996: 41), for instance, prefers the term ‘children’s fiction’. Of course it is also not to be forgotten that when it comes to the question of what children read it is very difficult to say what it is in fact that children actually do read, as adults usually buy children’s books, and even if they are then given to children it does not mean that they will be read then, and if they read them, this of course is not to say they like them and rather to be doubted in the case of some historical children’s fiction. Knowles and Malmkjaer (1996: 2), refer to two surveys of children’s reading habits, one from 1884, published by Edward Salmon in 1888, and the second part of a research project by Knowles and Malmkjaer (1989-90). It is difficult to say, however, if these surveys are comprehensive enough to be representative and if we can generalize from them.
3 (p.1) Shavit (1986: 33ff.) distinguishes between canonized and non-canonized ‘systems’ in literature. While children’s literature has much in common with the non-canonized adult system, it has developed its own canonized and non-canonized ‘systems’. The non-canonized system leaves out adults, while the canonized system appeals mostly to adults in Shavit’s opinion (63ff.). She claims that children’s literature lags behind the developments in adult literature, and that often a model which has lost ground in adult literature establishes the new norm in children’s literature. Her example of such an ‘ambivalent’ text that works on two levels and establishes a new norm is ‘Alice in Wonderland’. She claims that children prefer the abridgements that followed the original.
4 (p.4) ‘It is not the type of feature but the value you place upon it which is significant’ (Hunt 1991: 51).
5 (p.5) Das sehr kleine Kind, das noch zu schwach ist, um am Leben der Erwachsenen teilzunehmen, zählt nicht – so heißt es bei Molière, ein Wort, an dem sich ablesen lässt, dass diese sehr alte Einstellung sich bis ins 17. Jahrhundert gehalten hat. [...] „Ich habe zwei oder drei Kinder im Säuglingsalter verloren und dies zwar nicht ohne Bedauern, aber doch ohne Verdruss“, stellt Montaigne fest (Ariès 1976: 210).
6 (p.6) As for instance the poems ‘A Visit to Newgate’ and ‘A Visit to the Lunatic Asylum’, from Henry Sharpe Horsley’s collection ‘The Affectionate Parent’s Gift, and the Good Child’s Reward’ (in Demers and Moyles 1982: 156ff) published as late as 1828, demonstrate. These mediocre but probably not untypical poems also show the overlap in the traditions, and the persistence of instruction until well into the 19th century.
7 (p.8) Chapbooks may in fact have furthered the democratization of literature, as they were spread throughout the country and really available to anyone who was able to read, ‘the first cheap printed books for a popular market’ (Knowles and Malmkjaer 1996: 3).
8 (p.8) At this point it may be worth noting that the very terminology of many anthologies and histories of children’s literature goes back to the Romantics. According to Myers’ (quoted in Hunt 1992: 12) ‘New Historicist’ approach to children’s literature ‘we have long starred fantasy, glorified ‘imagination’, and relied on Romantic ideologies of childhood to structure our thinking about ‘appropriate’ literature’. Myers also states that the history of children’s literature like most literary histories is ‘teleology’ rather than ‘history’. This of course becomes obvious even from the title of the Oxford anthology ‘From Instruction to Delight’. However, as all history is human interpretation of past events, there seems no way to avoid categorizing, and there is no problem as long as one is aware of it.
9 (p.9) Among the books we remember from the 1920s and 1930s that are still famous today, are the ‘Winnie-the-Pooh’ books by A.A. Milne, or Hugh Lofting’s ‘Dr Doolittle’ series (beginning in 1922), or Arthur Ransome’s ‘Swallows and Amazons’ (1930). J.R.R. Tolkien’s ‘The Hobbit’, published in 1937, became a landmark of fantasy and, together with ‘Lord of the Rings’ (published after the war), set the trend for many more books in the same tradition. (cf. Townsend 1996: 682f.)
10 (p.11) This was caused by publishers’ ‘cash flow problems’ and led, in turn, to problems of authors who could no longer rely on their royalties. (Watkins and Sutherland 1995, 289)
11 (p.12) Noting how taboos are disappearing[...]; noting how child actors were no longer waif-like Shirley Temples buttransistorised adults; noting how the distinction between juvenile and adult court systems seems arbitrary (once the label ‘gang member’ is no longer applied to Al Capone-like adults but to metropolitan youths not yet old enough to vote) -noting all this and other evidence, social critics have sent up their wail and insisted that the concept of childhood...is being dismantled before our eyes. (Griswold 1996: 880) Events in the past two years (e.g. the case of an eleven year old child being imprisoned) have reinforced this last point dramatically, being more extreme than anything envisaged by Griswold.
12 (p.17) For an example cf. Fiske (1998:1097) on Hodge and Tripp’s (1986) study on Australian Aboriginal children’s subversive ‘reading’ of Westerns.
13 (p.20) The idea of the separateness and superiority of the world of children over that of adults runs also through many very popular children’s books which are aimed at commercial success, and by indulging children, risk displeasing adults (cf. Shavit 1986: 42). An example would be Enid Blyton’s novels.
14 (p.20) Seiter (1993: 6) at the same time defends consumer culture (television, commercials) against snobbish moralizing, which devalues the kind of television based knowledge that often distinguishes working class children from middle class ones.
15 (p.25) Children’s judgement can be problematic of course, they may say as much about themselves as about their environment. Do they reflect what children really think or are they already socialized into thinking something?
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- Sabine Nittnaus (Autor), 2002, Language and theme in children's literature, München, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/281480