How Conventional Ideas about the Child Survive in Literature for Children. Conscious and Unconscious Uses of the Adult Voice

Essay, 2017

9 Pages, Grade: 1,3


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Nodelman’s Hidden Adult and the ‘Unconscious’

3. Case Study: The UN Convention on the Rights of a Child (CRC)

4. Conclusion

Works Cited

1. Introduction

The extraordinary thing about children’s literature certainly is – despite what the name suggests – the fact that most of the works are not written by children, but instead by adults. Surely children themselves should be better at understanding their peers and writing novels that address them better than adults do. It seems obvious that for adult writers it is impossible to hide their adult views and all the experiences they have had in their lives. Yet, or especially because of that, it is typical of children’s literature to conceal these qualities from direct discovery, for example by introducing an underage main character and ‘easier,’ more child-like speech. Conventional ideas of childhood that circulate in our Western society like the child being pure and innocent are likely to become established and are read and adopted by children through literature. Nodelman, author of the Hidden Adult, argues that although children’s literature usually offers an easy and simplified access to a topic, adult content is still present at all times. In his opinion, there are two textual layers, one aimed at children, to understand the “simple surface,” and another for adults to perceive the “complex depth” (Nodelman 207). That there is a textual level written for adults, hints at the fact that the genre actually is quite dependent on its grown-up readers, for whom, together with their children, a reading pleasure is created.

In this paper, the Hidden Adult will be considered as a theoretical framework that helps explain how different textual layers in children’s literature come into being and how adults’ views about children are conveyed by its adult authors. One theory will prove unavoidable to use: the Freudian concept of the ‘unconscious.’ Many ideas about childhood are used in everyday life as well as in literature, certainly often with the author unaware of that fact. They have become so familiar to almost everyone that they will usually be overlooked. Jaqueline Bhabha argues that law texts aimed at children reveals more about “what type of human an adult is” (1592) than it characterizes a child. This claim will be a guide throughout the text as it will summarize and underline the findings well and I will expand her thought to literature aimed at children in general.

In a first step, I will explain Nodelman’s Hidden Adult in more detail and Freud’s well-known concept of the ‘Unconscious’ will be linked to the conception of the Hidden Adult. To give an example where we can find instances of these findings I will take a closer look at the UN Convention on the Rights of a Child in its child-friendly version.

2. Nodelman’s Hidden Adult and the ‘Unconscious’

As we have seen, Nodelman argues that there are two different layers at work in children’s literature: a simple, more obvious one aimed at the child reader and a more complex one that addresses the adult audience. However, the adults reading children’s literature do not seem to look for a representation of the grown-up world and those typical ‘adult’ features available in adult fiction, but rather seem to be attracted to the child-like worlds presented because they can decide for themselves which layer to read. It is not so much that the two layers are separate and divided from each other, but rather that there is an “awareness of both” (Nodelman 210), that allows the child as well as the adult readers to experience both ‘worlds’. However, we are not to forget that it is almost always the adult who does the writing and is therefore in charge of defining childhood. Although there is usually a feigned voice, most of the time the child main character, the text still remains “a displacement of the context of personal and collective values [...]” (Bosmajian 103). In other words, the author works in his ideas about the child and what and what not it ought to be told and confronted with. This leaves us with two questions: first, ‘Is the child aware of the adult voice?’ and ‘Is the use of adult ideas always present to the author?’

Nodelman argues that the adult voice is not so much hidden as it might appear at first. It more or less “invite[s] readers to realize that the narrator is the product of an adult imagination [...]” (212). Children, when reading and understanding the material, are aware of the adult’s role and dominance in narrative as well as in the real world, and internalize that is the adult that determines “what adults believe the world to be and want children to believe the world to be” (Nodelman 213). If this seems implausible, consider the fact that usually at the beginning or the end of the narrative text there is a picture of the author as well as his or her curriculum vitae. It is impossible to argue that this does not make the child reader explicitly aware of the adult author and therefore the adult perspective present in the text. This question being answered, the second one raised will be considered. In this light it is necessary to think of the functions of literature for children. Entertainment is certainly one of the functions, as children must be willing to engage with the material, but, usually, there is also a didactic function to it. Children “are assumed to understand the prime purpose of this adult enactment, its didactic function as a model for their own enactment of childhood [...]” (Nodelman 213). Conventional ideas of childhood are brought close to children and through pieces of literature they like or through their favourite character they are made copy the adult’s view about childhood. But Nodelman also gives another possible explanation for adult authors using stereotypical ideas about childhood in literature for children. He writes that “the unconscious content of a text of children’s literature must emerge from its author’s unconscious – and must therefore represent the adult’s repressed infantility” (Nodelman 203). The unconscious, as first described by Sigmund Freud, is today usually very broadly defined as “whatever we are currently unaware of” (Boag 69). However, it does not seem to be a coping strategy for adult writers, but rather something that Nodelman calls a “shared memory” (203). By drawing on one’s own memories about childhood, the stories that one was told, but also all cultural representations of childhood have an impact on the author, who, in turn, embeds those ideas unconsciously into this his text addressing children. The concept of the child is an adult’s “idealized and sentimentalized view” (Bhabha 1259), which does not describe a child, but is merely a portrait of what the adults, in their views, have lost. The two arguments that we have looked at do actually not exclude each other both make up part of the truth: some of the ideas about childhood present in children’s literature have been used consciously by their authors to serve a didactic function, i.e. to tell the child how one expects them to behave, and others find their way into text by the author making use of his or her experiences unconsciously. There are however also concerns about the inflated use of the term ‘unconscious.’ Some critical voices of Freud’s concepts suggest that the unconscious itself has anyhow only been “merely a theoretical placeholder for unknown causes of conscious phenomena” (Smith 116).

In the last section, the version for child readers of the UN Conventions on the Rights of a Child will be looked at to give an example of the argument made in this section.

3. Case Study: The UN Convention on the Rights of a Child (CRC)

The CRC (in its child-friendly version) makes the presence of an adult speaker or voice very obvious. In the short paragraph that introduces the child reader to what the articles are about alone, there are many ideas about childhood introduced. Some of them stand out very distinctively, as for example the statement that rights express what is “the best for a child in a situation” and that “as [children] grow, [they] have more responsibility to make choices and exercise [their] rights.” The adult in these two sentences defines himself as the one to make the choices in lieu of the child and expects them to do the same when they have grown up. Responsibility and agency are linked to the world of the adult although the CRC aims at giving children their rights. It remains important to consider that although “the CRC identifies the more recently recognized right to voice, agency, and active participation of the child as a bearer, not merely an object, of human rights”, the child still is defined by its “vulnerability and its domination by adult decision makers” (Bhabha 1259). Saguisag and Prickett observe that “adult ideologies of what it means to be a child have also shaped children’s rights” (vii) and therefore “attempt to ‘secure’ children in a particular [i.e. Western world’s] definition of childhood” (viii). However, not all instances are that obvious and hint not at a conscious, but rather at an unconscious use of childhood ideology. Interesting in that light is the choice of words throughout the text. Some of the examples that are worth considering are:

(1) “[...] unless this [living with parents] is bad for you” (Article 9),
(2) “the information you are getting [should be] not harmful” (Article 17),
(3) “living arrangements [are] looked at regularly to see if they are most appropriate” (Article 25),
(4) “should not be disadvantaged so that [they] can’t do many of the things other kids can do” (Article 27),
(5) “right to play and rest” (Article 31),
(6) “protection from work that harms [them]” (Article 32) and
(7) “[n]o one is allowed to punish you in a cruel or harmful way” (Article 37).

‘Harm’ is truly the word that stands out from the crowd. For the authors of the text this must have been the best expression to capture what is the opposite of what they expect a child to experience. There is no relevant literature that examines the origin or necessity of the idea of ‘harm’ in writing for children; still the idea seems to be self-evident to children’s literature scholars. For Victoria De Rijke “[a]dult fears of gruesome harm to children is a rich source of [...] writing” (507). In order to better understand this maxim, further research is needed. ‘Protection’ is also one of the predominant ideas of the contemporary adult-child relationship. Article 32 mentions this term directly, but it is present is the other articles shown above as well. Interestingly, it is not only at the content level that the CRC makes use of these concepts, but rather the writers of the child-friendly version also try to protect the reader from the naming of abuses. The formulations remain very vague in order not to make the child – who in most cases will not itself be affected – imagine situations of brutality and misuse. Again, this is an example of where the ‘Unconscious’ of the adult writer comes in. As Gill puts it, this is a “desire to retain the sense of optimism, to shield young people from the recesses of human knowledge and experience” that can “be understood as a need also to protect ourselves [i.e. the adult] and ultimately, retain the hope of innocence” (27). It is the ‘unconscious’ that makes the adult writer introduce his or her own wishes about childhood and what is associated with it and helps protect hopes about innocence, which – from today’s perspective – are lost in adulthood. The few examples provided underline the rather unconscious use of childhood stereotypes through words usually associated with the ‘adult’ and ‘child’ worlds. This involves not only ‘harm’ and ‘protection’ but also the responsibility that the authors only ascribe to adults. In their opinion (comp. Article 25) it is they who monitor the observance of the rights. The adult and child spheres also seem to be separated by another childhood stereotype: playing; instead of the adults’ more rational world (comp. Article 31).


Excerpt out of 9 pages


How Conventional Ideas about the Child Survive in Literature for Children. Conscious and Unconscious Uses of the Adult Voice
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ISBN (eBook)
Children's Literature, Human Rights, Hidden Adult
Quote paper
Sven Klees (Author), 2017, How Conventional Ideas about the Child Survive in Literature for Children. Conscious and Unconscious Uses of the Adult Voice, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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