Children’s literature

Part I. Theory and critical approaches


3. Theorising and theories


The conditions of possibility of children’s literature


David Rudd


‘What - is - this?’ [the Unicorn] said at last.

‘This is a child!’ Haigha replied eagerly ... ‘We only found it to-day. It’s as large as life, and twice as natural!’

‘I always thought they were fabulous monsters!’ said the Unicorn. ‘Is it alive?’

‘It can talk,’ said Haigha solemnly.

(Carroll 1970: 287)


Competing critical histories and the status of the child


Just as there are competing histories of children’s literature, so there are of children’s literature criticism - and the two are interlinked. Most of these histories set the beginnings of children’s literature in the eighteenth century - sometimes dated as precisely as 1744 with John Newbery’s A Little Pretty Pocket-Book, as it is in Harvey Darton (1982: 1) - and most draw on the tension between instruction and entertainment, often explicitly (for example, From Primer to Pleasure (Thwaite 1964), Fantasy and Reason (Summerfield 1984)), which is seen as a battle eventually won by entertainment. Harvey Darton, again, dates this precisely, to Carroll’s Alice (1865), which he speaks of as the first appearance ‘in print ... of liberty of thought in children’s books’ (1982: 260), instigating a golden age in children’s literature (Carpenter 1985). However, we need to be aware that such ‘grand narratives’ about the area’s development are only that. Through them children’s literature critics frequently construct a ‘story’ of a movement from darkness to light - just as developmental psychologists, like Piaget, envisage the child growing from an original, autistic state to adult rationality. The notion of a Bildungsroman is, therefore, often implicit, celebrating the discipline as having recently ‘come of age’ (for example, Broadbent et al. 1994; Nikolajeva 1996). But there are other stories, querying this. At one extreme, Gillian Adams (1986) takes children’s literature texts back some 4,000 years, to Sumer; at the other, Jacqueline Rose (1984) argues that the whole enterprise is impossible anyway - something that Karm Lesnik-Oberstein (1994) extends to its criticism. In this chapter, I shall try to get behind these various stories, to see what ‘regimes of truth’ they draw on, in order to tease out what I shall term the conditions of possibility of children’s literature and its criticism - and, particularly, to revisit those who see it as impossible.

This will involve steering a course between, on the one hand, notions that there is an underlying ‘essential’ child whose nature and needs we can know and, on the other, the notion that the child is nothing but the product of adult discourse (as some social constructionists argue). I shall suggest that neither of these positions is tenable: that the problematic of children’s literature lies in the gap between the ‘constructed’ and the ‘constructive’ child, in what I shall term a ‘hybrid’, or border area.

Let me begin with Jacqueline Rose’s provocative suggestion that, despite the possessive apostrophe in the phrase ‘children’s literature’, it has never really been owned by children:


Children’s fiction rests on the idea that there is a child who is simply there to be addressed and that speaking to it might be simple ... If children’s fiction builds an image of the child inside the book, it does so in order to secure the child who is outside the book, the one who does not come so easily within its grasp.

(Rose 1984: 1-2)


Adults, she argues, evoke this child for their own purposes (desires, in fact), as a site of plenitude to conceal the fractures that trouble us all: concerns over a lack of coherent subjectivity, over the instabilities of language and, ultimately, existence itself (Rose 1984: 16). Barrie’s Peter Pan texts are seen as perfect examples of this, purporting to be about the eternal child, but actually acknowledging the problems of such a construction, especially in the way that Barrie himself had problems producing a final, definitive version of his text.

Rose’s book remains a revolutionary work, opening up children’s literature to wider debates in cultural studies. However, her insight into the power of the child as a cultural trope (standing for innocence, the natural, the primitive, and so on) has led to a neglect of the child as a social being, with a voice. Rose herself does not deny the existence of the child ‘outside the book’, on whom she actually draws at times, conceding that things are indeed different ‘at the point of readership’ (1984: 84); her emphasis is simply elsewhere, just as is James Kincaid’s in his related work, Child-Loving (1992), which details how the figure of the child, constructed as innocent, a site of purity, thereby became, in the Victorian period, an erotic lure for adults. However, Kincaid’s work has been misread in similar ways to that of Rose; Carolyn Steedman thus laments that


James Kincaid’s conclusion ... that the child ‘is not, in itself, anything’, is very easy to reach (and quite irresponsible proposals may follow on it) ... children were both the repositories of adults’ desires (or a text, to be ‘written’ and ‘rewritten’, to use a newer language), and social beings who lived in social worlds.

(Steedman 1995: 96-7)


Like Rose, Kincaid does not deny the child as a social being; indeed, he too draws on what he terms ‘children with quite ordinary child needs’ (1992: 388). But Steedman’s point is still valid: that the thrust of much of this criticism has tended to make the child appear voiceless. Lesnik-Oberstein goes further, arguing that this must be so for, unlike other disempowered groups such as women, who can speak for themselves, ‘Children, in culture and history, have no such voice’ (1994: 26).

Ironically, even to make such a claim is to have already separated out ‘the child’ as a special being, subject to its own rules, distinct from other social groups. Furthermore, such a universal claim effectively adulterates (forgive the pun) a social constructionist perspective; for if children are merely constructions, social conditions might construct them otherwise. In effect, in order to make such a wide-sweeping claim, it would seem that Lesnik-Oberstein is, tacitly at least, invoking more enduring qualities, such as, to quote Allison James and Alan Prout, the ‘different physical size of children and their relative muscular weakness compared to adults’; however, as they continue, it would be absurd were it otherwise, exempting ‘human beings from the rest of the animal kingdom by denying any effects of our biological and physical being’. This, as they say, is ‘cultural determinism’ (1990: 26), as problematic as its opposite: a humanistic essentialism.

The claim, therefore, ‘that the “child” has no “voice” within the hierarchies of our society, because “adults” either silence or create that voice’ (Lesnik-Oberstein 1994: 187), actually helps construct the child as a helpless, powerless being, and contributes to the culturally hegemonic norm. As Rex and Wendy Stainton Rogers put it, ‘To model the child as constructed but not as constructive ... permits us to see the young person as having their identity constructed by outside forces but not the young person constructing their identity out of the culturally available.’ They, therefore, are of the opinion that the child’s voice ‘should be heard’ (1992: 84).