Children’s literature

Part I. Theory and critical approaches


3. Theorising and theories


The conditions of possibility of children’s literature


David Rudd


The doubleness of discourse: constructed/constructive


The Stainton Rogers’ more Foucauldian notion of power, seen as not only repressive but productive, too, allows us to overcome what is otherwise a problematic shift; that is, from the spoken-for child to the controlling adult. In Foucault’s (1980, 1981) model, power is not held by one particular group over another, powerless one; rather, power is conceived of as immanent in all encounters, through which certain discursive relations are possible.

So, while children can be construed as the powerless objects of adult discourse, they also have subject positions available to them that resist such a move. Valerie Walkerdine, also known for her work on girls’ comics, illustrates this process in action. In one instance she records a nursery class in which a group of three- to four-year-old boys undermine a female teacher’s authority with a barrage of comments like ‘Miss Baxter, show your knickers your bum off’ (Walkerdine 1990: 4). By effecting a sexist discourse they disem-power her while empowering themselves.

As this more dynamic notion of discourse is crucial to much that follows, let me spend some time clarifying its implications before I move on to broader issues about the conditions of the discipline’s existence. First, it should be noted that the boys, above, are not free agents; they are simply positioned in another discourse: that of sexism. Children, in other words, become subjects through multiple discourses, which is to reject earlier notions of the process, like Althusser’s, where one is more summarily subjected.

This leads to a second point: that for many of these other discursive positions, ‘childhood’ per se is irrelevant; thus the sexist discourse above can be seen to upset the adult-child binary. But there is still a tendency - among constructionists as well as those more biologically inclined - to overextend the term ‘child’, such that ‘childhood’ is seen to ground their entire being. A more familiar example might make this clear: the position of ‘women’ in the nineteenth century, who were automatically opposed to ‘men’ on all counts, as ‘frail vessels’, ‘emotional’, ‘unstable’, ‘spontaneous’, ‘weak’, ‘irrational’, and so on. With childhood, overextension of the term persists, being applied to discourses where, in fact, children are often as competent as adults.

Looking at children ‘in culture and history’, then, we find that in some cultures they are regarded as having more of a voice. Among the Tonga, for example, children are ‘accorded positions of dignity and worth ... They are valued for themselves and ... as companions and workers. They are accorded rights and these are upheld at public forums such as during court cases’ (Pamela Reynolds, quoted in Scheper-Hughes and Sargent 1998: 11; see also Hoyles 1979). As James et al. (1998: 120-1) have noted, in societies where children work alongside adults, they are often seen in more egalitarian terms. In contrast, the more economically ‘useless’ children become, as in America towards the end of the nineteenth century, the more emotionally priceless seems their value (Zelizer 1994) - and the more pervasive a restrictive, overextended notion of childhood. Most recently, the anonymity of cyberspace has opened up a particularly powerful area where age is irrelevant, expertise among the young being legendary (Katz 1997; Kincheloe 1988) - although, with adults ‘passing’ as children, it has raised opposing worries. But the key issue is that cyberspace effectively disembodies the child, removing many markers that often produce more condescending responses - of being ‘talked down to’.

The third point also relates to the above for, though the world is constructed through discourse - language being ‘the ultimate prosthesis’ (Braidotti 1994: 44) - not everything is thereby discursive. The body itself influences how we speak, not only through the metaphors it tends to generate (Johnson 1987; Bakhtin 1968), but in the simple fact that discourse itself ‘is the product of a speaking or writing body located at a point in space and a moment in time’ (Burkitt 1999: 37). Moreover, the body, being part of social relations, can itself resist certain discursive shaping (inappropriately breaking wind, and so on). Children are, therefore, seen as playing a key role in ‘the civilising process’ (Elias 1978: 53-4) and are, hence, a source of worry, of disturbance (as I’ll discuss later).

Unfortunately, an exclusive emphasis on discourse has led to a neglect of the role of bodily comportment and action in producing ‘the child’, ‘the model pupil’, ‘the girl’ - or whatever. A good example of the latter is ‘throwing like a girl’, as detailed by Iris Marion Young (1990), referencing Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. ‘Bodily conduct’ - part of what Pierre Bourdieu terms ‘habitus’, the cultural dispositions that influence our social behaviour - is, therefore, a crucial, non-discursive aspect of childhood (James et al. 1998: 161), albeit discursively constructed. With some notable exceptions - for example, Engel (1995), Grainger (1999), Paley (1981), Wolf and Heath (1992) - this embodied component of children’s discourse has been neglected. In the latter, for example, Shelby Wolf’s daughter, Lindsey, is shown enacting texts using role play and costume, and delighting in the sound and ‘musicality’ of words; on one occasion she is observed leaping on to the kitchen counter to hasten her breakfast, bellowing ‘Fee Fi Fo Fum ...’. As the authors comment, ‘The giant, with his all-encompassing power, would never have had to wait, and neither should she. Motion takes the mind to action, and action brings results’ (Wolf and Heath 1992: 97). Given earlier comments on the perceived relation between power and physical size, Lindsey’s enaction of the giant’s discourse is particularly interesting.

To recap, then: not only are there problems with each model - an authentic, essential child and a voiceless, discursive construction - but the two notions are, in fact, impossible to keep apart (just like adult and child), the essential child still being tacitly evoked by constructionists, in that a perennially voiceless child is juxtaposed to a dominating adult, though no similar questions are raised about, say, a fifty-year-old writing for a twentysomething. However, it is surely unacceptable for either side to argue that one must be a child in order to write genuine children’s fiction, or to read it, for the simple fact that language cannot ground authenticity, language itself being a construction or, in a Lacanian version of development, a misrepresentation. Moreover, as Spivak notes, ‘The position that only the subaltern can know the subaltern, only women can know women and so on ... predicates the possibility of knowledge on identity’ (1988: 253-4). Were one to accept such an ‘identity politics’, then, the ramifications would be ultimately self- defeating: not only would class, gender and ethnicity delimit reading and writing, but one would end up with only a boy of thirteen and three-quarters from a working-class broken home being able to appreciate the exploits of an Adrian Mole (Townsend 1982).

But, as I’ve also suggested, this cannot relegate the child to a discursive effect. Many feminists have already trodden this ground, moving away from essentialist notions of an authentic women’s experience to a discursive position which then permitted men to emulate their voice, both in writing as a woman (Cixous 1976: 878) and reading as one (Culler 1983: 43-64). Elaine Showalter describes this disparagingly as ‘male crossdressing’ (Showalter 1987; also Braidotti 1994; Young 1990). What seems missing here is, again, some notion of embodiment, of discourse having a concrete location. The same applies to children, who, as the Stainton Rogers put it (1998: 184), must be granted legitimacy in ‘the practically real (that which passes for “real” in practice)’.

In terms of children’s literature, though, it might still be argued that, unlike women and other minority groups, children still have no voice, their literature being created for them, rather than creating their own. But this is a nonsense. Children produce literature in vast quantities, oral and written, both individually wrought and through collaborative effort (sometimes diachronically), and in a variety of forms: rhymes, jokes, songs, incantations, tall tales, plays, stories and more. Yet, apart from a few collections and studies (for example, Fox 1993; Opie and Opie 1959; Rosen and Steele 1982; Steedman 1982; Sutton-Smith et al. 1999; Turner et al. 1978), plus the isolated publishing exceptions (such as nine-year-old Jayne Fisher’s (1980) Garden Gang series), it goes largely unrecognised - though some of it does feed back, intertextually, into subsequently published works (as, for example, did material that ‘Lewis Carroll’ wrote in his own magazines, as a juvenile). And, of course, it should be emphasised that all this literature comes from reworking the discourses around them, through which children negotiate their social and embodied positioning.

The fact that children are seen not to have a stake in this is, once again, a product of the way children’s literature (in its texts and its criticism) has become institutionalised, such that - ironically - only commercially published work is seen to count; or, to put it another way, only adults are seen to ‘authorise’ proper children’s literature. Certainly, more work needs doing on this, but it does not help when scholars underwrite this culturally dominant version of events.