Children’s literature

Part I. Theory and critical approaches

 

3. Theorising and theories

 

The conditions of possibility of children’s literature

 

David Rudd

 

Origins and the genealogy of children’s literature

 

Foucault’s ‘genealogical’ approach is helpful here. Rather than engage in internal disputes about origins, such an approach asks, more broadly, what makes children’s literature possible - or, to pursue the metaphor used earlier, how it has been ‘storied’ in a particular way (Stainton Rogers and Stainton Rogers 1992), and how certain other stories become ‘disqualified’ (Foucault 1980: 81). Of singular note is Foucault’s rejection of any simple social constructionism. Thus, in looking at madness, he rejects the notion that the term is just a label, recognising that, certainly, there were ‘mad’ people before the advent of psychiatry; however, rather than being seen as a uniform category, they were ‘read’ in different ways (Foucault 1967). Turning to children’s literature, we can similarly point to a range of elements existing in separate discursive spaces (books of manners, folk tales, children’s Bibles, nursery rhymes, chapbooks - even Sumerian instructional texts!), some of which purport to address ‘children’ specifically, others of which do not. The point is, these constituent elements were not considered a separate cultural entity until the eighteenth century (when the figure of the child in its modern form was also increasingly being shaped as an ‘essence’), only to be fully consolidated late in the nineteenth, when the various institutional apparatuses of children’s literature were in place - including an educational system promoting literacy (Morgenstern 2001). As Jack Zipes puts it, ‘until the system of production, distribution and reception was instituted’ it was simply not possible ‘for a broad range of books to be approved and to reach children in specific ways’ (Zipes 2001: 46).

However, the more that children’s literature became institutionalised (in its texts and its criticism), the more it filtered out, or ignored, that which didn’t fit, ‘in the name of some true knowledge’ (Foucault 1980: 83). Thus ‘folklore, nursery rhyme and nonsense’, as Rose (1984: 139) notes, became sidelined as mere ‘rhythm and play’, for fear of their disruptive potential (interestingly, these literary forms are also those linked more closely to the body and to performance - to, in fact, the semiotic order, which Kristeva (1984) theorises as disruptive of the Symbolic). Likewise, the standard ‘his-story’ of how male Romantics (featuring Locke and Rousseau as progenitors) fathered modern children’s literature, with fantasy emerging victorious over the instructional writings of the matriarchal ‘cursed Barbauld crew’, goes mostly unchallenged; though scholars like Mitzi Myers (1995) have consistently attacked such a patrimony and, along with discoveries like the material that Jane Johnson devised for her own children (Hilton et al. 1997), there are attempts at telling a new ‘story’. Folk and fairy tale (Harries 2001; Warner 1994), nursery rhyme and nonsense (Rollin 1992; Warner 2000) are similarly being retold.

So, although children’s literature might be seen as ‘impossible’ in some ways (ideologically, in inscribing an ‘eternal child’ to suture problematic cultural issues), there is no question of its social and economic reality. It is part of the ‘practically real’, which warrants attention, and will not go away (any more than madness) just because it is shown to be a social construction. A similar point can be made about the uncritical recycling of Philippe Aries’ claim that, ‘In medieval society the idea of childhood did not exist’ (Aries 1973: 125); it was, rather, ‘our concept of childhood’ that medieval society lacked (Archard 1993: 19); other constructions of childhood there certainly were, as Aries himself later conceded (Alexandre-Bidon and Lett 1999: 1). Given children’s literature’s social, cultural and economic reality, then, it is hard to comprehend how Rose ‘closes down the field of children’s fiction, and therefore, by implication, children’s literature criticism’, as Lesnik- Oberstein claims (1994: 158-9). For, powerful as the universal child is - lingering in many constructionist accounts too - the literature’s criticism is not dependent on it. Rose’s commendable work itself demonstrates this, marking a shift in paradigm towards a more culturally nuanced analysis. And much other work published around this time (for example, Barker 1989; Hunt 1991; Kincaid 1992; McGillis 1996; Nikolajeva 1996; Nodelman 1992; Sarland 1991; Shavit 1986; Stephens 1992; Wolf and Heath 1992; Zipes 1983) contributed to this widening of perspectives, albeit from - healthily - differing theoretical stances. This said, all would probably be united in signing up to Lesnik- Oberstein’s provocative statement - though without her intended irony - that ‘Children’s fiction criticism ... cannot do without some “child”’ (1994: 140). While society cannot do without it, it would certainly be a mistake for criticism to do so (cf. Meek 1995; Nodelman 1996).