Children’s literature

Part I. Theory and critical approaches


3. Theorising and theories


The conditions of possibility of children’s literature


David Rudd




The above, more culturally sensitive notion of the constructed child and its literature, however, should not allow us to lose sight of the constructive child, for, as suggested earlier, it is in the gap between the two that a way forward lies. Language, of course, is central to this, for the move from ‘infant’ (literally, one incapable of speech) to a discursively situated being is fraught with anxiety - as this statement from a fictional children’s writer captures:


Each new generation of children has to be told: ‘This is a world, this is what one does, one lives like this.’ Maybe our constant fear is that a generation of children will come along and say, ‘This is not a world, this is nothing, there’s no way to live at all.’

(Hoban 1975: 100)


Accepting the proviso that ‘People do not “accept” their native language - it is in their native language that they first reach awareness’ (Volosinov 1973: 81), the fear is no less valid. Which is why children are so central to the ‘civilising process’:


children necessarily touch again and again on the adult threshold of delicacy, and - since they are not yet adapted - they infringe the taboos of society, cross the adult shame frontier, and penetrate emotional danger zones which the adult himself can only control with difficulty.

(Elias 1978: 167)


The concept of hybridity, originally meaning ‘the offspring of a tame sow and a wild boar’ (Young 1995: 6), imaginatively encapsulates this ambivalence surrounding child- and adulthood noted by numerous commentators (for example, Banerjee 1984; Lesnik-Oberstein 1994: 28; Morrison 1997; Rollin 1992; Shavit 1986; Stahl 1996: 46; Taylor 1998: 91). The term is expressive of that uneasy transaction along borders, in which something other is gradually brought within, melded into adulthood. So, while Rose is surely right about ‘writers for children’ leaving undisturbed any ‘psychic barriers ... the most important of which is the barrier between adult and child’ (Rose 1984: 70), her emphasis, I would argue, needs shifting; for it seems to me that there is a disturbing recognition of the frailty of such barriers. As the British children’s writer John Gordon puts it, ‘The boundary between imagination and reality, and the boundary between being a child and being an adult are border country, a passionate place in which to work. Laws in that country are lifelines’ (Gordon 1975: 35). The ever-present speech tags, the instances of telling rather than showing, the intrusive narrators (Hunt 1991; Knowles and Malmkjær 1996), the ‘have to’ tone that Rose detects (1984: 141), are all examples of such ‘lifelines’, masking a relationship that is often disturbing.

Homi Bhabha (1994) has explored this troubling hybrid relationship in the colonial situation, arguing, similarly, that those who effectively wield power- adults, in this case - are never secure in their position. As detailed earlier, this is because power is not an abstract possession, but an effect of discursive relations which are productive as well as repressive (as we saw with Walkerdine’s boys, and with Lindsey, above).

The constructed child, as tabula rasa - an ‘empty’ being on which society attempts to inscribe a particular identity - becomes, in that very process, the constructive child, and sameness is disrupted. Traces of otherness, of difference, creep into children’s repertoires as they learn language, ‘sense’ being shown to emerge from non-sense, words being stripped down to bare - and, indeed, to bear - signifiers in parent-child interactions, and in children’s own crib monologues (Weir 1960; Nelson 1985, 1989). Moreover, the fact that the sign is itself ‘multi-accented’ produces increasing slippage, as songs, stories and dialogue are forever reworked (Bruner 1987; Fox 1993; Kimberley et al. 1992; Wolf and Heath 1992). Staying with Shelby Wolf’s study, her son, Ashley (aged three; 1992: 11) amusingly reworked ‘Max stepped into his private boat’ (Sendak 1967) as ‘Max stepped onto their private parts’ (Wolf and Heath 1992: 44). In learning language, then, the child is also inadvertently learning ‘how to curse’, in Caliban’s phrase (The Tempest, I ii; see also Dunn 1988: 157).

Children’s speech is hybrid, therefore, in that official, adult language is responded to from a new social and physical location (it is discursively situated), with different nuances and inflections and, often, with intentional revision and intertextuality - as children both disentangle and interweave discursive threads (Rudd 1992, 2000). Bhabha (1994: 126) describes this process of ‘mimicry’ as inherently unstable. Adult behaviour, being emulated, becomes unoriginal, excessive, comic - which, in turn, undermines what it is to be an ‘adult’, self-contained and rational. Michael Rosen captures this eloquently in his poem, ‘Mind Your Own Business’, where we are told what ‘Father says’ as he upbraids his sons (the civilising process, again). Then, in the last two lines, the tables are turned, the mimicry made overt:


My brother knows all his phrases off by heart

So we practise them in bed at night.

(Rosen 1974: 72)


The father’s authority is effectively undermined, seen to be located in nothing more than his ‘say so’, and it happens by the adult’s ‘look of surveillance’ being turned back on him, as ‘the observer becomes the observed’ (Bhabha 1994: 89). Peter Pan does the same with Hook, such that his adult adversary finds his own authority, and identity, undone, ‘his ego is slipping from him’ (Barrie 1995: 122). Eventually, of course, Hook loses more than this to Pan, who replaces him ‘on the poop in Hook’s hat and cigars, and with a small iron claw’ (Barrie 1995: 146).

Bhabha (1994: 92) notes similar slippages when ‘the English Book’ (the Bible) was introduced to the colonised subjects of India. Its ‘representational authority’ was displaced by more utilitarian needs - becoming, for example, a natty tear-off dispenser of wrapping paper for snuff! Children’s physical mistreatment of their books is, likewise, a perennial concern for adults, often being thematised in the texts themselves; to cite Max again (an obvious hybrid), he is depicted provocatively standing on some worthy tomes, foreshadowing his later dismissal of ‘the Word’ in the Wild Rumpus. There is no notion of the child as an innately subversive being here, though. The child is simply positioned as not yet adult (one of the civilised) and, as an apprentice, is coming to terms with the differential relations of power involved, themselves negotiated through discourse and its embodied practices.

We can thus see how a hybrid and always contested area of childhood is dialogically engendered in the ‘practically real’. As Bakhtin puts it (writing under the name Volosinov):


Utterance ... is constructed between two socially organized persons, and in the absence of a real addressee, an addressee is presupposed ... The word is oriented toward an addressee, toward who that addressee might be.

(Volosinov 1973: 85)


Exactly what a representative of that amorphous, socially constructed group - children - does with the word depends on the addressee (their situatedness in relation to other discourses). But the key point is that the word is not owned by either party, lodged in neither the child’s nor the adult’s inner-being. Rather, the word constitutes a ‘border zone’ (Volosinov 1973: 86), in which the addressees - children, in this case - orient themselves precisely in the way that they ‘lay down’ their own set of ‘answering words’ (Volosinov 1973: 102); in this process they - the children - can only ever be constructive.

In the ‘practically real’, then, there can only ever be constructed positions: the child constructed by the text, and the response (itself constructed) from the constructive child, the product being necessarily co-authored. Just as an adult initially talks on behalf of an infant, ‘scaffolding’ its meaning (Bruner 1987), so it is in that very address that ‘the child’ becomes constituted as a social category - as what Diana Fuss (1989: 4) terms, following John Locke, ‘a nominal essence ... a classificatory fiction we need to categorize and label’. The child has nowhere else to be. This said, the process is anything but mechanical, given the multiple subject positions available, and the way language itself is multi-accented. Moreover, as mentioned earlier, the process is not simply top down: the habitus of childhood has its own performative dimensions (learned from peers, books, playground folklore, the media, and so on, as mentioned in the last section). In practice, this means that, while it is almost impossible for adults to avoid addressing children, their success in doing so will vary remarkably. But even when judged successful, there is no notion of ‘identification’ by the child, only of ‘talkings to’ and ‘responses from’ different social locations.