Children’s literature

Part I. Theory and critical approaches


3. Theorising and theories


The conditions of possibility of children’s literature


David Rudd


Conditions of possibility


It has been argued, then, that children’s literature occurs in the space between the constructed and the constructive - and that this must be so, given the nature of language and our positioning within a variety of discourses. The attempt to prevent such slippage, to keep language ‘single-voiced’, tolerating ‘no play with its borders’ (Bakhtin 1981: 343), is doomed; such a ‘sealed-off and impermeable monoglossia’ (Bakhtin 1981: 61) is elegantly figured in the unyielding shell of Humpty Dumpty, who, of course, also foreshadows the fate of such intransigence: ‘When I use a word ... it means just what I choose it to mean - neither more nor less’ (Carroll 1970: 269). Unfortunately, he never was master of his words, perilously ignoring the discursive chain in which he was positioned - the nursery rhyme - as a consequence of which, he has a great fall.

In early children’s literature this monological, authoritarian voice is quite popular, often bolstered by ‘the English Book’ (the Bible), but even this does not obviate the anxiety mentioned earlier: the fact that, however much such work directs the reader down the path of righteousness, it inevitably sketches in the surrounding landscape, the delights just beyond the path, the grass that must be kept off (Caliban’s curse, again).

Of course, it is only from records of children’s reading that we can interpret how such works may have been received. So that when Victor Watson (1992: 14-15) says of Mrs Sherwood’s heavily didactic History of the Fairchild Family (1818-47) that the children in it ‘are voiceless. It is a coercive text’, we can point to some readers, at least, who were not coerced, and who did voice their views: ‘I liked the book notwithstanding. There was plenty about eating and drinking; one could always skip the prayers and there were three or four very brightly written accounts of funerals in it’, as the young Lord Frederick Hamilton commented (quoted in Lochhead 1956: 51).

Because the word is always half someone else’s, as Bakhtin notes, the attempt to avoid hybrid contamination is fated: it refuses to mean just what the author intends, ‘neither more nor less’. This means that, though Lesnik-Oberstein rightly points out that children’s literature can never escape ‘the didactic impulse’ (1994: 38), neither can the didactic impulse escape this hybrid relation, the excess and play of the signifier, such that an entertaining surplus is ever present. Partly in recognition of this lack of control, children’s texts have become increasingly explicit in their hybridity. Even in Victorian times, Knoepflmacher (1983) notes an increasing number of ‘childlike’ adult characters in the books, besides more amorphous creations like E. Nesbit’s Psammead. Clearly, as this corpus of targeted ‘children’s books’ burgeoned, children could more readily draw on a larger body of texts, and intertextually comment on them - as, most famously, does Lewis Carroll’s work, with its savage reworking of earlier homiletic verses, such as the Duchess’s ‘sort of lullaby’ in Alice: ‘Speak roughly to your little boy,/And beat him when he sneezes’, revoking the sentiments of Isaac Watts’ original, ‘Speak gently! It is better far/To rule by love than fear’ (Carroll 1970: 85). (Carroll, of course, also points up the ambivalence between adult and child in the lullaby itself, in which care of the child goes hand in hand with fantasies of its destruction: ‘down will come baby, cradle and all’ (Parker 1995; Warner 2000)). It was also in the nineteenth century that the fairy tale became a popular form for staging hybrid relations (Auerbach and Knoepflmacher 1992; Zipes 1987), especially as it became more directly aimed at children. And today this hybrid relation has been foregrounded to the extent that many see a blurring of boundaries between adult and child literatures, theorised as ‘cross-writing’ (Knoepflmacher and Myers 1997) or writing for ‘dual audiences’ (Beckett 1999).

However, although the hybridity has recently become more explicit, my main point is that it has always been there: a product of the differential power relations and signifying latitude of language. So, without wishing to diminish the importance of the works that speak about how the child is constructed - or ‘implied’ - in its literature, it would be a mistake to see them as the whole story: they miss, precisely, half of it, in neglecting the constructive powers of the child.

Naturally, this also makes children’s literature studies far more messy and complex, and challenges traditional forms of scholarship. The oral roots of much children’s literature make it particularly problematic, with published work often taking shape in stories told to specific children, either privately or in small groups (famous examples being Barrie, Blyton, Carroll and Grahame; see also Hilton et al. 1997). In such a context, the dialogic negotiation of the ‘children’s text’ is far more explicit, and no doubt involves both verbal and non-verbal elements. Furthermore, even after publication, children are renowned for feeding back their views to their authors, influencing subsequent works (for example, Enid Blyton, through her Sunny Stories magazine).

But the physical response of a child is not necessary. The dialogic process of anticipating answering words must still occur, as authors construct notional readers - even if only to coerce them into voicelessness! Often the addressees will be younger, or idealised versions of themselves, as so many writers attest, for, as Rose (1984: 12) notes, following Freud, childhood is never really left behind; it ‘persists as something which we endlessly rework in our attempt to build an image of our own history’. Ursula Le Guin (1975: 91) expresses something similar, if more poetically: ‘an adult is not a dead child, but a child who survived’. Thus many of the imagined concerns of childhood live on, inflecting later discourses, and feeding back into what Nina Bawden (1975: 62) terms ‘the emotional landscape’ of authors’ writings about childhood - which will either have a resonance for certain children, or not. But it should not be thought that the adults are secure in their status. Bawden herself is quite outspoken about her wish to ‘expose’ adults, those ‘uncertain, awkward, quirky, dangerous creatures’, who, she says, wrote books in which ‘they didn’t want to give themselves away; show themselves to us children, to their enemies, as they really were’ (Bawden 1995: 110). Again, this example is not used to point to the truth of adults or children, but a concern over the hybrid relation.

All these approaches to the subject are obviously fallible: whether we look at what the writers say in, or about, their work; or whether we explore what the readership says - but this is the nature of the subject: exploring the ‘practically real’, which is forever open to dialogic revision in that contested space between the respective parties.