Children’s literature

Part I. Theory and critical approaches


5. Critical tradition and ideological positioning


Charles Sarland




There is a problem for this chapter to be noted at the very start, which is that as an English person writing in English for an English-reading audience, and with limited skills in other languages, I do not have access to wider world literatures unless they have been translated into English. Both Penni Cotton and Margaret Meek note the shortage of English translations of foreign children’s books, and until recently there has been a similar shortage of commentary in English upon such books, though that is beginning to change (Cotton 2000; Meek 2001; and e.g. Nikolajeva 1996). We are thus at the very start faced with an ideological issue which relates to the political domination by English as a world language; and there is an ideological bias already written into this chapter, a bias that I hope at least to make explicit where it arises.

Discourse on children’s fiction sits at the crossroads of a number of other discourses. At the start of the twenty-first century the most important among these, for the purposes of this chapter, are the discourses that surround the subject of ‘literature’ itself and the discourses that surround the rearing, socialisation and education of the young. Thus discussion of ideology in children’s literature requires the consideration of a number of issues (see, for example, Zipes 2001). The very use of the expression ‘children’s literature’, for instance, brings with it a whole set of value judgements which have been variously espoused, attacked, defended and counterattacked over the years. In addition, discussion of children’s fiction - my preferred term in this chapter - has always been characterised by arguments about its purposes. These purposes, or in some cases these denials of purpose, stem from the particular characteristics of its intended readership, and are invariably a product of the views held within the adult population about children and young people themselves and about their place in society. Since there is an imbalance of power between the children and young people who read the books, and the adults who write, publish and review the books, or who are otherwise engaged in commentary upon or dissemination of the books, either as parents, or teachers, or librarians, or booksellers, or academics, there is here immediately a question of politics, a politics first and foremost of age differential.

But wider than this, the books themselves and the social practices that surround them will raise ideological issues. These issues will be related to specific debates in adult society, to do for instance with class, gender, sexuality, ethnicity; or they will be instances of more general debate about the role of liberal humanist values in a capitalist democracy; or, particularly at times of increasing international tension, they will be to do with questions of international identity and international roles. In addition, there is a continuing debate about reader response, which also impacts upon considerations of ideology in children’s fiction. Finally, we must consider the fact that children’s fiction has become a commodity in a global market, controlled by a relatively small number of international publishers.