Children’s literature

Part I. Theory and critical approaches


5. Critical tradition and ideological positioning


Charles Sarland


Representation: gender, minority groups and bias: the debate from the 1970s until the present day


In eighteenth- and nineteenth-century didacticism the promotion of values in children’s books had often taken the overt form of direct preaching, and the values to be promoted were an issue. By the 1970s the focus of the debate in Britain and the United States had changed to questions of character representation and character role, and analysis consisted in showing how children’s fiction represented some groups at the expense of others, or how some groups were negatively represented in stereotypical terms. The argument was that, by representing certain groups in certain ways, children’s books were promoting certain values - essentially white, male and middle-class - and that the books were thus class-biased, racist and sexist. The fact that the protagonists of most children’s books tended to be white middle-class boys was adduced in evidence. Working-class characters were portrayed either as respectful to their middle-class ‘betters’, or as stupid - or they had the villain’s role in the story. Black characters suffered a similar fate. Girls tended to be represented in traditional female roles.

Trease (1949/1964) had led the way in drawing attention to the politically conservative bias of historical fiction, and had attempted to offer alternative points of view in his own writing. From the United States, Nat Hentoff drew attention to the under-representation of teenagers in children’s books, and saw the need to make ‘contact with the sizeable number of the young who never read anything for pleasure because they are not in it’ (Hentoff 1969: 400). Bob Dixon’s work (1974) was characteristic of many attacks on that most prolific of British authors, Enid Blyton. Zimet (1976), from the USA, drew attention to the exclusion or the stereotypical presentation of ethnic minorities and women in children’s fiction, and incidentally also in school textbooks, and espoused the use of positive images of girls and of ethnic minorities. Dixon (1977), in a comprehensive survey, demonstrated the almost universally reactionary views on race, gender and class, together with a political conservatism, that informed most British children’s books of the time, and Robert Leeson (1977) came up with similar findings. The Writers and Readers Publishing Co-operative (1979) drew attention to the racism inherent in a number of children’s classics and one or two highly rated more modern books, and examined sex roles and other stereotyping.

In order to promote working-class, anti-racist and anti-sexist values, it was argued that books should be written with working-class, or female, or black protagonists. Thus in 1982 Dixon drew up what was essentially an annotated book list of ‘stories which show a positive overall attitude with regard to sex roles, race and social class’ (Dixon 1982: 3), although he also insisted that the books should meet ‘literary’ standards that were essentially Leavisite. Such initiatives have multiplied in the later years of the twentieth century, and the practical outcome was a proliferation of series aimed particularly at the teenage market and the emergence of writers like Petronella Breinburg, Robert Leeson and Jan Needle in Britain, and Rosa Guy, Julius Lester, Louise Fitzhugh and Virginia Hamilton in the USA.

It is worth noting, however, that the current publication life of any given title can be very short and this can result in the fairly rapid silencing of work that challenges prevailing norms and values. Jan Needle’s Albeson and the Germans (1977), which both challenges British xenophobia and contains a pretty devastating attack upon a benevolently intentioned primary school teacher, is out of print, while much of Needle’s other work is still available. More recently Adele Geras’s A Candle in the Dark (1995), which portrays antisemitism in its just pre-Second World War primary-school child characters, had a shelf life of only five years (two years in its paperback format).

The debate has been revisited in recent years, particularly by Pinsent (1997), Cedric Cullingford (1998) and Margery Hourihan (1997). Pinsent writes for teachers in an English context in which many of the texts criticised in the 1970s are still enshrined in the English National Curriculum (DFE 1995) and/or are still to be found being taught in English classrooms. She debates the desirability of using such texts and the need to handle them sensitively, and touches on issues of sexuality. Cullingford, in a much bolder foray, seems largely unconcerned by the ideological debate, but offers in passing fascinating insights into the work of popular English authors such as Herbert Strang and Percy F. Westerman from the first half of the twentieth century, noting their chauvinism with regard to the rest of Europe, their wholehearted espousal of the imperialist, essentially racist values of their day, and their assumptions about the natural superiority of ‘British gentlemen’ over the rest of the English characters who populated their books. When it comes to Blyton’s notorious characterisations of travellers and gypsies he sees them as ‘so absurdly innocent that they are beside the point’ (Cullingford 1998: 100), a worrying observation both in light of the fact that, around the same time as Blyton was writing, over 200,000 gypsies were either being killed or had recently been killed in the Nazi death camps, and in light of the fact that Blyton is still promoted in school and very widely read by children while Strang and Westerman are not.

Finally, Hourihan, in a much more systematically theorised approach, explores the role of the hero in a range of literature including, alongside children’s books themselves, those authors such as Homer, Defoe, Dickens and Tolkien whose adult work often gets offered to children in some sort of abbreviated form. She too notes the tradition of the young white male European protagonists and, in the specifically British context, the importance of the notion of the gentleman.

As has been indicated, with the exception of Hourihan’s work, the debate has been essentially about representation, and ‘literary standards’ per se have not generally been challenged. Thus more complex considerations of the ways in which ideology is inscribed in texts did not enter into the discussion, nor did considerations of the complexity of reader response. What such a debate has done, however, is to point out that all texts incorporated value positions. It was therefore not long before questions were raised about the grounds for the judgements made on the quality of children’s books, and that debate in turn relates to a wider consideration of such questions with regard to literary criticism as a whole.