Children’s literature

Part I. Theory and critical approaches


5. Critical tradition and ideological positioning


Charles Sarland


The development of criticism of children’s fiction: the Leavisite paradigm


The criticism of children’s fiction has been something of a poor relation in English and American critical studies (see also Chapters 111 and 112). For the first two-thirds of the twentieth century there was little written that addressed the subject, and Felicity Hughes (1978/1990) offers some analysis as to why this was the case. She argues that, at the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth, Henry James and others encapsulated the view that, for the novel to fully come of age as an art form, it had to break free of its family audience. Since then the tendency has increased to view writing for children as a ‘mere’ craft, not worthy of serious critical attention. Reviewing and commentary focused on advising parents, librarians and other interested adults on what to buy for children, or on advising teachers on how to encourage and develop the reading habits of their pupils. While critical judgements were offered about the quality of the books, the criteria for such critical judgements were assumed rather than debated. When surveys of the field were published they also tended to sacrifice discussion of critical criteria to the need for comprehensive coverage.

However, a developing body of work did start to emerge in the 1960s and 1970s which was directly concerned with confronting the problem and trying to establish criteria for judgement. Such work drew on two traditions, the Leavisite tradition in Britain and New Criticism in the USA. Foremost among such initiatives was a collection of papers edited by Egoff et al. (1969); Rosenheim (1969) and Travers (1969), both from that collection, look specifically to New Critic Northrop Frye’s mythic archetypes, as do Ted Hughes (1976) and Peter Hunt (1980). Wallace Hildick (1970) and Myles McDowell (1973) both address the question of the difference in writing for children and writing for adults, but both resort to Leavisite criteria for evaluating the quality of children’s books. The Leavisite tradition perhaps reaches its apogee with Inglis’s The Promise of Happiness. Inglis’s opening sentence directly quotes the opening of Leavis’s The Great Tradition (1948): ‘The great children’s novelists are Lewis Carroll, Rudyard Kipling, Francis Hodgson Burnett, Arthur Ransome, William Mayne, and Philippa Pearce - to stop for a moment at that comparatively safe point on an uncertain list’ (Inglis 1981: 1).

The tradition is not dead. Margery Fisher (1986), for instance, assumes that the definition of a children’s classic is still essentially unproblematic. William Moebius (1986/1990) brings similar assumptions to bear upon picture books, and Hunt’s book on Arthur Ransome is still largely rooted in Leavisite practice in its judgements of quality and value (Hunt 1992a).

One of the features of the tradition is its refusal to address questions of value at a theoretical level. Here is Townsend exemplifying the point:


We find in fact that the literary critics, both modern and not-so-modern, are reluctant to pin themselves down to theoretical statements. In the introduction to Determinations (1934), F. R. Leavis expresses the belief that ‘the way to forward true appreciation of literature and art is to examine and discuss it’; and again, ‘out of agreement or disagreement with particular judgements of value a sense of relative value in the concrete will define itself, and without this, no amount of talk in the abstract is worth anything’.

(Townsend 1971/1990: 66)


The values in question can be culled from a variety of sources. F. R. Leavis (1955) talks of ‘intelligence’, ‘vitality’, ‘sensibility’, ‘depth, range and subtlety in the presentment of human experience’, ‘achieved creation’, ‘representative significance’. Inglis (1981) talks of ‘sincerity’, ‘dignity’, ‘integrity’, ‘honesty’, ‘authenticity’, ‘fulfilment’, ‘freedom’, ‘innocence’, ‘nation’, ‘intelligence’, ‘home’, ‘heroism’, ‘friendship’, ‘history’. And Hunt tells us that the virtues of Arthur Ransome are ‘family, honour, skill, good sense, responsibility and mutual respect’, and ‘the idea of place’ (Hunt 1992a: 86). All of these terms and formulations are offered by their various authors as if they are essentially unproblematic, and they are thus rendered as common sense, naturalised and hidden in the discourse, and not raised for examination. We may have little difficulty, however, in recognising a liberal humanist consensus which runs through them, even if one or two of Inglis’s choices are somewhat idiosyncratic. Nowhere, however, are we able to raise the question of the role that this liberal humanist discourse plays ideologically in a late capitalist or postcolonial world, and it is such a challenge that an ideological critique inevitably raises.

However, before moving on to such considerations, it is necessary to add that Inglis’s book also marks a peak in the educational debate, which filled the pages of such journals as English in Education throughout the 1980s and into the 1990s, and which is also a debate between the Leavisites and the exponents of newer developments in structuralism and semiotics. As I have indicated above, the discourses of children’s literature and education continuously overlap. Hughes (1978/1990) highlights Henry James’s concern that the universal literacy that would follow from universal schooling would endanger the future of the novel as an art form, leading to inevitable vulgarisation, as the novel itself catered to popular taste - and children’s literature itself catered to an even lower common denominator. As a result, and in order to try to return some status to children’s literature, it was, and often still is, seen as the training ground of adult literary taste. From such a perspective the distinction conferred by the term ‘literature’ is crucial, since by that means the Jamesian distinctions between the novel as an art form and other fiction as commercial entertainment is promoted.

It is perhaps ironic that the criticism of children’s fiction should have come of age at precisely the point when the newer perspectives of structuralism, semiotics and Marxism were beginning to make their mark in literary criticism in Britain, and to undermine those very certainties after which Inglis was searching. In the 1990s things did indeed move on, with Nikolajeva (1996) drawing on structuralism and in particular semiotics to demonstrate the ways in which children’s literature itself has come of age as it takes on board the structures, processes and techniques of the modern adult novel.