Children’s literature

Part I. Theory and critical approaches


5. Critical tradition and ideological positioning


Charles Sarland


The construction of the reader


The initiatives of the 1970s to redress the balance in the bias of children’s fiction took a straightforward view about the relationship between the text and the reader. At its simplest an almost directly didactic relationship was assumed. If you wrote books with positive characterisations of, and roles for, girls, ethnic minorities and the working class, then readers’ attitudes would be changed and all would be well with the world. I do not suggest that anyone, even then, thought it would be quite that simple, and since the 1970s there has been something of a revolution in our understandings of how readers are constructed by texts. The insights of reader-response theoreticians like Wolfgang Iser (1978), applied to children’s books most notably by Aidan Chambers (1980), had alerted us to some of the textual devices by which an implied reader is written into the text. Iser had also drawn attention to the fact that texts brought with them a cultural repertoire which had to be matched by the reader. Macherey (1978) brought Freudian perspectives to bear on ways in which ideology operated in hidden ways in the text, and by extension also in the reader, and Belsey drew insights from Althusser, Derrida and Lacan to further explore the ways in which the subjectivity of the reader is ideologically constructed.

It is Jacqueline Rose (1984/1994) who offers the most thoroughgoing exposition of this view with respect to children’s fiction. She argues that, by a combination of textual devices, characterisation and assumptions of value position, children’s books construct children, both as characters and as readers, as without sexuality, innocent and denied politics, either a politics between themselves or within wider society. As such they are seen as beings with a privileged perception, untainted by culture. John Stephens (1992) engages in a detailed analysis of a number of books to show how they produce ideological constructions of implied child readers. He concentrates particularly on narrative localisation and the shifts, moves and gaps of narrative viewpoint and attitude, showing how such techniques imply certain ideological assumptions and formulations, and construct implied readers who must be expected to share them.