Children’s literature

1. Introduction

Definitions, themes, changes, attitudes


Margaret Meek


Distinctive changes


Changes in the ways children learn and are taught to read indicate other symbiotic evaluations in children’s literature. It has a continuous and influential history which is regularly raided for evidence of other social, intellectual and artistic changes. Encyclopedias are bound up in this tradition, and this one extends the breadth of its subject to include the diversity of the scene at the time of its compilation. This includes textual varieties and variations such as result from modern methods of production and design and the apparently inexhaustible novelty of publishing formats.

Picture books exhibit these things best. However traditional their skills, authors and artists respond both to new techniques of book-making and to rapid changes in the attitudes and values of actual social living. The conventional boundaries of content and style have been pushed back, broken, exceeded, exploited, played with. Topics are now expected to engage young readers at a deeper level than their language can express but which their feelings recognise. In 1963, Maurice Sendak rattled the fundamentals of the emotional quality of children’s books and the complacent idealised psychologies of the period by imaging malevolence and guilt in Where the Wild Things Are. Some contemporary critics said he threatened children with nightmares; in fact, Sendak opened the way for picture stories to acknowledge, in the complexity of image-text interaction, the layered nature of early experiences, playful or serious, by making them readable.

Spatial and radial reading, the kinds called for by the original illustrated pages of Blake’s Songs of Innocence (1789) and Songs of Experience (1794), are now in the repertoires of modern children who know Janet and Allan Ahlberg’s The Jolly Postman (1986) and all the other works of their contemporaries discussed in these pages. Children’s imaginative play, the way they grow into their culture and change it, is depicted in visual metafictions. In 1993 appeared Babette Cole’s Mummy Laid an Egg, a picture story of two exuberant children who, when told by their parents the traditional fabled accounts of procreation, turn the tables on them. ‘We don’t think you really know how babies are made,’ they say. ‘So we’re doing some drawings to show you’ (Cole 1993: np). Adult reactions to illustrations of this topic are always hesitant, despite contemporary convictions which support the idea of telling children the ‘facts of life’. The sensitive delicacy of Cole’s presentation of the children’s exact and explicit understanding puts to rout any suggestion that this is a prurient book. Humour releases delight and increases children’s confidence in understanding the metaphoric nature of language. It is also memorably serious.

Despite the attraction and distraction of many different kinds of new books, children still enjoy and profit from knowing myths, legends, folk and fairy tales. Some of these texts come in scholarly editions preferred by bibliophiles, but more often the versions are modern retellings, variable in quality and authenticity. Where the story is ‘refracted’ or told from a different viewpoint, the readers’ sympathetic understanding undergoes a change. The True Story of the 3 Little Pigs by A. Wolf (Jon Scieszka 1989) caught the imagination of young readers in just this way. It also lets them see how stories can be retold because they are something made. Neil Philip’s exploration of the history of Cinderella (Philip 1989), Jack Zipes’s collection of the versions of Little Red Riding Hood (Zipes 1983), Leon Garfield’s Shakespeare Stories (1985) and his reworking of the texts of the plays to accompany animated films devised by Russian puppeteers, all show how multiple versions of traditional stories are matched by different ways of learning to read them.

A perceptive suggestion about versions of stories is made by Margaret Mackey. She points out that adults of a post-war generation have read popular and classic authors (Beatrix Potter, for example) in reprints of the original forms. Sequentially over time, they see reproductions of the texts and pictures on plates, mugs, calendars and aprons. The next generation that reads Raymond Briggs’s The Snowman also encounters multiple versions of the pictures in different book formats, on video and film, wallpaper and sweaters simultaneously, and has the skill to choose from a number of versions the one they prefer. This commodification of children’s literature is examined by Mackey in the case of Thomas the Tank Engine (1946) and its sequels. Forty years after their first appearance as books, the BBC produced animations of these stories. This generated ‘a small industry of toys, games, pyjamas and so forth’ (Mackey 1995: 43-4). This is how one part of the past of children’s literature moves into the future.

Those small children whose first fictional love is Thomas the Tank Engine are meeting a creation whose roots are deep in the certainties of a bygone era but whose branches and blossoms are so multifarious as to be confusing to the uninitiated. One of the striking things about the saga of Thomas the Tank Engine, as well as about other picture-book characters who are the focus of industrial empires, is that they make it possible for very small toddlers to belong to the ranks of the initiated, and to know it. Their first approach to fiction is one of coming to terms with different versions, an experience which makes them experts in the settings and characters even as they learn the basic conventions of how story works.


Thomas’s illustrations provide one single and small example of the way in which little readers learn the need to deal with plurality.

(Mackey 1995: 44)


General agreement that picture books exemplify and adorn the domain of children’s literature is countered by arguments about the nature and worth of novels written for adolescents. This age group is usually subdivided into those who are discovering, usually at school, the kinds of writing related to ‘subject’ learning, and the pre-higher-education teenagers (a word now less in use than it was when books were first deliberately written to distinguish them as readers) engaging with more complex subjective and social issues and making deliberate life choices. By this later stage, boys are often differentiated from girls in their tastes and reading habits. Critics of the bookish kind and teachers concerned that their pupils should tackle ‘challenging’ texts emphasise the importance of ‘classic’ literature, usually pre-twentieth century. Adolescents choose their reading matter from magazines commercially sensitive to the shifting identities of the young, and from the novels that connect readers’ personal growth to a nascent interest in the world of ideas and beliefs, their nature and relevance. Adolescents are prepared to tackle sophisticated texts in order to appear ‘in the know’, adult-fashion. At other times, both boys and girls, pressurised by examinations and the social complexities of their age groups, take time out to read the books they came to earlier, and to ponder the kind of world they want to live in.

To account for the range of texts, the diversity of topics, the differences between readers, and the vagaries of critical reactions in literature for adolescents, is to write a version of the history of social events of the last thirty years. It is also to engage with the issues that emerge, including hypocrisy in social and political engagements, and global debates about how to protect the universe. As they confront incontinent streams of information in world-wide communication networks, young adults want to read about what matters. Dismayed by the single economic realism of their parents’ generation, they salvage their imaginations by reading the chilling novels of Robert Cormier, where they discover the complexities of intergenerational betrayal in a book like After the First Death (1979). With some tactful help to encourage them to tolerate the uncertainties induced by unfamiliar narrative techniques, teenagers rediscover reading as an intellectual adventure. They learn to ask themselves ‘Do I believe this? How reliable is this story-teller? What kind of company am I keeping in this book?’ Good authors show them characters confronted by indecisions like their own in making choices. Happy endings are less in vogue than they once were.

Perhaps the most significant of the distinctive changes implied and dealt with in this Encyclopedia are those which differentiate readers and books in terms of gender, class and race. These issues and their ideological attachments go well beyond children’s literature, but they have a part to play in books for readers more interested in the future than the past. As readers’ responses are part of the adult involvement in writing for adolescents, and ‘positive images’ are now expected to be text-distinctive, then the influence of current thinking about these matters on authors of novels for adolescents is strong. Consider the effect of feminism on literature. ‘Children’ are no longer a homogeneous group of readers; they are constituted differently. The situated perspectives of boys and girls have now to be part of the consciousness of all writers and all readers. Girls have always read boys’ books by adaptation, but boys have shown no eagerness, or have lacked encouragement, to do the same in reverse. Their tastes are said to be set in the traditional heroic tales of fable and legend and their reworkings as versions of Superman and other quest tales. Boys also seem to be more attracted to the portrayal of ‘action’ in graphic novels. Ted Hughes’s modern myth The Iron Man (1968) has a hero more complex than the Iron Woman, who, in her book of that name (1993), has little effective linguistic communication. She relies on a primeval scream.

At the end of the twentieth century, the most distinctive differences in children’s books were those which reflected changes in social attitudes and understandings. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the dominant white middle-class elite of children’s book publishers in English-speaking countries was forced to acknowledge the presence in school classrooms of children who could not find themselves portrayed in the pictures or the texts they were given to read. In Britain, the Children’s Rights Workshop asked publishers how many books on their lists showed girls playing ‘a leading part’, and let it be known that there were very few.

First attempts to redress the balance, the inclusion of a black face in a playground scene or an indistinct but benign ‘foreigner’ in a story, were dismissed as inept tokenism. In post-imperial Britain, two revisions were imperative: the renewal of school history texts to include the perspectives of different social groups, and the welcoming of new authors with distinctive voices and literary skill to the lists of books for the young. Topics, verbal rhythms and tones all changed, especially when a group of Caribbean writers went to read to children in schools. Consequently, as part of a more general enlightenment, local storytellers emerged, as after a long sleep, to tell local tales and to publish them. Now in Britain, children’s literature represents more positively the multicultural life of the societies from which it emerges. At the same time, however, it is also the site for debates about ‘politically correct’ language to describe characters who represent those who have suffered discrimination or marginalisation.

Books of quality play their part in changing attitudes as well as simply reflecting them. But we are still a long way from accepting multicultural social life as the norm for all children growing up. Too many old conflicts intervene. Year by year, the fact that more and more people move to richer countries from poorer ones becomes evident. The next generation will encounter bilingualism and biliteracy as common, and the promotion of positive images of multicultural encounters is consequently important. Perhaps the isolation of monolingual readers of a dominant language such as English, who read ‘foreign’ literature in translation or not at all, will be less common.

Changes in the creation, production and distribution of children’s books do not happen in a vacuum. They have been linked to the mutability of their economic environment at least since John Newbery offered A Little Pretty Pocket-Book for 6d, or ‘with ball or pincushion’ for 8d, in 1744. Publishing is as subject to market forces, take-over bids, the rise and fall in fashionable demand as other trading. ‘Going out of print’ is believed to be a more common occurrence now than ever before, but this may be an impression rather than a fact. Although their intrinsic worth is judged differently, all books are packaged to be sold. Publishers are involved in advertising deals, literary prizes, best-seller lists, and are careful when they select texts to carry their name. Authors also estimate their worth in pelf as in pages. Copyright laws are organised internationally but there too changes are current and continuous. It is interesting to note that when Geoffrey Trease wrote Tales Out of School in 1949, the ‘outright purchase of juvenile copyright’ (185) was still a common practice.

The number of outlets for children’s books has increased; their locations are also different. This does not mean that the book in the shopping basket with the grocery beans is a lesser object of desire than one bought elsewhere. A bookshop may be a better place to choose from a wider range of books than a supermarket, but the popularity of books for the very young owes more to their availability than to the formal institutions intended to establish children’s books as literature.