Children’s literature

Part I. Theory and critical approaches


12. Narrative theory and children’s literature


Maria Nikolajeva


Narrative theory is perhaps the area of critical enquiry least explored by children’s literature scholars. This is especially true if we take into consideration the widespread misunderstanding about the subject area of narrative theory in the strict sense, which is not narratives as such, but narrativity: that is, the set of formal traits constituting a narrative (Prince 1987: 64). These formal traits include composition (plot, temporal structure), characterisation (the palette of narrative devices used by writers to reveal a character), and narrative perspective (voice and point of view). Many of these elements are manifested in a different - and occasionally profoundly different - manner in children’s literature as compared to general literature, and therefore children’s literature scholars have repeatedly pointed out that, while we may borrow analytical tools from narratology for a systematic investigation of the various levels of narrative, we should be particularly interested in a ‘children’s-literature-specific theory’ (Hunt 1984: 192).

The central question of narrative theory is thus ‘How ...?’ as opposed to the ‘What ...?’ of many other approaches dominant in children’s literature research because of its close connection with pedagogy. The prevailing question in a pedagogical approach is: ‘What is a good children’s book?’ The issues of form have been neglected mainly because they were considered secondary as compared to ideology, social or moral values, and educational objectives. Narratology is expressly not concerned with the major objects of investigation in children’s literature research: social context, the author’s intentions or the reader.

Yet narrative theory is highly relevant to the study of children’s literature. One of the profound characteristics of children’s literature is the discrepancy between the cognitive level of the sender (adult) and the implied addressee (child). Barbara Wall examines the consequences of this asymmetry, discerning three possibilities: single address, when the adult addresses the child from a superior position; double address, when the author pretends to address the child, in fact addressing the adult behind the child; and dual address, when child and adult are addressed on different, but equal premises (Wall 1991). While many recent theories have pinpointed ‘the impossibility of children’s literature’ either due to the authors’ nostalgic self-indulgence (Rose 1984) or to the uncritical construction of a Active child (Lesnik-Oberstein 1994; Zornado 2000), narrative theory facilitates an investigation of strategies that enable children’s writers to circumvent the inevitable cognitive gap. Children’s literature critics have emphasised the importance of ‘embrace’ (McGillis 1991) or ‘engagement’ (Wyile 1999) of the narrative voice in children’s literature, ‘a voice that . seeks to draw the child reader in by gaining her trust’ (McGillis 1991: 24). Thus narrative theory adds a new dimension to the ongoing debate about the nature of children’s literature and its difference from literature for adults.

On the other hand, because they seem to be unaware of children’s literature, general narratologists fail to acknowledge that many supposedly unique narrative devices are a rule rather than an exception in children’s books. For instance, studies of narrative perspective in children’s literature reveal how writers manage to achieve something that narratologists have judged as nearly impossible: a rendering of a naive perspective without losing psychological depth or verbal richness. Most narratologists make use of the same example: Benjy in The Sound and the Fury (e.g. Booth 1961: 152; Scholes and Kellogg 1966: 200; Cohn 1978: 250ff; Rimmon-Kenan 1983: 100). Children’s novels provide a variety of examples (Nikolajeva 1997, 2002b; Wyile 1999; Cadden 2000). Similarly, the temporal pattern of the iterative, telling once about events taking place regularly, that Gerard Genette views as unique to Marcel Proust (Genette 1980: 113-60), appears to be a common device in children’s fiction, most probably since the iterative reflects a child’s perception of time as cyclical, non-linear, where recurrent events and routines emphasise the eternal cycle rather than the linear flow of time (Nikolajeva 2000: 31-5).

A common prejudice about children’s literature is that it is a ‘simple’ literary form. In terms of narrativity, simplicity conceivably includes one clearly delineated plot without digressions or secondary plots; chronological order of events; a limited number of easy-to- remember characters - ‘flat’ characters with one typical feature, either ‘good’ or ‘evil’, or with simplistic external characterisation. It also includes a distinct narrative voice, a fixed point of view, preferably an authoritarian, didactic, omniscient narrator who can supply readers with comments, explanations and exhortations, without leaving anything unuttered or ambiguous; a narrator possessing greater knowledge and experience than both characters and readers. The idea of a ‘simple’ narrative excludes complex temporal and spatial constructions. The fictionality of the story, the reliability of the narrator or the sufficiency of language as the artistic expressive means cannot be interrogated. Obviously, the spectrum of children’s literature is significantly broader than suggested by these features. The scope of questions that narrative theory deals with incorporates all these elements and enables critics to uncover the degrees and kinds of complexity of children’s literature.

Not least, narratology helps us to acknowledge the wide diversity of children’s texts. Children’s literature is not a fixed body of texts - which is how some children’s literature experts try to present it. Narratology can help us to discern new ways of constructing plots, especially in novels employing multiple narratives (see McCallum 1999). It provides us with adequate tools to investigate the various ways of constructing and revealing characters (Nikolajeva 2001a, 2001b, 2002a). It can also explore some preconceived opinions about suitable narrative perspective, such as the predominance of impersonal narration over personal. In short, narratology can contribute both to determining some basic premises for a poetics of children’s literature and to pinning down its dynamic nature.

Comparatively, narrative theory is still taking its very first steps within children’s literature criticism (Hunt 1984, 1985, 1991: 119-37; Otten and Smith 1989; Golden 1990; McGillis 1991; Wall 1991; Goodenough et al. 1994; Nikolajeva 1997, 2001a, 2002a; Wyile 1999; Cadden 2000). This is especially true if we exclude the vast and well-developed area of reader-response studies - even though it is closely connected with narratology, especially in the examination of the implied reader (as Peter Hunt remarks, ‘Narrative theory cannot escape the problem of audience’ (Hunt 1985: 107)). This essay will explore some applications of narrative theory to children’s literature - narrative: plot, character and perspective - to show what tools narratology offers, and how these tools have to be adapted to the specific needs of children’s literature criticism.


Plot-oriented and character-oriented narratives


The juxtaposition between action-oriented and character-oriented texts (Scholes and Kellogg 1966: 233-9; Todorov 1977: 66) is frequently used in children’s literature research. In classical poetics, characters are subordinate to actions and events; plot is regarded as the essential part of the narrative, while the characters’ function is to perform actions; therefore only those elements directly concerned with action are seen as important (Aristotle 1965). Today we place more emphasis on the literary characters’ psychological and ethical dimensions. A majority of children’s books are undoubtedly action-oriented; until the last twenty or thirty years, there was a clear tendency in children’s books to avoid portraying characters with any personality traits other than good or evil, which, it can be argued, reflects the writers’ preconceived opinions about what good children’s literature should be and do. Certain children’s literature scholars go so far as to maintain that action-orientation is one of the foremost aesthetic characteristics of children’s literature and the main source of the pleasure in reading children’s books (e.g. Nodelman 1992: 190; 2000). This may be true about some children’s texts, but certainly not all of them. Yet, since children’s literature, at least as a separate literary system, is a relatively recent phenomenon in the history of literature, interest in the psychological aspect of literary character did not emerge in children’s texts until the 1970s in Western countries; in many countries it has not appeared yet. Although this shift of emphasis is tangible, far from all children’s writers subscribe to the dominance of character over plot.

Furthermore, since children’s literature has throughout history been extensively used as an educational implement, characters in children’s stories have been used as mouthpieces for certain ideas and opinions, as examples to follow or cautionary figures to learn from, rather than as independent subjectivities. This inevitable educational aspect of children’s fiction has seriously impeded a development towards complex psychological characters. If Harold Bloom ascribes the invention of a psychological literary character to Shakespeare (Bloom 1998), in children’s literature this ‘invention’ appears considerably later. The main consequence for narrative studies is that different tools can be used for analysing plot- oriented and character-oriented narratives.

The question of what exactly constitutes a narrative is still being debated. Most scholars agree about the distinction between the content of the narrative, or story, ‘what is being told’, and its form, discourse, ‘how it is told’ (Chatman 1978: 31-4; applied to children’s literature Stephens 1992: 8-46). In most of the pre-Second World War children’s literature, and in many texts of formulaic children’s fiction, the discrepancy between story and discourse is minimal. This is perhaps why children’s literature is frequently considered ‘simple’. Yet in many modern children’s texts (and in some classics) we see complex narrative structures, including multilevel plots, intricate spatiality and temporality, subtle characterisation, complex subjectivity, and multiple and ambiguous narrative perspective. Among contemporary authors employing such structures we find Aidan Chambers (UK), Sharon Creech (USA), Gary Crew (Australia), Lesley Beake (South Africa), Peter Pohl (Sweden), Tormod Haugen (Norway), Lois Jensen (Denmark), and many more. In interpreting such texts, distinguishing between story and discourse is crucial.