Children’s literature

Part I. Theory and critical approaches


14. Comparative children’s literature


Emer O’Sullivan


Children’s literature has transcended linguistic and cultural borders since books and magazines specifically intended for young readers were produced on any kind of scale in eighteenth-century Europe. As it has evolved from international rather than national paradigms, it can be argued that the subject of children’s literature research cannot be limited to ‘geographically internal texts and ... those responsible for their production’ (Bouckaert-Ghesquiere 1992: 93). But children’s literature, not traditionally regarded as meriting serious scholarship, has hitherto flown under the radar of comparative literature, the discipline generally responsible for researching cross-cultural phenomena, and comparative issues have not been widely addressed in children’s literature studies which, in the past, was a little too fond of assuming its international corpus to have almost mystically transcended cultural and linguistic borders. Even today, there is a lack of awareness of cross-cultural matters, especially in the English-speaking context where children’s literature is usually taken to mean (only) children’s literature in English.

Comparative literature is concerned with the study of literature and literary theory and criticism in an international context and with literary texts in relation to other media and disciplines; it is dedicated to ‘the cross-cultural and interdisciplinary study of literature and culture’ (Totosy de Zepetnek 1999). Transcending the limits of a single literature, it explores what different literatures, theories or cultural products have in common as well as their peculiarities and individual features which come to light only when they are seen in relation to others. Its subject traditionally derives from several languages, thus distinguishing it from the study of single literatures, but cultural differences between literatures in the same language - for instance the comparison of Spanish and Latin American literature, or the literatures of the various German-speaking countries - are now also a genuine subject of comparative studies. A predominantly literary tendency in investigating the connections between individual texts, authors, genres, periods and national literatures in the past has been replaced by an interdisciplinary cultural studies approach; comparative literature today is considered ‘to be less a set of practices ... and more a shared perspective that sees literary activity as involved in a complex web of cultural relations’ (Koelb and Noakes 1988: 11).


Development of comparative children’s literature


The founding father of comparative children’s literature is Paul Hazard, the leading French comparatist, who with Les Livres, les enfants et les hommes published a study of children’s literature in 1932, a time when children’s literature hardly existed for mainstream academic criticism. He writes about children’s literature’s role in the construction of a cultural or national identity and how it forms the ‘soul’ of a nation. Although his approach is often questionable, Hazard was none the less the first to address relevant comparative issues such as differing concepts of childhood, traditions of children’s literature specific to certain nations, and mentalities. However, his work does deviate in some surprising ways from serious comparative study; it takes little notice of the processes of cultural exchange, translation and adaptation, rather assuming that children’s literature effortlessly crosses all borders. The aspect of his book which has proved most durable is his vision of the universal republic of childhood.

An approach which emphasises the internationalism of children’s literature tends to be characteristic of important monographs published in the 1950s and early 1960s such as Bettina Hurlimann’s major survey of European children’s literature, Europaische Kinderbucher aus drei Jahrhunderten (1959), Luigi Santucci’s study Letteratura Infantile (1958) or Mary Thwaite’s From Primer to Pleasure in Reading (1963). In 1968 Anne Pellowski, founder of the Information Centre on Children’s Cultures, published a ground-breaking work in the form of an extensive annotated bibliography, The World of Children’s Literature. Its aim was to provide ‘the information (or the means to it) which would lead to an accurate picture of the development of children’s literature in every country where it presently exists, even in the most formative stages’ (Pellowski 1968: 1). She intended this work to be the basis for comparative study of the subject.

The 1960s and 1970s saw the beginning of an interest in translations, and with translation questions of adaptation and reception emerge for the first time. The most fruitful extension of the discussion of children’s literature in comparative terms came in the 1980s, particularly with the adoption of systems theory and through links with translation studies (see Tabbert 2002 for a survey of approaches to translation of children’s literature since 1960).

The growing interest in comparative aspects of children’s literature is illustrated by a series of publications since the 1990s, many of them deriving from international conferences on the subject - they include Perrot and Bruno 1993, Ewers et al. 1994, Webb 2000 and Neubauer 2002. A number of established journals have also dedicated special issues to comparative aspects of children’s literature in the last two decades: issue 13, 1 of Poetics Today (1992), Compar(a)ison II and 1995, and New Comparison 20 (1995). The most recent addition was a special double issue in 2003 of META 48, 1-2 on translating children’s literature. Kinderliterarische Komparatistik (O’Sullivan 2000) represents a first attempt to lay the foundations of the discipline, examining the relevance of basic concepts of comparative literature for children’s literature and developing them further to encompass its specifics.

The cultural turn in literary studies has generally led to an interdisciplinary opening in children’s literature which takes account of historical, social and ideological factors and applies psychoanalytical theory, gender-studies approaches and poststructuralist criticism. Postcolonial theoretical approaches especially have flourished in countries such as Australia (see Bradford 2001), the USA and Canada, through a growing awareness of the cultural and territorial rights of their first-nation inhabitants but also through addressing contemporary multiethnicity. In Europe topics such as migration and cultural minorities are receiving increased attention (see Muller 2001).

Despite the progress in the discussion of comparative issues in children’s literature studies, the prevailing concept of children’s literature is still predominantly internationalistic. Foreign texts are often read in translation and discussed as if they had originally been written in those languages. The lack of awareness of the nature of literary translation leads, in academic practice, to interpretations difficult to imagine in the study of general literature. For instance, Charles Frey and John Griffith, in their interpretation of the Geschichte vom Suppenkasper [The Story of Augustus] from Heinrich Hoffmann’s Struwwelpeter, dwell on an aspect to be found only in the English translation. They quote that it was ‘ “a sin To make himself so pale and thin”, says Hoffmann’ (1987: 57, emphasis added). But the mention of sin, which introduces an important religious element, is not present at all in Hoffmann’s original, which contains neither the idea of a transcendental judge nor any reproof: ‘O weh und ach! and wie ist der Kaspar dunn und schwachP [literally: ‘Oh woe, alas! How thin and weak Kaspar is!’]. The interpretation of a text on the basis of the unthinking use of a translation can lead to statements that will not survive a glance at the original.