Children’s literature

2. Internationalism, the universal child and the world of children’s literature

 

Emer O’Sullivan

 

In 2001 a new international award, the Neustadt Prize for Children’s Literature, was announced in an article in World Literature Today Magazine:

 

Today’s children perceive the world from the perspective of photographs taken in outer space. They understand the concepts of lands and waters without national boundaries - boundaries that were never capable of limiting the flow of air or ocean currents or ideas. It is therefore especially appropriate that the highest prizes for children’s literature should be international, representing the universality and diversity of children and their literature and offering young readers books and ideas that flow as freely as ocean currents.

(Latrobe 2001: 101)

 

The notion of children everywhere perceiving the world as a place without borders, with their books freely transcending all linguistic and political boundaries, is not new in academic discourse about children’s literature. Its most eloquent exponent was the French scholar Paul Hazard with his concept of a ‘universal republic of childhood’. The twentieth century increasingly projected a vision of small beings who magically commune with their counterparts in the whole world without any of the concomitant problems of language, culture, religion or race. Among the most visible commercial manifestations of a United Nations of childhood are the ‘United Colours of Benetton’ advertisements which exhibit children of every race and colour coexisting peacefully under the banner of the international clothing manufacturer. This projects and sentimentalises adult desires for universal peace and understanding. Children’s literature is one of the major areas in which the utopia of internationalism has prospered. But children’s literature is also part of a marketplace which is global in its reach and has little or nothing to do with the professed ideals of international children’s literature.

 

Universal childhood: a Romantic model

 

Children’s books keep alive a sense of nationality; but they also keep alive a sense of humanity. They describe their native land lovingly, but they also describe faraway lands where unknown brothers live. They understand the essential quality of their own race; but each of them is a messenger that goes beyond mountains and rivers, beyond the seas, to the very ends of the world in search of new friendships. Every country gives and every country receives - innumerable are the exchanges - and so it comes about that in our first impressionable years the universal republic of childhood is born.

(Hazard 1944: 146)

 

With his influential survey of children’s literature in Europe and America, Les Livres, les enfants et les hommes (1932), Paul Hazard, Professor for Comparative Literature at the College de France, was the first scholar to write at book length about children’s literature from an international perspective. Others before him had focused on children’s literature as an agent of international education, notably the Bureau International d’Education in Geneva which, in the general spirit of reconciliation of the nations after the First World War, organised a major exhibition in 1929, part of which was dedicated to international children’s literature. Hazard, however, managed to create a pervasive image of world childhood, ‘la republique universelle de l’enfance’, which still echoes through the halls of children’s literature.

Hazard was one of the founders of comparative children’s literature, employing a crosscultural perspective of studying texts across languages and cultures, and considering how children’s books form a specific cultural identity. Childhood, for him, is a natural, fixed category, ontologically distinct from and far superior to adulthood; Hazard’s innocent Others are decisively prelapsarian. He links childhood, in the Romantic tradition, to a primitive state and regards the imagination as the child’s strongest drive; hence this appeal by children to adults in one of the most frequently quoted passages:

 

‘Give us books,’ say the children; ‘give us wings. You who are powerful and strong, help us to escape into the faraway. Build us azure palaces in the midst of enchanted gardens. Show us fairies strolling about in the moonlight. We are willing to learn everything that we are taught at school, but, please, let us keep our dreams.’

(Hazard 1944: 4)

 

All this is part of Hazard’s legacy, but most influential of all was his vision of the ‘universal republic of childhood’ which knows no borders and no foreign languages; in it, the children of all nations read the children’s books of all nations: ‘Smilingly the pleasant books of childhood cross all the frontiers; there is no duty to be paid on inspiration’ (Hazard 1944: 147). Children’s books, ambassadors of their countries, transcend borders with ease and forge bonds between all the children of the world: ‘Every country gives and every country receives.’ This is an idealistic way of talking about children’s literature which ignores both the conditions that determine its production and those which influence its transfer between countries.

The Second World War prevented the immediate international reception of Hazard’s book, but the same war was also in part responsible for his dream being enthusiastically embraced. In the preface to the American translation published in 1944, Bertha E. Mahony wrote:

 

Today it seems likely that humanity’s longing for a world commonwealth of nations, which shall move towards the abolishment of periodic wholesale destruction and make the brotherhood of men more possible, will express itself in a second attempt at such an organisation. Paul Hazard reminds us in words which can scarcely be bettered that the world republic of childhood already exists.

(Mahony 1944: vii)

 

Hazard’s dream is gratefully declared reality, the ideal antidote to war, hate and destruction. Children’s literature, and indeed children themselves, become the repository of the means to heal the trauma caused by war.

The cultural importance of this ideology led to a cementing of Hazard’s vision in postwar Europe and America and to the founding of an international children’s literature movement by his successors which will be discussed later. Before that, I would like to turn to other, current, concepts of universality which apply not to children themselves but to the development of children’s literature.