Children’s literature

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


Emer O’Sullivan


Universal children’s literature: semiotic models


Semiotic models of literary history would seem to have little in common with Hazard’s Romantic notion of universal childhood. But here, too, we find universality, with children’s literature itself rather than childhood the object of this discourse which seeks a single explanatory key to unify the diversity of international children’s literature.

In Poetics of Children’s Literature (1986), an influential study which introduced systems theory and the idea of ‘ambivalent’ texts into children’s literature studies, Zohar Shavit devotes a chapter to the model of development of children’s literature. The issue at stake is ‘the universal structural traits and patterns common to all children’s literatures’ (Shavit 1986: xi). She comes to the conclusion - based on a brief analysis of the development of British children’s literature, central elements of which she sees later repeated in its Hebrew counterpart - that children’s literature initially develops after a stratified system of literature for adults is in place, and does so through the framework of the educational system; it then becomes stratified in response to the need to combat popular literature. Shavit takes this to be a pattern which applies to every literature:


I contend that the very same stages of development reappear in all children’s literatures, regardless of when and where they begin to develop. That is to say, the historical patterns in the development of children’s literature are basically the same in any literature, transcending national and even time boundaries. It does not matter whether two national systems began to develop at the same time, or if one developed a hundred or even two hundred years later (as with Hebrew, and later with Arabic and Japanese children’s literatures). They all seem to pass through the very same stages of development without exception. Moreover, the same cultural factors and institutions are involved in their creation.

(Shavit 1986: 133f)


Models like these are problematic from the point of view of comparative literary studies because, above and beyond a useful systematic view of the development of children’s literature in specific (usually Northern European) cultures, they develop a theory of cultural conditions which claim to be universally valid. However, a differentiating look at the conditions of the development of children’s literatures in a variety of cultures will reveal that this patently is not the case. Factors which had and have a decisive influence on the development of children’s literature in some African countries, for instance, such as the effect and legacy of colonialism; or concepts of family, childhood, education and leisure which differ greatly from those in the northern European cradle of children’s literature in the eighteenth century; or the (negative) influence of the global market players on the development of an indigenous publishing industry; or the role of mass media which, in predominantly oral cultures, establish a direct, non-Western relationship between orality and audio-visual media bypassing the written word. None of these factors are accounted for in Shavit’s model which cannot adequately address the question of how children’s literature can develop under conditions diverging significantly from those prevalent in Britain, Germany or France during the late eighteenth century. A genuinely comparative history of children’s literature - as yet to be written - would examine the social, economic, political and cultural conditions which have to prevail for a children’s literature to become established in the first place, would register such formative influences as religion on its development, and would reveal how the unique histories of postcolonial children’s literatures differ from the postulated ‘standard’ model based on northern European countries (cf. O’Sullivan (forthcoming) for a more detailed discussion of children’s literature in African countries which deviate from this model, and O’Sullivan (1996) which shows how even a northern European children’s literature - in Ireland - can differ significantly in its development from Shavit’s norm).

Another recent semiotic model of children’s literature addresses the development of children’s literature not in these terms of external influences and formative factors, but in terms of an evolutionary pattern of development of the literary texts themselves. The focus is aesthetic but this model, too, postulates identical phases of development for children’s literature following similar patterns in all cultures, a universal progression from didacticism towards artistically elaborate children’s literature. The evolutionary perspective of its author, Maria Nikolajeva, is revealed in the title Children’s Literature Comes of Age (1996), and her touchstone of quality is the complex literary work. She believes that ‘children’s literature in all countries and language areas has gone through more or less ... four stages’ of development (Nikolajeva 1996: 95), namely: (1) adaptations of existing adult literature and of folklore; (2) didactic, educational stories written directly for children; (3) canonical children’s literature (in Lotman’s sense of the term (Lotman 1977)), with clear generic forms and gender specific address, whose characteristic feature is the typical epic narrative structure; and finally (4) polyphonic, or multi-voiced, children’s literature, ‘a convergence of genres which brings children’s literature closer to what is generally labelled modern or post-modern literature’ (Nikolajeva 1996: 9). On top of this, Nikolajeva attempts to link each of these stages to a period in the development of ‘mainstream’ literature: didactic children’s literature corresponds to ‘medieval literature of the mainstream’, canonical children’s literature ‘corresponds to Classicism, the Baroque and to some extent Romanticism’. These strange analogies link the apparently universal evolutionary model firmly to a very European model of literary history.

Children’s literature is, without doubt, becoming more aesthetically elaborate - especially in those countries where it has had the longest time to develop. But the singular noun ‘children’s literature’ denotes a simultaneous coexistence of a plurality of textual manifestations and of all the types of literature - literary, didactic, formulaic, retellings and folklore - named by Nikolajeva. To see children’s literature in terms of stages of development to be overcome, of didactic and formulaic texts being cast off to make way for the exclusively elaborate, to claim that ‘the evolution of modern children’s literature leads towards a state in which traditional epic narratives are gradually replaced by new structures which ... I call polyphonic’ (Nikolajeva 1996: 9) is deterministic and ultimately impoverishing. To privilege one of the many forms of children’s literature, the elaborately aesthetic, at the expense of all others, and to imply that they will simply become extinct in the course of evolution is to negate the various functions that this literature will always continue to serve and to ignore its rich and necessary diversity.

One of these universal models fails to recognise the divergent development of children’s literature in different cultures while the other ultimately negates the necessary coexistence of various forms of children’s literature. A differentiating comparative study of the development and manifestations of children’s literature and the functions that these serve will necessarily reject the quest for a single key to fit the multiplicity of locks.