Children’s literature

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

 

Emer O’Sullivan

 

The ideology of internationalism

 

It’s not difficult for ‘international understanding through children’s books’ to become a mere catch-phrase. But the ills of the world will not be cured by the right books being read by children, no matter how often mantras of this type are repeated: ‘Globalisation has brought the children of the world together and this is going to usher in a more peaceful and conflict-free world’ (Singh 1999: 125).

On the pragmatic level, many people motivated by the concept of internationalism made important and lasting contributions towards a practical international understanding through children’s literature, as the case of Jella Lepman shows. This does not deflect from the realisation that the concept of the universal child is a Romantic abstraction which ignores the real conditions of children’s communication across borders. There is no ‘universal republic of childhood’ in which the conditions of childhood are in any way on a par with one another. It comes back to the question of which childhood - or, more precisely, which children - one is talking about: children in developing countries who are excluded from all but the most basic education and are often indentured at an early age, or children in wealthy countries who are afforded a protracted and protected childhood and education. The former might probably never see or read a children’s book; the latter have access to unlimited books and other media which cater for their age groups and leisure habits. We have long since known that we can’t speak about the child as a singular entity - class, ethnic origin, gender, geopolitical location and economic circumstances are all elements which create differences between real children in real places - and, as we also know, children are constructed very differently in different parts of the world.

The vision of the universal child, the same the world over, refuses to acknowledge difficulties and contradictions in relation to childhood, offering in their place a glorification of the child. The child is pure potential, cast in the role of innocent saviour of mankind in a tradition reaching back to Rousseau’s Emile, with its creed that with every child humankind is reborn and receives another chance for positive renewal. This concept, as Nancy Ellen Batty shows in her analysis of the Western media image of the starving Third World child, is used by international children’s relief efforts, with their ambivalent narratives about children in which it is implied that the ‘geopolitical landscape they occupy and the adults who occupy it are other, having crossed into a corrupt or fallen world beyond the projection of our nostalgic desire for the withered possibilities within ourselves’ (Batty 1999: 29).

In her acclaimed study The Case of Peter Pan or The Impossibility of Children’s Fiction, Jacqueline Rose identified how adults use the image of the child to deny difficulties in relation to themselves: ‘The child is rendered innocent of all the contradictions which flaw our interactions with the world’ (Rose 1994: 8-9). Children’s fiction, according to Rose, sets up the child as a pure point of origin in relation to language, sexuality and the state. The innocence of the child and ‘a primary state of language and/or culture’ (1994: 9) are placed in a close and mutually dependent relation. It is in this sense that the international mystification (alongside Rose’s ‘sexual and political mystification’) of the child must be seen. In it the child is related not to a specific language or a specific culture but to a preBabylonian state as a speaker of the original language, thus negating the divisions and strife which came about after the Linguistic Fall. Children’s literature thus serves as a site on which adult difficulties are addressed and often placated; it is about promises which the adults’ generations could not keep, among them international understanding and world peace.

It is important for young readers to experience a range of different cultural understandings, otherwise their perception of their own remains narrow and impoverished. As former Bookbird editor Jeffrey Garrett writes: ‘The preconditions for international, transcultural, and transethnic understanding include prominently an appreciation for the validity of the cultures of others. And books are a very compact and highly mobile source for engendering precisely this kind of appreciation’ (Garrett 1996: 4). And there is no doubt that this is best achieved by exposure to international literature. But how international is (international) children’s literature?