Acts of definition - Definitions, themes, changes, attitudes - Introduction - children’s literature

Children’s literature

1. Introduction

Definitions, themes, changes, attitudes


Margaret Meek


Acts of definition


Encyclopedias are usually designed to assemble and to encompass, for the purposes of recognition and study, as much of what is known about a subject of interest and concern as the conditions of its production and publication allow. Children’s literature is an obvious subject for this purpose. Its nature and social significance are most clearly discerned when activities associated with children and books are brought together. These activities may be as diverse as creating a book list, a publisher’s catalogue, a library, an exhibition, a school’s Book Week, a rare collection, a prize-giving ceremony, as well as the compilation of scholarly works of reference. Children’s literature is embedded in the language of its creation and shares its social history. This volume is its first avowed encyclopedia, and thus a representation of children’s literature at a particular time.

The by-play of an encyclopedia is the view it offers of the world as reflected in its subject-matter. Promoters and editors long for completeness, the last word on the topic, even when they know there is no such rounding off. Instead, there is only an inscribed event, which becomes part of the history of ideas and of language. When this moment passes for works of reference, we say the book has gone ‘out of date’, a description of irrelevance, calling for revision or reconstitution. But later readers continue to find in encyclopedias not simply the otherness of the past, but also the structures of values and feelings, which historians teach us to treat as evidence of the perceptions a culture has, and leaves, of itself.

In this, as in other ways, the present volume differs from many of its predecessors. Earlier compilations of information about children’s books were more heroic, written by individuals with a commitment to the subject, at the risk, in their day, of being considered quaint in their choice of reading matter. It is impossible to imagine the history of children’s literature without the ground-clearing brilliance of F. J. Harvey Darton’s Children’s Books in England (1932/1982). But although Darton’s account has a singleness of purpose and matching scholarship, it is not the whole story. There is more than diligence and systematic arrangement in John Rowe Townsend’s careful revisions of Written for Children (1965/1990), a text kept alert to change; it is still a starting place for many students. Over a period of forty years, Margery Fisher’s contribution to this field included both a series of finely judged comments on books as they appeared, and a unique vision of why it is important to write about children’s books, so that writing them would continue to be regarded as serious business. Better than many a contemporary critic she understood how, and why, ‘we need constantly to revise and restate the standards of this supremely important branch of literature’ (Fisher 1964: 9). The Oxford Companion to Children’s Literature (Carpenter and Prichard 1984), however, shows how acts of definition are upheld by editors and their friends. Collectors, cataloguers, bibliographers and other book persons stand behind all works of summation, including those of the single author-as-editor-and-commentator.

By virtue of its anthologising form, this volume replaces the tour d’horizon of the classical encyclopedia with something more characteristic of the culture of its epoch, a certain deliberate untidiness, an openness. The writers brought together here are currently at work in different parts of the field of children’s literature. Encompassing all their activities, their individual histories and directions, children’s literature appears not as something which requires definition in order to be recognised or to survive, but as a ‘total text’, in what Jerome J. McGann calls ‘a network of symbolic exchanges’ (1991: 3), a diverse complexity of themes, rites and images. There are many voices. Each writer has an interpretative approach to a chosen segment of the grand design, so that the whole book may be unpacked by its searching readers, or dipped into by the curious or the uninitiated. Some of the writings are tentative and explorative; others are confident, even confrontational. As the counterpoint of topics and treatments emerges, we note in what is discussed agreement and difference, distinction and sameness. Thus the encyclopedia becomes not a series of reviews, but a landmark, consonant with and responsive to the time of its appearance.

Children’s literature is not in this book, but outside, in the social world of adults and children and the cultural processes of reading and writing. As part of any act of description, however, a great number of different readers and writers are woven into these pages, and traces of their multiple presences are inscribed there. This introduction is simply a privileged essai, or assay, of the whole.