Part I. Theory and critical approaches
3. Theorising and theories
The conditions of possibility of children’s literature
Drawing on a Foucauldian notion of power as both repressive and productive, I have tried to steer a course between biological essentialism and a cultural determinism, arguing that the child is necessarily both constructed and constructive, and that this hybrid border country is worthy of exploration. Here the tired verities about the child and its literature are seen to be less secure - but more revealing. As Bhabha (1994: 38) puts it, ‘it is the “inter” - the cutting edge of translation and negotiation, the in-between space - that carries the burden of the meaning of culture’. The children’s writer C. Walter Hodges (1975: 57) uses different terms, but invokes the same space: ‘if in every child there is an adult trying to get out, equally in every adult there is a child trying to get back. On the overlapping of those two, there is the common ground.’ One thing is certain, though. Without recognition of this ‘someone else’ who half-owns the words, then, by fiat, children’s literature will be impossible, a generic plaything for adults, satisfying their desires for a point of stability, with the child as indeed but an ‘empty’ category, effectively muted. As Patricia Holland says, ‘the trap of recurring childishness is only escaped by attention to actual children’ (1996: 170).
Where, finally, does this leave us in terms of a definition? Clearly, it cannot rest on an essential child, nor an essential children’s book (as impossible as an essential ‘Orient’ (Said 1978)) - which means that an essential definition is equally impossible. However, it is not enough to declare that children’s literature is just ‘a Boojum’ (Carroll 1967: 96) - a meaningless construction - and leave it at that. So here, finally, is an attempt to depict its nominal essence:
Children’s literature consists of texts that consciously or unconsciously address particular constructions of the child, or metaphorical equivalents in terms of character or situation (for example, animals, puppets, undersized or underprivileged grown-ups), the commonality being that such texts display an awareness of children’s disempowered status (whether containing or controlling it, questioning or overturning it). Adults are as caught up in this discourse as children, engaging dialogically with it (writing/reading it), just as children themselves engage with many ‘adult’ discourses. But it is how these texts are read and used that will determine their success as ‘children’s literature’; how fruitfully they are seen to negotiate this hybrid, or border country.
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