Criticism and the critical mainstream - Theory and critical approaches - children’s literature

Children’s literature

Part I. Theory and critical approaches


4. Criticism and the critical mainstream


Deborah Cogan Thacker


In a radio broadcast in 1929, Walter Benjamin expressed anxiety about the state of children’s literature and made a distinction between children’s ‘literature’ and children’s ‘books’. Claiming that the latter was marked by ‘sterile mediocrity’, Benjamin entered into a debate that continues today, not merely in relation to the market forces that control the availability of children’s fiction, nor in terms of educational policy, but in terms of the discourses of scholarship that surround the subject.

Despite the growing popularity of children’s books which ‘cross over’ in the twenty- first century, it is still a rare occasion when a cultural critic will deign to discuss actual children’s books, and Benjamin’s remarks reflect the concerns of those regarding children’s literature ‘from the back of the tapestry’. By that, I mean those who express a concern for children’s literature by virtue of, perhaps, the fact that they were once children and imbue their childhood reading with value. These individuals are not children’s literature scholars and rarely engage in discussions of actual books for children, but whether they are literary critics or cultural theorists, their observations can often be significant to the specialist. Walter Benjamin’s brief broadcast, frequently quoted in books and articles about children’s literature, may be viewing it ‘from the outside’, yet he recognises a truth about children’s literature which continues to echo today.


Their [children’s] reading is much more closely related to their growth and their sense of power than to their education and their knowledge of the world. That is why their reading is as great as any genius that is to be found in the books they read.

(1999: 251)


The celebratory tone of Benjamin’s claim and his focus on power suggests a significance for children’s literature, and for the relationship between children and fiction, that goes far beyond that commonly described by children’s literature specialists.

This chapter will focus on the relationship of children’s literature scholarship in the wider contexts of literary history and literary theory, first in terms of the influence of other disciplines on children’s literature, and second in terms of the gaps or silences in mainstream literary critical activity where the perspectives offered by children’s literature scholarship would be beneficial.

Developments in children’s literature criticism over the past twenty years have focused to a large extent on the appropriation of a wide range of theoretical discourses. Although the scholarship that surrounds children’s texts remains firmly embedded in the area of education and librarianship, the adoption of wider perspectives has brought the subject into the field of the study of literature at undergraduate and postgraduate levels. Although many in the academic mainstream of literary studies might see this as a negative step, equating an interest in children’s literature to the ‘dumbing-down’ sometimes associated with the inclusion of popular literature in general, there is a sense in which the power and relevance of children’s literature is beginning to be recognised (although it must be admitted that the subject does remain marginalised to a large extent).

The growth of childhood studies programmes, which include children’s literature, suggests that the richness and variety of the subject has been fertilised by the incorporation of theoretical perspectives from psychoanalytical criticism to narratology. The importance of cultural theory to Masters programmes in children’s literature indicates that the future of the subject (for the Masters students of today might be the lecturers and critics of tomorrow) rests in an understanding of the multiple discourses - of education, family, book supply, media influence - which surround children’s books.

While many of these developments have problematised the ways in which children’s literature can be defined, and have created a tension between those who read these texts ‘on behalf of’ actual children and those who examine them as cultural artefacts, the growth in books, articles and curricula which focus on the application of theory has invigorated the subject and taken it beyond the boundaries of its primary audience.

Influential texts, such as Peter Hunt’s Criticism, Theory and Children’s Literature (1991) and John Stephens’s Language and Ideology in Children’s Literature (1992), in addition to the work of Hugh Crago, Perry Nodelman, Rod McGillis, Hans-Heino Ewers, Jack Zipes and Aidan Chambers, among others, marked a departure from the (in some ways) cosier world of the bibliographer and book historian. Whether it is possible to draw any conclusions from the fact that many of the prominent players in this shift of emphasis are male, embracing what was an almost exclusively female preserve, contemporary children’s literature scholarship is well represented by both genders. Although the children’s literature specialist within a department of literature was more likely to be female a decade ago, even this is changing.

The shift in focus towards explorations of children’s books through a range of eclectic perspectives from postcolonial theory to psychoanalysis may be due, to some extent, to the proliferation of theory in literature teaching. For many scholars, the recognition that theory is applicable to children’s books is not only a surprise, but also represents new opportunities to venture into largely uncharted territory. Rather than rely on the already read, digested and criticised texts, the excitement generated by the possibilities of innovation and discovery in the study of children’s literature promises a more radical application of critical theory. Susan R. Gannon rightly emphasised the fact that, increasingly, ‘literary critics are borrowing insights from psychology, social science, cultural studies, media analysis, semiotics, philosophy, [and] art history ... and the same can be said of children’s literature “practitioners” ’ (2000: 27).

But what do the specialist insights of children’s literature contribute to the subjects from which it draws? The answer is - not very much. Gannon suggests that ‘interdisciplinary collaboration is a two-way street: specialists in children’s literature have much to contribute to art and cultural history as well as a good deal to learn from it’ (2000: 29); she might perhaps have said ‘should be a two-way street’, for much of the traffic is one way.

While those working in the subject, whether children’s literature or childhood studies, adopt and adapt the theoretical perspectives that emanate from the contemporary academy, the contemporary theorist, from whatever school of thought, rarely acknowledges the validity or significance of texts written and published for children, or of theories about them. More crucially, in terms of the demands of cultural theory, children-asreaders are largely invisible. This often means that the sense of reading as part of a continuous process that begins in childhood is largely absent in an understanding or definition of ‘literature’ in its social and cultural contexts. Although many theorists acknowledge that education has a function in an ‘adult’ approach to literature, the implication that there is complexity in the relationship between children and books, or a need for further exploration, is hardly noticeable. Walter Benjamin’s own view, based on reminiscence and nostalgic contemplation of childhood, is often reflected in the lip service paid by contemporary critics, such as Francis Spufford (2002). While it is significant that ‘childhood’ is thus read as a text, such a distanced view belittles the way in which the play of power in childhood reading experiences influences literary engagement within a continuum.

The same absence can be said to exist within considerations of literary history. If constructing a literary history is concerned with identifying the shifts in the ways in which literature articulates the relationship between the individual and society, then children’s literature has a place in that sense of history. Yet literary history, particularly that focused on twentieth-century and contemporary history, on modernism and modernity, excludes or marginalises such texts, ignoring the fact that children’s literature participates in and responds to both literary and social change.

There are, of course, exceptions. There are a few children’s texts that are considered to be of sufficient complexity and ambiguity to cross the boundary and provide fodder for the mainstream theorist or critic. These are frequently texts which are more likely to be problematic as children’s literature, precisely because they are thought to have ‘literary’ qualities and so might be judged to be ‘too good’ for children, despite the fact that numerous studies have demonstrated the sophistication of children’s engagement. Fantasies such as Alice in Wonderland or The Wind in the Willows achieve classic status and a place on literature courses because they might, as in the case of Alice, offer perspectives on Victorian values or illuminate the philosophical premises of nonsense and logic. In the case of The Wind in the Willows, it is possible to suggest that its constructions of ‘Englishness’ or ‘masculinity’ can contribute to an understanding of literature at the turn of the twentieth century.

However, it is the status of these texts as books written for children (ostensibly specific children in both of these cases) and the fact that both texts circulate in the children’s publishing marketplace that dictate that their potential contributions are left out of mainstream discussions. Consideration of the fact that such texts offer perspectives on the continuity of reading and the construction of readers within a continuum is left to the education departments or the children’s literature specialists. While in some sense this division appears to be unavoidable, it is precisely perspectives that acknowledge continuity and the influence of texts deliberately aimed at children as readers that are needed as critical theory focuses on the relationship between language and power and, thus, the socio-cultural mediation on the reading of literary narrative.

At times, commentators have laid the blame for these silences at the door of the children’s literature specialists. Numerous ‘calls of action’ have been made in the past, rallying those working in children’s literature to broaden their view and include themselves in mainstream literary activity: to ‘speak across the gap; to engage in ... dialogues’ (Thacker 2000: 13). Jack Zipes, for instance, urges children’s literature critics to ‘stop talking about how children’s literature crosses boundaries and should be treated similarly to adult literature’ and that they need to be ‘crossing, if not violating boundaries and forming links with critics in other disciplines’ (2001: 37). Jerry Griswold also refers to Zipes’s argument in suggesting that it is the responsibility of the children’s literature specialist to make the difference.


Sometimes, essays on Children’s Literature give the impression of having been written in a closed system. It needn’t be that way. When someone writes, for example, about colonialism in Burnett’s The Secret Garden ... references might be made to Shakespeare’s The Tempest or Aphra Behn’s Orinooko.

(Griswold 2002: 238-9)


There is an obvious element of truth in the suggestion that children’s literature specialists are often concerned only with children’s texts and, though they embrace the terminology of theory and the methodology of mainstream research to critique these texts, they retain a separation that perpetuates the false sense that there is little in the nature of a ‘shared’ project. There are, however, studies which have attempted to draw children’s literature out of its ‘ghetto’ and thereby suggest its relevance to discussions of culture and the power of the literary.

The bridging of gaps is, perhaps, most evident in literary history, and there are many scholars who have been able to ‘cross over’ because their expertise has relevance to an understanding of literary movements.


It may be that mainstream literary historians assume that books written for children are independent of the forces that influence literary change. Alternatively, the texts themselves, focused as they are on educational values, may appear merely to be exercises in social control. Children’s literature specialists have demonstrated repeatedly that the exclusion of such texts belies the complexity of their engagement with literary questions, whether thematic or formal.

(Thacker and Webb 2002: 2)


Two such critics are Mitzi Myers and Claudia Nelson, each developing an oeuvre that, while predominantly concerned with children’s literature, contributes, in the former case, to an understanding of Romanticism and, in the latter case, to nineteenth-century studies. They have been helped by a change in the nature of literary history over the last thirty years. The influence of women’s studies, particularly with regard to the recuperation of texts written by women, has transformed the ways in which literary histories are now written, and children’s literature scholars in general have benefited from and been enriched by the emphasis on aspects of literary history concerned with gender, and thus with the importance of the embedding of cultural ‘norms’ through education and nurture. Contributions by Myers and Nelson, among others, in mainstream collections of essays suggest the importance of children’s literature and childhood to an understanding of both literary movements. This is hardly surprising. The changing perception of the figure of the child, so well rehearsed in a wide range of critical texts on children’s literature, was key to the development of Romanticism. So, too, the cultural shifts that brought about the ‘fetishising’ of the child in Victorian England cannot be understood without an investigation of the ways in which children were represented in fiction. As mentioned above, Lewis Carroll’s Alice books are the most significant texts to cross the boundaries of critical study, finding significance for a large number of critical, philosophical, historical and psychoanalytic discourses. In fact, these books have been appropriated in so many different ways that it is possible to deny that they are children’s books at all. This may be one of the reasons why they are acceptable in the literary mainstream. The fact that, before the nineteenth century, many texts were read by a shared audience of adults and children also contributes to the possibility of including children’s literature in wider investigations of literary history.

The absence of children’s literature in studies of twentieth-century literature is more obvious and also, perhaps, more surprising. While children’s literature specialists have begun to acknowledge the significance of modernism and modernity to the texts produced for children, mainstream literary studies of modernism remain ignorant of texts for children. Some critics might argue that there is no such thing as modernist children’s literature; one of these is Jacqueline Rose, who refers to ‘the relative exclusion of modern experimentation in children’s books’ (1984: 142). It is important, however, to acknowledge that the extent to which the aesthetic of modernism embraces notions of the changing relationship between the individual and society, the lack of certainty and the need to challenge ‘old ways of saying’ might contribute to children’s books written since the beginning of the twentieth century. It is also possible to suggest that one of the criteria for producing ‘enduring’ children’s literature anticipates the fascination with transformative language and the challenge to power structures frequently associated with modernist experiment (Thacker and Webb 2002).

While there are many useful discussions of the cultural and historical contexts of twentieth-century children’s books, these largely rely on a separation of the concerns of the specialist reader and the literary historian, whereas the interconnectedness of the texts discussed and readings of mainstream literature of the period would enrich both an understanding of children’s texts and the cultural dynamics of modernism.

Juliet Dusinberre’s highly individual discussion in Alice to the Lighthouse: Children’s Books and Radical Experiments in Art (1987) provides a useful perspective on the symbiotic relationship between children’s books and adult writing. Her argument is


not that children’s books created books about children, but that cultural change was both reflected and pioneered in the books which children read. Radical experiments in the arts in the early modern period began in the books which Lewis Carroll and his successors wrote for children.

(1987: 5)


Yet Dusinberre’s separation of the two literatures reinforces the idea that children’s literature is merely a genre with its own independent traditions and developments. While it is useful to draw parallels between Virginia Woolf’s desire to challenge the ‘already said’ and her experience of reading Victorian fantasies (such as Alice) as a child, Dusinberre only begins to suggest the ways in which modernist poetics can exist in books for children, as well.

The notion that children may have a different relationship to language than adults, a relationship that suggests a revolutionary alternative to ‘conventional’ uses of language, is familiar in the work of key modernist writers such as Gertrude Stein. Her fascination with, for instance, Mark Twain’s ability to reflect the naivety of childhood in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, contributed to her own experimentation in her search for a way to ‘make it new’. Her own book for children, The World is Round (1939), reflects an interest in childlike usage of language and point of view that contributed to both her adult fiction and, in subtler ways, to children’s literature of the period. James Joyce in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man demonstrates an awareness of children’s relationship to language through story in ways that suggest a new way of understanding modernist writing in its search for a more direct relationship between the self and the social world.

Narrative fracture, disruptions of time and other features which communicate anxiety about the future and an inability to offer children, as readers, unproblematised ‘possible worlds’ mark much of the enduring children’s literature since the middle of the twentieth century. In Children’s Literature of the 1890s and 1990s (1994), Kimberley Reynolds recognises the relevance of these texts to a reading of mainstream literature of the time, but texts such as Philippa Pearce’s Tom’s Midnight Garden, E. B. White’s Charlotte’s Web or Mary Norton’s The Borrowers are not mentioned in ‘mainstream’ discussions of the literature and culture of the 1950s, nor do critical surveys of modernism refer to children’s literature at all (see, for example, Childs 2000).

This separation of audience is even more surprising in the criticism of contemporary fiction. Modes of thought that pertain to notions of the postmodern and postcolonialism clearly influence texts which are written for both adults and children. If the division between children’s literature and mainstream culture is due to the assumption that children’s literature is automatically ‘popular’ and not ‘literary’, a fact that many would dispute, then the advent of the ‘post-’ phenomena suggests a collapse of that division. By exploding the literary canons of the past, contemporary literature and readings of it should embrace the wealth of children’s texts that challenge the real and reveal the ludic qualities celebrated by postmodern artists and writers. So, too, the recognition of children as ‘colonised others’ in relationship to language and culture encourages parallels to be drawn with postcolonial criticism. Rod McGillis points out, however, that ‘it is not the postcolonial critic who engages with the texts written for children, but the children’s literature specialist’ (1997: 8).

Explaining the significance of the publication of a special ‘Children’s Literature’ edition of the journal ARIEL A Review of International English Literature in 1997, McGillis defines the problem and the implications for mainstream literary study: ‘Simply to acknowledge children and their literature in a journal such as ARIEL is a postcolonial act; it is a gesture toward reconceiving the canon and toward redefining what academic and professional criticism does and says’ (McGillis 1997: 9).

While the act of including children’s texts in any discussion of the relationship between power and language has political significance, this was ARIEL’s only excursion into children’s literature and, while similar projects, such as the special ‘Children’s Literature’ issue of Mosaic (34, 2 (2001)) are useful, they continue to marginalise both the texts and the criticism discussed. While many of the contributors in these special issues are children’s literature specialists, there are rare occasions that demonstrate the promise of an approach which is inclusive and interdisciplinary. Philip Nel’s article in the special edition of Mosaic ‘ “Said a Bird in the Midst of a Blitz ...”: How World War II Created Dr Seuss’ (2001) is derived from a larger study which provides an analysis of surrealism in American literature. In The Avant-garde and American Postmodernity: Small Incisive Shocks (2002), Nel provides the opportunity to consider children’s literature in the context of ‘mainstream’ literary history. By including the work of Dr Seuss and Chris Van Allsburg in his attempt to connect modernism and postmodernism, Nel is able to demonstrate the relevance of experimentation and challenge in children’s books. Not only that, but the work of children’s authors provides otherwise unavailable insights into the ideological power of the avant-garde, complementing discussions of such authors as Nathaniel West, Donald Barthelme and Don de Lillo.

For instance, Nel regards Dr Seuss’s The Lorax as a ‘successful critique of capital’ (2002: 68) in his argument for an ‘oppositional postmodern’ - uncovering the ‘radical politics of the avant-garde, suppressed in definitions of high modernism, to which postmodernists return in order to counteract the effects of affirmative culture’ (2002: 69). By acknowledging the power that children’s authors have to challenge and undermine the affirmative structures of culture, Nel is able to contribute to a re-evaluation of postmodernism which rescues it from the oppressiveness of high culture. Children’s literature specialists, particularly those working with contemporary children’s fiction and picture books, such as David Lewis (2001), know this well. Although Nel cannot go as far as attributing similar value to children’s literature as a fully effective social critique, he admits ‘it is a start ... Dr Seuss helps children to subvert dominant modes of socialization’ (2002: 72). While Nel begins to explore this tension between the socialising and subversive functions of children’s literature, he could go further to explore the fact that it is precisely this assumption, that children’s literature has a predominantly educative function, that gives it the potential to present a challenge to those forces that encourage conformity and seek to control.

Similarly, the idea that parody is a form of resistance to the symbolic order of language could be strongly supported and illustrated in children’s literature, an essentially or potentially subversive form. Julia Kristeva, although she does not go so far as to acknowledge their presence in children’s books, warns that such radical expressions of resistance can be subsumed by the forces of bourgeois ideology, which allows them as a ‘safety valve for repressed impulses it denies in society’ (Selden and Widdowson 1993: 142).

For example, in The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales (1993) and Squids Will Be Squids, (1998), Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith offer examples of parodic texts which upend the assumed purpose of stories for children, whether fairy tales or fables, in order to liberate their readers from the instructional and moralistic power of such traditional tales. By making children’s stories their subject, the authors not only create a subversive humour through a stylistic parody, but they also invite readers to consider the extent to which such stories can acquire the power to subdue individuality and freedom of thought (see Thacker and Webb 2002: 157-63).


YOU have just finished reading fables about all kinds of bossy, sneaky, funny, annoying, dim-bulb people ... I mean animals. ‘What fun,’ you are thinking. ‘I should write some of those myself,’ you are thinking. BUT before you get started, it just occurred to me that you might want to know one more little bit about Aesop. AESOP used to tell this one fable about a real bossy jerk ‘Lion’ who ruled a city. When the real bossy jerk guy who ruled Aesop’s city heard this fable, he didn’t like it.

So he had Aesop thrown off a cliff.

(Moral: If you are planning to write fables, don’t forget to change the people to animals and avoid places with high cliffs.)

(Scieszka and Smith 1998: np)


The humour that arises from texts such as this depends on the realisation that the premise of writing for children is predicated on an exercise of power. By revealing and then overturning these power structures, authors and illustrators of children’s books continually provide evidence that the relationship between children and the books they read is complex and embedded in a web of discourses which surround both the texts and their readers. While it is more common to attribute this type of challenge to contemporary children’s writers, a similar process can be seen to take place in the writing of some Victorian fantasy writers, such as Lewis Carroll, Charles Kingsley and George MacDonald. The use of the familiar authorial address and the inclusion of a social critique in, for instance, Alice’s Adventures Underground, The Water Babies or At the Back of the North Wind, offer opportunities to engage with the text in ways which subvert dominant values and undermine the power of literature as a force of control by calling attention to it.

While texts such as those by Scieszka and Smith encourage openness and a subversion of adult value systems, such impulses are ‘controlled and contained by those forces which relegate children’s literature to the margins of culture’ (Thacker 1996: 69). The absence of children’s texts in theoretical explorations, and thus our understanding of the ways in which literary engagement is controlled by cultural discourses, may be seen as both an impoverishment of critical and cultural theory in general and a direct contribution to the impoverishment of children’s reading. Far from being a two-way street, traffic is not moving at all!

Similarly, by uncovering the ideological function of postmodernity and awakening readers to the constructedness of reality, contemporary theorists need to understand the ways in which these challenges operate in children’s books. As both readers and writers are introduced to the play of power through the texts and reading experiences encountered from childhood, it seems a ridiculous omission to ignore those texts from which expectations of narrative derive.

Postmodern experiment and poststructuralist theory, by uncovering structures and challenging boundaries, have created a range of discourses which suggest that it is necessary to consider children’s literature as a relevant subject for the mainstream literary theorist. Yet while this is recognised by the children’s literature specialist, there is little evidence to suggest that progress has been made since Aidan Chambers first called attention to this gap in 1985:


I have often wondered why literary theorists haven’t yet realised that the best demonstration of almost all they say when they talk about phenomenology or structuralism or deconstruction or any other critical approach can be most clearly and easily demonstrated in children’s literature. The converse of which is to wonder why those of us who attend to children’s literature are, or have been, so slow in drawing the two together ourselves.

(1985: 133)


Whether discussing the ideological function of literary texts, the origins of narrative desire or the importance of previous reading experiences to an understanding of the ways in which literature functions, theorists have not yet explored the ways in which ideology, desire and intertextuality are inscribed in early reading experiences. Although children’s literature specialists continually engage with such perspectives, the academic mainstream from which such ideas originate may admit to a vague awareness of ‘pretext’, but are either unwilling or unable to engage with children’s books in any significant way.

An exception to this rule could be Jacqueline Rose. Although she has since set children’s literature behind her, her book The Case of Peter Pan or The Impossibility of Children’s Fiction (1984 (revised 1992)) promised to change the way in which children’s literature would be regarded in the mainstream. However, although its influence continues to be felt in children’s literature scholarship, Rose’s challenge has not yet been considered by the literary theorist and there seems to be no one ready to take her on. By breaking down the premise of much traditional children’s literature criticism, Rose focuses on the socialising function of children’s books and the adult discourses which surround it. While her mission may have seemed destructive and dismissive of the scholarship which she criticises, she suggests a way of looking at children’s literature which invites its inclusion in wider discussions of literature.


The history of children’s fiction should be written, not in terms of its themes or the content of its stories, but in terms of the relationship to language which different children’s writers establish for the child. How ... do these early works present their world to the child reader; what are the conditions of participation and entry which they lay down?

(1984: 78)


This revision of the project of children’s literature criticism implied by Rose suggests that an understanding of the ways in which language is introduced through early experiences of reading; as a ‘laying down’ of expectations of fiction, is essential to an understanding of the relationship between readers and literary language. What is more, Rose claims that children’s literature is ‘one of the central means through which we regulate our relationship to language’ (1984: 139). If literary theory attempts to explore the means by which any reader is admitted into a power relation to language through literature, then childhood experience of story, fiction and books must be seen as an essential element.

If mainstream theory is to include children’s literature, theorists must be able to acknowledge that the value of the books themselves must be judged, not in terms of their content or relevance to children’s lives, but in terms of the degree to which they offer readers authoritative positions. According to Wolfgang Iser in The Act of Reading (1973), it is ‘[t]he development toward a theoretical mapping of literature that focuses on the function of language’ to encourage ‘the recreative dialectics in the reader’ (cited in Thacker 1996: 30). It is only when children’s experience of literature is considered that this mapping can occur, for the possibilities of any text are met with the reading experiences that have preceded it.

While Terry Eagleton does not acknowledge the role of childhood reading as a valid ‘previous reading experience’, his claim for the importance of such experience suggests that it is precisely those texts encountered in childhood which trigger the recognition of intertextuality.


All literary texts are woven out of other literary texts, not in the conventional sense that they bear traces of ‘influence’ but in the more radical sense that every work, phrase or segment is a reworking of other writing which preceded or surrounded the individual work ... all literature is intertextual.

(1983: 38)


The implication that readers can be offered authoritative positions in the texts they read is dependent on intertextuality. Whereas it is not possible to claim that children-as- readers are able to recognise patterns in the sophisticated way familiar to students of literature, the degree to which literary texts allow readers access to meaning in different ways is significant to any theory which aims to address the continuity of the reading experience. Although the text may be aimed at children and the reader may be unsophisticated, the act of ‘interpretation’ is embedded in the reader, to be carried to subsequent reading experiences. Jonathan Culler suggests that


Interpretation is not a matter of recovering some meaning which lies behind the work and serves as a centre governing its structure; it is rather an attempt to participate in and observe the play of possible meaning to which the text gives access.

(1975: 247)


For those familiar with children’s literature, it is clear that neither the age nor the sophistication of the reader will exclude them from an act of interpretation in these terms. The freedom to respond to possible meanings and the opportunity to engage with literary language in a variety of ways describes what young readers do in encounters with texts and also describes the invitations which children’s authors frequently offer to their readers.

An admission that the meaning of a text can shift and change demands a critical practice which takes account of the fact that it is not merely the meaning embedded in a work that drives the ideological force of the text. The reader, too, brings a process of making meaning to each text read, suggesting that the construction of readers over time determines the interpretative act of reading. However, as Rose suggests, it is not only the invitations within the texts themselves, but the ways in which these texts are culturally situated that have a bearing on the relationship to language offered by any particular reading experience. While the psychoanalytic critic is able to explore the transition between the chaotic and uncontrolled relationship to language in the semiotic and the law- based functionality of language in the symbolic, it is the contiguity of this process and early encounters with children’s books that is often ignored. The proximity of the beginning of experience with story to the entry into the symbolic order of language suggests that there is much to be discovered about the extent to which these early encounters embed a relationship to literary language that persists into adulthood. The opportunities to take up the invitations for individual interpretation may only be available to those enabled by their previous encounters with fiction, whether it is through oral story-telling or early reading experiences.

If this process is operating through the continuous process of intertextuality and the interpretation, in Culler’s sense of participation in the making of meaning, then the inclusion of children’s texts and children’s encounters with texts becomes crucial. For a full understanding of the ways in which readers become readers and why they become the kind of readers they do, the interaction between reader and text must be seen ‘as occurring between the culturally activated text and the culturally activated reader’ (Bennett 1992: 216). For Bennett, reading interactions can only be understood as ‘structured by the material, social, ideological and institutional relationships in which both text and readers are inescapably inscribed’ (1992: 216).

Surely, the search for this understanding must include a consideration of the processes and mediations through which children encounter books. What is to be discovered has implications which are political in terms of the function of literature to control or liberate. Manfred Naumann, an East German critic, offers a Marxist perspective which indicated the importance of children’s early experience of books in these terms:


Acquaintance with literature begins at such an early stage of personal development - with listening to poetically coloured narratives, tales, rhymes, etc. - that the capacities thus acquired for understanding poetical works appear, as it were, a ‘natural’ characteristic of man. It is a question, however, of sociocultural capacities which the reader has acquired in the course of his life. In so doing, the social capacities, the rules of commerce with literature, are subjectively ‘broken’ in the individual’s appropriation, corresponding to his concrete sociohistorical and individual situation.

(1976: 121)


Not only do these sociohistorical factors influence the ‘expectations, demands and attitudes’ with which the reader approaches each individual reading event, but also the extent to which individual readers are able to respond will, in turn, influence literary production, through author and publisher perception of audience response.

Whether it is the extent to which educational discourses disrupt the open response to texts or the choice of stock in a children’s book department which excludes the unusual or marginal, the social forces that admit children into ‘literature’ determine the extent to which invitations of the texts themselves can be taken up. While a perspective that acknowledges process may threaten the primacy of the text on which the literary mainstream depends, theoretical perspectives that recognise the influence of mediations which surround the experience of reading literature demand the inclusion of children’s literature. A theoretical mapping that includes children’s literature can also be seen to rely on a postmodern consideration of literature; an attempt to erase the distinction between the ‘popular’ and the ‘literary’ clearly subverts the value of literary criticism as an elitist concern and attributes more power to the reader (see Hunt 1991).

Whereas an exploration of the origins of literary response may enable us to trace the forces that influence the way we become readers and the effect of social forces which determine what kind of readers we become, mainstream theory continues to ignore books for children and the children-as-readers. It may be that the frequency with which children’s books are now marketed for adults as well may transform the theoretical map in the future, but for now the significance of theory goes only one way.

The lack of recognition of the relevance of children’s literature to an understanding of the way that we, as adults, make sense of literary language, has an impact on the nature of not only the subject but the function of children’s literature in the real world. Anxieties about reading and about the power and powerlessness of contemporary children can be addressed by a more inclusive understanding of the way in which language and power are allowed to operate in the texts we encounter as we grow. Rather than regarding books that children read as ‘less than’ or ‘prior’ texts, they should be regarded as those texts from which Rose’s configuration of ‘participation and entry’ into language arise.

If children’s literature is given the importance it deserves, the abstract philosophising of theory is transformed into a functional tool - becoming practical and radical, not only in terms of the way we understand the world, but in terms of what we do in it.



Benjamin, W. (1999) ‘Children’s Literature’, in Selected Writings, Volume 2 1927-1934, Cambridge, MA: Belknap Harvard, 250-6.

Bennett, T. (1992) ‘Texts, Readers, Reading Formations’ in Rice, P. and Waugh, P. (eds) Modern Literary Theory: A Reader, London: Edward Arnold.

Chambers, A. (1985) Booktalk: Occasional Writing on Literature and Children, London: Bodley Head.

Childs, P. (2000) Modernism, London: Routledge.

Culler, J. (1975) Structuralist Poetics, London: Routledge.

Dusinberre, J. (1987) Alice to the Lighthouse: Children’s Books and Radical Experiments in Art, London: Macmillan.

Eagleton, T. (1983) Literary Theory: An Introduction, Oxford: Blackwell.

Gannon, S. (2000) ‘Children’s Literature in a New Century’, Signal 91: 25-39.

Griswold, J. (2002) ‘The Future of the Profession’, The Lion and the Unicorn 26, 1: 236-42.

Hunt, P. (1991) Criticism, Theory and Children’s Literature, Oxford: Blackwell.

Lewis, D. (2001) Reading Contemporary Picturebooks: Picturing Text. London: RoutledgeFalmer.

McGillis, R. (1997) ‘Postcolonialism, Children and Their Literature’, ARIEL A Review of International English Literature 28: 8-15.

Naumann, M. (1976) ‘Literary Production and Reception’, New Literary History 8, 1: 107-26.

Nel, P. (2001) ‘“Said a Bird in the Midst of a Blitz ...”: How World War II Created Dr Seuss’, Mosaic: A Journal for the Interdisciplinary Study of Literature 34, 2: 65-86.

- (2002) The Avant-garde and American Postmodernity: Small Incisive Shocks, Mississippi:

University of Mississippi Press.

Reynolds, K. (1994) Children’s Literature of the 1890s and the 1990s, Plymouth: Northcote House.

Rose, J. (1984/1992) The Case of Peter Pan or The Impossibility of Children’s Fiction, London: Macmillan.

Scieszka, J. and Smith, L. (1998) Squids Will Be Squids, New York: Viking.

Selden, R. and Widdowson, P. (1993) A Reader’s Guide to Contemporary Literary Theory, Hemel Hempstead: Harvester Wheatsheaf.

Spufford, F. (2002) The Child That Books Built: A Life in Reading, London: Faber and Faber.

Stephens, J. (1992) Language and Ideology in Children’s Fiction, London: Longman.

Thacker, D. (1996) ‘An Examination of Children’s Inter-action with Fiction, Leading to the Development of Methodologies to Elicit and Communicate Their Responses’, unpublished PhD thesis, University of Coventry.

- (2000) ‘Disdain or Ignorance? Literary Theory and the Absence of Children’s Literature’, The Lion and the Unicorn 24, 1: 1-17.

Thacker, D. and Webb, J. (2002) Introducing Children’s Literature from Romanticism to Postmodernism, London: Routledge.

Zipes, J. (2001) Sticks and Stones, London: Routledge.