Common themes and blurred genres - Definitions, themes, changes, attitudes - Introduction - children’s literature

Children’s literature

1. Introduction

Definitions, themes, changes, attitudes


Margaret Meek


Common themes and blurred genres


Our constant, universal habit, scarcely changed over time, is to tell children stories. Children’s earliest encounters with stories are in adults’ saying and singing; when infants talk to themselves before falling asleep, the repetitions we hear show how they link people and events. As they learn their mother tongue they discover how their culture endows experience with meaning. Common ways of saying things, proverbs, fables and other kinds of lore, put ancient words into their mouths. Stories read to them become part of their own memories. Book characters emerge in the stories of their early dramatic play as they anticipate the possibilities of their futures.

The complexity of children’s narrative understandings and the relation of story-telling to the books of their literature become clear from the records many conscientious adults have kept of how individual children grew up with books (Paley 1981; Crago and Crago 1983; Wolf and Brice Heath 1992). One of the most striking of these is Carol Fox’s account of the effect of literature on young children’s own story-telling, before they learn to read for themselves. In her book At the Very Edge of the Forest, she shows how, by being read to, children learn to ‘talk like a book’. This evidence outstrips the rest by showing how pre-school children borrow characters, incidents and turns of phrase from familiar tales and from their favourite authors in order to insert themselves into the continuous storying of everyday events. Children also expect the stories they hear to cast light on what they are unsure about: the dark, the unexpected, the repetitious and the ways adults behave. Quickly learned, their grasp of narrative conventions is extensive before they have school lessons. For children, stories are metaphors, especially in the realm of feelings, for which they have, as yet, no single words. A popular tale like Burglar Bill (1977) by Janet and Allan Ahlberg, invites young listeners to engage with both the events and their implications about good and bad behaviour in ways almost impossible in any discourse other than that of narrative fiction.

Narrative, sometimes foregrounded, always implied, is the most common theme in this Encyclopedia. Most writers engage with children’s literature as stories, which gives weight to Barbara Hardy’s conviction, sometimes contested but more often approved, that for self-conscious humans, narrative is ‘a primary act of mind transferred to art from life’ Hardy 1968/1977: 12. The same claim is made in various ways by Eco 1983, Le Guin 1981, Lurie 1990, Smith 1990, Bruner 1986, Barthes 1974 and others. Stories are what adults and children most effectively share. Although myths, legends, folk and fairy tales tend to be associated particularly with childhood, throughout history they have been embedded in adult literature, including recent retellings as different as those of Angela Carter (1990) and Salman Rushdie (1990).

It is not surprising, therefore, that modern studies of narratology, their accompanying formalist theories and the psychological, linguistic, structural and rhetorical analyses developed from adult literary fictions are now invoked to describe the creative and critical practices in children’s literature. Ursula Le Guin, whose renown as a writer of science fiction is further enhanced by her imaginative world-making for the young, acknowledges the continuity of story-telling in all our lives, and the vital part it plays in intellectual and affective growth.


Narrative is a central function of language. Not, in its origin, an artefact of culture, an art, but a fundamental operation of the normal mind functioning in society. To learn to speak is to learn to tell a story.

(Le Guin 1989: 39)


Narrative is not a genre. It is a range of linguistic ways of annotating time, related to memory and recollections of the past, as to anticipations of the future, including hypotheses, wishes, longing, planning and the rest. If a story has the imaginative immediacy of ‘let’s pretend’, it becomes a present enactment. If an author tells a reader about Marie Curie’s search for radium, the completed quest is rediscovered as a present adventure. While their experience is confined to everyday events, readers do not sort their imagining into different categories of subject-matter. Until they learn different kinds of writing conventions for different school subjects, children make narrative serve many of the purposes of their formal learning. The words used by scientists, historians, geographers, technologists and others crop up in biographies and stories before formal textbooks separate them as lessons.

Quite early, however, children discover that adults divide books into two named categories: fiction and non-fiction; and imply that books with ‘facts’ about the ‘real’ world are different from those that tell ‘made up’ stories. In modern writing for children this absolute distinction is no longer sustainable. Both novels and ‘fact’ books deal with the same subjects in a wide range of styles and presentations. Topics of current social and moral concern - sex, poverty, illness, crime, family styles and disruptions - discovered by reading children in newspapers and in feature films on television, also appear as children’s literature in new presentational forms. The boundaries of genres that deal with actualities are not fixed but blurred. Books about the fate of the rainforests are likely to be narratives although their content emphasises the details of ecological reasoning.

Although stories are part of young children’s attempts to sort out the world, children’s literature is premised on the assumption that all children, unless prevented by exceptional circumstances, can learn to read. In traditionally literate cultures, learning to read now begins sooner than at any time in the past. Books are part of this new precocity because parents are willing to buy them, educators to promote them and publishers to produce them. At a very young age, children enter the textual world of environmental print and television and soon become at home in it. Encouraged by advertising, by governmental and specialist urgings, parents expect to understand how their children are being taught to read, and to help them.

They also want their children to have access to the newest systems of communication and to their distinctive technological texts. In England, the national legislation that sets out the orders for literacy teaching begins with this sentence: ‘Pupils should be given an extensive experience of children’s literature.’ No account of the subject of this Encyclopedia has ever before carried such a warrant.

Over the last decade the attention given to how children learn to read has foregrounded the nature of textuality, and of the different, interrelated ways in which readers of all ages make texts mean. ‘Reading’ now applies to a greater number of representational forms than at any time in the past: pictures, maps, screens, design graphics and photographs are all regarded as text. In addition to the innovations made possible in picture books by new printing processes, design features also predominate in other kinds, such as books of poetry and information texts. Thus, reading becomes a more complicated kind of interpretation than it was when children’s attention was focused on the printed text, with sketches or pictures as an adjunct. Children now learn from a picture book that words and illustrations complement and enhance each other. Reading is not simply word recognition. Even in the easiest texts, what a sentence ‘says’ is often not what it means.

Intertextuality, the reading of one text in terms of another, is very common in English books for children. Young children learn how the trick works as early as their first encounter with Janet and Allan Ahlberg’s Each Peach Pear Plum, where they are to play I Spy with nursery characters. The conventions of intertextuality encourage artists and writers to exploit deliberately the bookish nature of books, as in John Burningham’s Where’s Julius? (1986) and Aidan Chambers’s Breaktime (1978), both of which can be described as ‘metafictive’.

Few children who have gone to school during the past twenty-five years in the West have learned to read books without also being proficient in reading television, the continuous text declaring the actuality of the world ‘out there’. Book print and screen feed off each other, so there is a constant blurring of identifiable kinds. The voice-over convention of screen reading helps young readers to understand that the page of a book has also to be ‘tuned’. Then they discover the most important lesson of all: the reader of the book has to become both the teller and the told.

Most of the evidence for children’s reading progress comes from teachers’ observations of how they interact with increasingly complex texts. But to decide which texts are ‘difficult’ or ‘suitable’ for any group of learners is neither straightforward nor generalis-able. Children stretch their competences to meet the demands of the texts they really want to read.