Ideology and children’s fiction - Critical tradition and ideological positioning - Theory and critical approaches - children’s literature

Children’s literature

Part I. Theory and critical approaches


5. Critical tradition and ideological positioning


Charles Sarland


Ideology and children’s fiction


We have learned from the more international debate in literary studies that ideology is inscribed in texts much more deeply and in much more subtle ways than we thought in Britain in the 1970s. The initial emphasis in the criticism of children’s books was on the characters, and addressed questions of representation. The relationship between reader and text was assumed to be one of simple identification. Literary merit was an unproblematic notion built upon Leavisite assumptions. This was set in question by reconsideration of characterisation itself, and then by the revolution in literary studies. Hollindale (1988) made an initial attempt to explore the complexity of the problem, and Stephens (1992) has taken it further. Stephens brings powerful ideological perspectives to bear upon the themes of children’s fiction, the ways in which the stories are shaped, as well as the ways in which implied readers are constructed by the texts. He looks at a range of texts, including picture books written for the youngest readers, and examines specific titles by a number of writers in the central canon - Judy Blume, Anthony Browne, Leon Garfield, Jan Mark, William Mayne, Jan Needle, Rosemary Sutcliff, Maurice Sendak and others. The debate has been informed by a re-recognition of the moral/didactic role of children’s fiction, now recoded as its ideological role. Newer perspectives from postcolonial studies are now suggesting further avenues of pursuit, though there is, as yet, no substantial postcolonial study of children’s fiction (see McGillis 2000 and Chapter 69).

What the work of Said (1993) also does is re-alert us to the relationship between fiction and the wider world. From such a perspective we may note that in the last ten years we have seen a substantial electoral challenge from extreme right-wing parties across Europe echoed by a major shift to the right of an ostensibly left-wing British Labour government. At an international level, there has been the development of neo-imperialist rhetoric from the USA, supported by Britain, all of which has also been accompanied at the ideological level by what has been described as the total collapse of liberalism (e.g. Hutton 2002).

More parochially, within the English schooling system the anti-racist and anti-sexist initiatives of the 1970s have virtually sunk without trace (Jones 1999; Mac an Ghaill 1994) and Mairtm Mac an Ghaill documents in passing the virtual death of what used to be referred to as liberal educational values. Henry Giroux traces the increasing commercialisation and commodification of children, of education and of culture itself in the USA in recent years, quoting in support of his argument a definition of democracy that came from a poll of the young as ‘the freedom to buy and consume whatever they wish without government restriction’ (Giroux 2000: 99), a formulation that might make us pause and revisit the underlying ideological consumerist assumptions of series such as Point Horror. In England many of the books that were criticised in the 1970s are still being promoted in school in official curriculum documentation and elsewhere. The British response to the growth of cross-fertilisation of European literatures has been one of increasing rather than decreasing isolation and xenophobia. Cotton (2000: 22), for instance, quotes Brennan to the effect that although other European countries publish up to 35 per cent of picture books in translation from fellow European states, Britain translates only about 1 per cent. In the midst of all this, unresolved conflicts remain between those who want to retain or re-negotiate some literary criteria for judging the quality of children’s fiction and those who are more sceptical of such judgements. There is clearly, then, plenty of scope for adding the newer theoretical critical perspectives to the proselytising debate of the 1970s in order to re-examine the texts themselves in relation to wider current social, political and cultural change.

The overlap of the discourses of commentary upon children’s fiction with the discourse of child rearing, and in particular education, reveals another conflict, that between determinism and agency. One view of fiction is that it constructs readers in specific ideological formations, and thus enculturates them into the dominant discourses of capitalism - class division, paternalism, racism. Such views are not totally fatalistic, but do require of readers a very conscious effort to read against texts, to deconstruct them in order to reveal their underlying ideology. This then becomes the educational project. The opposing view is that readers are not nearly such victims of fiction as has been assumed, and that the fictions that are responsible for the transmission of such values are more complex than was at first thought. Evidence from the children and young people themselves is beginning to be collected in order to explore this complexity. The argument is that readers are not simply determined by what they read; rather, there is a dialectical relationship between determinism and agency. With reference to her discussions of girls’ reading, Cherland quotes J. M. Anyon:


The dialectic of accommodation and resistance is a part of all human beings’ response to contradiction and oppression. Most females engage in daily conscious and unconscious attempts to resist the psychological degradation and low self-esteem that would result from the total application of the cultural ideology of femininity: submissiveness, dependency, domesticity and passivity.

(Cherland with Edelsky 1993: 30)


Applied to language itself, this analysis of a dialectic between individual identity and the ideological formulations of the culture within which it finds itself can be traced back to Volosinov. Within children’s literature the dialectic will be found within the texts, and between the texts and the reader.

In Christian-Smith’s collection Texts of Desire: Essays on Fiction, Femininity and Schooling (1993a), ideological criticism of children’s fiction came of age. The collection as a whole addresses the complexity of the debate, analysing the ideologies of the texts themselves, the economic and political circumstances of their production, dissemination and distribution, the ideological features of the meanings their young readers make of them, and the political and economic circumstances of those young readers themselves. The focus of attention is the mass-produced material aimed at the female teen and just preteen market, but their study offers a paradigm for future exploration of children’s fiction generally, if we are to fully understand its ideological construction within society.



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Further reading

Clark, B. L. and Higgonet, M. (1999) Girls Boys Books Toys: Gender in Children’s Literature and Culture, Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Krips, V. (2000) The Presence of the Past: Memory, Heritage, and Childhood, New York: Routledge.