Linguistics and stylistics - Theory and critical approaches - children’s literature

Children’s literature

Part I. Theory and critical approaches


7. Linguistics and stylistics


John Stephens


Because the contexts in which children’s literature is produced and disseminated are usually dominated by a focus on content and theme, the language of children’s literature receives little explicit attention. Yet the way things are represented, based on complex codes and conventions of language and presuppositions about language, is an important component of texts, and the study of it allows us access to some of the key processes which shape text production (Scholes 1985: 2-3). The assumption that what is said can be extricated from how it is said, and that language is therefore only a transparent medium, indicates at best a limited grasp of written genres or of the social processes and movements with which genres and styles interrelate.

The most pervasive concern of children’s literature is the representation of SELF, a subjectivity which is the site of enunciation, whether as a poetic persona or, in fiction, as a narrator or a represented focalising character. The evocation of subjectivity as significance is a function of language and is effected by the manipulation of structural linguistic elements - stylistic expressivity - in a pragmatic context (that is, within the frameworks of situational implicature or macro-textual structure, for instance). Readers thus trace subjectivity in the text’s configuration of more or less familiar stylistic and rhetorical strategies.

The language of fiction written for children readily appears to offer conventionalised discourses by means of which to ‘encode’ content (both story and message). The ubiquitous ‘Once upon a time’ of traditional story-telling, for example, not only serves as a formal story onset but also tends to imply that particular narrative forms, with a particular stock of lexical and syntactic forms, will ensue. But the contents and themes of that fiction are representations of social situations and values, and such social processes are inextricable from the linguistic processes which give them expression. In other words, the transactions between writers and readers take place within complex networks of social relations by means of language. Further, within the systems of a language it is possible for young readers to encounter in their reading an extensive range and variety of language uses. Some textual varieties will seem familiar and immediately accessible, consisting of a lexicon and syntax which will seem identifiably everyday, but others will seem much less familiar, either because the lexicon contains forms or uses specific to a different speech community (as in, for example, English literatures written in variants of English in the UK, USA, Canada, Australia, South Africa, the Caribbean and elsewhere in the world), or because writers may choose to employ linguistic forms whose occurrence is largely or wholly restricted to narrative fiction, or because particular kinds of fiction evolve specific discourses. Books which may be said to have a common theme or topic will differ not just because that theme can be expressed in a different content but because it is expressed through differing linguistic resources. For example, a large number of children’s books express the theme of ‘self-awareness’, but since that theme can be discerned in texts as diverse as Jefferies’ Bevis and Dickinson’s Bone from a Dry Sea, it cannot in itself discriminate effectively between texts of different kinds.

Writers have many options to select from. Thus fiction offers a large range of generic options, such as the choice between fantasy and realism, with more specific differences within them, such as that between time-slip fantasy grounded in the knowable world or fantasy set in an imaginary universe. To make such a choice involves entering into a discourse, a complex of story types and structures, social forms and linguistic practices. That discourse can be said to take on a distinctive style in so far as it is distinguished from other actualisations by recurrent patterns or codes. These might include choices in lexis and grammar; use, types and frequency of figurative language; characteristic modes of cohesion; orientation of narrative voice towards the text’s existents (that is, events, characters, settings). Aspects of such a style may be shared by several writers working in the same period and with a common genre, as, for example, contemporary realistic adolescent fiction, but it is usually more personal, as when we speak of the style of Kenneth Grahame or William Mayne or Zibby Oneal, and at times we may refer to the distinctive style of a particular text, such as Virginia Hamilton’s Arilla Sun Down or M. T. Anderson’s Feed. Because the patterns of a particular style are a selection from a larger linguistic code, however, and exist in a relationship of sameness and difference with a more generalised discourse, a writer remains to some degree subject to the discourse, and the discourse can be said to determine at least part of the meaning of the text. Moreover, a narrative discourse also encodes a reading position which readers will adopt to varying extents, depending on their previous experience of the particular discourse, their similarities to or differences from the writer’s language community, their level of linguistic sophistication, and other individual differences. At a more obviously linguistic level, a writer’s choices among such options as first/third person narration, single/multiple focalisation and direct/indirect speech representation further define the encoded reading position. Between them, the broader elements of genre and the more precise linguistic processes appear to restrict the possibility of wildly deviant readings, though what might be considered more probable readings depends on an acquired recognition of the particular discourse. If that recognition is not available to readers, the readings they produce may well seem aberrant.

The communication which informs the transactions between writers and readers is a specialised aspect of socio-linguistic communication in general. The forms and meanings of reality are constructed in language: by analysing how language works, we come nearer to knowing how our culture constructs itself, and where we fit into that construction. Language enables individuals to compare their experiences with the experiences of others, a process which has always been a fundamental purpose of children’s fiction. The representation of experiences such as growing up, evolving a sense of self, falling in love or into conflict, and so on, occurs in language, and guarantees that the experiences represented are shared with human beings in general. Language can make present the felt experiences of people living in other places and at other times, thus enabling a reader to define his or her own subjectivity in terms of perceived potentialities and differences. Finally, the capacity of language to express things beyond everyday reality, such as abstract thought or possible transcendent experiences, is imparted to written texts with all its potentiality for extending the boundaries of intellectual and emotional experience.

The socio-linguistic contexts of text production and reception are important considerations for any account of reading processes. But beyond satisfying a basic human need for contact, reading can also give many kinds of pleasure, though the pleasures of reading are not discovered in a social or linguistic vacuum: as we first learn how to read we also start learning what is pleasurable and what not, and even what is good writing and what not. Our socio-linguistic group, and especially its formal educational structures, tends to precondition what constitutes a good story, a good argument, a good joke, and the better our command of socio-linguistic codes the greater is our appreciation. In other words, we learn to enjoy the process as well as the product. Writing and reading are also very individual acts, however, and the pleasure of reading includes some sense of the distinctive style of a writer or a text. One primary function of stylistic description is to contribute to the pleasure in the text by defining the individual qualities of what is vaguely referred to as the ‘style’ of a writer or text.

Stylistic description can be attempted by means of several methodologies. These range from an impressionistic ‘literary stylistics’, which is characteristic of most discussions of the language of children’s literature, to complex systemic analyses. The latter can offer very precise and delicate descriptions, but have the limitation that non-specialists may find them impenetrable. This article works within the semiotic analysis developed in contemporary critical linguistics (Fairclough 1989; Stephens 1992).


To discuss the textuality of children’s fiction one has to begin by considering some assumptions about the nature of language on which it is grounded. Linguists recognise that language is a social semiotic, a culturally patterned system of signs used to communicate about things, ideas or concepts. As a system constructed within culture, it is not founded on any essential bond between a verbal sign and its referent.

(Stephens 1992: 246-7)


This is an important point to grasp, because much children’s fiction is written and mediated under the contrary, essentialist assumption, and this has major implications both for writing objectives and for the relationships between writers and readers. Fantasy writing in particular is apt to assert the inextricability of word and thing, but the assumption also underlies realistic writing which purports to minimise the distance between life and fiction, or which pivots on the evolution of a character’s essential selfhood, and it often informs critical suspicion of texts which foreground the gap between signs and things.

The following passages throw some light on these contrary assumptions about language:


The glade in the ring of trees was evidently a meeting-place of the wolves ... in the middle of the circle was a great grey wolf. He spoke to them in the dreadful language of the Wargs. Gandalf understood it. Bilbo did not, but it sounded terrible to him, and as if all their talk was about cruel and wicked things, as it was.

(The Hobbit, Tolkien 1937/1987: 91)


Charlie did not know much about ice ... The only piece he had known came from a refrigerated boat, and was left on the wharf, cloudy white, not clear, not even very clean. Charlie had waited until the boat went with its load of lamb carcasses, and then gone for it. By then it had melted. There was a puddle, a wisp of lambswool, and nothing more.

He did not even think this was the same stuff. He did not think this place was part of the world. He thought it was the mouth of some other existence coming up from the ground, being drilled through the rock. The pieces coming away were like the fragments from the bit of the carpentry brace Papa used for setting up shelves. An iron thing would come from the ground, Charlie thought, and another Papa would blow through the hole to make it clear. Last time all the dust had gone into Charlie’s eye, because he was still looking through. Papa had thought him such a fool.

(Low Tide, Mayne 1992: 163-4)


The Tolkien and Mayne passages represent a principal character at a moment of incomprehension: Bilbo hears a foreign language and has no actual referents for the verbal signs; Charlie perceives a physical phenomenon (the point at which pieces of ice break from a glacier into a river, though glacier is not introduced for two more paragraphs) and struggles with the socio-linguistic resources at his disposal to find meaning in it. A significant difference between the two is the implication that the Wargs’ language communicates meanings beyond sense. On a simple level, this is to say no more than that it is obvious what the sounds made by a nasty horde of wolves signify. But Tolkien directly raises the question of comprehension - ‘Gandalf understood it’ - and uses his overt, controlling narrative voice to confirm that Bilbo comprehends something which is a linguistic essential: the language is inherently ‘dreadful’ (presumably in the fuller sense of ‘inspiring dread’); and the ‘as it was’ confirms the principle that ‘the meaning is innate to its sound’ suggested by the lexical set ‘terrible, wicked and cruel’. Mayne focuses on the other side of the sign/thing relationship, in effect posing a question often posed in his novels: can a phenomenon be understood if it cannot be signified in language? Tolkien’s shifts between narration and Bilbo’s focalisation are clearly marked; Mayne slips much more ambiguously between these modes, a strategy which serves to emphasise the gap between phenomena and language. The first paragraph is a retrospective narration of Charlie’s single relevant empirical experience, but because that ice then differed in colour and form (‘cloudy white’, ‘a puddle’) the past experience does not enable him to make sense of the present. Instead, in the second paragraph Charlie produces a fantastic (mis-) interpretation on the premise that what he sees is visually isomorphic with another previous experience. The upshot is that, once again, he seems ‘such a fool’, though that is only a temporary state induced by linguistic inadequacy and is set aside by the novel’s congruence of story and theme. As a story, Low Tide is a treasure hunt gone wrong and then marvellously recuperated; a major thematic concern, articulated through the child characters’ struggles to make sense of phenomena, language and the relationships between phenomena and language, is a child’s struggle towards competence in his or her socio-linguistic context.

The texts thus demonstrate two very different approaches to the semiotic instability of language. A third, and very common, approach is to exploit that instability as a source of humour, and this partly explains why nonsense verse is considered to be almost entirely the province of childhood. A rich vein of narrative humour also runs from the same source. In Terry Pratchett’s Johnny and the Dead, for example, humour is created by exploiting the arbitrary relationship between signs and things or actions, specifically the instabilities which can result when significations slip, multiply or change. In the following extract, a police station is fielding telephone calls reporting strange incidents. The macrostructural frame for the humour - that these incidents are caused by the dead from the local cemetery who have come out to explore the town in which they once lived - informs readers that both sides of the dialogue are grounded in misconception:


The phone rang again as soon as he put it down, but this time one of the young constables answered it.

‘It’s someone from the university,’ he said, putting his hand over the mouthpiece. ‘He says a strange alien force has invaded the radio telescope. You know, that big satellite dish thing over towards Slate?’

Sergeant Comely sighed. ‘Can you get a description?’ he said.

‘I saw a film about this, Sarge,’ said another policeman. ‘These aliens landed and replaced everyone in the town with giant vegetables.’

‘Really? Round here it’d be days before anyone noticed,’ said the sergeant.

The constable put the phone down.

‘He just said it was like a strange alien force,’ he said. ‘Very cold, too.’

‘Oh, a cold strange alien force,’ said Sergeant Comely.

‘And it was invisible, too.’

‘Right. Would he recognize it if he didn’t see it again?’

The young policemen looked puzzled. I’m too good for this, the sergeant thought.

‘All right,’ he said. ‘So we know the following. Strange invisible aliens have invaded Blackbury. They dropped in at The Dirty Duck, where they blew up the Space Invaders machine, which makes sense. And then they went to the pictures. Well, that makes sense too. It’s probably years before new films get as far as Alfred Centuri ...’

The phone rang again. The constable answered it.

(Pratchett 1993: 122-3)


Signification in this extract pivots on the frameworks afforded by genres and the principles of situational implicature, particularly in the linguistic clash between the discourses (properly, ‘registers’) of police reporting, adhered to by the Sergeant, and of popular science fiction, which his gullible subordinates quickly adopt. The possibility that language does not communicate precisely is flagged by the constable’s reformulation of ‘radio telescope’ as ‘that big satellite dish thing’. The exasperated Sergeant then exploits the register clash to mock his subordinates, breaching the conversational principles of relation and clarity, as in his play on the meanings of ‘vegetables’ or his question, ‘Would he recognize it if he didn’t see it again?’ The clashing of registers offers a succinct example of how context determines meaning. In such an example, ‘correct use in context’ extends beyond other nearby words and the grammar which combines them into intelligible form to include the situation of utterance and cultural context. The situation of utterance - the police station - clarifies the focus of reference, but at the same time foregrounds how the ‘same’ utterance can have a very different meaning in different contexts. The shifting of meaning begins to move towards excess in the Sergeant’s mock summary interpretation of the information collected so far. It also moves, however, to a point of undecidability in the malapropism ‘Alfred Centuri’, since a reader cannot determine whether this is the Sergeant’s error or a further example of mockery. In such ways, Pratchett’s writings for younger readers are richly subversive, playing on meanings to such an extent as to suggest that, if allowed free play, language will tend to be uncontainable by situation. Such a view of language, however, tends to be uncommon in the domain of children’s literature.

The issue of sign/referent relationship is of central interest here because it bears directly on linguistic function in children’s fiction and the notion of desirable significances. The assumption that the relationship is direct and unproblematic has the initial effect of producing what might be termed closed meanings. The Tolkien example is especially instructive because it explicitly shows how language which is potentially open, enabling a variety of potential reader responses, is narrowed by paradigmatic recursiveness and essentialism. Writers will, of course, often aim for such specification, but what are the implications if virtually all meaning in a text is implicitly closed? The outcome points to an invisible linguistic control by writer over reader. As Hunt has argued, attempts to exercise such control are much less obvious when conveyed by stylistic features than by lexis or story existents (Hunt 1991: 109).

A related linguistic concept of major importance for the issue of language choice and writerly control is register, the principle which governs the choice among various possible linguistic realisations of the same thing. Register refers to types of language variation which collocate with particular social situations and written genres. Socially, for example, people choose different appropriate language variations for formal and informal occasions, for friendly disputes and angry arguments, and for specialised discourses: science, sport, computing, skipping rope games, role-play, and so on, all have particular registers made up of configurations of lexical and syntactical choices. Narrative fictions will seek to replicate such registers, but also, as with a wide range of writing genres, develop distinctive registers of their own. Genres familiar in children’s fiction - such as folk and fairy stories, ghost and terror stories, school stories, teen romance, and a host of others - use some readily identifiable registers. Consider the use of register in the following passage from Anna Fienberg’s Ariel, Zed and the Secret of Life. It describes three girls watching a horror movie, but one of them (Ariel) is giggling:


When the girls looked back at the screen, the scene had changed. It was dusk, and shadows bled over the ground. A moaning wind had sprung up, and somewhere, amongst the trees, an owl hooted.

‘Ooh, look,’ hissed Lynn, her nails digging into her friend Mandy’s arm. ‘Is that him there, crouching behind that bush? Tell me what happens. I’m not looking any more.’

‘The nurse is saying goodnight,’ Mandy whispered, ‘she’s leaving. She’ll have to go right past him.’

The Monster From Out of Town was, indeed, breathing heavily behind a camellia bush. His clawed hands crushed flowers to a perfumed pulp, which made you think of what he would do to necks ...

Ariel grinned. The monster’s mask was badly made and his costume looked much too tight.

(Fienberg 1992: 9-10)


The scene from the movie is presented in the conventional register of the Gothic (dusk, shadows, bled, moaning wind, an owl hooted), though the unusual metaphor ‘shadows bled’ reconfigures the conventional elements with the effect of foregrounding the Gothic trait of overwording (or semantic overload). By then switching the retelling to the audience’s perceptions and responses, Fienberg builds in a common Gothic narrative strategy, that of determining emotional response to scene or incident by building it in as a character’s response. The switch also enables a version of the suspense so necessary to horror (‘him ... behind that bush’; ‘the nurse ... leaving’; ‘his clawed hands’). These narrative strategies set up the deflation occurring with Ariel’s response and the register shift which expresses it: detached and analytic, she epitomises the resistant reader who refuses the positioning implied by the genre. The deflation has the effect of retrospectively defining how far a genre can depend on its audience’s unthinking acceptance of the emotional codes implied by its register.

Fienberg is making an important point about how fiction works (her novel is pervasively metafictive), and it is a point which is well applied to modes of fiction in which register is much less obtrusive. It is easy to assume that realistic fiction is based on a neutral register, though this is not really so, and a stylistic account can help disclose how its registers position readers even more thoroughly than do obvious registers such as that of Gothic. This is readily seen in the tradition of realism in adolescent fiction in the USA, which developed in the 1960s out of a psychology of adolescence based in the work of Erik Erikson re-routed through the textual influence of Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. Thus a first-person adolescent narrator represents significant issues of adolescent development, such as ‘experience of physical sexual maturity, experience of withdrawal from adult benevolent protection, consciousness of self in interaction, re-evaluation of values, [and] experimentation’ (Russell 1988: 61). Cultural institutions, genre and style interact with a material effect, not just to code human behaviour but to shape it. A stylistic analysis offers one position from which we can begin to unravel that shaping process. Danziger’s Can You Sue Your Parents for Malpractice? is thematically focused on the five concepts of adolescent development listed above; most are evident in the following passage:


[Linda] says, ‘How can you stop a buffalo from charging?’

‘Take away his credit cards,’ my mother answers.

My father turns to her. ‘You should know that one. Now that you’re going back to work, I bet you’re going to be spending like mad, living outside my salary.’

‘Why don’t you just accept it and not feel so threatened?’ My mother raises her voice. She hardly ever does that.

I can feel the knot in my stomach and I feel like I’m going to jump out of my skin.

‘Who feels threatened?’ he yells. ‘That’s ridiculous. Just because you won’t have to depend on me, need me any more, why should I worry?’

So that’s why he’s acting this way. He thinks it’s the money that makes him important. Sometimes I just don’t understand his brain.

‘Why can’t you ever celebrate anything?’ she yells again.

I throw my spoon on the table. That’s it. I’m leaving. Linda follows me out. It’s like a revolution. Nothing like this has ever happened before.

(Danziger 1979/1987: 6)


An important part of the register here is the first person and - as often - present tense narration, particularly in so far as it constructs a precise orientation of narrative voice towards a conventional situation. The function of present tense narration is to convey an illusion of immediacy and instantaneity, suppressing any suggestion that the outcome is knowable in advance. Thus Lauren, the narrator, proceeds through specific moments of recognition and decision - ‘I can feel ...’; ‘So that’s why ...’; ‘That’s it. I’m leaving’; ‘It’s like a revolution’ - but each of these moments, as with the depiction of the quarrel itself, is expressed by means of a register which consists of the cliches which pertain to it. Linguistically, this has a double function. It is, now at the other end of the creative spectrum, another use of language which assumes an essential link between sign and referent; and in doing that through cliche it constitutes the text as a surface without depth, an effect reinforced by the way present tense narration severely restricts the possibility of any temporal movement outside the present moment. The outcome, both linguistically and thematically, is a complete closing of meaning: there is no interpretative task for a reader to perform, no inference undrawn. This closure even extends to the joke with which the passage begins.

Another way to describe this is to say that the metonymic mode of writing which characterises realistic fiction, and which enables particular textual moments to relate to a larger signifying structure (Stephens 1992: 148-249), has been directed towards a closing of meaning. Another aspect of the metonymic process is that a narrative may draw upon recognisable schemata repeatable from one text to another and which constitute a ‘register’ of metonyms of family life. This example could be categorised as: situation, the parental quarrel; pretext, money; actual focus, power and authority. With perhaps unintentional irony produced by the present tense verb, the repeatability of the scene is foregrounded by Lauren’s remark that ‘Nothing like this has ever happened before.’ It happens all the time, especially in post-1960s realist adolescent fiction, and its function, paradoxically, is to confirm a model whereby the rational individual progresses to maturity under the ideal of liberal individuality, doing so through the assurance that the experience is metonymic of the experience of everybody in that age group.

The presence of a narrative voice which interprets the scene for the benefit of readers is a characteristic of another linguistic aspect of texts, the presentation of scene and incident through the representation of speech and thought and the strategy of focalisation. These are important aspects of point of view in narrative, the facet of narration through which a writer implicitly, but powerfully, controls how readers understand the text. Because readers are willing to surrender themselves to the flow of the discourse, especially by focusing attention on story or content, they are susceptible to the implicit power of point of view. Linguistically, point of view is established by focalisation strategies and by conversational pragmatics. Early children’s fiction tended to favour narrator focalisation, and hence employed character focali- sation only sporadically, so that it is only fleetingly present in, for instance, Richard Jefferies’s Bevis (1882) or Ethel Turner’s Seven Little Australians (1894), and, more recently, is generally absent from C. S. Lewis’s children’s books. Since around the middle of the twentieth century, however, sustained character focalisation has become the norm in third-person narration, and hence character subjectivity infiltrates the narrative, linguistically evident through lexis and idiom (expressions, phrases, habitual idioms, solecisms, malapropisms) and syntactic features. Hence a narrative has a potential to achieve a double-voiced effect whereby the soci- olect, cultural preoccupations and ideological positionings attributed to a focalising character are visible within the language of narration. Most novels which are third-person narrations now include at least one focalising character, and this has important implications for the kind of language used, because in the vast majority of books written for children there is only one such focaliser, who is a child. Further, as with first-person narrators, readers will tend to align themselves with that focalising character’s point of view.

Character focalisation is illustrated below, first in an example from Bevis, in which it is discernible as a mere trace, emerging from within narrator focalisation, and then in sequential passages from the end and beginning of the first two chapters of Dickinson’s Bone from a Dry Sea, which exemplify quite different ways in which incidents may be narrated as they impact on the mind of focalising characters.


Bevis sat still and tried to think; and while he did so he looked out over the New Sea.

The sun was now lower, and all the waves were touched with purple, as if the crests had been sprinkled with wine. The wind blew even harder, as the sun got near the horizon, and fine particles of sand were every now and then carried over his head from the edge of the precipice.

What would Ulysses have done? He had a way of getting out of everything; but try how he would, Bevis could not think of any plan, especially as he feared to move much, lest the insecure platform under him should give way. He could see his reflection in the pool beneath, as if it were waiting for him to come in reality.

(Jefferies 1882/1995: 143)


The shift from narrator to character focalisation is often signalled by verbs whose semantic node is ‘perception’, and that is so in this example. The text is shaped by the presence of represented thought and by direct or implied acts of seeing. The narrative representation of thought (marked here by the repeated verb ‘think’, and the slipping from direct thought to free indirect thought at the beginning of the second paragraph) and the references to acts of seeing (‘looked’ and ‘could see’) situate events within the character’s mind but also maintain a separate narrating voice. This narration is evident here in aspects of register, as the lexical items ‘fine particles’ and ‘insecure’, and by the use of analogies and figurative language in the comparative and hypothetical as if clauses. There is no evident attempt at this moment to match linguistic level of narrative discourse to that of the character, though that does often happen. There is, nevertheless, an obvious contrast with the Danziger passage, which, depicting a main character of about the same age (fourteen), has access to a more limited range of registers. Figurative language is likewise less complex. Lauren’s ‘I can feel the knot in my stomach and I feel like I’m going to jump out of my skin’ are cliche analogies, whereas in ‘as if it were waiting for him to come in reality’ the personifying attribution of a threatening purpose to the pool implies a greater fear than that actually named in the text and, opening out the space between sign and referent, gives readers an opportunity to draw inferences which are not fully determined by the text.

The two incidents presented in the Dickinson extract are placed in the same setting but four million years apart. In the first section, character focalisation again emerges from within narrator focalisation, but the second is predominantly character focalised. The focalisers are female children, the first an early hominid without a language to express her thoughts, and the second a sophisticated modern child:


[A]s she [‘Li’] lay among the crowded bodies in one of the caves ... she relived the adventure. She knew what she had done, and why. She understood that it had not been an accident. She realised, too, that the others would not understand.

She had no words for this knowledge. Thought and understanding for her were a kind of seeing. She showed herself things in her mind, the rock-shelf, the shallow water, the need to lure the shark full-tilt onto the slope so that it would force itself out too far, and strand, and die; then her uncle triumphing and her mother scolding and herself cringing while she hugged her knowledge inside her.

Now she seemed to herself to be standing apart in the cave, seeing by the moonlight reflected from the bay one small body curled among the mass of sleepers. A thought which had neither words nor pictures made itself in her mind.


She’s different. Yes, I’m different.


The truck wallowed along the gravelly road, if you could call it a road. Often there was nothing to mark it off from the rest of the brown, enormous plain, but Dad knew where he was because then there’d be tyre-ruts making the truck wallow worse than ever. Vinny clutched the handgrip on the dash to stop herself being thrown around. They’d done two hours from the airport, though it seemed longer, when Dad stopped by a flat-topped tree with a lot of grassy bundles hanging among the branches. Weaver-birds, Vinny guessed. She’d seen them on TV.

(Dickinson 1992: 12-13)


The opening chapter signals the emergence of subjectivity in an early hominid, and constitutes a creative challenge to the late twentieth-century contention that subjectivity does not exist outside of language. Rather, language is shown to derive from a perceiving subject. In contrast, Vinny’s simple recording of scene as the narrative’s focalising character at this point is implicitly posited on the assumption of her subjectivity as a ‘deictic centre’, a here and now which orients perception. Her status as focaliser is immediately established by suggestions of a particular sociolect and point of view (‘if you could call it a road’; ‘They’d done two hours’; the identification of her companion by the familiar ‘Dad’), and presence of direct thought and then free indirect thought at the end of the paragraph. Unlike Li’s ‘kind of seeing’, Vinny has the authority of information technology to enable her to attach names to things (‘She’d seen them on TV’). The identification of the ‘grassy bundles’ with ‘weaver-birds’ implies a renaming which conveys the opposite effect from Pratchett’s ‘radio telescope’, as the perception now moves from observation to identification.

What is always implicit in Vinny’s subjectivity, a consciousness of identity and selfpresence enabled by knowledge and reason, corresponds with the capacity for abstract thought which Li is groping towards as she struggles with proto-language. Thinking with ‘neither words nor pictures’ enables Li to enter symbolic language through a contrast between the deictics she and I in relation to notions of difference and alterity, and thereby she begins to access the position of observer of the self. The movement of the passage is thus from a narrator-inflected character localisation to represented abstract thought.

The second linguistic construction of point of view is by means of represented conversation. Various modes are available to a writer (see Leech and Short 1981), and all appear in children’s fiction. These modes range from reported speech acts, which are mainly an aspect of narrative, to direct speech dialogues, which readers must interpret in the light of their knowledge of the principles and conventions of conversation. Because the intermediate forms of indirect and free indirect speech representation allow both for subtle interplay between narratorial and character points of view and for narratorial control, they have tended to receive most attention in discussions of general fiction. With children’s fiction, however, more attention needs to be paid to direct speech dialogue, both because it exists in a higher proportion and because of the general principle that the narrator in the text appears to have less control over point of view in dialogue. Leech and Short envisage a cline running between ‘bound’ and ‘free’ forms, where ‘free’ corresponds with closeness to direct speech (1981: 324). But point of view in such conversations is affected by two factors: the presence of narratorial framing, especially speech-reporting tags, that is, the devices for identifying speakers which may in themselves suggest attitudes; and the pragmatic principles which shape conversation. The following passage illustrates these factors.


When they reached [the others] they slipped in behind Rebecca and Sue Stephens, and Juniper saw Ellie standing on the pavement buttoned up in her old red coat, Jake beside her. They waved and smiled.

‘Your mum looks like ... a pop star,’ said Sue. ‘No, someone in a TV series,’ said Rebecca.

‘It must be strange to have a mother looking like that,’ went on Sue, still staring behind her.

‘How would I know? I’ve only had her, haven’t I? I don’t know any different mother, so I don’t know if it’s strange or not.’

Sue kept on: ‘Is that your dad? That one with the beard?’

‘Shut up,’ hissed Rebecca, then said very loudly and clearly, ‘I liked your reading, Juniper. You were the best.’

‘You sounded dead miserable but your arm didn’t show. Nobody could tell. I expect Sir picked you because of being sorry for you. He’s like that. What did you say?’ asked Sue.

‘I said Abbledy, Gabbledy Flook,’ answered Juniper and then under her breath, Ere the sun begins to sink, May your nasty face all shrink, which came into her head out of nowhere, and wished herself away to a wide, pale beach with the sun shining down and a white horse galloping at the edge of the incoming tide, far, far away from the wind slicing down the pavement blowing up grit and rubbish as they made their way back to school.

(Kemp 1986/1988: 78-9)


This exchange shows very clearly how meaning in conversations arises not from the simple sense of individual utterances but from the tenor of utterances in combination and as shaped by narratorial tagging. It also illustrates how a children’s book makes use of the main principles which inform actual or represented conversations: the principle of cooperation, the principle of politeness, and the principle of irony. H. P. Grice (1975) argued that, in order to communicate in an orderly and productive way, speakers accept five conventions which organise what we say to one another: an utterance should be of an appropriate size; it should be correct or truthful; it should relate back to the previous speaker’s utterance (a change of subject and a change of register may both be breaches of relation); it should be clear, organised and unambiguous; and each speaker should have a fair share of the conversation, that is, be able to take his or her turn in an orderly way and be able to complete what s/he wants to say (see Leech 1983). These conventions are very readily broken, and much of everyday conversation depends on simultaneously recognising and breaking one or more of them. In particular, many breaches are prompted by the operation of politeness in social exchange. Whenever conversational principles are breached, the product is apt to be humour, irony or conflict.

After a sequence of four utterances which more or less adhere to the principles of coherence and turn-taking but skirt the boundaries of politeness by drawing attention to Ellie’s unusual appearance (shabby but beautiful, she doesn’t conform to the girls’ image of ‘mother’), Kemp introduces a sequence built on crucial breaches of relation and politeness, beginning with Sue’s ‘Is that your dad?’ This is flagged contextually because readers know that Juniper’s father is missing, and textually because of the cline in the speechreporting tags from the neutral ‘said Sue’ to the intrusively persistent ‘Sue kept on’, and the heavy tagging of Rebecca’s interruption and shift of relation (‘hissed Rebecca, then said very loudly and clearly’). Finally, of course, Juniper’s escapist daydream cliche also serves as a narratorial comment on how painful she has found the exchange: indeed, the blowing ‘grit and rubbish’ becomes a metonym for the anguish at the heart of her being. Second, Sue’s response to Rebecca’s intervention is to apparently pursue relation but to breach politeness by turning attention to Juniper’s missing arm. The upshot is Juniper’s final spoken utterance - interrupting, impolite and nonsensical, it terminates the exchange and the discourse shifts into represented thought. Such an astute use of conversational principles is one of the most expressive linguistic tools available to a children’s writer.

A stylistic examination of children’s fiction can show us something very important, namely that a fiction with a high proportion of conversation and a moderately sophisticated use of localisation has access to textual strategies with the potential to offset the limitations which may be implicit in a disinclination to employ the full range of lexical, syntactic and figurative possibilities of written discourse. But stylistic analysis is also never an end in itself, and is best carried out within a frame which considers the relationship of text to genre and to culture. Obviously enough, stylistics alone cannot determine the relative merits of Sue and Rebecca’s preferences for ‘a pop star’ or ‘someone in a TV series’, and cannot determine whether a reader treats either category as prestigious or feels that both consign Ellie to a subject position without selfhood. The example illustrates two general principles in language analysis: that significance is influenced by the larger contexts of text and culture within which particular utterances are meaningful; and that particular language features or effects can have more than one function, simultaneously expressing both purposiveness and implicit, often unexamined, social assumptions.

Finally, attention to the language of children’s fiction has an important implication for evaluation, adding another dimension to the practices of judging books according to their entertainment value as stories or according to their socio-political correctness. It can be an important tool in distinguishing between ‘restrictive texts’ which allow little scope for active reader judgements (Hunt 1991: 117) and texts which enable critical and thoughtful responses.



Danziger, P. (1979/1987) Can You Sue Your Parents for Malpractice?, London: Pan.

Dickinson, P. (1992) A Bone from a Dry Sea, London: Victor Gollancz.

Fairclough, N. (1989) Language and Power, London and New York: Longman.

Fienberg, A. (1992) Ariel, Zed and the Secret of Life, Sydney: Allen and Unwin.

Grice, H. P. (1975) ‘Logic and Conversation’, in Cole, P. and Morgan, J. L. (eds) Syntax and Semantics Vol. 3, Speech Acts, New York: Academic Press.

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

Jefferies, R. (1882/1995) Bevis, Ware: Wordsworth Classics.

Kemp, G. (1986/1988) Juniper, Harmondsworth: Puffin.

Leech, G. N. (1983) Principles of Pragmatics, London and New York: Longman.

Leech, G. N. and Short, M. H. (1981) Style in Fiction, London and New York: Longman.

Mayne, W. (1992) Low Tide, London: Jonathan Cape.

Pratchett, T. (1993) Johnny and the Dead, London: Doubleday.

Russell, D. A. (1988) ‘The Common Experience of Adolescence: A Requisite for the Development of Young Adult Literature’, Journal of Youth Services in Libraries 2: 58-63.

Scholes, R. (1985) Textual Power: Literary Theory and the Teaching of English, New Haven, CT and London: Yale University Press.

Stephens, J. (1992) Language and Ideology in Children’s Eiction, London and New York: Longman. Tolkien, J. R. R. (1937/1987) The Hobbit, London: Unwin Hyman.


Further reading

Fludernik, M. (1993) The Fictions of Language and the Languages of Fiction, London: Routledge.

Hunt, P. (1978) ‘The Cliche Count: A Practical Aid for the Selection of Books for Children’, Children’s Literature in Education 9, 3: 143-50.

- (1988) ‘Degrees of Control: Stylistics and the Discourse of Children’s Literature’, in Coupland, N. (ed.) Styles of Discourse, London: Croom Helm.

Knowles, M. and Malmkjsr, K. (1996) Language and Control in Children’s Literature, London: Routledge.

Kuskin, K. (1980) ‘The Language of Children’s Literature’, in Michaels, L. and Ricks, C. (eds) The State of the Language, Berkeley: University of California Press.

Stephens, J. (1989) ‘Language, Discourse, Picture Books’, Children’s Literature Association Quarterly 14: 106-10.

- (2002) ‘Writing by Children, Writing for Children: Schema Theory, Narrative Discourse, and Ideology,’ in Bull, G. and Anstey, M. (eds) Crossing the Boundaries, French’s Forest, NSW: Prentice Hall.

Thacker, D. (2001) ‘Feminine Language and the Politics of Children’s Literature,’ The Lion and the Unicorn 25, 1: 3-16.

Wyile, A. S. (2003) ‘The Value of Singularity in First- and Restricted Third-Person Engaging Narration,’ Children’s Literature 31: 116-41.