Young readers and their books - Reader-response criticism - Theory and critical approaches - children’s literature

Children’s literature

Part I. Theory and critical approaches


8. Reader-response criticism


Michael Benton


Young readers and their books


Reader-response approaches to children’s literature which set out to answer the questions raised at the beginning of this chapter all have a direct relationship with pedagogy. Some are concerned with children’s responses, mainly to fiction and poetry but latterly also to picture books, with the broad aim of improving our understanding of what constitutes good practice in literature teaching. Others employ reader-response methods in order to explore children’s concepts and social attitudes. Others again are text-focused and use concepts and ideas from reader-response criticism of adult literature in order to examine children’s books, with the aim of uncovering their implied audience and, thence, something of the singularity of a specifically children’s literature.

This diversity creates two problems: first, there is bound to be overlap. Many studies cover both textual qualities and children’s responses as complementary aspects of a unitary experience which, as the foregoing discussion has argued, follows from the mainstream thinking of reader-response criticism. When considering a study under one or other of the headings below, therefore, its writer’s principal orientation has been the guide. Second, there is bound to be anomaly. The nature and complexity of the studies varies greatly. In particular, there are two important collections of papers devoted to theoretical research and empirical enquiries in this area (Cooper 1985a; Many and Cox 1992). These are most conveniently considered between discussion of the first and second themes below to which most of their papers relate.

The discussion deals, in turn, with five themes: the process of responding; development in reading; types of reader behaviour; culturally oriented studies exploring children’s attitudes; and text-oriented studies employing reader-response concepts.


The process of responding

The stances of those enquirers who have explored the response processes of young readers vary as much as those of the literary theorists, but the most common one is that of the teacher-researcher attempting to theorise classroom practice. The range and combinations of the variables in these studies are enormous: texts, contexts, readers and research methods are all divisible into subsets with seemingly infinite permutations. Among texts, short stories, poems, fairy tales and picture books are favoured, with a few studies focusing upon the novel and none on plays. Contexts, in the sense of physical surroundings, also influence response. The ‘classroom’ itself can mean a variety of things and clearly there are crucial differences between, say, monitoring the responses of thirty children within normal lesson time and four or five children who volunteer to work outside lessons. Most studies are small-scale enquiries run by individual researchers, perhaps with a collaborative element; hence, the focus is usually narrow when selecting the number, age-level, social background, gender and literacy level of the readers. Finally, reader-response monitoring procedures are generally devised in the knowledge that the medium is the message. The ways readers are asked to present their responses are fundamental influences upon those responses; they range from undirected invitations to free association or ‘say what comes into your mind as you read’, through various ‘prompts’ or guideline questions to consider, to the explicit questionnaire. Oral, written, or graphic responses and whether the readers are recording individually or in groups all provide further dimensions to the means of monitoring and collecting response data.

Guidance through this diversity is offered by two older books already mentioned (Purves and Beach 1972; D’Arcy 1973); and, more recently, by Galda (1983) in a special issue of the Journal of Research and Development in Education on ‘Response to Literature: Empirical and Theoretical Studies’, and by Squire’s chapter ‘Research on Reader Response and the National Literature Initiative’ in Hayhoe and Parker (Squire 1990: 13-24). What follows does not attempt to be exhaustive but briefly to indicate the main lines that process studies have taken.

The process of responding became one of the main objects of enquiry during the 1980s. Studies of children’s responses to poetry began to appear in articles or booklet form: Wade (1981) adapted Squire’s (1964) work on short stories to compare how a supervised and an unsupervised group of middle-school children responded to a poem by Charles Tomlinson. Dixon and Brown (1984) studied the writings of seventeen-year-old students in order to identify what was being assessed in their responses; Atkinson (1985) built upon Purves and Rippere’s (1968) categories and explored the process of response to poems by children of different ages. Several books also focused exclusively on young readers and poetry and, either wholly or in part, concerned themselves with the response process, notably Benton (1986), Dias and Hayhoe (1988) and Benton et al. (1988). The work of Barnes (1976), particularly, lies behind the enquiries of Benton (1986) into small group responses to poetry by thirteen- to fourteen-year-olds. What is characterised as ‘lightly-structured, self- directed discussion’ is seen as the means of optimising group talk about poems and as the most appropriate way for teacher-researchers to explore the process of response. Dias and Hayhoe (1988) build upon Dias’s earlier work (1986) to develop responding-aloud protocols (RAPs) which, essentially, require individual pupils to think aloud as they attempt to make sense of a poem with the help, if needed, of a non-directive interviewer. Preparatory group discussions were used to build up confidence for the individual sessions. The RAP transcripts were then analysed to see how pupils negotiated meaning. Dias and Hayhoe claim that their study is ‘designed to track the process of responding as it occurs’ (1988: 51) and their methodology is a significant contribution to this end.

Similarly, the work of Benton and his co-authors (1988) focuses upon process. It shows three experienced teachers exploring how their students, aged fourteen and above, read and respond to poetry. Rosenblatt’s transactional theory underpins the approach, especially in Teasey’s work, which gives the hard evidence for the reader’s ‘evocation’ of a poem through meticulous, descriptive analyses of aesthetic reading. Bell’s data shows the emphases of the response process from initial encounter through group discussion, to an eventual written account, in such a way that what in mathematics is called ‘the working’ can be observed - in this case, the slow evolution over time and in different contexts of how young readers make meaning. Hurst’s focus is upon the whole class rather than individuals. From studying the responses of pupils in a variety of classrooms and with different teachers and texts, he develops a model of three frames (story, poet, form), derived from Barnes and Todd’s (1977) notion of the ‘cycles of utterances’ that characterise group talk, as a means of mapping the episodes of a group’s engagement with a poem. The three enquiries are set against a critical appraisal of the main theorists in the field from Richards to Rosenblatt and all contribute to the development of a response-centred methodology.

The process of responding to fictional narrative was first examined by Squire (1964) and Purves and Rippere (1968), whose early studies provoked many adaptations of their work with students of different ages and backgrounds. These studies all tended to categorise the elements of response, with Squire’s list emerging as the most commonly quoted and replicated in studies of children’s responses. Squire’s study of adolescents responding to short stories described the six elements of response as literary judgements, interpreta- tional responses, narrational reactions, associational responses, self-involvement and prescriptive judgements (Squire 1964: 17-18). He showed that the greater the involvement of readers, the stronger was their tendency to make literary judgements; and that what he termed ‘happiness-binding’ (41) was a characteristic of adolescent readers’ behaviour. Here, as in many studies of fiction reading, there is a noticeable move towards a broadly psychoanalytical explanation for the gratifications readers seek in fiction (compare Holland 1975). More recent studies include those of Fox (1979), whose phrase ‘dark watchers’ (32) is a memorable description of the imaginary, spectator role that young readers often adopt during reading; and Jackson (1980), who explored the initial responses of children to fiction which he later developed more fully throughout the secondary-school age range (Jackson 1983). Several books also focused wholly or in part upon young readers’ response processes, notably Protherough (1983), Benton and Fox (1985) and Thomson (1986). Drawing upon enquiries he conducted in Hull, Protherough suggests that there are five major ways in which children see the process of reading fiction: projection into a character, projection into the situation, association between book and reader, the distanced viewer, and detached evaluation. There is a developmental dimension, and he argues that maturity in reading is connected with the ability to operate in an increasing number of modes.

Benton and Fox address the question of what happens when we read stories and consider that the process of responding involves the reader in creating a secondary world. This concept is elaborated with reference to children’s accounts of their experiences with various stories. The reading experience is then characterised in two ways: first, as a four- phase process of feeling like reading, getting into the story, being lost in the book, and having an increasing sense of an ending; and second, as an activity consisting of four elements - picturing, anticipating and retrospecting, interacting and evaluating. This latter description has been taken up by others, notably Corcoran (Corcoran and Evans 1987: 45-51).

Thomson’s work with teenage readers offers a further description of the elements of response to fiction and cross-hatches this with a developmental model. The requirements for satisfaction at all stages are enjoyment and elementary understanding. Assuming these are met, his six stages are described as: unreflective interest in action; empathising; analogising; reflecting on the significance of events and behaviour; reviewing the whole work as the author’s creation; and the consciously considered relationship with the author. Thomson’s is a sophisticated and detailed account, firmly rooted in young readers’ fiction reading, and drawing effectively upon the theoretical literature summarised earlier in this chapter.

As can be seen from this summary, studies of the process of responding tend towards categorisation of the different psychological activities involved and towards descriptions of what constitutes maturation in reading. Two collections of papers which should contribute more than they do to our understanding of the process of responding are Cooper (1985a) and Many and Cox (1992), although in their defence it has to be said that the former has a focus upon the theories that should guide our study of readers and the research methodologies that derive from them, and the latter is primarily concerned with reader ‘stance’ (Rosenblatt 1978) as the discussion of types of reader below indicates. Brief comment upon these two collections is appropriate before moving on to consider reading development.

Only some of the seventeen papers in Cooper’s compilation bear upon the subject of children and literature. The first of the three parts of the book is helpful in relating theoretical issues of response to practice, especially the chapters by Rosenblatt, Purves and Petrosky. In Part 2, Kintgen’s piece stands out, not only because its focus is poetry (a comparative rarity in such company), but because it faces up to the problems of monitoring responses, and attempts to describe the mental activities and processes of the reader. Kintgen’s subjects (as with many researchers) are graduate students, but the methodology here could readily transfer to younger readers. The four contributors to the final part of the book on classroom literature, whom one might expect to deal with children and their books, studiously avoid doing so, preferring instead to discuss theoretical and methodological issues such as the need to identify response research with literary pedagogy (Bleich), the use of school surveys (Squire), and the evaluation of the outcomes of literary study (Cooper 1985b).

Many and Cox (1992) take their impetus from Cooper’s book and their inspiration from Rosenblatt (1978). The first part gives theoretical perspectives on reader stance and response and includes specific consideration of readings of selected children’s books (Benton 1992b) and of young readers’ responses (Corcoran). The papers in Part 2 focus upon students’ perspectives when reading and responding and tell us more about types of readers than about process; these are dealt with below. Part 3 deals with classroom interactions of teachers, students and literature. Hade explores ‘stance’ in both silent reading and reading aloud, arguing its transactional and triadic nature in the classroom. Zancella writes engagingly about the use of biography, in the sense of a reader’s personal history, in responding to literature and how this influences the teacher’s methods. Zarrillo and Cox build upon Rosenblatt’s efferent/aesthetic distinction and urge more of the latter in classroom teaching in the light of their empirical findings that ‘elementary teachers tend to direct children to adopt efferent stances towards literature’ (245). Many and Wiseman take a similar line and report their enquiries into teaching particular books (for example, Mildred Taylor’s Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry (1976)) with efferent and aesthetic emphases to different, parallel classes. At various points, all these studies touch upon the issue of the process of responding; but, equally, they also relate to some of the other issues that are discussed in the remainder of this chapter.


Development in reading

Of these issues, the question of how children develop as readers of literature is one of the most frequently raised. This has been approached in four main ways: personal reminiscences of bookish childhoods (Sampson 1947; Inglis 1981); the growth of the child’s sense of story in relation to the Piagetian stages of development (Applebee 1978; Tucker 1981); the development of literacy, with the idea of matching individual and age-group needs to appropriate books (Fisher 1964; Meek 1982); and deductions about development drawn from surveys of children’s reading interests and habits (Jenkinson 1940; Whitehead et al. 1977). While none of these writers would see their work as necessarily falling strictly under the reader-response heading, all are in fact listening to what children as readers say about their experiences and, in more recent years, are conscious of interpreting their findings against a background of reader-response criticism. This awareness is evident, for example, in the work of Tucker (1980) who, in a paper entitled ‘Can We Ever Know the Reader’s Response?’ argues that children’s responses are different from adults’ (in, say, the relative emphasis they give to the quality of the writing as opposed to the pace of the plot) before he goes on to relate their responses to intellectual and emotional development as psychologists describe it (the subject of his subsequent book (Tucker 1981)). In the highly influential work of Meek, too, from The Cool Web (Meek et al. 1977) onwards, reader-response criticism has been one of her perspectives - evident, for example, in her ‘Prolegomena for a Study of Children’s Literature’ (1980: 35) and in her exploration of the relationship between literacy and literature in her account of the reading lessons to be found in picture books (Meek 1988). Or again, in the discussion of their findings of children’s reading preferences at ten-plus, twelve-plus and fourteen-plus, Whitehead and his team speculate about the cognitive and affective factors involved in the interaction between children and their books. All are aware that response-oriented criticism should be able to tell us more about this interaction at different ages.

Developmental stages in literary reading are outlined by Jackson (1982), Protherough (1983) and Thomson (1986) on the basis of classroom enquiries with young readers as we have already seen; and there have been some small-scale studies of reading development focused upon responses to specific books. Hickman (1983) studied three classes, totalling ninety primary-school-aged children, and monitored their spontaneous responses, variations in solicited verbal responses, the implications of non-responses, and the role of the teacher in respect of two texts: Silverstein’s Where the Sidewalk Ends (1974) and McPhail’s The Magical Drawings of Moony B. Finch (1978). She was interested in the age-related patterns of responses and in the influences of the class teacher. Cullinan et al. (1983) discuss the relationship between pupils’ comprehension and response to literature and report the results of a study, conducted with eighteen readers in grades 4, 6 and 8, which focused on readings of and taped responses to Paterson’s Bridge to Terabithia (1977) and Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea (1968). Their data confirmed that there are clear developmental levels in children’s comprehension and they claim that: ‘Reader-response provides a way to look at the multidimensional nature of comprehension’ (37). Galda (1992) has subsequently reported on a four-year longitudinal study of eight readers’ readings of selected books representing realistic and fantasy fiction in order to explore any differences in responses to these two genres. The ‘realistic’ texts included Paterson’s Bridge to Terabithia (1977) and S. E. Hinton’s The Outsiders (1968); the ‘fantasy’ texts included L’Engle’s A Wind in the Door (1973) and Cooper’s The Dark is Rising (1981). She considers reading factors, such as developing analytical ability, and text factors, arguing that children find it easier to enter the world of realistic fiction than they do of fantasy stories; and concludes by advocating the ‘spectator role’ (Harding 1937; Britton 1970) as a stance that offers readers access to both genres.


Types of reader behaviour

The third theme concerns different sorts of readers or readings. It would be too much to claim that there is an established typology of readers; there have been few studies that venture beyond generalised discussions such as that between ‘interrogative’ and ‘acquiescent’ reading styles (Benton and Fox 1985: 16-17), itself a tentative extension of Holland’s (1975) notion of personal style in reading behaviour. One study that does make some clear category decisions is that of Dias and Hayhoe (1988: 52-8) in respect of fourteen- and fifteen-year-old pupils reading and responding to poems. Their ‘responding-aloud protocols’ (RAPs), described earlier, revealed four patterns of reading: paraphrasing, thematising, allegorising and problem solving. They stress that these are patterns of reading not readers (57) but have difficulty throughout in maintaining this discrimination. None the less, theirs is the most sophisticated account to date of that phenomenon that most teachers and others concerned with children’s books have noticed without being able to explain, namely that individual children reveal personal patterns of reading behaviour irrespective of the nature of the book being read. The study of these four reading patterns under the sub-headings of what the reader brings to the text, the reader’s moves, closure, the reader’s relationship with the text, and other elements is one that needs to be replicated and developed in relation to other types of text.

Fry (1985) explored the novel reading of six young readers (two eight-year-olds, two twelve-year-olds, two fifteen-year-olds) through tape-recorded conversations over a period of eight months. The six case studies give some vivid documentary evidence of individual responses (for example, on the ways readers see themselves in books (99)) and also raise general issues such as re-readings, the appeal of series writers like Blyton, the relation of text fiction and film fiction, and the developmental process. Many and Cox’s (1992) collection of papers includes their own development of Rosenblatt’s efferent/aesthetic distinction in respect of the stances adopted by a class of ten-year-olds in their responses to Byars’s The Summer of the Swans (1970) and other stories. Encisco, in the same collection, builds upon Benton’s (1983) model of the secondary world and gives an exhaustive case-study of one ten-year-old girl’s reading of chapters from three stories in order to observe the strategies she uses to create her story world from these texts. Benton’s development of the secondary world concept, after Tolkien (1938) and Auden (1968), is reappraised in Many and Cox (1992: 15-18 and 23-48) and has also been extended by the author to incorporate aspects of the visual arts, notably paintings and picture books (Benton 1992a). The concept as originally formulated appeared in the special issue of the Journal of Research and Development of Education (Agee and Galda 1983) along with several other articles that focus upon readers’ behaviours. Beach (1983) looks at what the reader brings to the text and reports an enquiry aimed at determining the effects of differences in prior knowledge of literary conventions and attitudes on readers’ responses through a comparison between high school and college English education students’ responses to a short story by Updike. Pillar (1983) discusses aspects of moral judgement in response to fairy tales and presents the findings from a study of the responses of sixty elementary school children to three fables. The responses are discussed in terms of the principles of justice that distinguish them. This enquiry edges us towards the fourth theme, where reader-response methods are employed in culturally oriented studies.


Culturally oriented studies

Children’s concepts and social attitudes have been the subject of reader-response enquiries in three complementary ways: multicultural and feminist studies, which explore how far literature can be helpful in teaching about issues of race or gender; whole-culture studies, which consider children’s responses to literature in the context of the broad range of their interests; and cross-cultural studies, which compare the responses of young readers from different countries to the same texts to identify similarities and cultural differences. An article and a book about each group must suffice to indicate the emphases and the degree to which reader-response theory and practice have been influential.

Evans (1992) contains several studies with explicitly cultural concerns, among which is ‘Feminist Approaches to Teaching: John Updike’s “A & P”’ by Bogdan et al, which sets out to explore gender issues in the classroom via Updike’s short story. They quote Kolodny (in Showalter 1985: 158) in support of the shift feminist studies makes from seeing reader-response in a purely experiential dimension to a more philosophical enquiry into how ‘aesthetic response is ... invested with epistemological, ethical, and moral concerns’. The feminist position is stated explicitly: ‘Reading pleasure can no longer be its own end-point, but rather part of a larger dialectical process which strives for an “altered reading attentiveness” to gender in every reading act’ (Evans 1992: 151). This dialectical response model is further elaborated and augmented by specific pedagogical suggestions to help young readers towards this new attentiveness.

Within the broadly, and somewhat uncomfortably, defined field of multicultural education, the most sophisticated use of reader-response criticism and practice is Beverley Naidoo’s (1992) enquiry into the role of literature, especially fiction, in educating young people about race. Working with a teacher and his class of all-white thirteen- to fourteen- year-old pupils over a period of one academic year, Naidoo introduced a sequence of four novels to their work with increasingly explicit racial issues: Buddy (Hinton 1983), Friedrich (Richter 1978), Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry (Taylor 1976) and Waiting for the Rain (Gordon 1987). Influenced by Hollindale’s (1988) notion of ‘the reader as ideologist’, Rosenblatt’s (1978; 1985) transactional theory and Benton’s ethnographic approach to reader-response enquiries (Benton et al. 1988), Naidoo adopted an action-researcher role to develop ‘ways of exploring these texts which encouraged empathy with the perspective of characters who were victims of racism but who resisted it’ (22). Written and oral responses in journals and discussion were at the centre of the procedures. Many challenging and provocative issues are examined through this enquiry, including overt and institutionalised racism, whether teaching about race challenges or merely reinforces racism, the nature of empathy and the gender differences pupils exhibited. The cultural context, especially the subculture of the particular classroom, emerged as a dominant theme. The subtle interrelatedness of text, context, readers and writers is sensitively explored in a study that shows how reader-response methods can help to illuminate the values and attitudes that readers sometimes hide, even from themselves.

The second group of whole-culture studies tends to focus upon adolescent readers. Stories and poems, especially those encountered in school, are seen as but one aspect of the cultural context in which teenagers live and in which books are low on their agenda after television, computer games, rock music, comics and magazines. Beach and Freedman’s (1992) paper, ‘Responding as a Cultural Act: Adolescents’ Responses to Magazine Ads and Short Stories’ widens the perspective from the individual reader’s ‘personal’ and ‘unique’ responses to accommodate the notion of response as a cultural practice. They discuss the cultural practices required in adolescent peer groups and note the ways in which these are derived from experiences with the mass media, with examples from adolescents’ responses to magazine advertisements and short stories. Particular points of interest in the responses of these 115 eighth- and eleventh-grade pupils are the gender differences, the tendency to blur fiction and reality when talking about the advertising images, and the low incidence of critical responses.

Reader-response criticism also influences Sarland’s (1991) study of young people’s reading. He takes seriously both Chambers’s (1977) account of the implied child reader (discussed below) and Meek’s (1987) plea for an academic study of children’s literature which situates it within the whole culture of young people. Building on Fry’s (1985) work, he considers the popular literature that children read both in relation to a culture dominated by television and video and in relation to the ‘official’ literature read in school. By eliciting and analysing students’ responses to such books as King’s Carrie (1974) and Herbert’s The Fog (1975), Sarland draws upon response-oriented theory and practice to discuss the importance of these texts to their readers and to begin to open up a subculture of which, at best, teachers are usually only hazily aware.

Cross-cultural studies are relatively uncommon for the obvious reason that they are more difficult to set up and sustain. Bunbury and Tabbert’s article for Children’s Literature in Education (1989, reprinted Hunt 1992) compared the responses of Australian and German children to an Australian bush-ranger story, Stow’s Midnite (1967/1982). Using Jauss’s notion of ‘ironic identification’, where the reader is drawn in and willingly submits to the fictional illusion only to have the author subvert this aesthetic experience, the enquiry considered a range of responses; while there are interesting insights into individual readings, it none the less ends inconclusively by stating: ‘The best we can say is that the capacity to experience ironic identification extends along a spectrum of reading encounters which vary in intensity’ (Hunt 1992: 124). The study is ambitious in tackling two difficult topics whose relationship is complex: children’s sense of the tone of a text and the effect of translation upon the readers’ responses. To begin to open up such issues is an achievement in itself.

Chapter 6 of Dias and Hayhoe’s (1988) book makes explicit the international perspective on the teaching of poetry that permeates the whole of this Anglo-Canadian collaboration. Views from Australia, Britain, Canada and the USA on good practice in poetry teaching all share the same principle of developing pupils’ responses. Clearly, crosscultural influences grow more readily and are more easily monitored in English-speaking countries than elsewhere; yet there is sufficient evidence here of cultural diversity to encourage other researchers to explore the ways in which we can learn from each other about how children’s responses to literature are mediated by the cultural contexts in which they occur.


Text-oriented studies

Studies of children’s literature which directly parallel the work of, say, Iser (1974) or Fish (1980) in their close examination of particular texts are surprisingly rare. It is as if those who work in this field have been so concerned with pedagogy and children as readers that they have failed to exploit reader-response criticism as a means of understanding the nature of actual texts. Two concepts, however, which have received some attention are the ‘implied reader’ and the notion of ‘intertextuality’. The first, developed by Iser (1974) after Booth (1961), for a time encouraged the search for the ‘implied child reader’ in children’s books; the second followed from enquiries into how readers make meaning and the realisation of the complex relationships that exist between the readers, the text, other texts, other genres, and the cultural context of any ‘reading’.

Although Chambers (1977) and Tabbert (1980) gave the lead, the implied child reader remains a neglected figure in children’s book criticism. In ‘The Reader in the Book’ Chambers takes Iser’s concept and advocates its central importance in children’s book criticism. He illustrates Roald Dahl’s assumptions about the implied adult reader of his story ‘The Champion of the World’ (1959) in contrast to those about the implied child reader of the rewritten version in the children’s book Danny: The Champion of the World (1975), and argues that the narrative voice and textual features of the latter create a sense of an intimate, yet adult-controlled, relationship between the implied author and the implied child reader. He generalises from this example to claim that this voice and this relationship are common in children’s books, and identifies both with the figure of the ‘friendly adult storyteller who knows how to entertain children while at the same time keeping them in their place’ (69). Much of the remainder of his article rests upon two further narrative features: ‘the adoption of a child point of view’ (72) to sustain this adult-author/ child- reader relationship; and the deployment within the text of indeterminacy gaps which the reader must fill in order to generate meanings. These three characteristics - the literary relationship, the point of view, and the tell-tale gaps - are then exemplified in a critique of Boston’s The Children of Green Knowe (1954).

Chambers’s article is already regarded as a landmark in the development of criticism (Hunt 1990: 90), not least because it opened up one means of defining the singular character of a form of literature that is designated by its intended audience. That this lead has been followed so infrequently calls into question the seriousness of the whole critical enterprise in this field. Among the few who have exploited these concepts in relation to children’s books is Tabbert (1980), who comments usefully on the notion of ‘telling gaps’ and ‘the implied reader’ in some classic children’s texts and sees a fruitful way forward in psychologically oriented criticism, particularly in the methodology adopted by Holland. Benton (1992a) parallels the historically changing relationship between implied author and implied reader that is found in Iser’s (1974) studies of Fielding, Thackeray and Joyce, with a corresponding critique of the openings of three novels by children’s authors - Hughes’s Tom Brown’s Schooldays (1856), Day Lewis’s The Otterbury Incident (1948) and Garner’s Red Shift (1973). The emphases, however, here are upon the nature of the collaborative relationship and upon narrative technique rather than on the implied child reader. Shavit (1983: 60-7) extends Iser’s concept to embrace the notion of childhood as well as the child as implied reader. After a historical perspective on the idea of childhood, the discussion focuses upon various versions of ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ in order to explore ‘how far they were responsible for different implied readers’ (61). In particular, she argues that prevailing notions of childhood helped determine the changing character of these texts over several centuries from Perrault’s version to those of the present day.

By far the most rigorous account of the implied reader is that of Stephens (1992), given from a position that is sceptical about a mode of reading which locates the reader only within the text and ignores questions of ideology. He argues that in critical practice the being or meaning of the text is best characterised as ‘a dialectic between textual discourse (including its construction of an implied reader and a range of potential subject positions) and a reader’s disposition, familiarity with story conventions and experiential knowledge’ (59). His account of ideology and the implied reader in two picture books (Cooper and Hutton, The Selkie Girl, 1986; Gerstein, The Seal Mother, 1986) develops this argument and leads him to take issue with Chambers’s view of the implied reader on ideological grounds. He says of Chambers’s account that: ‘his own ideology of reading demands a reified “implicated” reader, led by textual strategies to discover a determinate meaning’ (67). Stephens’s conceptualisation of the implied reader is significant both of itself and in helping to explain the paucity of critical effort in this area following Chambers’s article. For it tells us that criticism has moved on and, in particular, that such concepts can no longer be regarded as innocent aspects of narrative.

Stephens, too, offers the fullest account to date of intertextuality in the third chapter of his book, ‘Not by Words Alone: Language, Intertextuality and Society’ (1992: 84-119). He outlines seven kinds of relationship which may exist between a particular text and any other texts and goes on to discuss various manifestations of intertextuality in children’s literature, notably in fairy tales. Agee (1983: 55-9) concentrates on the narrower focus of literary allusion and reader-response and begins to explore the intertextual patterning of such books as Z for Zachariah (O’Brien 1977), Jacob I Have Loved (Paterson 1981) and Fahrenheit 451 (Bradbury 1967). Stephens and Agee both approach the topic exclusively through the study of texts.

Meek (1988) keeps young readers constantly in view when she draws upon the intertext of oral and written literature, together with the Iserian concepts of the implied reader and indeterminacy gaps, in her brief but widely acclaimed paper ‘How Texts Teach What Readers Learn’. Her main texts are picture books: the telling gaps in Rosie’s Walk (Hutchins 1969) and Granpa (Burningham 1984) and the play of intertexts in The Jolly Postman (Ahlberg 1986) and the short story ‘William’s Version’ (Mark 1980) are explored with great subtlety, and display, above all, the quality that distinguishes the best sort of criticism of children’s literature: the ability to listen to children’s responses to a book and to ‘read’ these with the same effort of attention that is afforded to the text themselves. Reader-response criticism accommodates both the reader and the text; there is no area of literary activity where this is more necessary than in the literature that defines itself by reference to its young readership.



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Further reading

Beach, R. (1993) A Teacher’s Introduction to Reader-Response Theories, Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English.

Benton, M. (2000) Studies in the Spectator Role: Literature, Painting and Pedagogy, London: RoutledgeFalmer.

Britton, B. and Graesser, A. (eds.) (1966) Models of Understanding Text, Mawah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Cranny-Francis, A. (1992) Engendered Eiction: Analysing Gender in the Production and Perception of Texts, Kensington, NSW: New South Wales University Press.

Davis, T. F. and Womak, K. (2001) Formalist Criticism and Reader-Response Theory, New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Esrock. E. J. (1994) The Reader’s Eye: Visual Imaging as Reader Response, Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Feagen, S. L. (1996) Reading with Eeeling: The Aesthetics of Appreciation, Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Kintsch, W. (1998) Comprehension: A Paradigm for Cognition, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Nardocchio, E. (ed.) (1992) Reader Response to Literature: The Empirical Dimension, Berlin: de Gruyter.

Nell, V. (1988) Lost in a Book: The Psychology of Reading for Pleasure, New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.