Academic attitudes - Definitions, themes, changes, attitudes - Introduction - children’s literature

Children’s literature

1. Introduction

Definitions, themes, changes, attitudes


Margaret Meek


Academic attitudes


The first section of the Encyclopedia makes the claim, which the rest of the book is summoned to support, that children’s literature is worthy of serious scholarly attention. The implication is that, like its adult counterpart, children’s literature promotes and invites critical theory, notably in the study of the relation of texts to children’s development as readers. The essays in this section document some recent moves in this direction so as to demonstrate the evolution of a discipline fit for academic recognition and institutionalised research.

Although many serious books about children’s literature throw light on established ways of studying literature tout pur, conservative scholars and teachers, concerned about the dilutions of their topic specialisms and the blurring of canonical boundaries, have declared children’s literature to be a soft reading option, academically lightweight. Once fairly widespread, this attitude has been increasingly eroded by those who have demonstrated in books for children both different kinds of texts and distinctive interactions between texts and readers. Scholars interested in the relation of literature to literacy, who ask questions about access to texts and exclusion from them, know that social differences in children’s learning to read are part of any study of literary competences. Resistance to the notion of the ‘universal child’ and to common assumptions of what is ‘normal’ in interpretative reading provoke new questions, especially feminist ones, in ethnography, cultural studies and social linguistics. In all of these established disciplines there is a context for discussing the contents of children’s books. But there is also the possibility for new perspectives which begin with books, children and reading. These have been slowly growing over time, but have not simply been accommodated elsewhere.

Shifts in this kind of awareness can be seen as far back as Henry James’s recognition of the difference between Treasure Island and other Victorian novels for children. In 1949 Geoffrey Trease insisted that reviewers of post-war children’s books needed new categories of judgement. For many years in the second half of the twentieth century in Britain, just to make children’s books visible beyond the confines of specialist journals such as Junior Bookshelf and The School Librarian was something of a triumph. More support came from the London Times Literary Supplement in the 1960s, but children’s literature remained a kind of appendage to serious publishing until the artists and authors who transformed it were backed by contracts, distribution and promotion so that they became socially recognisable. The world inside the books continued for a long time to be predominantly that of the literate middle classes. Critics thought that their obligation was to set the standards for the ‘best’ books, so as to separate ‘literature’ from ephemeral reading matter, comics and the like. If there was no evident body of criticism, no real acceptance of the necessary relation of literature to literacy, there were prizes for ‘the best’ books in different categories. Among these was The Other Award to recognise what more conventional judges ignored or thought irrelevant: minority interests and social deprivation.

Academic research in children’s literature is still a novelty if it is not psychological, historical or bibliographical - that is, detailed, factual, esoteric, fitting into the research traditions of diverse disciplines, especially those which establish their history, closed to those unschooled in the foundation exercises of the disciplines of dating. There is, I know, splendid writing about careful observations of children reading selected texts in hardbound theses in some university libraries where education studies admit such topics. But who, besides competent tutors, admits as evidence the transcripts of classroom interactions which show readers breaking through the barriers of interpretation? Peter Hunt, reminding an audience in 1994 that the first British children’s literature research conference was in 1979, suggested that this research enterprise has ‘followed inappropriate models and mind-sets, especially with regard to its readership’. That is, ‘we often produce lesser research when we should be producing different research’ (Hunt 1994: 10). He advocates ‘the inevitable interactiveness of “literature” and “the literary experience” ’ as worthy of analysis. Readers of the Encyclopedia will doubtless comment on this proposal.

Meanwhile, the most fully developed critical theory of children’s literature is that of readers’ responses to what they read. Most of the evidence for children’s progress in reading and interpretation of literary texts comes from classrooms where teachers observe and appraise children’s interactions with books as they read them. By foregrounding the readers’ constitution of textual meaning, reading-response theory has become the most frequently quoted theoretical position in relation to books for children. What it also makes clear is the lack of any fully grounded research on the nature of the development of these competences over the total period of children’s schooling.

In contrast to the notion of ‘response’, critics who derive their insights from social linguistics stress the power of authors to make young readers ‘surrender to the flow of the discourse’; that is, to become ‘lost in a book’. Sociolinguists are concerned that, having learned to read, young people should be taught to discern the author’s ‘chosen registers’, so as to discover how a text is composed or constructed. Then, the claim is, readers will understand, from their responses to the text, ‘who is doing what to whom’, and thus become ‘critically’ literate.

Even more challenging is Jacqueline Rose’s assertion about the ‘impossibility’ of children’s fiction:


the impossible relation between adult and child. Children’s literature is clearly about that relation, but it has the remarkable characteristics of being about something which it hardly ever talks of. If children’s fiction builds an image of the child inside the book, it does so in order to secure the child who is outside the book, the one who does not come so easily within its grasp.

(Rose 1984: 1)


There are ways of countering this view, but none the less it has to be considered. Later, Rose offers a less controvertible utterance, probably the reason so many adult readers find solace in children’s literature:


Reading is magic (if it has never been experienced by the child as magic then the child will be unable to read); it is also an experience which allows the child to master the vagaries of living, to strengthen and fortify the ego, and to integrate the personality - a process ideally to be elicited by the aesthetic coherence of the book.

(Rose 1984: 135)


Rose’s examination of the textual condition of Peter Pan, the new tone of this criticism and the different paths she follows have opened up a number of possibilities for the theoretical consideration of children’s books, even beyond the revelations that come from her social editing of the texts. One of these considerations is extended in Peter Hollindale’s ‘Ideology and the Children’s Book’. Here children’s literature is detached from the earlier division of those concerned with it into ‘child people and book people’, and firmly joined to studies of history and culture in the ‘drastically divided country’ that is Britain. Going beyond the visible surface features of a text children read in order to discover how they read it, Hollindale insists we ‘take into account the individual writer’s unexamined assumptions’. When we do that, we discover that ‘ideology is an inevitable, untameable and largely uncontrollable factor in the transaction between books and children’ (Hollindale 1988: 10). Thus we are bound to accept that all children’s literature is inescapably didactic.

In the 1980s and 1990s, critics of children’s literature experimented with the take-over of the whole baggage of critical theory derived from adult literature and tried it for its fit. Most now agree that reading is sex-coded and gender-inflected, that writers and artists have become aware that an array of audiences beyond the traditional literary elite are becoming readers of all kinds of texts. Moreover, before they leave school, children can learn to interrogate texts, to read ‘against’ them so that their literacy is more critical than conformist. Some theoretical positions are shown to have more explanatory power than others: intertextuality is a condition of much writing in English; metafiction is a game which even very young readers play skilfully (Lewis 1990). There are also experimental procedures, as yet untagged, which show artists and writers making the most of the innocence of beginning readers to engage them in new reading games.

If children’s literature begets new critical theory and moves further into the academic circle it will become subject to institutional conventions and regulations which are not those of the old protectionist ethos. This may give new scholars more recognition, more power even, to decide what counts as children’s literature and how it is to be studied. There will be no escape, however, from learning how children read their world, the great variety of its texts beyond print and pictures. Interactions of children and books will go on outside the academy, as has ever been the case, in the story-telling of young minds operating on society ‘at the very edge of the forest’, inventing, imagining, hypothesising, all in the future tense.

The contents of this Encyclopedia are a tribute to all, mentioned or not, who have worked in the domain of children’s books during the twentieth century, and earlier, and to those who continue to do so. The hope is that, in the third millennium, by having been brought together here, their efforts will be continued and prove fruitful.



Appleyard, J. A. (1990) Becoming a Reader: The Experience of Eiction from Childhood to Adulthood, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Barthes, R. (1974) S/Z: An Essay, New York: Hill and Wang.

Bruner, J. (1986) Actual Minds, Possible Worlds, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Carpenter, H. and Prichard, M. (1984) The Oxford Companion to Children’s Literature, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Carter, A. (1990) The Virago Book of Fairy Tales, London: Virago.

Cole, B. (1993) Mummy Laid an Egg, London: Cape.

Crago, H. and Crago, M. (1983) Prelude to Literacy: A Pre-School Child’s Encounter with Picture and Story, Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press.

Darton, F. J. H. (1932/1982) Children’s Books in England: Eive Centuries of Social Life, 3rd edn, rev. Alderson, B., Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Eco, U. (1983) Reflections on ‘The Name of the Rose’, trans. Weaver, W., London: Secker and Warburg.

Fisher, M. (1964) Intent upon Reading, rev. edn, Leicester: Brockhampton Press.

Fox, C. (1993) At the Very Edge of the Forest: The Influence of Literature on Storytelling by Children, London: Cassell.

Garfield, L. (1985) Shakespeare Stories, London: Gollancz.

Hardy, B. (1968/1977) ‘Narrative as a Primary Act of Mind’, in Meek, M., Warlow, A. and Barton, G. (eds) The Cool Web, London: Bodley Head.

Hollindale, P. (1988) ‘Ideology and the Children’s Book’, Signal 55: 3-22.

Hunt, P. (1994) ‘Researching the Fragmented Subject’, in Broadbent, N., Hogan, A., Wilson, G. and Miller, M. (eds) Research in Children’s Literature: A Coming of Age?, Southampton: LSU.

Le Gum, U. (1981) ‘Why Are We Huddling round the Camp Fire?’, in Mitchell, W. J. T. (ed.) On Narrative, Chicago, IL: Chicago University Press.

- (1989) Dancing at the Edge of the World: Thoughts on Words, Women, Places, London: Paladin.

Lewis, D. (1990) ‘The Constructedness of Texts: Picture Books and the Metafictive’, Signal 62: 131-46.

Lurie, A. (1990) Don’t Tell the Grown-Ups: Subversive Children’s Literature, London: Bloomsbury.

McGann, J. J. (1991) The Textual Condition, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Mackey, M. (1995) ‘Communities of Fictions: Story, Format, and Thomas the Tank Engine’, Children’s Literature in Education 26, 1: 39-52.

Paley, V. G. (1981) Wally’s Stories, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Philip, N. (1989) The Cinderella Story: The Origins and Variations of the Story Known as ‘Cinderella’, London: Penguin.

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

Rushdie, S. (1990) Haroun and the Sea of Stories, London: Granta.

Smith, F. (1990) To Think, New York: Teachers’ College Press.

Townsend, J. R. (1965/1990) Written for Children, 5th edn, London: Bodley Head.

Trease, G. (1949) Tales Out of School, London: Heinemann.

Wolf, S. A. and Brice Heath, S. (1992) The Braid of Literature: Children’s Worlds of Reading, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Zipes, J. (1983) Fairy Tales and the Art of Subversion, New York: Wildman.


Further reading

Chambers, A. (1991) The Reading Environment, South Woodchester: Thimble Press.

Fry, D. (1985) Children Talk about Books: Seeing Themselves as Readers, Milton Keynes: Open University Press.

Meek, M. (ed.) (2001) Children’s Literature and National Identity, Stoke on Trent: Trentham.

Nodelman, P. and Reimer, M. (2003) The Pleasures of Children’s Literature, 3rd edn, Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

Scholes, R. (1989) Protocols of Reading, New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Styles, M., Bearne, E. and Watson, V. (eds) (1994) The Prose and the Passion: Children and Their Reading, London: Cassell.

Weinreich, T. (2000) Children’s Literature - Art or Pedagogy?, Frederiksberg: Roskilde University Press.