Composition - Narrative theory and children’s literature - Theory and critical approaches - children’s literature

Children’s literature

Part I. Theory and critical approaches


12. Narrative theory and children’s literature


Maria Nikolajeva




Those scholars who believe that children’s fiction is ‘simple’ have often studied formulaic and genre-bound stories with their recurrent plot patterns and stock characters, thus ascribing to children’s fiction at large the features inherent in only a fraction of it (e.g. Nodelman 1985). Formalist and Structuralist theories, that can be viewed as forerunners to contemporary narratology, have also mostly focused on plot-oriented narratives, such as folk tales (Propp 1968; Greimas 1983; Todorov 1977), fantasy and horror (Todorov 1973) and adventure and romance (Cawelty 1976; Eco 1979). These models are well suited for certain types of texts, but when Seymour Chatman claims that Formalist theory is ‘inadequate’ (Chatman 1978: 131), he presumably means that it is inadequate for analysing complex character-oriented narratives. It can, on the other hand, be fully adequate to analyse some aspects of a children’s narrative that closely follows the structure of folk tale, such as The Tale of Peter Rabbit (Neumeyer 1977) or a Harry Potter novel (Zipes 2001: 176f). When Peter Hunt quite correctly questions the value of applying Propp’s model to The Outsiders (Hunt 1984: 193), it is not the matter of deficient theory as such, but of choosing the wrong implement for the task. The fallacy is often the consequence, once again, of uncritically viewing children’s literature as a single, homogeneous genre, rather than a form that embraces many genres. Thus Formalism and Structuralism may prove sufficient for certain ‘simple’ genres of children’s literature; for complex narratives, we need the more subtle tools that narratology provides us with.

A much-debated question in narratology is the minimal demand for a narrative, as distinct from a reflection, a description or an argument. Most critics agree that causality and temporality are the indispensable elements. Causality is usually stronger in children’s literature, since authors apparently believe that young readers need clear relations between cause and effect, although there is no empirical research to prove this. The same is true of the idea that children prefer stories told in chronological order. In actual texts, there are always deviations from this strict chronological order in the form of temporal switches, interplay of different temporal levels, and so on. In contemporary children’s novels, temporal patterns can be extremely complicated; it has almost become a convention in itself, the paradigm set by such works as Dance on My Grave by Aidan Chambers, Johnny My Friend by Peter Pohl, or Walk Two Moons by Sharon Creech. Narrative theory not only helps critics to unravel the intricate temporal structures, but to put questions about their purpose and effect. A frequent temporal device is a flashback, or analepsis, a temporal switch to a time preceding the primary narrative. In children’s literature, there are certain limitations to the use of this device. For instance, with a first-person child narrator, that can be attractive for the author as it occasionally allows more self-reflection, the flashback cannot reach beyond the character’s age if the illusion of first-hand access to information is to be maintained. The temporal switch to the time following the primary narrative, flashforward, or prolepsis, is considered by narratologists to be less frequent (Genette 1980: 67). In children’s literature, didactic prolepses are on the contrary quite common, both in impersonal narration (‘She would remember for the rest of her life ...’) and in personal narration (‘As I realised many years later ...’), emphasising the distance between the narrator’s time and the narrative time. Fantasy novels for children presuppose another temporal pattern either ignored by narratologists or presented as exceptional: paralepsis, implying that time in the primary plot freezes while characters are transported into secondary worlds. The various patterns of narrative order, described by narratologists (Genette 1980: 33-85; Rimmon-Kenan 1983: 43-58; Bal 1997: 80-98), thus function rather differently in children’s texts.

Authors also make a selection of events and the ways they are rendered in a narrative: some may be narrated in detail, so that it takes as long to narrate an event as it takes for the event to happen (scene) or the events of several weeks or even years are rendered in a few sentences (summary). The various patterns of narrative duration, or rhythm, discussed in general narrative studies (Genette 1980: 86-112; Bal 1997: 99-110), often work differently in children’s literature. It is often assumed to be less appropriate to include long descriptive pauses in children’s books, since these slow down the plot, and it is true that ellipses, or temporal gaps, that in adult fiction can cover several years, are used rarely in children’s novels. In early children’s fiction, it was more common to have summaries, especially in domestic novels that often cover a large time span. Modern children’s novels tend to have a relatively short time span, concentrating on a dramatic turning point rather than a whole life story; therefore there are fewer summaries and more detailed scenes. Studies of duration point to the changing aesthetics of children’s literature.

Debate surrounds what kind of events and plots are typical of and suitable for children’s literature. A distinct feature of children’s literature is the disproportionately common use of episodic plots, for instance Astrid Lindgren’s Pippi Langstrump or Beverly Cleary’s Ramona books. Presumably, episodic plot is geared towards younger children with a short attention span (again, there is no empirical research to confirm this). Another children’s-literature-specific plot is the cumulative, in which a new character is added in each episode. This can allegedly help young readers to keep track of characters; it may also reflect the child’s gradually growing network of relationships. Winnie-the-Pooh is possibly the best-known example.

The construction of plots is in many ways different in children’s literature. Some narra- tologists suggest that human life provides the impeccable plot: ‘What more perfect beginning than birth or more perfect ending than death?’ (Scholes and Kellogg 1966: 211). For obvious reasons, such a plot would not work in a children’s book, where a character supposedly cannot even enter adulthood without the novel ceasing to be children’s literature (cf. the much-quoted ending of Tom Sawyer). Even though it is not uncommon, especially in sequels, to follow the protagonist into adulthood, contemporary writers, presumably on the basis of modern child psychology, avoid biographical plots, instead focusing either on a turning point in the protagonist’s life or on the most formative years. Ostensibly, not even the whole life span of a seven- or ten-year-old protagonist is easily grasped by a young reader and therefore is of little interest. Yet most plots in children’s fiction are indeed constructed in the traditional manner, with a beginning, middle and end, following either the romantic pattern, ‘desire to consummation’ (Scholes and Kellogg 1966: 212), or occasionally the moral one, ‘redemption and atonement’ (216), even though contemporary children’s fiction seems to be gradually abandoning this convention as well. The specific feature of children’s literature plots is that they are usually more quickly paced and dynamic, more causally dependent, and commonly relatively compact, avoiding auxiliary and parallel plots. However, all these features are changing considerably in contemporary children’s fiction, which in this respect is moving closer to the mainstream.

In Aristotelian poetics, a distinction is made between comic and tragic plots, or plots with upwards or downwards movement. In a comic plot (implying an upwards movement, not that the events described are funny), a character disempowered and oppressed in the beginning gains power and riches in the end, as in many fairy tales. In a tragic plot, a character with power is brought down, either by fate or his own actions (for instance Oedipus or King Lear). Traditionally, children’s literature favours comic plots, which, paradoxically, can include death that allows child protagonists to stay innocent for ever (for instance, George MacDonald’s At the Back of the North Wind (1871)). In contemporary children’s fiction, tragic plots with downward movement have started to be employed, for instance Katherine Paterson’s The Great Gilly Hopkins (1978) or many of Peter Pohl’s novels, featuring a child who is self-confident in the beginning and lost in the end.

This also brings us to a question much discussed in connection with the intrinsic features of children’s literature: that is, the happy ending. Narrative analysis can help us to distinguish between structural closure (a satisfactory round-up of the plot) and psychological closure, bringing the protagonist’s personal conflicts into balance (cf. Kermode 1968; Stephens 1992: 42ff). In a children’s story these often coincide, apparently because it is considered appropriate for young readers. However, there may be a discrepancy between the structural and psychological closure. For instance, the arrival in their grandmother’s house is a natural way to finish the journey in Cynthia Voight’s Homecoming (1981); yet it does not resolve the main conflict of the story, or bring back the children’s mother, and it does not necessarily promise an easy and happy future for the characters. Similarly, the reconciliation with the father in Dianna Hofmeyr’s Boikie You Better Believe It (1994) may be a temporary solution, but not a permanent one.

The consonant closure, or the conventional happy ending, is something that many adults immediately associate with children’s literature, and that many scholars put forward as an essential requirement in a good children’s book (‘optimistic, with happy endings’ (Nodelman 1992: 192; see also Inglis 1981)). Many early children’s books and most formulaic stories indeed have a happy ending, or some resolution (cf. Hunt 1984: 194; 1991: 127), but in some contemporary novels there is a break from the ‘typical’ children’s literature plot defined as circular, home-away-home (Nodelman 1992: 192-3) on both psychological and structural levels - a move towards the linear or unresolved, more common in adult literature. A further development is a total disintegration of the conventional Aristotelian plot structure (exposition-complication-climax-resolution). Certain modernist and postmodernist mainstream novels are described as ‘a slice of life,’ a middle narrative, without a natural beginning or end. So far, children’s literature with its strong focus on action has not produced many examples of this.