Intertextuality and the child reader - Theory and critical approaches - children’s literature

Children’s literature

Part I. Theory and critical approaches


13. Intertextuality and the child reader


Christine Wilkie-Stibbs


The term ‘intertextuality’ is now common in literary discourse. It is used most often and most simply to refer to literary allusions and to direct quotation from literary and nonliterary texts. But this is only one small part of the theory, which has its origins in the work of Julia Kristeva (1969) and Mikhail Bakhtin (1973). Since poststructuralist thinking has extended the idea of the text beyond the boundaries of its being merely a written discourse, the possibilities for theories and theorisations of intertextuality are now legion. Intertex- tuality embraces discourse per se, in its uttered, illustrated, written, mimed or gestured manifestations; it includes images and moving images, the social and cultural context, subjectivities - which are the reading/seeing/speaking/writing/painting/thinking subjects - and, indeed, language itself. Theorists and teachers of literature alike are recognising the place of intertextual understandings in literary studies for readers’ reception and production of texts, as an adjunct to reader-response theory. Teachers are engaging with the concept of intertextuality in their use of literature with young children as a means by which to build up ‘interpretive communities’ (Fish 1980) among young readers, to give a window on the processes of meaning-making during a reading, and for engaging in text creation and production (see, for example, Bloome and Egan-Robertson 1993; Bromley 1996; Cairney 1990, 1992; Lemke 1992; Many and Anderson 1992; Short 1996; Sipe 2000). Intertextual considerations and understandings are also important in the translation of texts where a source text from one language and culture is translated for a culturally and linguistically different target audience (see Desmet 2001; O’Sullivan 1998).

Kristeva (1969: 146) coined the term ‘intertextuality’, recognising that texts can only have meaning because they depend on other texts, both written and spoken, and on what she calls the ‘intersubjective’ knowledge of their interlocutors, by which she meant their total knowledge - from other books, from language-in-use, and the context and conditions of the signifying practices which make meanings possible in groups and communities (Kristeva 1974/1984: 59-60). The literary text, then, is just one of the many sites where several different discourses converge, are absorbed, are transformed and assume a meaning because they are situated in this circular network of interdependence which is called the intertextual space.

Kristeva was keen to point out that intertextuality is not simply a process of recognising sources and influences. She built on the work of Bakhtin, who had identified the word as the smallest textual unit, situated in relation to three coordinates: of the writer, the text and exterior texts. For the first time in literary history, the literary text (the word) took on a spatial dimension when Bakhtin made it a fluid function between the writer/text (on the horizontal axis) and the text/context (on the vertical axis). This idea replaced the previous, Formalist notion that the literary text was a fixed point with a fixed meaning. Bakhtin described this process as a dialogue between several writings, and as the intersection of textual surfaces: ‘any text is a mosaic of quotations; any text is the absorption and transformation of another’ (in Kristeva 1980/1981: 66).

The theory of intertextuality was refined and extended by Jonathan Culler (1981), and by Roland Barthes (1970/1975), who included the reader as a constituent component of intertextuality. Culler described intertextuality as the general discursive space in which meaning is made intelligible and possible (1981: 103), and Barthes invented the term ‘infinite intertextuality’ to refer to the intertextual codes by which readers make sense of a literary work, which he calls a ‘mirage of citations’. They dwell equally in readers and in texts but the conventions and presuppositions cannot be traced to an original source or sources. ‘The “I” which approaches the text is already a plurality of other texts, of infinite, or more precisely, lost codes (whose origins are lost)’ (Barthes 1975/1976: 16).

The idea that texts are produced and readers/viewers make sense of them only in relation to the already embedded codes which dwell in texts and readers (and in authors too, since they are readers of texts before they are authors) has ramifications which challenge any claim to textual originality or discrete readings. In this sense, then, all texts and all readings are intertextual. This brings us close to Genette’s use of the term ‘transtextuality’ (1979: 85-90), by which he is referring to everything that influences a text either explicitly or implicitly.

This dynamic and spatial model of intertextuality has peculiar implications for an inter-textuality of children’s literature because the writer/reader axis is uniquely positioned in an imbalanced power relationship. Adults write for each other, but it is not usual for children to write literature for each other. This phenomenon would effectively make children the powerless recipients of what adults choose to write for them and children’s literature an intertextual sub-genre of adult literature. But we now know through the empirical studies involving young children in the ‘game of intertextuality’ that the intertextual processes through which children take ownership of a particular text preclude the imperialism of the text and the author. Inevitably, the phenomenon of intertextuality sets up a curious kind of hegemony in children’s books, in which adults who write for children (who by definition are no longer themselves children) consciously or unconsciously operate in and are influenced by the intertextual space which is the literature they read as children. That books read in childhood and childhood experiences have a profound bearing on adult perceptions is borne out by the numerous adults, many of whom are themselves writers of children’s books, who refer to the influences on them of their childhood reading matter. Examples can be found in Francis Spufford’s The Child That Books Built: A Memoir of Childhood and Reading (2002); in the short author biographies in Eccleshare’s Beatrix Potter to Harry Potter: Portraits of Children’s Writers (2002) of Malorie Blackman (122), Anne Fine (112), Shirley Hughes (114), Dick King-Smith (108), J. K. Rowling (101-3) Philip Pullman (124) and Jacqueline Wilson (120); and the sections in James Carter’s Talking Books (1999), ‘How the Reader Became a Writer’, relating to the numerous author/illustrator interviews. Nevertheless, and despite children’s demonstrable ability to take textual ownership through their own intertextual references, the writer/reader relationship is asymmetric because children’s intersubjective knowledge cannot be assured. A theory of intertextuality of children’s literature is, therefore, unusually preoccupied with questions about what a piece of writing (for children) presupposes. What does it assume, what must it assume to take on significance? (See Culler 1981: 101-2.)

For these reasons the interrelationship between the components of intertextuality, of writer/text/reader-text/reader/context, are quite special when we are addressing a theory of intertextuality of children’s literature. For example, we might legitimately ask what sense and meanings young readers make in their readings of Philip Pullman’s awardwinning His Dark Materials trilogy which, as Millicent Lenz points out, draws overtly and implicitly on intertextual references to particle physics and quantum mechanics, on deeply existential questions on the nature of sin and Fall, and is influenced by Milton’s Paradise Lost, the poetry of William Blake and the complex theory of natural grace in Henrich von Kleist’s essay, ‘On the Marionette Theatre’ (Hunt and Lenz 2001: 42-82).

By now it should be clear that the theory of intertextuality is dynamic and dialogic, located in theories of writing, reader-response theory, the social production of meaning, and intersubjectivity (the ‘I’ who is reading is a network of citations). It is also a theory of language because the reading subject, the text and the world are not only situated in language, they are also constructed by it. So, not only do we have a notion of all texts being intertextual, they become so because they are dialectically related to, and are themselves the products of, linguistic, cultural and literary codes and practices; and so too are readers, writers, illustrators and viewers.

In the process of making meaning with a particular text, we know that children (and adults, see Hartman 1995) have recourse to a battery of intertextual phenomena, calling upon, for example, their knowledge of previously read fictions, visual texts - film, illustration and TV programmes, texts of popular culture - cartoon, video, comic books, advertisements and songs (see Many and Anderson 1992; Bloome and Egan-Robertson 1993; Sipe 2000), and that they do so at many levels of textual engagement such as plot structures, character and character motivation, language and language patterns, themes and illustrations.

Culler (1975: 139), described the urge towards integrating one discourse with another, or several others, as a process of vraisemblance. It is the basis of intertextuality. Through this process of vraisemblance readers are able to identify, for example, the set of literary norms and the salient features of a work by which to locate genre, and also to anticipate what they might expect to find in fictional worlds. Through vraisemblance the child reader has unconsciously to learn that the fictional worlds in literature are representations and constructions which refer to other texts that have been normalised: that is, those texts that have been absorbed into the culture and are now regarded as ‘natural’.

At the level of literary texts (the intertext), it is possible to identify three main categories of intertextuality: (1) texts of quotation which quote or allude to other literary or nonliterary works; (2) texts of imitation which seek to parody, pastiche, paraphrase, ‘translate’ or supplant the original, which seek to liberate their readers from an over-invested admiration in great writers of the past, and which often function as the pre-text of the original for later readers (Worton and Still 1990: 7); and (3) genre texts where identifiable shared clusters of codes and literary conventions are grouped together in recognisable patterns which allow readers to expect and locate them, and to cause them to seek out similar texts. At the level of literary response, young readers’ intertextual responses might usefully be classified in terms of the links they make overtly with other texts, their personal experiences which bear upon their relationship with the focus text, and their inclination to manipulate the focus text in the pull towards reinvention, recreation, rewriting.

Texts of quotation are probably the simplest level at which child readers can recognise intertextuality. Examples are Janet and Allan Ahlberg’s The Jolly Postman series (1986/1997), John Prater’s Once Upon a Time (1993), Jon Scieszka’s The Stinky Cheese Man (1992) and his The True Story of the 3 Little Pigs (1989), Roald Dahl’s Revolting Rhymes (1987). All these fictions quote from or allude to a variety of fairy tales. They make explicit assumptions about their readers’ knowledge of previously read fairy tales: ‘Everyone knows the story of the Three Little Pigs. Or at least they think they do’ (Scieszka 1989: first opening), and ‘I guess you think you know this story/You don’t, the real one’s much more gory’ (Dahl 1987: 5). So, as well as assuming familiarity with an ‘already read’ intertext, the ‘focused texts’ are at the same time foregrounding their own authenticity; that is, they purport to be more authoritative than the texts they are quoting and are thereby undermining the ‘truth’ of their pre-texts. They cleverly destabilise the security of their readers by positioning them ambivalently in relation to (1) what they think they know already about the fairy tales and (2) the story they are now reading. At the discursive level, then, these particular examples of texts of quotation are doing much more than simply alluding to other texts; they are supplanting the pre-texts and challenging their readers’ ‘already read’ notions of the reliable narrator by an act of referring back which tells the reader that what they knew previously about these tales was all lies. And The Jolly Postman series is, at the very least, breaking readers’ ‘already read’ boundary of fictionality by presenting them with a clutch of touchable, usable, readable written artefacts - letters, postcards, cards, invitations, board games, posters, etc. - from, to and about characters in fiction, which are facsimile versions of their real- life counterparts.

Every text of quotation which relocates the so-called primary text in a new cultural and linguistic context must be by definition a parody and a distortion. All the examples I have given parody the telling of traditional tales: Once Upon a Time (Prater 1993), ‘Once upon a time’ (Scieszka 1992: passim), and ‘Once upon a bicycle’ (Ahlberg 1986/1997: first opening). But the challenge to authority and problems of authenticity for these quotation texts of fairy tales lies in the fact that the tales themselves are a collage of quotations, each of which has assumed a spurious ‘first version’ authenticity but for which the ur-text does not exist, or at least cannot be located. The situation of fairy tales in contemporary culture is analogous to Barthes’s notion of ‘lost codes’. The tales are intelligible because they build on already embedded discourses which happened elsewhere and at another time; they are part of the sedimented folk memory of discourse and they function now by the simple fact that other tales like them have already existed. Children’s intertextual experience is peculiarly achronological, so the question about what sense children make of a given text when the intertextual experience cannot be assumed, is important.

What happens, though, in readings where such intertextual knowledge cannot be assumed or assured, such as in cases of cultural transfer or readerly inexperience, where the intertextual references are unknown and unavailable to the target audience? What sense do children make, can children make, of a textual encounter in these circumstances? A student teacher explains how her class of four- and five-year-olds, who were only just beginning to build a foundation knowledge of books, failed to understand The Jolly Postman


because it has quite a difficult formula with the original story and additional texts as an additional layer to the story in the form of letters, cards, advertisements, etc. As well as attempting to make sense of the story, they also needed knowledge of these other genres, familiarity with other fairy stories and nursery rhymes and perhaps even an understanding of puns, jokes and play on words.


She goes on to describe how one child attempts to take control of the text in his retelling of the story of ‘The Three Little Pigs’:


When the child reached the part of the tale where the wolf falls into the pot of boiling water, he explained that the wolf ‘splashed and bashed and kicked his legs’. This was not in the original text that we had read, but the child had played with what he knew, had immersed himself in the text and had come up with a playful comment that expressed an understanding of the story. The children compare and contrast the stories they are reading with those they already have knowledge of to make up a schema for a particular genre. It is therefore obvious that the more stories the children know the more they can understand/interpret richly any given story.

(Stapleton 2002)


The question of readers’ meaning-making is raised also in the process of translating a source text into another language where it is a matter of cultural and linguistic specificity. Desmet relates how the Ahlbergs’ Jolly Postman series has been translated into Dutch by the use of such translation strategies as: ‘literal translation of shared intertexts, substitution for intertexts likely to be unknown to the intended target audience, and addition or compensation’ (Desmet 2001: 31, my italics). The end result of the text which has been the subject of translation may be, as Desmet suggests, ‘a new differently intertextual text’ (31). Translation between languages (and indeed between different media) is a catalyst for questions about the authority of one text over another and about the possible loss of some of the source text’s cultural authority in the process of translation; it also returns us to the question already raised of the role and authority of the reader in the intertextual space as the producer rather than the decoder of embedded textual meanings. In instances where a source text is written in English, but requires the transfer of a different cultural knowledge to its target readership, the narrative itself often attempts to compensate for any assumed shortfall in knowledge between it and its intended young readership by filling in any potential gaps with embedded explanations.

Adeline Yen Mah’s Chinese Cinderella: The Secret Story of an Unwanted Daughter (1999) is a very good example. It apparently alludes overtly to the Westernised version of the Cinderella folk tale in its title, but in fact it alludes to the story of ‘Ye Xian, the original Chinese Cinderella’. The autobiographical narrative is set against a background of Chinese history spanning the period 1937-52, and focuses on the cruelties inflicted on Adeline as an unwanted girl-child in one of China’s elite families in the shadow of first the Japanese and then the Communist takeovers of mainland China. She describes her struggle for an education and her family’s attempts to avoid the impact on their wealth and lifestyle of the invasions, by their continuous and restless moving between Tianjin and Shanghai and, eventually, to Hong Kong. A knowledge of cultural and historical facts, and of her family’s pre-revolutionary status, are important to the reader’s understanding of her family’s motivations and behaviour; consequently, explanations of the historical background are slipped into the narrative between accounts of the everyday cruelties her family inflict on Adeline’s family- and school-life. For example, in letting her young reader know the significant status of her family home in the ‘French Concession’ of Tianjin, she explains:


China had lost a war (known as the Opium War) against England and France. As a result, many coastal cities in China (such as Tianjin and Shanghai) came to be occupied by foreign soldiers. The conquerors parceled out the best areas of these treaty ports for themselves, claiming them as their own ‘territories’ or ‘concessions’. Tianjin’s French Concession was like a little piece of Paris transplanted into the centre of this big Chinese city ... We were ruled by French citizens under French law.

(1999: 5-6, 231)


A knowledge of Chinese custom and language is also integrally important for Western readers’ understanding of this narrative; so they are given a lesson in the protocol of naming in Chinese families in the two-page ‘Author’s Note’ to the start of book; chapter headings are written bilingually in English and Chinese with Chinese characters, and Chinese characters with their phonetic transliterations are repeated throughout to name names. Especially enlightening for the reader’s understanding of the richness and beauty of the Chinese language and significance of the characters, is a three-page explanation posed as a dialogue between Adeline and her grandfather (‘Ye Ye’), focusing on just one character in the Chinese script: (‘bei’) (172-4).

Mirjam Pressler’s Shylock’s Daughter (2000) has been translated into English from the original German by Brian Murdoch. The story is set within the framework of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, in the Ghetto of sixteenth-century Venice. Clearly the reader’s previous knowledge of the original play as an intertext enhances the reading of this text, but the absence of it does not close it down altogether. More importantly for the reader’s understanding is a knowledge, which cannot be assumed, of Jewish sects and culture, customs and Law, to explain and enlighten the mores and behaviours of the key characters - Shylock, his daughter Jessica and her Christian lover, Antonio. Similarly to the Adeline Yen Mah’s book, the narrative takes care of the ‘gaps’ through a battery of discreet, en passant explanations: for example:


‘You know he doesn’t like it when you spend all your time with the Sephardim - with those Spanish Jews!’

(2000: 15)


These Jews were mostly Marranos - that is, they had been forced to accept baptism.



Levi Meshullam was a Sephardic Jew, and the laws that applied to him were different from those for Ashkenazi Jews like her father.



The lords had simply cancelled the condotta, the settlement treaty for Jews.



The regulations, which the cattaveri, the controllers, enforced with such strict attention.



What a splendid zimara he had been wearing this evening, that full well-cut coat with the broad sleeves.



‘Acts of Charity like that, mitzvoth, are supposed to be done secretly and not in public.’



However, the book alludes to the original play in a number of subtle ways that are not explained, for which first-hand knowledge of the play would provoke a richer kind of reading. Some of the dialogue, especially Shylock’s, is quoted directly from The Merchant of Venice; the book adopts the much-used Shakespearian device of having girls disguised as boys and women as men (as with Jessica and Portia). There is an allusion to a wider intertext of Shakespeare, with an emphasis in the book on the idea of characters play-acting, of their playing a part in their own lives, and the book uses the Shakespearean device of ‘plays within plays’.

These examples of texts which allude overtly to previous intertexts again raise the wider questions of the status of the so-called ‘ur-text’, and the effect of the intertexts on the reader’s knowledge, perception and reception of any one, or all, of them. Children’s exposure to other media such as film, television animations, and video, means increasingly that they are likely to encounter the media adaptations of a children’s fiction before they encounter the written text and to come to regard it as the ‘original’ from which to approach and on which to base and ‘make sense’ of their (later) reading of the written version. This raises further questions about whether the nature of the later reading is qualitatively and experientially different if the ur-text (source text) happens to have been a Disney cartoon version of, say, ‘Snow White’.

Disney adaptations of fairy tales are particularly interesting to an intertextuality of children’s literature because, as touchstones of popular culture, they reflect the way in which each generation’s retellings have assumed and foregrounded the dominant socio-linguistic and cultural codes and values at a particular moment in history: for example, Disney’s foregrounding Snow White’s good looks alongside qualities of moral rectitude and goodness claimed for her by earlier, written versions.

But it is not only the stories which change in the repeated intertextual quotations - the intertextual context of the reading and their reception also changes. For example, contemporary feminist post-Freudian readings of Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865), or Burnett’s The Secret Garden (1911), make them different kinds of texts from what was previously possible. Similarly, a contemporary child reader’s readings of, say, a modern reprint of the original tales of Beatrix Potter will be quite different from those of the readers for whom they were originally intended. In their reading of Jemima Puddle- Duck (1908), for example, today’s child readers are less likely than child readers from the earlier part of the century to recognise the ingredients of duck stuffing for what they are. This is not because, like Jemima, they are simpletons, but because their stuffing today is more likely to be from a packet. Their probable inability to recognise the ingredients of duck stuffing removes an opportunity to anticipate Jemima’s fate well in advance of narration. And not only do contemporary child-readers have an intertextual familiarity with Beatrix Potter’s character, Jemima Puddle-Duck, and her Potter co-star, Peter Rabbit, from a proliferation of non-literary artefacts, including video adaptations: they can also now read about them in series adaptations in Ladybird books (1992 on). Ladybird has developed a very powerful position in Britain as a publisher of low-priced hardback formula books - especially retellings of traditional tales - with simplified language and sentence constructions. They are a good example of the texts of imitation I described earlier. For some children in Britain they will be the only written version of traditional tales they have encountered. Comparison between the Ladybird and original versions of Jemima Puddle- Duck reveals linguistic and syntactic differences that make assumptions about their respective implied readers; and there are other syntactic, micro-discursive and linguistic differences which encode different socio-linguistic climates and - by extension – imply different language-in-use on the parts of their respective readerships. What we see in operation in these two texts is the tension and interplay between two idiolects and two sociolects: the uses of language in each text and their situation in, and reception by, their respective socio-historic contexts and readers. Each is operating as a textual and intertextual paradigm of its time, but the first-version text can only be ‘read’ through a network of late twentieth-century intertexts.

Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising series (1965-77) and Alan Garner’s The Owl Service (1984) rely for their fullest reading on the young reader’s knowledge of Arthurian and Celtic myth, especially of the Mabinogion. Together these texts are examples of the type of two-world fantasy genre where child readers can come to recognise, and to expect, such generic conventions as character archetype, stereotype and the archetypal plot structures of quest and journeys. The novels allude only obliquely to their mythical sources, even though myth is integral to their stories. Thus, even in readings that do not rely on knowledge of the myth, readers might intuit the echoes of myth as they read and absorb the novels’ more subtle messages and connections.

Similarly, Robert Cormier’s After the First Death (1979) and Jill Paton Walsh’s novels Goldengrove (1972) and Unleaving (1976) allude, respectively, to lines from Dylan Thomas’s poem ‘A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London’ (‘After the first death, there is no other’) and Gerard Manley Hopkins’s ‘Spring and Fall’ (‘Margaret, are you grieving/Over Goldengrove unleaving?’). In each case, a perfectly coherent reading of the text is possible without the reader’s knowledge of the intertextual poetic allusions; but the potential for a metaphoric reading is enhanced by the reader’s previous knowledge of them. In the case of Paton Walsh’s Goldengrove, for example, the metaphor for metaphysical transience first mooted by Hopkins in his ‘Spring and Fall’ image of the Goldengrove unleaving, is employed again by Paton Walsh as the name of the fictional house, ‘Goldengrove’, from which the book takes its title. This is the place of symbolic and literal change where the two teenage characters spend their (significantly) late-summer vacation of maturation and realisation. The image is extended in numerous other references: changing body-shapes, changed sleeping arrangements, changed attitudes to each other, and not least, in repeated references to the falling leaves of late summer. It also invokes and parodies the style and content of Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse (1927), with a polyphony which moves effortlessly between several viewpoints, and positions its readers accordingly. This polyphonic, multilayered structure, which is also a feature of the Cormier novel, is particularly interesting to an intertextuality of children’s literature because it breaks the intertextual discursive codes and conventions of the single viewpoint and linear narrative that are typical of the form.

Young readers who come to these novels by Cooper, Garner, Cormier and Paton Walsh with an explicit knowledge of their intertexts will have a markedly different experience of reading. They will experience what Barthes has described as the ‘circular memory of reading’ (Barthes 1975/76: 36). This describes a reading process where the need consciously to recall and to refer back to specific obligatory intertexts, now being quoted as metaphor and/or metonymy in the focused texts, restricts the reader’s opportunity for free intertextual interplay at the point of reading. The reading experience in such cases moves away from a textually focused reading that is a more usual kind of narrative engagement to one that is simultaneously centrifugal and centripetal as the reader seeks to refer to the ‘borrowing’ and at the same time to integrate it into a new context. It is the essence of this kind of reading to deny readers an opportunity for linear reading as they move in and out of the text to make connections between it and the intertext(s).

Jamila Gavin’s award-winning Coram Boy (2000) draws on the historical fact of Thomas Coram’s establishing in 1741 the first children’s hospital ‘For the Maintenance and Education of Exposed and Deserted Children’, children who were otherwise brutalised, and eventually died, in the charity orphanages of the period. In her Foreword to the book, Gavin describes how the Coram Foundation still exists today, and that it continues to work on behalf of children; that the performance of Handel’s Messiah, which is a key event in the book, actually took place at the Hospital. The ‘Coram man’ is pivotal to the events of the story. He collects abandoned children, ostensibly to deliver them up to the Hospital for safe keeping, but disposes of them instead before they could ever have reached it. Such a man, Gavin explains, never actually existed. The ‘Coram boys’ were real enough as inmates of the eighteenth-century Hospital, but the characters and events of the story are otherwise all imaginary. As in The Chinese Cinderella and Shylock’s Daughter, the Foreword situates the historical events but, unlike those books, there are no explanatory pauses in the narrative itself to ‘educate’ the reader’s lack of factual knowledge en route. Coram Boy weaves a path through actual and imaginary events which assume equal status in the mind of the reader, who is then unable to differentiate between fact or fiction in what de facto has become a linear rather than centripetal experience of reading. Another Paton Walsh novel, A Parcel of Patterns (1983), is also a fictionalised historical account, of the bubonic plague’s destruction of the inhabitants of the Derbyshire village of Eyam. It uses many secondary signals to ground the events in their historic context and to ensure that readers locate the events in these pre-textual happenings by, for example, the use of paratextual devices such as the words of the publisher’s introduction: ‘Eyam (pronounced Eem) is a real village in Derbyshire and many of the events in this evocative novel are based on what actually happened there in the year of the Plague’ (Paton Walsh 1983).

Another example is the use of direct quotation from historic artefacts, not least from the inscription of the great bell of Eyam ‘SWEET JESU BE MY SPEDE’ (54). The book reinforces the historic authenticity of its subject matter by a consistent capitalisation throughout of the word Plague, and by use of an invented dialect which pastiches what we know about the dialect of seventeenth-century Derbyshire.

In contrast, Robert Westall’s novel Gulf (1992) is embedded in the events of the 1991 so-called ‘Gulf War’ in the wake of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. Gulf, unlike A Parcel of Patterns, could have assumed a shared, contemporary readership. Equally, it clearly assumes that its readership has a shared intertextual experience, and this makes recovery of the pre-text more likely and therefore calls for little explanation and contextualisation. But the novel’s foregrounded meaning centres on the need for its readers to see the connection between the out-of-body experiences of the narrator’s younger brother, Figgis, and the experiences of a young Iraqi boy soldier whose life he shares. The detail of the geography and history of Iraq is an intertextual experience that cannot be assumed, at least not for its target Western readership; consequently, as in so many of the narratives already mentioned, they are dealt with by way of explanation, ‘I looked up Tikrit in our atlas; it was north of Baghdad. Then I read in the paper it was where Saddam Hussein himself came from’ (Westall 1992: 47). This is another example of the way in which texts written for children sometimes have a felt need to be overreferential; the need to fill intertextual gaps to mobilise a positive reading experience in their young readers which, incidentally, may be one of the single distinguishing characteristics of children’s literature per se.

Literature for children has to tread a careful path between a need to be sufficiently overreferential in its intertextual gap-filling so as not to lose its readers, and the need to leave enough intertextual space and to be sufficiently stylistically challenging to allow readers free intertextual interplay. It is on the one hand formally conservative, yet it is charged with the awesome responsibility of initiating young readers into the dominant literary, linguistic and cultural codes of the home culture. On the other hand, it has seen the emergence of what we now confidently call the ‘new picture books’ and the ‘new young adult novel’, some of which have featured in this essay. Picture-book writers and illustrators are challenging conventional literary forms of children’s literature and breaking the codes. In so doing they amass a wide-ranging repertoire of generic possibilities which effectively extends the horizons of young people’s literary competences and encourages them to ever-increasingly participate in Barthes’s ‘circular memory of reading’.

A theory of intertextuality of children’s literature challenges readers and writers of children’s literature to acknowledge the lost codes and practices and underlying discursive conventions by which it functions and has been defined historically. It shows why theoretical practice is so important to reading practice. It urges a different poetics of literary engagement in which the young reader’s part in the process of meaning-making is legitimised by the theory itself because it endorses and valorises their propensity for intertextual interplay. The texts mentioned here act only as illustrative paradigms of the theory of intertextuality of children’s literature in a cornucopia of other possible texts. Some of these texts, like so many others in the field, have a metafictional dimension which causes readers to pay attention to their fabric, to the devices of artifice in literature and to the textuality, as well as the actuality, of the world to which they allude. The theory of intertextuality of children’s literature is a rich field in which to engage young people’s awareness of the importance of the activity of making intertextual links in the interpretive process. It brings them to a gradual understanding of how they are being (and have been) textually constructed in and by this intertextual playground. The texts of children’s literature are exciting sites on which to mobilise a child-reader subjectivity that is intertextually aware and literarily competent.



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Carter, J. (1999) Talking Books: Children’s Authors Talk about the Craft, Creativity and Process of Writing, London: Routledge.

Culler, J. (1975) Structuralist Poetics: Structuralism, Linguistics and the Study of Literature, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

- (1981) The Pursuit of Signs: Semiotics, Literature, Deconstruction, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Dahl, R (1987) Revolting Rhymes, London: Jonathan Cape.

Desmet, M. K. T (2001), ‘Intertextuality/Intervisuality in Translation: The Jolly Postman’s Intercultural Journey from Britain to the Netherlands’, Children’s Literature in Education 32, 1: 31-43.

Eccleshare, J. (2002) Beatrix Potter to Harry Potter: Portraits of Children’s Writers, London: National Portrait Gallery.

Fish, S. (1980) Is There a Text in This Class? The Authority of Interpretive Communities, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Genette, G. (1979) The Architext: An Introduction, trans. J. E. Lewin, Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Hartman, D. K. (1995) ‘Eight Readers Reading: The Intertextual Links of Proficient Readers Reading Multiple Passages’, Reading Research Quarterly 30: 520-61.

Hunt, P. and Lenz, M. (2001) Alternative Worlds in Fantasy Fiction, London and New York: Continuum.

Kristeva, J. (1969) Semiotike, Paris: Editions du Seuil.

- (1974/1984) Revolution in Poetic Language, trans. M. Waller, New York: Columbia University Press.

- (1980/1981) Desire in Language: A Semiotic Approach to Literature and Art, trans. T. Gora, A. Jardine and L. Roudiez, Oxford: Blackwell.

Lemke, J. L. ((1992) ‘Intertextuality and Educational Research’, Linguistics and Education 4: 575-86.

Many, J. E. and Anderson, D. D. (1992) ‘The Effect of Grade and Stance on Readers’ Intertextual and Autobiographical Responses to Literature’, Reading Research and Instruction 31: 60-9.

O’Sullivan, E. (1998) ‘Losses and Gains in Translation: Some Remarks on the Translation of Humour in the Books of Aidan Chambers’, trans. A. Bell, in Children’s Literature 26: 185-204, New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Paton Walsh, J. (1983) A Parcel of Patterns, Harmondsworth: Viking Kestrel.

Prater, J. (1993) Once Upon a Time, London: Walker.

Pressler, M. (1999, 2000) Shylock’s Daughter, trans. Brian Murdoch, Frankfurt am Main: Alibaba Verlag GmbH; London: Macmillan Children’s Books.

Scieszka, J. (1989) The True Story of the 3 Little Pigs, New York: Viking.

- (1992) The Stinky Cheese Man, New York: Viking.

Short, K. G. (1992) ‘Researching Intertextuality within Collaborative Classroom Learning Environments’, Linguistics and Education 4: 313-33.

Sipe, L. R. (2000), ‘ “Those Two Gingerbread Boys could be Brothers”: How Children Use Intertextual Connections during Storybook Readalouds’, Children’s Literature in Education 31, 2: 73-90.

Spufford, F. (2002) The Child That Books Built: A Memoir of Childhood and Reading, London: Faber and Faber.

Stapleton, L. (2002) ‘How Does the Theory of Intertextuality Inform and Affect Children’s Reading?’ undergraduate assignment, Institute of Education, University of Warwick.

Westall, R. (1992) Gulf London: Methuen.

Worton, M. and Still, J. (eds) (1990) Intertextuality, Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Yen Mah, A. (1999) The Chinese Cinderella: The Secret Story of an Unwanted Daughter, London: Penguin Books.


Further reading

Bloom, H. (1973) The Anxiety of Influence, New York: Oxford University Press.

- (1975) A Map of Misreading, New York: Oxford University Press.

Genette, G. ( 1982) Palimpsestes, Paris: Seuill.

Hunt, P. (1988) ‘What Do We Lose when We Lose Allusion? Experience and Understanding Stories’, Signal 57: 212-22.

Nikolajeva, M. (1996) Children’s Literature Comes of Age: Toward a New Aesthetic, New York and London: Garland.

Riffaterre, M. (1984) ‘Intertextual Representation: On Mimesis as Interpretive Discourse’, Critical Inquiry 11, 1: 141-62.

Stephens, J. (1990) ‘Intertextuality and the Wedding Ghost’, Children’s Literature in Education 21, 1: 23-36.

- (1992) Language and Ideology in Children’s Eiction, London: Longman.

Valdes, M. J. (ed.) (1985) Identity and the Literary Text, Toronto: University of Toronto Press.