Areas of comparative children’s literature studies - Comparative children’s literature - Theory and critical approaches - children’s literature

Children’s literature

Part I. Theory and critical approaches


14. Comparative children’s literature


Emer O’Sullivan


Areas of comparative children’s literature studies


Comparative children’s literature concerns itself with general theoretical issues in children’s literature, especially questions pertaining to the system itself, its particular structure of communication, and the social, economic and cultural conditions which have to prevail in order for a children’s literature to develop. A central preoccupation is with what is characteristic, distinctive and exclusive to individual children’s literatures which emerge, as do their commonalities, only when different traditions are confronted with each other. It deals with forms of children’s literature in the different cultural areas, and with their respective functions in those areas. Furthermore, comparative children’s literature addresses all relevant intercultural phenomena, such as contact and transfer between literatures, and the representation of self-images and images of other cultures in the literature of a given language. Comparative children’s literature thus, like mainstream comparative literature, must consider those phenomena that cross the borders of a particular literature in order to see them in their respective linguistic, cultural, social and literary contexts.

I would like to give a very brief outline of the developing field of comparative children’s literature by sketching nine key areas of the discipline and naming important questions. Not all of these areas have received the same amount of scholarly attention, indeed some of them have the character of a desideratum. But they should serve to illustrate just how rich a seam comparative children’s literature is for future work. I will conclude the outline by giving a brief example of a comparative transfer study, the translation and reception of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland in Germany.

Areas of comparative children’s literature studies are: general theory of children’s literature; contact and transfer studies; comparative poetics; intertextuality studies; intermediality studies; image studies; comparative genre studies; comparative historiography of children’s literature; and comparative history of children’s literature studies.


General theory of children’s literature

Because the differences between children’s literature and literature for adults dictate key differences between comparative literature and comparative children’s literature studies, an important area is general theory of children’s literature. The two defining characteristics which distinguish children’s literature from other branches are first that it is a body of literature which belongs simultaneously to two systems, the literary and the pedagogical; it is a literature into which the dominant social, cultural and educational norms are inscribed: ‘Children’s fiction belongs firmly within the domain of cultural practices which exist for the purpose of socialising their target audience’ (Stephens 1992: 8). This aspect is particularly relevant when studying forms of transfer of children’s literature: To what degree do norms of the source text prohibit translation? How are they adapted to conform to those of the target culture? and so on.

The second defining characteristic is that the communication in children’s literature is fundamentally asymmetrical. Production, publication and marketing by authors and publishing houses, the part played by critics, librarians, booksellers and teachers, as intermediaries - at every stage of literary communication we find adults acting for children. Within the texts themselves the asymmetry of communication usually manifests itself as an implied (adult) author addressing an implied (child) reader, but it also accounts for other forms of address - single address (to the child reader alone), dual or even multiple address which can include implicit adult readers and child readers at different stages. The consequences of the asymmetrical communication - forms of thematic, linguistic and literary accommodation employed by authors to bridge the distance between adult and child, for instance - must be considered in a general theory of children’s literature which forms the basis of comparative children’s literature.


Contact and transfer studies

Every form of cultural exchange between children’s literatures from different countries, languages and cultures is of interest here: such as contact, transfer (by translation, adaptation or otherwise), reception, multilateral influences. An important aspect of investigation is the trade balance of translations and factors determining the international transfer of children’s literature: how is it that translations account for 80 per cent of children’s books published in Finland as against 1-2 per cent in Britain and the USA? The culture-specific attitude towards foreign literature is only one of many determining factors. This area addresses such questions as: Which countries export children’s literature while failing to import any? How are translations accepted, evaluated and integrated into a target literature? Who is responsible for introducing books and literatures into different cultural contexts? Why are certain works not translated at all, and why are others discovered only decades after their first publication? How has the development of literary traditions in a given cultural area been influenced by translations?

The asymmetry of communication in children’s literature together with its pedagogical links are defining elements of the difference between the theory and practice of translating literature for adults and for children, as children’s literature generally passes through social and educational filters not normally activated when adult literature is translated.


Comparative poetics

The poetics of children’s literature studies the aesthetic elements and literary forms of this branch of literature. Comparative poetics addresses, for instance, the aesthetic development of children’s literature and changes in its form and function in different cultures. One example is the comparative development of the new, complex, ‘literary’ children’s literature, which embraces techniques common to the psychological novel and whose beginnings can be traced back to the end of the 1950s in England, the 1960s in Sweden and around 1970 in Germany (Nikolajeva 1996). It also examines narrative methods, structural features (motifs and themes) - for instance, the treatment of death in children’s literature across time and cultures - and aesthetic categories like humour, asking such questions as: Are there any universal aspects of humour for children? Do children everywhere laugh at the same things? Do the genres regarded as particularly amusing differ from one culture to another? Do some literatures contain more humour than others? What comic devices and means, from slapstick to satire, are most prevalent in (which) children’s literature? When and where did it become permissible for adults in positions of authority to become objects of comedy in children’s literature? When did the grotesque carnivalesque humour of bodily functions and excess as identified by Bakhtin become acceptable in children’s literature? Is humour an obstacle to translation? How is humour translated, and how is it adapted in translation to the norms of the target culture?


Intertextuality studies

Some of the earliest children’s books were adaptations of existing ones for adults, such as Robinson Crusoe and Gulliver’s Travels. Children’s literature has from its inception been a thoroughly intertextual literature of adaptations and retellings (McCallum and Stephens 1998). These retellings, parodies, cross-cultural references, simple, subtle and complex forms of interaction between literatures from different languages and cultures are among the subjects of intertextuality studies. They include analyses of instances of marked inter- textuality, in which the links between pre-text and intertext are explicit, such as Kirsten Boie’s collection of episodic tales in Wir Kinder aus dem Mowenweg (2000), a homage to Astrid Lindgren’s Alla vi barn i Bullerbyn (1947) which echoes its German title Wir Kinder aus Bullerbu and aims to capture the spirit, style and structure of Lindgren’s original while transposing the environment and social conditions of rural Sweden at the beginning of the twentieth century to those of urban Germany at the beginning of the twenty-first. Unmarked intertextuality is not as easily detectable; an interesting example is a novel published in the German Democratic Republic in 1984, about toys that come to life in tales shared by man and boy in a framework story. The boy Jakob and his toy companions meet up in the woods, go on picnics or on a treasure hunt, even though they aren’t entirely sure what it is that they are looking for or where exactly they may find it. Someone’s birthday is forgotten, the wood is flooded after days of rain, balloons are used as a means of transport and two of their party hunt a fearsome animal. But it’s not the Heffalump who frightens this cast of characters, it’s a wild horse, a 'Wildpferd'’. Christoph Hein’s Das Wildpferd unterm Kachelofen. Ein schones dickes Buch von Jakob Borg und seinen Freunden echoes Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh on the structural level, in elements of the plot, in characterisation and in the themes of friendship and imagination. But these resonances serve to underline the differences: where Milne’s utopian vision, an amalgam of a pre-industrial Golden Age and the lost paradise of childhood, is only clouded at the very end by Christopher Robin starting school and thus having to leave the enchanted Hundred Acre Wood, Jakob’s difficulties in school and with the adult world generally are excluded neither from the fantasy stories he tells nor from the frame; these experiences are, rather, the negative motor for the power of his imagination. The most significant divergence is the reversal of the fictitious narrator-narratee roles. Milne’s adult narrator not only has access to the world of imaginary childhood, it is he who presents it in story form to the child. The story-teller in Hein’s novel is the boy. Imagination, the child’s gift, is shown to be lacking in the adult world: only the adult who has the capacity to listen to and understand the stories he is told as the privileged narratee of a child narrator, may regain access. Through his reference to and reinterpretation of Winnie-the-Pooh, Hein signals his admiration for Milne’s book as a model of children’s literature. At the same time, by realigning the relationship between child and adult, he underscores his demand for more respect for and admiration of the child. Once the intertextual dialogue between Hein and Milne has been identified, questions such as the following have to be asked: Was Winnie-the-Pooh known and read in the GDR? Could Hein’s readers - child or adult - recognise the allusions to Milne? What are the consequences of recognition or nonrecognition for the reception of the work?


Intermediality studies

Study of different cultural codes (in the visual arts, dance, music, cinema, the theatre) has always, under a variety of names, been a subject area of comparative literature. Children’s literature and children’s culture are more markedly distinguished by their intermediality than adult literature. The reciprocal relations between the media, for instance between stories and characters that originally appeared in text form and have been adapted into a large number of different media, make an interesting subject; such forms may include versions on film, video, DVD, in audio adaptations, as text-based toys and commodities (china and clothing showing characters from favourite books, etc.), as computer programmes or as companions or (electronic) playmates in ‘experience parks’.

Conversely, the subject also covers books-of-the-film or television series. Intermediality in children’s literature studies goes beyond concern with the forms and consequences of changes between media in order to observe and criticise the way the new media are handled in texts for children, both thematically and on the formal and aesthetic plane. The multimedia phenomenon represents a new challenge to children’s literature studies (Mackey 2002).


Image studies

Image studies, or imagology, is traditionally concerned with intercultural relations in terms of mutual perceptions, images and self-images and their representation in literature; it investigates ‘the complex links between literary discourse, on the one hand, and national identity constructs, on the other’ (Leersen 2000: 270). This can involve analysing culture- specific topographies (the forest in German, the garden in English, the Alps in Swiss or the outback in Australian children’s literature (Tabbert 1995)), images of home and how cultural, national or regional identity is linked with landscape (Rutschmann 1994 or Stephens 1995) or the influence of images on the translation process - how the selection, translation and marketing of children’s literature from a particular country is determined by the images of that country in the target literature (Seifert 2004). It also entails examining poetological aspects of the representation of ‘foreigners’ (O’Sullivan 1989) to see how authors can bring stereotypes into play in order to confirm or contradict readers’ expectations, how they deliberately omit using them in places where they would have been expected or how they can subvert them in a playful manner. The extratextual function of national stereotypes and the consistency and change in representations of specific groups are further objects of image studies. O’Sullivan 1990 is a diachronic study of some 250 British children’s books published between 1870 and 1990 which traces the interdependence of political and cultural relations and the valorisation of stereotypes of the German. It reveals how the portrayals of Germans in texts with a specific time setting - for example, the Second World War - vary greatly depending on the date of publication, how negative images traded in texts of the 1940s are used reflectively in more ambivalent texts of the 1970s, or how, for instance, in Jan Needle’s Albeson and the Germans (1977), the common Nazi stereotypes are actually functionalised to become an intrinsic part of the narrative. Image studies can also examine such aspects as how different nations are gendered or how national stereotypes can be used in books for girls and boys to impart the currently appropriate gender-specific modes of thought and behaviour.


Comparative genre studies

This can encompass the development of genres in the context of national and international traditions and examine connections and discrepancies in the development of genres in different cultures. Taking Germany and children’s fantasy as the focal point for a thumbnail sketch, it could be said that this genre, which was subsequently to become one of the key genres of children’s literature, was founded in Germany with E. T. A. Hoffmann’s Nufiknacker und Mdusekonig (1816) but its further development took place in other countries. Hans Christian Andersen initially carried on the heritage of German Romanticism in the field of children’s literature in Denmark in the early nineteenth century, and the tradition of fantasy reached new heights in mid nineteenth-century England with the works of George MacDonald and Lewis Carroll and, somewhat later, E. Nesbit. Via the Swedish reception of the golden age of English fantasy - specifically by Astrid Lindgren - this genre finally re-entered Germany, its country of origin, with a revolution in children’s literature called Pippi Langstrump, in German translation in 1949, leading, for the first time again since the Romantic era, to a favourable climate for the reception and creation of fantasy for children in Germany, and later to a boom in fantasy for children by German authors such as Michael Ende.


Comparative historiography of children’s literature

Comparative historiography studies the writing of the history of children’s literature. It is interested in the criteria according to which histories and accounts of various children’s literatures are produced and calls for a fundamental discussion of the cultural, social, economic and educational conditions in which literature for children developed. Some recent semiotic models of children’s literature postulate identical phases of development for children’s literature following similar patterns in all cultures (Shavit 1986), a universal progression from didactism to diversity (Nikolajeva 1996). A comparative history of children’s literature, however, would have to examine the conditions which have to prevail in order for a children’s literature to develop, to register how the unique histories of postcolonial children’s literatures differ from the postulated ‘standard’ model based on north-western European countries (Britain, Germany, France). There is still no comparative history of children’s literatures from different cultures which takes account of the conditions in which they arose and developed.

Problems of the comparative historiography of children’s literature arise partly from the different state of its documentation in individual countries or linguistic areas, which in turn is connected with the state of research. It asks: How are the historical accounts of different countries organised? According to genres, themes, authors, historical periods? What is the basis of the periodisation? Are they written from the disciplinary perspective of literary history, educational history, history of the book or librarianship? Which is the dominant disciplinary context of the study and teaching of children literature in any particular country?


Comparative history of children's literature studies

This metacritical dimension of comparative children’s literature involves looking at culture-specific aspects of the study of children’s literature, which in turn are influenced by how the subject is institutionally established in different cultures.

One of the first university chairs for children’s literature in France (at the Sorbonne in Paris) was devoted to ‘Litterature populaire et enfantine’. The study of children’s literature was thus placed in the context of popular or para-literature, a field hardly accepted as part of the academic system in other European countries in the 1950s. In Germany until the 1960s, discussion of children’s literature was almost entirely confined to the pedagogical context, in relation to teacher training. In England, on the other hand, there was no professorial chair for children’s literature studies until the end of the 1990s; for a long time, children’s literature as an academic subject featured there mainly in the training of librarians.

A comparative history of children’s literature studies must describe the relation between the institutional situation, the focus and level of research and international influence as well as the connection between the theory and actual production of literature for young people.