Last Updated 07 Jul 2020

Children’s Literature Review

Category literature
Essay type Review
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This literature review explores the contemporary assumptions that underpin the theories and criticisms in children’s literature. Although this genre of literature has fairly recently been made into an academic discipline, it has become an increasingly important area in literary scholarship. Criticism of children’s literature has expanded beyond the field of pedagogy and literary studies and has been intersected by numerous other disciplines including psychology, history and queer theory.

There are four main approaches to criticism of children’s literature; firstly, the “child-centric” approach, which attempts to define books that are inherently ‘good’ for children to read and why. The second approach concentrates on the construction of the child and their identity. The third approach merely focusses on the text itself, and completely disregards the audience in question. The value of the text is therefore measured only through the author’s standard of writing. The final approach focusses on children’s literature as a cultural study, and analyses the genre as an aspect of contemporary culture.

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This topic can be fairly broad, and as such, this analysis must be narrowed and focussed. This review therefore concentrates on drawing together significant theories and criticisms relating to children’s literature, and does so specifically through means of the second main approach to criticism; analysing how the child and their identity are constructed. Four topics divide the paper and directly relate to my doctoral research: “The difficulties in defining children’s literature”, “The rejection of simplistic texts and the underlying ideologies that are present”, “The problematic colonialism of the child debate that exists within the adult-child relationship” and “Presenting the postcolonial in children’s texts – defining ‘the other’ and identity in literature”.

Defining Children’s Literature – “The Difficulties”

Defining children’s literature can be quite problematic, as one definition can differ extensively from another; depending primarily on the culture in question. For instance, the age range of the ‘child’ can vary from 0-3, 4-6, 7-9 and 10-12 in western culture.[1] Furthermore, the reading level of children is under constant scrutiny, as it can be argued that children have no input in the creation of the texts that they are subject to. In his recent attempt to generate a working definition of this diverse group of texts, Perry Nodelman contends that “defining children’s literature has been a major activity of criticism throughout its history”.[2] John Rowe Townsend suggests it is impossible to define children’s literature as the possession of ‘the child’: “Children’s implies that young people own or control a body of texts that are generally written, published, reviewed and bought by adults”.[3] Townsend also suggests abandoning such definitions.[4] Karin Lesnik-Oberstein asserts that there is a faulty grouping of children into one neat category as “children”, with no regard to their individualism.[5]

Oberstein also introduces a paradox within children’s literature that denotes: “Children’s literature repeatedly refutes this; claiming that ‘individuality’ is its priority above all else… This is precisely the claim which cannot be sustained and is undermined within the field itself… The ‘child’ is an ‘individual’ within the category of ‘childhood’”.[6] The author is suggesting that the literary world deems the child as being part of an autonomous group rather than the child being a ‘young adult’ or moreover, a sentient being. Nodelman observes that although it is difficult to clearly define what is considered children’s literature, it does not mean that some texts do not clearly fall into the category.[7] For instance, classic fairy tales such as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs[8] have and always will be judged as part of the child’s canon of literature, if only for its extensive history.

In Nodelman’s The Hidden Adult, McDowell presents the obvious defining characteristics that set children’s texts apart from other genres of literature. Namely, these characteristics include universality; ‘good over evil’ and moral teachings.[9] Although defining characteristics in children’s texts serves to neatly organise muddled definitions, it is perhaps too ideological and simple an approach. Just because children’s texts have “universal structural traits and patterns common to all children’s literature”[10]; to link them is impossible. This theory assumes that children’s texts remain similar at all times and do so within all cultures. This is certainly not true. The prospect of ‘good and evil’ is subjective amongst all cultures. By linking this philosophy to children’s texts, Shavit is thereby declaring that all tales that oppose the western ideal of universality (for example) can’t appropriately be labelled as children’s literature as differing views of what is inherently ‘good’ will surface from culture to culture. Thus, it is with the boxed definition that Shavit and Nodelman employed that the definition of children’s literature is explained in a very Eurocentric manner.[11]

Recent definitions of the genre have attempted to avoid the generalization of children; although this has proven extremely difficult because of contemporary ideology that states plots do not deviate from the same basic forms.[12] Children’s literature is extraordinarily simplified as a result of this theory, and conforms to the “binary approach that underlies all adult thinking about children in the centuries in which a ‘special’ literature has existed. The understanding of children is determined purely in terms of their opposition to, lack of, and subordination to maturity.”[13]

This demonstration of children’s literature arguably only serves to stereotype and de-humanise its adult authors, who have since become the harbingers of patronising connotations. Throughout the literature’s history, they have depicted children as fundamentally incapable, single-minded, vulnerable, and above all, completely innocent. Adult’s definitions of child-driven narratives have consequently indoctrinated this view onto their child readers’ minds. The hierarchy of age is still present, whether or not the intent is for the best. In The Hidden Adult, Nodelman proposes:

“In working to construct childhood as a smaller and more protected version of being human; a safe home separate from the more dangerous world around it, children’s literature paradoxically closets its adulthood and keeps it a safely hidden secret that allows for the supposed safety and innocence of the protective structure that surrounds it.”[14]

Here Nodelman has clearly highlighted the difficulties of defining children’s texts. Doing so works only to alienate children from the real ‘adult’ world, he suggests, which results in children being judged as completely un-educated, delusional and almost mythical in their state of innocence. Would it not better treat the child to expose them to more practical scenarios that they could relate to in realityThis will be answered later.

As it stands, children’s literature is defined through its message rather than its artistic value. However, Marah Gubar has counter-acted this point and argued in Artful Dodgers: Reconceiving the Golden Age of Children’s Literature that children’s literature can be “rich in irony, in ambiguity and in linguistic subtlety” and suggests that the essentialism of children tends to narrow out vision.[15] It should not be forgotten that these texts are still works of literature; and their construction, together with their command over language is the cornerstone for their success.

The fact of the matter still remains that children’s literature is arguably indefinable, being as though the child readers themselves do not take part in their construction at all. One can still afford to discuss and dissect the genre, however, as it is part of the literary world. In light of this, and in order to distinguish children’s texts from other texts, it has been largely determined that the genre deals with literature written for, or mainly read by, children between the ages of 1 and 16, in formats and styles ranging from the picture book to the young adult novel.

Ideology – “No Text is Simple”

Children’s literature is most usually seen in binary of “good” for children, or as “bad” for children. Child-centric criticisms usually focus upon this binary divide and look at what is “good” for the child – in reading and in types of texts the child reads. Although this approach is fairly out-dated in children’s literature studies, it is still used by many educators and librarians around the world. It is also included in the many “best of” collections for analysing children’s literature. Keeping in mind the development of the child, child-centric ideology considers this the most important aspect of children’s literature. To further this point, Bruno Bettelheim reinforces the importance of fairy tales in his book The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales[16]. Here, Bettelheim asserts that fairy tales are an integral part of a child’s development and that they are of the utmost importance in nurturing the child’s growth and understanding of the world. He emphasizes that by dealing “with universal human problems, particularly those which pre-occupy the child’s mind, these stories speak to the child’s budding ego and encourage its development”[17]. Although Bettelheim only assesses fairy tales, this theory of a “moral good” is still a method of judgement used today. Adult readers and parents of child readers will seek out the morally good message in children’s literature in order for their consent to be given.

This is severely problematic, as Jack Zipes points out in Second Thoughts on Socialization Through Literature for Children[18]. He rejects Bettelheim’s analysis of fairy tales and argues that, along with the rest of children’s literature, the texts are not for children. Instead, Zipes stresses that children’s literature never belonged to children in the first place, and that it is in fact “a script coded by adults for the information and internalization of children which must meet the approbation of adults”.[19] In The Hidden Adult, Nodelman agrees that adults write these stories in order to acculturate the child towards the adult’s definitions of proper behaviour, mannerisms and socialization.[20] Whilst this might seem like warped philosophy, it does give reason for the texts to be created; to compliment the lower-reading level standard that is more easily relatable to children who wish to involve themselves in reading as a hobby or past-time.

The adult writer-child reader relationship also presents another method of acculturating the child. Nodelmen in The Hidden Adult shed some light on how engrained adult assumptions are in supposedly innocent and simplistic texts:

“Children’s literature is not simple. The most rudimentary of baby books comes to exist and has meaning only within a complex context of assumptions about books, about babies, about books for babies, about language and visual imagery, about education, about pleasure, and about the economy and the marketplace”.[21]

Regardless then, of complexity or artistic construct; no form of text is without ideology. It is inevitable, and a product of contemporary belief; not to mention a product of what will sell a good amount of copies in the marketplace, as stated by Nodelman. In Ideology and the Children’s Book[22], Peter Hollindale assumes this position as well, and advocates it is “because of the multiplicity and diversity of both ‘book’ and ‘child’ and of the social world in which each of these seductive abstractions takes a plenitude of individual forms”. Hollindale also suggests three levels of ideology in texts. The first is formed of “the explicit social, political and moral beliefs of the individual writer and his/her wish to recommend them to children throughout the story”. Hollindale believes that this type of ideology is mostly deliberate, and overtly promotes the message that the writer wishes to convey. However, Hollindale argues that this is mostly to an unhappy consequence, in which the “ideological explicitness is often achieved at the cost of imaginative depth”.

The second category of ideology within children’s texts is the un-examined assumptions and ideologies that the writer infuses into the work. It is nearly impossible to confine the subliminal or passive values of the writer. These values will be relocated into the text and into the overall sense of the storyline. They are then relayed to the reader through subtle and often unconscious choices of language and imagery. Furthermore, Hollindale affirms that “un-examined, passive values are widely shared values… (and one should not) underestimate the powers of reinforcement vested in quiescent and unconscious ideology”.

The third category of ideology is one that suggests our thinking “may be affected by an over-simplified stereotype of possible authority and influence…. (and that) writers for children are transmitters not of themselves uniquely, but of the worlds they share.” The fictional universe that is made up for children in their literature is therefore a product of not only the individual writer, but of the values that were bestowed upon them when they were a child themselves.

Colonialism of the Child

Jacqueline Rose in The Case of Peter Pan or the Impossibility of Children’s Fiction[23] looks at J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan[24] in order to present differing interpretations of children’s literature and asks “what adults, through literature, want or demand of the child,” rather than “what children want, or need from literature.” Furthermore, she identifies a problematic adult-child relationship in literature. She explains that children’s literature published for children is “a way of colonizing (or wrecking) the child”.[25] Nodelman, in The Hidden Adult argues using similar threads and relates Edward Said’s Orientalism to the case of children and their literature. The adult is seen as the colonizer and the child is seen as the colonized. Peter Hunt (literary critic) reinforces this point by concluding books that are ‘written for’ children are more appreciated by their adult counterparts.[26] As a result, the relationship between writer and reader seems to be fairly one-sided, as the books then become texts that are written by adults, for adults. The child, quite notably, is taken out of the picture all together, as if they have been thoroughly colonized by adults and forced to grow up.

Nodelman explains that ultimately, adults can’t escape the role of the colonizer because they are the only party that has the ability and foresight to write children’s books that will withstand the test of time. “In order to combat colonization, I am recommending a benevolent and helpful colonizing attitude towards children”,[27] Nodelman suggested. However, if one is to conclude that no children’s literature exists that is not colonizing, what does this mean for the future of children’s booksAre we to simply stop writing books that have been read and loved by generations of children over centuriesOr is contemporary society merely becoming too carried away with social practiceOr furthermore; are we too afraid of damaging children’s innate “innocence” with any pre-mature thought of the adult world?

Granted, this lack of urgency is less prominent in literature targeted at adolescence, but the types of literature published and chosen to be highlighted must also be taken into consideration in that genre as well. In conclusion, it seems that in terms of controlling relationships, adults are continuing to colonize children in literature, through an un-avoidable turn of events.

Post Colonialism – The “Other” and Identity in Literature

“Child psychology and children’s literature can be discussed and analyzed as the corporate institution for dealing with childhood – dealing with it by making statements about it, authorizing views of it, describing it, by teaching it, settling it, ruling over it; in short, child psychology and children’s literature as an adult style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over childhood.”[28]

This quotation demonstrates the thorough colonization of the child through literature that is aimed solely at them. Whilst this section deals with post-colonization, it is necessary to address the effects that colonization had on the world in a political and social sense. For instance, a divide was created between the West and the Orient. Both senses of each culture’s identity were molded within their given territories, as well as against one another’s given territory. A western child grows up knowing that he is a western child, and at the same time develops knowledge of the oriental child. Therefore an identity is made to suit himself, whilst another foreign identity is made to suit the oriental child in his eyes.

In post-colonial society, the decolonized child develops a post-colonial identity that has since stemmed from being colonized by their own society. Children are influenced by the “good and the bad” of the previous generations. They are influenced to read materials given to them by their parents – materials that the parents themselves have deemed worthy and acceptable of the child’s embrace. Again, there is no possible room for a world in which colonization does not exist in the parent-child relationship. There is still the role of the colonizer (played by the parent) and the role of the colonized (played by the child). The colonizer’s influence is strong and un-deniable on the child, much like the influence that the British Empire had during its reign over India. Clare Bradford exhibits this point well in her book Unsettling Narratives: Post-Colonial Readings of Children’s Literature[29], in so far that she observes how mainstream cultures have used and recycled the same classic narrative discourses for decades. Clare suggests that this is a mere reinforcement of colonization, and that the movement is a product of children having been colonized by their parents for the whole of child literature’s history. Bradford has pointed out the perpetuating cycle of this activity; and how it will never change because of the relationship found between the colonizer and the colonized i.e. parent and child.

With this passing down of identity from colonizer to colonized, the child begins to forge his or her own will to carry on the generational hierarchy, and indeed, their own will to recognize their identity from others. Nodelman touches upon this point very well in The Other…, by comparing Orientalism to common assumptions about children’s literature and childhood itself. His discovery was triggered by Edward Said’s Orientalism[30], which acts as a commentary about the ways the West views the East. It dictates that by analyzing and authorizing views about the Orient, we are also dominating and restructuring it, much in the same way as we are dominating and re-structuring childhood by allowing adults to write about it.

Roderick McGillis reinforces this point by using the example of cowboys and Indians at the start of his book Voices of the Other: Children’s Literature and the Postcolonial Context[31]. After observing how some boys act out the massacre of 40,000 native Indians because their cowboy idols are doing so, he determines that “the success of American culture amounts to a colonizing activity that these boys appear to accept readily and unquestioningly.” The same activity that McGillis noticed in these boys happens within all veins of children’s literature; children are accepting Peter Pan (for instance) without question, and addressing morals and universalities much in the same way as their beloved protagonist does.

In conclusion, it is evident that modern post-colonial society can’t escape the relationship it has between adult-writer and child-reader. It is an observation that could be seen on the surface as being sinister, but one has to remember that adults were children once too. Who better is there to teach a child how to actDevelopmentally, humans are creatures of imitation. In this respect, literature should also be deemed as so.

Barrie, J.M. 2013. Peter Pan. UK. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform. ISBN-10: 1484102827.
Bettelheim, B. 1991. The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales. UK. Penguin Books. ISBN-10: 0140137270.
Bradford, C. 2007. Unsettling Narratives: Postcolonial Readings of Children’s Literature. UK. Wilfrid Laurier University ISBN-10: 0889205078.
Brothers Grimm. 1987. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. UK. Square Fish. ISBN-10: 0374468680.
Gubar, M. 2010. Artful Dodgers: Reconceiving the Golden Age of Children’s Literature. S. OUP USA. ISBN-10: 0199756742. Pp. 45.
Hollindale, P. 1988. Ideology and the Children’s Book. UK. Thimble Press. ISBN-10: 0903355264.
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2008. The Hidden Adult: Defining Children’s Literature. UK. Johns Hopkins University Press. ISBN-10: 0801889804. Pp. 188.
McGillis, R. 2012. Voices of the Other: Children’s Literature and the Postcolonial Context (Children’s Literature and Culture). UK. Routledge, ISBN-10: 0415653150. 14-20, Chp. 43.
McGillis, R. 2000. Voices of the Other. UK. Routledge. ISBN-10: 081533284.
Nodelman, P. 2008. The Hidden Adult: Defining Children’s Literature. UK. Johns Hopkins University ISBN-10: 0801889804. Pp. 163.
Nodelman, P. 1992. The Other: Orientalism, Colonialism and Children’s Literature. Children’s Literature Association Quarterly. Vol. 17, No. 1. Pp. 29 – 35.
Penguin Group USA. 2013. Accessible: Last Accessed 24/10/2013
Rose, J. 1984. The Case of Peter Pan or the Impossibility of Children’s Fiction. S. University of Pennsylvania Press. ISBN-10: 0812214358.
Said, E. 1979. UK. Vintage. ISBN-10: 039474067X.
Shavit, Z. 2010. Poetics of Children’s Literature. S. University of Georgia Press. ISBN-10: 0820334812.
Townsend, J. R. 1971. Standards of Criticism for Children’s Literature. S. American Library Association. Pp. 194.
Zipes, J. 1981. Second Thoughts on Socialization Through Literature for Children. The Lion and the Unicorn Vol. 5. UK. The Johns Hopkins University Pp. 19-32.

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