Why KidLit?


As many of you know, I am studying children’s literature in graduate school. Specifically  middle grade books. Because of this, I have spent the majority of my academic career answering pretty much the same question — “why would you want to study kids’ books?” The automatic assumption is that children’s literature is somehow below the worth of deep academic scrutiny. I believe this is an entirely ridiculous notion.

Why do we study literature? What is its import to society? According to multi-awarded-winning children’s author, playwright and scholar Aidan Chambers, “… in literature, we find the best expression of the human imagination, and the most useful means by which we come to grips with our ideas about ourselves and what we are.” (Chambers 16) Literature, then, is a portal to our own psyche. Unlike the sciences and mathematics, the study of literature focuses not on concrete evidence of what can be proven – studied as a hard-line “true or false” case – but on what we feel as human beings, what happens to us in this life, and the questions surrounding our very existence. Literature is philosophy disguised as fiction. It is an account of our own lives through the eyes of another: the writer, the character(s), the villain(s). These are avatars of ourselves, gifting us with a glimpse into not only our own individual life’s journey, but the makeup of society and civilization as a whole. As my freshman English teacher in high school Mr. Brown said, “Through literature we study what is controversial to speak of any other way.” Thus, through literature we can study ourselves and the world around us on a level unavailable otherwise.

By definition, the official canon of English literature is the cream of this philosophical crop. However, it is not a specific list of books that one can simply take from. As professor of English at NYU Dr. John Guillory says, “No one has access to the canon as a totality… the works invoked as canonical change continually according to many different occasions of judgment or contestation. What this means is the canon is never anything other than an imaginary list.” (Guillory 30) So the canon is actually an ever-changing idea in the minds of educators of the literature they feel is worthy of study. But these educators often have very different ideas on just what constitutes literary worth, so the canon has changed often since its modern inception. This is a natural processes of cultural evolution, based on current ideas of vital aspects to the human condition. Yet one vital aspect that has been continually overlooked in this ongoing study of humanity is the very root-beginnings of who we are. All human beings start our lives as children, yet we insist on dismissing this so very important phase as beneath our interest. But when do the roots of humanity — the beginnings of questioning and questing — begin? In childhood. To leave out the study of children’s literature is to leave out the very beginning of our lesson. It is akin to starting the experiment without the very hypotheses that experiment means to solve. If we are to ever truly understand humanity, we must start at the beginning.

And so this is my stance — that until we accept children’s literature can be as worthy of canonical study as adult literature, we will be missing a vital aspect of literary studies as a whole.

That is all.


Works Cited


Chambers, Aidan. Booktalk: Occasional Writing on Literature and Children. London: Bodley Head, 1985. Web.

Guillory, John. Cultural Capital: The Problem of Literary Canon Formation. Chicago: University of Chicago Press (1993). Print.


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