Generationlist Theory: Canonical Literary Criticism for Children’s Books

Finally, my master’s thesis is complete and approved! To mark this day, I’m posting it here in its entirety as an easy-to-find static page. If you choose to use it as an academic source, please cite appropriately. If you have found it useful, please feel free to share! Thank you. ~ JR

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 By Jessica Rising, M.A.



It is generally understood that the study of literature is the study of the human condition, with the scholarly criticism of certain exquisite titles at the apex of that learning. These titles, which have been deemed superb by academia, make up a fluid, historic list of literary greats often called “the literary canon”, or just “the canon”. However, though the list has changed over time, one particular subset of literature has been excluded from the list time and again: titles written exclusively for children. In this thesis, I argue that this is a faulty omission, and that children’s literature can be just as superb as adult literature, as it is written for a vital subset of humanity. To do this, I analyze children’s literature through the established lens of scholarly conversation, revealing its worth to the study of literature as a whole. This will be done by first defining what makes a work “canon”, then forming a literary theory to be used in analyzing children’s literature based on already established theories, and finally using that theory to critique a specific list of uniquely superb children’s titles both past and present.


“We need a critical method which takes account of the child-as-reader; which will include him rather than exclude him; which will help us to understand a book better and discover the reader it seeks. We need a critical method which will tell us about the reader in the book (Chambers 34).

To study literary fiction is, in essence, to study the human condition. In Poetry in a Scientific World, Morris Sweetkind states that in ignoring the study of literature, society “turns out one fourth of a human being” (Sweetkind 360). He goes on to say that, “[t]he modern student enamored of science clings to the fallacy that what he learns in his textbooks is eternal truth… However, my copies of Oedipus Rex, Hamlet and Leaves of Grass, today still have validity for my grandchildren” (360). The mythologist Joseph Campbell echoes this declaration in his introduction to The Hero with a Thousand Faces: “… myth is the secret opening through which the inexhaustible energies of the cosmos pour into the human cultural manifestation” (Campbell I). And award-winning children’s author Aidan Chambers asserted, “I hold that 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). The basic building blocks of humanity which literature mirrors never change; people will always be at once evil and good, cruel and kind, greedy and compassionate. These facts are as relevant today as they ever were and ever will be.

One could argue the above of all literature both past and present, yet there exists an unwritten, ever-changing list of specific titles that outshine all others. These are tomes that have so perfectly defined the human condition that they have changed a myriad of individual minds, inspired great thinkers and revolutionaries, and even deeply affected whole societies in modern history. These books are read, studied and taught by generations of scholars and professors. This coveted list is most often termed “the English canon”, “the literary canon”, or simply “the canon”, and it defines everything literature stands for – a study in humanity itself.

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 scholarly 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.

Until we accept that literature written for children can be as worthy of canonical study and criticism as that written for adults, we will be missing a vital aspect of literary studies as a whole. Thus, this paper will seek to look at children’s literature through the established lens of scholarly conversation, revealing its worth to the study of literature as a whole. This will be done by first defining what makes a work “canon” in chapter 1, then in chapter 2 forming a literary theory to be used in analyzing children’s literature based on already established theories, then using that theory to critique a specific list of uniquely superb children’s titles as classic literature in chapter three, and modern literature in chapter four. Finally, chapter five will conclude the argument for children’s literature as canon.

Chapter 1

What is “Good” Literature? Defining the Argument

As with every opinion, what is considered “good” literature is highly speculative. However there are certain parameters that must be met in order for a book to be considered good enough for inclusion in the canon. This chapter will focus on establishing those parameters. It will then go on to define the use of the term “children’s literature” within this study, in order to set a precedent for the argument that literature written for children can, in fact, meet those requirements.

In The Making of the English Canon, Jonathan Brody Kramnick explains the traits that have traditionally defined canonical works, “What makes literary subjects literary is their alterity to ‘polite assemblages’ and ‘domestic familiarity’, their capacity to correct overly ‘polite’ and ‘domestic’ taste” (Kramnick 1092). In Beginning Theory, Peter Barry expands on this,“… good literature is of timeless significance; it somehow transcends the limitations and peculiarities of the age it was written in, and thereby speaks what is constant in human nature” (Barry 17). Thus, canonical literature shakes things up — it changes humanity by showing us our own fallibilities and challenging us to overcome them. It is also timeless, relating to any reader of any age on the deepest levels of what it is to be human. No canonical work has ever been passive. In order to be considered one of the ‘greats’, a work of literature must change things, from the individual reader to society itself, in a deep and profound way.

While the canon does evolve in accordance with cultural, societal and academic changes, there remain certain writers who will always have a place at the top. According to Kramnick, “Spenser, Shakespeare and Milton… [were] first represented as a literary trinity and first described with consistency as ‘transcendent’, ‘sublime’, and ‘classic’ in criticism…” (1087) These three writers are generally considered the forerunners to modern canon inclusion, though this argument has been challenged based on their antiquity in-relation to the myriad of changes that the canon has undergone since. These are changes that, according to Kramnic, “… emerged as a reversal of an earlier understanding of cultural change” (1087). The major apex of this change can be seen in the transformative polarity between classes in the mid-eighteenth-century, when the canon was first emerging as an academic ideal. Earlier works that were once considered vital to literary and cultural study began to be challenged as not representing the whole of humanity, but only the elite. This brings us back to the idea that canonical works must be society-changing stories that go beyond their own time and culture.

The changes that the canon has undergone, then, have been evolutionary as well as revolutionary, reflecting the truest depths of the human condition through generations. But, at one time the influential adults of these generations were all children, and from as far back as the mid-1700’s, those children could read books written just for them (Hunt 15). As Professor Emeritus in Children’s Literature at Cardiff University Peter Hunt says in Understanding Children’s Literature:

[children’s books] are overtly important educationally and commercially – with consequences across the culture, from language to politics: most adults, and almost certainly the vast majority in positions of power and influence, read children’s books as children, and it is inconceivable that the ideologies permeating those books had no influence in their development. (12)

Thus, works written for children have had a deep and profound effect on all aspects of humanity, just as Kramnick and Barry defined canonical works to do.

Yet despite this logic, books written for children have traditionally been seen as beneath notice to most literary scholars. Though some child-based literature has been studied as canon in the past, such as Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn and To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, one can argue that the inclusion of these books into canonical study has been strongly supported by their intended audience: that is, adult readers. In fact, literary critics such as Adam Smykowski (“Symbolism and Racism in To Kill a Mockingbird”) and Jonathan Arac (“Huckleberry Finn as Idol and Target: The Functions of Criticism in Our Time”), discuss these titles entirely as adult literature. And in cases where they are considered children’s books, the study is not literary based, but instead based on themes such as education or race (ex. Tiedt, Camfield).

In fact, when one searches for canonical, literary-based criticism about children’s literature that has been written specifically for children, such as Roald Dahl’s Danny, the Champion of the World or The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis, one finds a distinct lack of documentation. In order to understand why this is so, we must touch upon the cultural significance behind the view of children’s literature within western society.

 The Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory defines “children’s books” as, “… books specifically for children…” followed by genre-specific examples such as “school stories” like Governess by Sarah Fielding (1749), fairy tales such as those written by the Brothers Grimm, and adventure stories like The Coral Island by R.M. Ballintyne (1858) (129-131) .

In Understanding Children’s Literature, Karin Lesnic-Oberstein states, “The definition of ‘children’s literature’ lies at the heart of its endevour: it is a category of books the existence of which depends on supposed relationships with a particular reading audience: children” (26). In the same source book, Peter Hunt states that, “Children’s books are different than adult books. They are written for a different audience, with different skills, different needs, and different ways of reading” (3).

Taking all of these definitions and classifications of children’s literature into consideration, we can see that in western society literature is often defined not by who it is written about, but who it is written for. Children’s literature is directly connected with its intended audience, both by definition and reputation. Thus, in order to see why these books have not been traditionally viewed as “good enough” to make canon, one must only look as far as the adult attitude towards children themselves. This attitude has conventionally been that children are simplistic and shallow; therefore, the literature written for them must be as well. As we have established, “simplistic and shallow” is quite the opposite of what is looked for in canonical works. On the other hand, as established above, books written about children have been critiqued and studied on the scholarly level because they were written for adults, and therefore have the potential for depth and import to humanity as a whole.

However children’s literature, like the audience it is written for, is actually quite diverse in its complexity. The umbrella over the genre of children’s literature is extremely wide, with age-ranges from 0 to 18 and cultural subjects spanning the globe. In fact, it is far too broad a brush to accurately argue all types of children’s literature for canonical study within this thesis. For this reason, the focus of this study will be on chapter books for ages 8-12 from the Western cultures of America and Europe. Unfortunately, as these books have been highly underrepresented in academia, this age group has no official title for use in scholarly study. In studying books written about this age group, they are almost always referred to as “Young Adult” or YA (Daniels 78), but that is still too wide a brush for this study, as books designated “Young Adult” can, and more often than not do, include those written for ages 13-18, which this study will be excluding. However, while academia has not established a separate term for books written for ages 8-12, the publishing industry has.

“From The Mixed-Up Files of Middle Grade Authors” is a website dedicated to literature for exactly this age group, maintained by a group of established professionals in the field of children’s literature. These professionals include elementary teacher and reading specialist T.P. Jagger, children’s writer and librarian at the Seattle Public Library Linda Johns, Middle Grade author and illustrator with Delacorte/Random House Publishing Rose Cooper, graduate literacy professor in the College of Education at Seattle University Katherine Schlick Noe, and pediatrician, writer and professor of children’s literature Dr. Sayantani DasGupta. On their website, they establish a specific term and definition of literature for this age group: “Typically, Middle Grade [literature] is intended for readers ages 8-12, with the protagonist at the higher end of the age range” (Cooper par 5). Like the publishing industry, this study will use the term Middle Grade, or MG, in defining literature for ages 8-12.  But even in the publishing world, there is an understandable blur in the line between Middle Grade and Young Adult, especially in terms of the protagonist’s age, as books featuring younger teenage protagonists especially have been put into both categories for differing reasons by editors, publishers, librarians and educators. Thus, the defining difference between Middle Grade and Young Adult literature, according to “Mixed-Up Files”, is content:

MG readers are learning about who they are, what they think, and where they fit in. They do well with books they can relate to. They are still focused inward and the conflicts in MG books usually reflect this. The themes can range from school situations, friendships, relationships with peers and siblings, and daily difficulties that may seem ordinary to the rest of us. The parents are usually seen and have some sort of an influence. (Cooper par 6)

Unlike Young Adult literature, which features protagonists who are looking outward into the world and their place in it, Middle Grade literature is defined by protagonists who are looking inward, finding out who they are and what they think. Parents and other authority figures also play an influential part in Middle Grade literature, whereas they do not in Young Adult as a general rule, and content considered adult in nature, such as sex, drugs and swearing, are not generally included in Middle Grade, while they often make an appearance in Young Adult.

Therefore, a book must have been written for a child-reader, as well as fulfill at least two of the following four stipulations in order to be considered Middle Grade within this study:

  • Protagonist that is no younger than 8 years old, and no older than 14.
  • Exclusion of “adult” content, including sexual innuendo, adult language, and drug/alcohol use by the protagonist.
  • Inclusion of “inward” themes, such as self-exploration and family life.
  • Inclusion of parental / adult influence on the protagonist.

These terms, currently established as standards for Middle Grade literature in the publishing industry, will help to narrow the focus of this study to manageable constraints within the massive umbrella of children’s literature studies.

Still, does the complexity of variance within the realm of children’s literature itself denote complexity within each individual book? No, of course not. As it is with adult literature, the canonical worth of children’s books must be judged on an individual basis, critiquing the worth of a story based on its own merits. The ultimate question that must be answered, then, is this: can any individual Middle Grade book stand up to the test of canon?

Chapter 2

Generationalism: Establishing Theory

Having established that Middle Grade literature meets the basic culture-shaping requirements for canon outlined by Kramnick and Barry, the next step is to test the best of this literature in the same way that canonical works have been tested in the past, to see if they hold up against established academic and scholarly scrutiny of canonical works. David L. Russell states in Literature for Children that, “…literary criticism is the discussion of literature undertaken in order to interpret its meaning and to evaluate its quality… [and] the purpose of criticism is to promote high standards in literature…” (Russell 48). Therefore, the established academic test for literary quality lay in literary criticism. Still, the quality of literature can be highly speculative. For this reason, its criticism has traditionally been undertaken by way of literary theory. According to Peter Hunt, “… the study of children’s literature brings us back to some very fundamental concerns: why are we reading? What are books good for?” (10). In using literary theory to critique books written specifically for children, one must take into consideration this question: what are books written for children (as opposed to written about children) good for? What, exactly, do they contribute to society?

As established above, though Middle Grade books have not generally been critiqued on a literary basis, there have been many studies on books written about children. Though these are not always the same books as those we are discussing, the theories used in these studies are a good place to begin building a sound theory for the scholarly study and criticism of books written for children. However, there remains an unexplored aspect unique to these books that must also be included in their study: child-culture itself. Peter Hunt stresses, “Just as children’s books are part of the ideological structures of the cultures of the world, so their history is constructed ideologically… a ‘childist’ approach… [waits] to be written…” (4).

It has been established that the scholarly worth of literature is deeply interwoven with its cultural influence, and so this influence must be explored when using theory to critique its academic worth. Though it could be argued that child culture is influenced by adult culture and not the other way around, the fact remains that as children become adults, each new generation is unique to the one before. Though adult culture certainly shapes child culture, so too does child culture become its own entity, which goes on to shape adult culture when those children become adults themselves. For this reason, the introduction of a new theory must be established in order to meld the traditional adult-culture-based literary theories used in classic canonical criticism with a unique child-culture base that will establish the scholarly and cultural worth of books written for a very particular cultural set. This new theory – based on Hunt’s ‘childist’ approach to literary criticism – will be called Generationalism.

In Understanding Children’s Literature, Professor John Stephens notes that “… the context in which children’s literature is… disseminated [is] usually dominated by a focus on content and theme…” (73). For this reason, the theories used to critique this literature have traditionally focused on these two aspects. Theories such as reader-response criticism, psychoanalytical criticism, and feminist criticism have all been used in the scholarly critiquing of children’s literature, as they each focus more on the content and/or theme of a story than, say, structuralism or narratology, which focus more on written format and structure. Content and theme, then, must be a strong feature in any traditional theory used in building Generationalism theory. However, as child-culture is a major defining guideline in Generationalism, any traditional theories used within Generationalism must be compatible with said culture. For this reason, child-culture must be defined before any traditional-based critical theory can be melded with it.

Karin Lesnick-Oberstein maintains in The Psychopathology of Everyday Children’s Literature Criticism, that “… children’s literature criticism [is used] to help with an examination of the defining of the child” (222). However, she goes on to add that, “… the whole concept of ‘the child’, or ‘childhood’ is inherently problematic: it is neither agreed upon, in terms of definitions or characteristics within one period or culture, nor is it consistent through history or across cultures and societies” (224). This is quite true, as childhood has been defined very differently across the span of human history on this diverse planet. For this reason, the child-culture base of Generationalism must be as basic to childhood as possible, stripping away any focus on outside culture or time-period. This can be very difficult to do, which may be one reason that a “childist” approach to the criticism of children’s literature has never before been attempted. The question that we must answer, then, is what is a child? What lies at the very heart of child-culture that makes children especially similar to each-other, and very different from adults? How do we define a child?

Joseph L. Zornado states in the introduction to his book, Inventing the Child: Culture, Ideology and the Story of the Child, “The vast majority of children’s stories invite the child to identify with the adult’s idea of what a child should be… [they] are more often than not adult propaganda that serves to confirm for the child the hierarchical relationship between the adult and the child” (XV).  More often than not, adults define children by our own standards and logic, and we write stories based on those same ideals. And yet, in order to critique literature written for children as a stories in-and-of-themselves, we must see it through the eyes of its intended readers – the children.

In “Space, History and Culture,” culture is defined by Tony Watkins as “… an ambiguous term: a problem shared, perhaps, by all concepts which are connected with totality, including history, ideology, society and myth.” (Watkins 57) Taking into consideration that both the history and myths of childhood are rooted directly in the adult culture that surrounds it, this study will look at the unique ideology and societal forms of childhood in defining child-culture within this study.

First is “ideology,” or a system of ideas or ideals. It is generally understood that children gain their basic ideals from those of their parents — beliefs which can be very different based on social class, culture and history. Taking into consideration that much of what children specifically believe can be as varied as those of the adult counterparts who raise and influence them, there can be no standard list of “customary ideals” in child-culture as a whole. That said, the ideological base of childhood is very much rooted in the positive. “When I grow up…” are words uttered by the majority of children from the western tradition at one time or another, the following statements of which are most often positive and exciting: “… I’ll be a firefighter / nurse / doctor / superhero.” Rooted within the uncertainty of childhood is a necessary belief that things will turn out right in the end, no matter how confusing, fearful, or uncertain the world may be at any given moment.

Second, Watkins cites “society,” or qualities of, relating to, or characteristic of the experience, behavior, and interaction of persons forming groups. In The Social Ecology of Middle Childhood: Family Support, Friendship Quality and Self-Esteem, Professor of Psychology, Mary J. Levitt states that, “In general, the studies examining family-peer linkages have revealed that parents’ personal characteristics… influence children’s peer relations.” (315) In this way, the social form of child-culture is directly linked with adult-culture. However, as has been established, each generation changes society as a whole as the children in that generation grow up and add their own social forms to those of the past. This child-based influence is currently exemplified in each new generation’s rapid adaptation to the continually evolving technology of today. This would indicate that social forms in child-culture are not entirely based on their adult counterparts, but include separate aspects, uniquely remolding each generation from the ones before. Outside influences such as media and exposure to children raised alternatively will inevitably change the ways in which children experience, behave, and interact with one-another in social situations. Thus, the social forms of child-culture, like its ideals, cannot be defined by any one style of play or interaction when speaking of child-culture spanning many generations. Instead, social forms in child-culture must be defined as changeable and mirror-like, reflecting both generations before them as well as a myriad of outside influences. Yet, it must also be noted that children are highly social creatures, for whom friendships play a key part in their overall development. As Franco and Levitt state, “… in the pre-adolescent years… friendships, rather than general acceptance by peers, are believed to be of great importance for the development of a positive sense of well-being” (316).

Based on all this, we can define child-culture as continuously in-flux, changeable, mutable and social. Child-culture is chaos controlled and guided by the adult-culture that surrounds it. It is the swirling colors of a hurricane bound within the brick wall of adult-culture. To be a part of child-culture is to be always questioning, wondering, believing and doubting. All adults began as members of this chaotic culture, and it remains the basis of who we are as individuals. As adults, we have learned to mask our fears, calm our excitements, and otherwise control who we are inside. But deep down, every individual adult retains those elementary feelings of fear, hope, anger, triumph, doubt and determination that child-culture still freely explores. Child-culture is a stark mirror into the base reasoning behind many aspects of adult culture, into the society that once-children have built. Generationalism theory, then, judges literature written for children not by what it teaches readers, but by how it reflects the basic building blocks of being human. If canonical works are those that shake up the establishment and change the world, then canonical works for children are those that remind the reader why those changes must happen in the first place.

Besides the foundation of child-culture, Generationalism is built using some aspects from established literary theory. One of these is Feminist Theory. Although Generationalism seeks to define children’s literature as its own entity within the literary world, and thus keep it well removed from its traditional place as “mother-based” literature rather than “child-based,” (Kramnick 1089); still many attitudes expressed within the context of Feminist Theory itself are in-keeping with the needs of a “childist” approach to theory. According to David Barry, Feminist critics, “Rethink the canon… reevaluate women’s experience… [and] challenge representations of women in literature…” (Barry 128). Generationalism will take from these actions, replacing “women” with “children,” to rethink representation of the child, both within the context of the story, and in assumptions of the child-reader by adults.

Another established theory that contributes to Generationalism is Stylistics, or the study of “…how the technical linguistic features of a literary work, such as the grammatical structure of its sentences, contribute to its overall meanings and effects” (Barry 196). Aspects of the Stylistic approach to literary criticism will contribute to Generationalism by way of illuminating the bridge between the adult writer and the child reader in the use of child-based narrative language.

Generationalism also takes from the established theory of Intertextuality. According to The Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory, Intertextuality, “… denote[s] the interdependence of literary texts… of any one literary text with all those that have gone before it.” It goes on to state that Intertextuality claims that, “… literary text is not an isolated phenomenon but is made up of a mosaic of quotations, and that any text is the ‘absorption and transformation of another’” (Cuddon 424).  Generationalism will use aspects of this approach to theory by way of studying children’s books as intertextualized with classic myth and lore.

Finally, Generationalism will take into account aspects of Joseph Campbell’s theories on storytelling via the heroic archetype, as outlined in The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Though not technically a critical theory, Campbell’s vision of hero-as-metaphor perfectly melds the tradition of literature as a powerful cultural emulation with the basic fairy-tale building-blocks of children’s literature, thus solidifying children’s books criticized via Generationalism as literature in their own right.

Taking all of these aspects into account, we are given the new “childist” literary theory, Generationalism.


1)      Examine the roles and traits of protagonistic and antagonistic characters in literature written for children, in-relation to their metaphorical portrayal of the child within child-culture.

2)      Examine the literary devices with which literature written for children directly relates to child-culture, such as allusion, foreshadowing, and cultural landscaping.

3)      Evaluate the role of whimsy, hyperbole, and metaphor in children’s literature, in-relation to the psychological reflection of child-culture on society.

4)      Explore the language / voice of children’s books as succinctly eloquent descriptions of life-experience.

5)      Compare and contrast literature written for children against classic adventure-based stories such as myth and fairy tales as defined within Joseph Campbell’s work, thus taking into consideration the cultural and social significance of both in-relation to the other.

6)      Compare and contrast literature written for children with similarly-themed adult literature, taking into consideration the cultural and social significance of both in-relation to the other.

7)      Revalue the roles of children and childhood in society.

Thus Generationalism quantifiably evaluates children’s books as certifiable works of literature, on the same scale and with similar theoretical approaches as those theories used in evaluating adult literature.

As has been established, this study will focus on a specific list of exceptional Middle Grade works only, for the sake of continuity and brevity. That said, Generationalism is structured for use in evaluating all genres of children’s literature, depending on the interests and goals of those using it.

Chapter 3

Watering our Roots: Theoretical Approaches to Children’s Books as Classic Literature

In her article titled Literary Theory and Young Adult Literature, Cindy Lou Daniels states, “… critics [should]… simply acknowledge that regardless of the genre, both children’s and YA works are literature… If we, as scholars and readers, don’t bother to hold the YA work up to the light of crucial literary standards, then it is no wonder the works are not being taken seriously” (Daniels 78-79). Though Daniels is mostly speaking of Young Adult literature, the idea also holds true for Middle Grade (examples of which Daniels includes with Young Adult titles in her article), and even Picture Books, all three of which fall under the umbrella of children’s literature.

If any work is evaluated strictly under these “crucial literary standards,” it is the classic novel. Of all canonical works critiqued under the umbrella of literary studies, the classic is held highest in esteem by most. In fact, some works considered to be children’s books have been evaluated as classics in the past, including Lord of the Flies by William Golding, and To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. However, while these books feature child protagonists, they were not written specifically for children, and so their criticism does not fit within the structure of this study. This chapter will focus on the Generationalist criticism of three Middle Grade books written specifically for children as classic works of literature.

It is generally understood that a classic work of literature is one that has upheld a standard of excellence. In the world of children’s literature, this standard of excellence is denoted by certain esteemed awards, such the Newberry Award and Honors, which are given by the American Library Association only to those authors of children’s books that have made a “… distinguished contribution to American literature for children,” according to the Newberry Medal Homepage. Though there exist many different awards like the Newberry from around the globe, for the sake of brevity, this study will focus on Newberry Award Winners and Honors as representations of this standard of excellence within the definition of “classic literature.” This is in keeping with the western-literary base of this study, and with the understanding that even though the Newberry is American-based, British-born authors such as Neil Gaiman and Susan Cooper have also won the award.

“Traditional and enduring” books written for children will also be evaluated as classics, taking into consideration both their publication date and longevity as beloved books through at least three generations of child-readers. A good, round publication date to represent this generational longevity from the date of this study is 1955, a date around which many current grandparents were born. Any well-known, popular Middle Grade work published on or before this date will thus be considered “traditional and enduring” for the sake of this study.

With these stipulations in mind, the three Middle Grade books that will be evaluated via Generationalism as classic works are as follows:

  1. The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum (1900)
  2. Dear Mr. Henshaw by Beverly Cleary (Newberry Award, 1983)
  3. Maniac Magee by Jerry Spinelli (Newberry Award, 1990)

These books will now be evaluated via Generationalism as classic literature – that is, excellent and enduring – from the foundation of their contribution to child-culture and thus, the culture of humanity as a whole.

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum has been a mainstay of Middle Grade fantasy since its original publication over one hundred and thirteen years ago. It has spawned a myriad of multimedia reproductions and spinoffs, from stage to television to big screen. It would be difficult, indeed, to find anyone in the western world who does not know Dorothy Gale, the Wicked Witch, or what sorts of adventures can be had in Oz. As established, this fact alone defines Wizard as a classic work of literature. However, to truly understand why Wizard has stood the test of time, it must be evaluated more deeply. Through Generationalism, Wizard will now be critiqued via examination of the role and traits of its main character, Dorothy Gale, in-relation to her metaphorical portrayal of the child within child-culture.

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz follows Dorothy on her adventures in Oz. Her need to get back home to Kansas spurs her on through dangers and adventures until she finally reaches her goal. Within the scope of Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey, Dorothy would be considered the “hero as lover” (293). This is not only in-relation to her gender, as Campbell succinctly states, “[the lover]… is symbolized as woman” (293), but in-relation to her story as a whole. Of course, Campbell isn’t naming the feminine as hero here, but the prize. Still, Dorothy represents the best of Campbell’s lover-hero, with her “feminine” prize being Home (which has traditionally been seen as the domain of the feminine): “The motif of the difficult task as prerequisite to the bridal-bed [as represented by “home”], has spun the hero-deeds of all time and all the world” (295).

Dorothy represents, in both her innocence and her determination, the ever-optimistic and unflinching determination of childhood that continues to spur humanity even as adults. Though obstacles stand in her way, Dorothy refuses to give in. From the very beginning Dorothy doesn’t flinch, believing that good will win out in the end: “In spite of the swaying of the house and the wailing of the wind, Dorothy soon closed her eyes and fell fast asleep” (Baum 7). And even when things looked to be hopeless, Dorothy kept her childlike optimism: “Dorothy said nothing. Oz had not kept the promise he made her, but he had done his best. So she forgave him” (178). And in the end, her belief in the power of good to shape her destiny was rewarded: “’Your silver shoes will carry you over the desert,’ replied Glinda. ‘If you had known their power you could have gone back to your Aunt Em the very first day you came to this country’” (204). It is left to the reader to decide whether Dorothy would have returned home right away if she had known the power of the slippers. Still, to Glinda’s pronouncement, she says, “… ‘I am glad I was of use to these good friends’” (204). And so we have a hope that she would have done the right thing in the end, and chosen the heroine path anyway.

The hopefulness and optimism found within The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is not a coincidence. L. Frank Baum wrote in his introduction to the story, “… the time has come for a series of newer ‘wonder tales’ in which the stereotyped [fairy tale is] eliminated, together with all the horrible and blood-curdling incidents devised by their authors to point a fearsome moral to each tale” (Intro).  And yet, though Baum intended only entertainment in his beloved wonder tale, he couldn’t help but infuse into it an enduring reminder of the unflappable hope and belief in good embodied in child-culture. Though the constant barrage of insecurity that punctuates so much of adulthood strips much of this away, it remains a constant beat deep within the heart of humanity. The lasting popularity of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz in adult culture, from parents passing it on to their children, to adult adaptations of the classic work in popular culture such as The Wiz, and nods within the television series “Stargate SG1,” speaks volumes of its ability to remind adults that at one time, they believed in hope. And maybe it remains so popular because it continues to stir some of that hope once again in the hearts of those who have, at one time, forgotten it.

Dear Mr. Henshaw by Beverly Cleary is a story about a boy named Leigh Botts whose parents are divorced. Told from the point of view of the main character, it follows Leigh through his struggle to define himself as separate from his parents, a theme that humanity has dealt with generation after generation. Cleary‘s narrative style is unique in that the story takes the form of letters written by Leigh to an author named Mr. Henshaw. Because of this back-and-forth relational theme between child and adult, Dear Mr. Henshaw is a perfect study in the revaluing of children’s roles in society under Generationalism.

A fourth-grade Leigh writes early on in the story, “My favorite character in [your] book was Joe’s Dad because he didn’t get mad when Joe amused his dog by playing a tape of a lady singing, and his dog sat and howled like he was singing, too” (Cleary 3). Right away, we get a glimpse into Leigh’s family life, and the value he feels he has to his own father. The unspoken reason behind Leigh’s interest in the fictional dad is nonetheless clear: Leigh’s own father would get mad about that, and possibly about many other things as well. Like most small children, Leigh is positive about his dad at first, despite this small hint to what he may actually be like. It isn’t until he is in the sixth grade and answering questions put to him by Mr. Henshaw that he gives another tiny hint his father may not be the hero he wants him to be, “Mom used to get mad at Dad for whooping it up, but she didn’t mean throwing up. She meant he stayed too long in that truck stop outside of town” (26).  The difference between these two notations is more than just time-based. In the first, Leigh’s parents are still together. In the second, they are divorced and Leigh lives alone with his mother.

Once Leigh is in sixth grade, his notations about his father begin to reflect Leigh’s maturing mind, with commentary that is less positive, and much more direct: “I am bothered when Dad telephones me and finished by saying, ‘Well, keep your nose clean, kid.’ Why can’t he say he misses me? And why can’t he call me Leigh?” (28). This passage is especially poignant, as it goes on to describe Leigh’s greatest wish: that his dad would come and drive him to school.

Leigh also knows more than his parents seem to think, and understands what these “adult” things mean to his own life: “Maybe I’m mad about other things, like Dad forgetting to send this month’s support payment… I wish he still hauled sugar beets… so he might come to see me. The judge in the divorce said he has a right to see me” (31). Like most single parents, Leigh’s mother works, and he often describes himself as “medium” (15). He has no friends, but no enemies either: “The kids here pay more attention to my lunch than they do to me” (25). When the school janitor invites him to help raise the flag in the mornings, Leigh is thrilled because, “It was nice to have somebody notice me” (35).

Despite Leigh’s dreary life, Cleary’s narrative style is so childlike that he doesn’t come off as whiny or self-pitying in the least. His letters are more matter-of-fact than anything, giving the sense that Leigh’s life is not unusual. The image of the ignored child is reflected in Leigh’s story, a commentary on the importance, or lack thereof, which is placed on childhood in our society. That Leigh’s absentee father stands as a metaphor for the directly-negative attitude in society towards children is apparent. What may not be as apparent is the metaphor of his mother: “I asked Mom if she thought [Dad] might come to see us for Christmas. She said, ‘We’re divorced. Remember?’ I remember alright. I remember all the time” (40). As the parent who cares for him, she stands for the societal push to help and care for the young, yet still not always listening to what the child needs, wants, or even understands. Mr. Henshaw, as Leigh’s chosen father-figure, represents the need we all have to be noticed and loved by those we respect.

As a metaphor to the lost-child archetype, Dear Mr. Henshaw illustrates the human condition of self-discovery within a society that often feels cold and aloof. The mirroring of this feeling within a child’s book makes it all the more poignant, as it is in childhood that we feel this most keenly. By using the matter-of-fact language of childhood to illustrate a universal experience within humanity, the Newbery-Award-Winning Dear Mr. Henshaw is a definitively classic work that reminds readers young and old that childhood experience is the experience of all mankind.

Jerry Spinelli’s Maniac Magee opens with the lines, “They say Maniac Magee was born in a dump. They say his stomach was a cereal box and his heart was a sofa spring… What’s true, what’s myth? It’s hard to know” (Spinelli 1). Right from the beginning, the author evokes the allusion of classic myth. Yet Maniac Magee is written in a simplistic narrative style. It takes place in a contemporary setting. The main players are children and teenagers. The moral of love and acceptance for those who may be different than us is easily apparent. It is, for all intents and purposes, a simple children’s book. And yet beneath its childlike surface, the towering Myth of antiquity burns bright. In fact through Generationalism, Maniac Magee can easily be critiqued using Joseph Campbell’s steps for the “Hero’s Journey” so as to spotlight its classically mythological focus.

In The Hero with a Thousand Faces, mythologist Joseph Campbell outlines the steps taken by the hero of antiquity in classic myth and lore. Citing an array of canonical stories from around the world, Campbell illustrates both the basic storyline structure of mythology, and its import to humanity, “[Myth] will always be the one, shape-shifting yet marvelously constant story that we find, together with a challengingly persistent suggestion of more remaining to be experienced than will ever be known or told” (Campbell I).

If myth is shape-shifting, as Campbell states, then why can’t children’s books also reflect the ancient call of myth, and thus be held to its same literary standard? Though Maniac Magee is presented as a myth by its author, does it really follow myth as outlined by Campbell? Can it be compared and contrasted to the great myths of antiquity?

Campbell’s hero goes through many different steps in reaching his ultimate boon. For the sake of brevity, these steps will be outlined as basically as possible. Then, an example from Maniac McGee will be compared and contrasted, as illustrative to the myth-quality of Spinelli’s work.

Campbell’s first step is The Call to Adventure. This is where the protagonist – not yet a hero – is pulled into his or her adventure. This Call is often unconscious, and usually comes by apparent chance (Campbell 42). Like most heroes, Maniac’s Call comes at a young age, “[Maniac] had regular parents, a mother and a father… One day, his parents left him with a sitter and took the P&W high speed trolley into the city… they were on board when the P&W had its famous crash… And just like that, Maniac was an orphan.” (Spinelli 5) Maniac’s Call to Adventure happened when he, by chance, became an orphan, for his entire story begins at that point. The loss of his parents is the first sign of something coming for Maniac. The second is his being shipped off to his nearest relatives in “the unsuspected world” of Pennsylvania (5), and the third is the ever-present fighting of his adoptive parents who refuse, for the sake of religion, to divorce. This fighting results in Maniac’s literal choice to run away from the confines of home, and into his grand Adventure: “No one knew it then, but that was the birth-scream of a legend” (7).

Campbell’s second step for the myth-hero is Refusal of the Call. Though Campbell sates that not every myth includes this step, he also states that this Refusal isn’t always literal either: “… the Refusal is essentially a refusal to give up what one takes to be one’s own interest” (49). Though it has been established that Maniac welcomes his Adventure openly, he does experience his own kind of Refusal not long after he escapes his quarrelling aunt and uncle-parents:

He stopped. “Amanda!”

She kept running, then stopped, turned, glared. What kind of kid was this, anyway?

… “So what if I loaned you one, huh? How am I gonna get it back?”

“I’ll bring it back. Honest! If it’s the last thing I do!” (Spinelli 13)

In-keeping with Campbell’s definition of the Refusal as the hero refusing to deny that which he perceives as his advantage, Maniac’s refusal to back down when Amanda Beale denies his request to borrow a book from her collection is a perfect analogy. Not only this, but the defining principal of this Refusal reverberates throughout the story as Maniac refuses, again and again, to fall into accepted paradigms: Of where the whites and blacks should live. Of who should hang out with the tough kids. Of what “home” really means. Maniac’s Refusal defines him as a character, and as a hero.

Campbell’s next step is Supernatural Aid, or a character — usually met by the protagonist very early on — who defines the protecting power of destiny (Campbell 57). This character can come in many shapes, though usually it is that of a wise old man or woman. For Maniac, Amanda Beale is this protective, powerful force. Though within the character of this little girl is the obvious image of the Virgin, with her ever-present suitcase of books (wisdom), she is also the wise old Crone. Amanda is also the first person Maniac encounters in his new world: “As for the first person to actually stop and talk with Maniac, that would be Amanda Beale” (Spinelli 10). Throughout the story, she provides Maniac with powerful information, both within the books she allows him to borrow, and about her world. Amanda guides him, protects him, and empowers him to become the hero and legend of Maniac Magee:

They moved in on [Maniac] now… Suddenly his world was very small and very simple: a brick wall behind him, a row of scowling faces ahead of him. He clutched the book with both hands. The faces were closing in. A voice called: “That you, Jeffrey?”

The faces parted. At the curb was a girl on a bike – Amanda!

…She let the bike fall to Maniac. She grabbed the book and stared kicking [the leader] Mars Bar in his beloved sneakers.

… [Then] Mars Bar was hauling up on the street past the basketball players, who were rolling on the asphalt with laughter. (Spinelli 39-40)

Campbell’s next step is The Crossing of the First Threshold, beyond which lies danger and mystery. This threshold, which the hero must pass as a first test of his mettle, is usually guarded by dangerous custodians, who stand for the hero’s current state which he must pass beyond in order to become a better person (Campbell 64). The Guardians of this Threshold — and indeed the Threshold itself — will be deadly to those who don’t deserve them, but the hero knows ways to pass them to gain both entrance and personal reward.

Maniac’s First Threshold comes not long after he makes a home for himself with Amanda’s family:

When he first heard the voice, he didn’t think much of it. Just one voice. One voice in hundreds… The voice was behind him, saying the same word over and over… calling… a name. …“Whitey.”

“You move on home now, Whitey,” the man said. “You pick up your gear and move on out. Time to go home now.”

Maniac gave his answer: “I am home.” (Spinelli 60-61)

This is Maniac’s first experience with racism, and though he struggles with understanding it, in the end he wins out, passes the Old Man Guardian, and comes out the other side wiser than he went in. Of course, he doesn’t do this alone. Amanda, his ever-present Supernatural Aid, gives a little push as well: “’You can’t listen to that old coot. He’s nutty. He’s always saying stuff like that… You go [away], you’ll starve’” (64). And Maniac, listening to his Council of Destiny, strengthening his resolve, stays right where he is – for a while.

Campbell’s next step is The Belly of the Whale. This is where the hero fails at his Crossing, and/or gets badly defeated, often to the point of near-death (Campbell 74).  As noted, Maniac’s Threshold is conquered. However, he does go through a Belly time before deciding to stand his ground with the help and support of Amanda:

He didn’t know what, but something was wrong.

…He ran faster, faster…

Mrs. Beale was out front with a soap bucket… She was scrubbing the house… He had been way too early, way too fast. Only the F had been scrubbed away…

ISHBELLY GO HOME” (Spinelli 63)

Perhaps it is a coincidence that Spinelli uses the particular term of “fishbelly” in this passage. Perhaps not. But one thing is certain, this is Maniac’s Belly of the Whale.

Campbell’s next step is the Road of Trials. This is usually the bulk of the adventure, wherein the main character, by virtue of his determination, might and mind, is shaped into the hero who then saves the day (Campbell 81).

Maniac’s Road of Trials begins when he decides to take on Cobble’s Knot, and thus be accepted by all in his chosen home, “So you see,” said Amanda, “if you go up there and untie Cobble’s Knot – which I know you can – you’ll get your picture in the paper and you’ll be the biggest hero ever around here and nooo-body’ll mess with you then!” (Spinelli 69). He conquers this trial, and then come many others, including the choice to leave town after all, not for himself, but to protect his adoptive family (75). Once again on the road, Maniac grows and strengthens as a person and a hero as he comforts the old, cares for the unprotected, educates the uneducated, and finally returns home to face his ultimate test (87-142).

Campbell’s next two steps can be one in the same, and often are: the Meeting with the Goddess, and the Woman as the Temptress. The former, Campbell describes as, “… a mystical marriage of the triumphant hero-soul with the Queen Goddess of the World” (Campbell 91). As for the latter, she is: “… tainted with the odor of the flesh.” Simply speaking, Campbell here is saying that the Goddess is the perfect image of peace and prosperity (92). But often this same Goddess turns into the Temptress, in whom the hero sees that nothing will ever be the same again (102). The Goddess represents the hero’s innocent, idealistic state at the Call to Adventure, whereas the Temptress reminds him that his hands are now dirty, his soul is now old, and nothing will ever be the same again.

Maniac’s Goddess and Temptress are one in the same as well, though, as in many myths, his are not literal characters. Maniac’s Goddess is his innocence of soul, lost when he crosses the first Threshold to the old man Guardian. He wants badly to find that innocence again, by way of his Road of Trials, but when he finds himself back where he started from, he realizes that the Goddess he pursued has become the Temptress of his own fear returned to him:

And then, one day they gave him the most perilous challenge of all. They dared him to go [back] to the East End.

…He knew he should be feeling afraid of these East Enders, these so-called black people. But he wasn’t. It was himself he was afraid of, afraid of any trouble he might cause by being there. (Spinelli 142-143)

Maniac isn’t scared of much. In fact, that is how he earns his name (52-53). The one thing that he fears is the one thing he has lost – himself. For Maniac, his Temptress tells him to fear himself, fear the pain he will cause if he returns to the only true home he has ever known. The Goddess of his innocence created the Temptress of his fear – not knowing that he was different caused pain to his adoptive family. Now that he knows, he is afraid. And that fear controls him.

Campbell’s next step is Atonement with the Father. This father-figure is often a character who represents the hero’s own emotional struggle to become a better person despite his fears and doubts. In essence it is a struggle, not between two characters, but between the hero and his own superego / repressed id as represented by the father-figure character (Campbell 107-110). Maniac’s Father figure represents his emotional need for acceptance of those in his chosen home, personified in the bully Mars Bar. Maniac believes that his own “sin” of being white has caused his “bedeviling Father-god” (107), Mars Bar to reject him, and since he cannot change that sin, he runs away in shame. Maniac’s atonement with the Father, then, can only be made by finding a common ground between them, and thus, peace. Maniac’s idea is to invite Mars Bar to a birthday party for some of the white kids he has gotten to know, but the resulting fight is not what he hopes for, and instead of teaching Mars Bar something about whites, it teaches Maniac something about Mars Bar:

While he was looking for one miracle, maybe another had snuck up on him. It happened as he was clamping and lugging Mars Bar down the gauntlet of [white] Cobras, trying to keep him alive – and what was Mars Bar doing? Fighting him, Maniac, struggling to get loose and bust some Cobras. Out-numbered, outweighed, but not out-hearted. That’s when Maniac felt it – pride, for this East-End warrior whom Maniac could feel trembling in his arms, scared as any normal kid would be, but not showing it to them. Yeah, you’re bad all right, Mars Bar. You’re more than bad. You’re good. (Spinelli 166)

Between this newfound understanding of where his Father-figure is coming from, and Maniac’s own actions in protecting Mars Bar against the Cobras, a mutual respect is formed, and Maniac finally gets his Atonement:

“Magee?” Mars Bar said, after a spell.


“My mother wants to ask you something…”

“Your mother?”

“Yeah. Like I told her about you, y’know…”


“She wants to know, like, uh, why don’t you come to our house? … ain’t nobody sayin’ come live with us. All we sayin’ – all she sayin’ – is, you wanna come for a little, you know, visit? … Ain’t no big thing.” (Spinelli 179-180)

By inviting Maniac into his home, Mars Bar breaks down the racial barriers that have kept the two boys apart, and Atonement is given. All because Maniac finally saw mercy and good in his bedeviling Father-god.

Finally, Campbell names The Ultimate Boon as his last major step. As the great reward the hero gains, Campbell describes a few aspects that the Ultimate Boon can take in myth, from the bestowment of god-like superiority (Campbell 148), to the inexhaustible dish of plenty (149), to the literal or figurative fountain of youth (154), to monetary treasure (163). All of these, Campbell states, are one in the same, a representation of the infantile need for the eternal. We wish to live forever, for nothing bad to harm our peace and prosperity again (149).

Maniac’s Ultimate Boon is at once simple and profound. Having found Atonement with the Father and, thus, dispelled the evil of the Temptress, Maniac is welcomed back home into the embrace of those who love him: “Maniac [had] all he ever wanted. He knew that finally, truly, at long last, someone was calling him home” (Spinelli 184). The image of home, family, and peace are constant throughout myth and legend. Though returning home triumphant with the Boon is more pervasive, the idea of home as the Boon is not unheard of. The human concept of unending peace and prosperity that is Campbell’s Boon has always been tethered in the image of hearth and home. Thus, Maniac’s Boon as this celestial, unending, peace-filled Home fits within the paradigms set for the myth-based hero’s journey.

Six more steps follow the Ultimate Boon in Campbell’s work. However, these steps are all very close-together within Maniac Magee and most have already been discussed within a larger step. Therefore their inclusion is apparent.

And so, we can see that children’s literature can be critiqued in the same way as classic adult literature, and held to the same standards of excellence as defined by its enduring worth to society in expressing the human condition with simplicity, beauty, starkness, and universality.

Chapter 4

Eating our Fruit: Theoretical Approaches to Children’s Books as Modern Literature

While classic literature has been the staple of literary study for generations, the study of modern literature has not been ignored. Modern literature studies have been offered in many colleges, both as single classes and major and minor offerings. While classic literature expresses the universal and enduring human condition through generations of time, modern literature can paint a more accurate picture of contemporary mankind, and even be studied as a possible view into the future in a more immediate way than classic literature is often able.

The three Middle Grade novels that will be studied in this chapter have been chosen both for their noted worth to children’s literature as established in receiving a recent prestigious award(s), and/or their current worldwide popularity as of summer 2013. All have a publication date of within the last fifteen years save one, which was included as it is the beginning of a series that is still highly popular at the writing of this paper. Thus, they are modern by definition. Also, all are Middle Grade novels as previously defined by this study:

1)      Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling (1997: New York Times Bestseller)

2)      The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan (2005: New York Times Children’s Book of the Year Award)

3)      Wonder by R.J. Palacio (2012: New York Times Bestseller)

As a continuing force on the New York Times Bestsellers List that has spurred films, toys, candy, and even a theme park, J.K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter” series has set the standard for children’s literature for the last sixteen years and counting. The first book, titled Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (or Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone in its native England), was published in 1997, and has since been studied in a myriad of ways, such as Susan Gupta’s contemporary culture-based “Re-Reading of Harry Potter” and “In Reading Harry Potter: Critical Essays” by Ximena Gallardo-C and C. Jason Smith, which looks at Rowling’s work through feminist theory. Still, no matter what their angle or theory used, these studies have all been made from the viewpoint of adult-culture.

As a whole, the “Harry Potter” series has brought up many questions in the literary world, though one continuously rises above the others: why is it so popular? Now under Generationalism, this question can be analyzed a new way: by studying the role of character-based literary devices as psychological explanations for the popularity of “Harry Potter” in child-culture.

Harry is introduced at the beginning as a baby whose parents are murdered and who has to then move in with his horrible aunt and uncle and their spoiled son Dudley. They don’t like Harry at all, and proceed to stuff him in a closet full of spiders under the stairs. For the vast majority of the first three chapters, author J.K. Rowling uses this kind of Roald Dahl-style hyperbole (Dahl 2) to outline how terrible Harry’s life is personally, and to pit Muggle against Warlock in his larger world, especially in the case of Harry’s adoptive family, the Dursleys:

“Found the perfect place!” [Uncle Vernon] said. “Come on! Everyone out!”

It was very cold outside the car. Uncle Vernon was pointing at what looked like a large rock way out at sea. Perched on top of the rock was the most miserable little shack you could imagine. One thing was certain, there was no television in there.

“Storm forecast for tonight!” said Uncle Vernon gleefully, clapping his hands together. “And this gentleman’s kindly agreed to lend us his boat!” (Rowling 43-44)

Uncle Vernon’s over-the-top struggle to keep Harry from getting a letter from Hogwarts, which culminates in taking his family on a dangerous boat ride to a rickety shack in the middle of a storm, frames the intensity with which the Muggles dislike the Wizards in Rowling’s world. However, the feeling is mutual, as the Wizards (and Witches) aren’t too keen on the Muggles, either:

“He’s not going,” [Uncle Vernon] said.

Hagrid grunted.

“I’d like ter see a great Muggle like you stop him,” he said.

“A what?” said Harry, interested.

“A Muggle,” said Hagrid, “it’s what we call nonmagic folk like them. An it’s our bad luck you grew up in a family o’ the biggest Muggles I ever laid eyes on.” (52-53)

This hyperbolic “us versus them” squabble between two factions serves to pull the child-reader in, just as a cheering fan is pulled into the excitement of competition in sports. Not only that, but Rowling tells the reader exactly which side to cheer for: As a member of the ever in-flux, uncertain child-culture, the intended child-reader is given, by way of Rowling’s hyperbolic illustration of Harry’s terrible life, a psychological connection to Harry himself, solidified by the instinctual human fears of rejection, loneliness, and loss of family. Adding to this the inflated contemptibility of the Muggle Dursleys, and the glowing view of Hagrid towards Harry’s martyred parents, “Now, yer mum and dad were as good a witch an’ wizard as I ever knew… [never] want anythin’ ter do with the Dark Side” (55), the reader knows without a doubt that they will be cheering for the Wizards.

This hyperbole is even more apparent in the character of Voldemort, the true villain of the story. He is so feared that the only ones who dare say his name are Dumbledore and Harry (11, 100), who also happen to be the most powerful Wizards at Hogwarts. Voldemort is so mysterious that nobody even knows what happened to him after he killed Harry’s parents. (57) And he is never described in-full within the pages of The Sorcerer’s Stone (256). He is the perfect example of the hyperbolic-wraith: the ultimate fear of the Unknown. That he is evil is readily apparent from the very beginning, as he is named the murderer of Harry’s parents. He is the villain. There is no question about that.

As members of an ever-changing, chaotic world, those within child-culture crave stability: Who’s good? Who’s bad? What’s right and what’s wrong? By using over-the-top hyperbolic imagery, Rowling tells the child-reader exactly what they’re supposed to think. With this understanding established, the reader becomes comfortable within the solid structure of Rowling’s world.

And yet, Rowling does throw the reader two metaphoric curveballs. The first comes in the character of Professor Snape. Snape is a Wizard, so he should be good according to Rowling’s established rules of good and bad. And yet from the moment he is introduced, Snape isn’t anything like what he should be within the recognized context of his world: “Snape[‘s]… eyes were black like Hagrid’s, but they had none of Hagrid’s warmth. They were cold and empty and made you think of dark tunnels” (136). By now, the reader knows that Voldemort is the villain, so who is this bad Wizard who hates Harry so much?

The second curveball comes far later in the story, in the character of Professor Quirrell who is at first described as somewhat goofy and absentminded:

… when Seamus Finnigan asked eagerly to hear how Quirrell had fought off the zombie, Quirrell went pink and started talking about the weather… they had noticed that a funny smell hung around [Quirrell’s] turban, and the Weasley twins insisted that it was stuffed full of garlic as well, so that Quirrell was protected wherever he went. (134)

It isn’t until almost the very end of the story that Quirrell’s true character comes out:

Quirrell smiled. His face wasn’t twitching at all.

… “But I thought – Snape –“ [Harry said]

“Serverus?” Quirrell laughed, and it wasn’t his usual quivering treble, either, but cold and sharp. “Yes, Serverus does seem the type, doesn’t he? So useful to have him swooping around like an overgrown bat. Next to him, who would suspect p-p-p-poor, st-tuttering P-Professor Quirrell?” (288)

This is a classic literary device called a foil, in which the author gives false clues pointing to one character as the antagonist, when the true villain is actually another. This device has been used with great success in adult literature such as Fagin as a foil for Mr. Brownlow in Charles Dicken’s Oliver Twist, and Michael Cassio as a Foil to Shakespeare’s Othello.

Despite the often-assumed idea that children cannot handle multiple layers in their stories, within the solid framework of Rowling’s world there remains mystery and chaos, and yet her stories are wildly popular. In child-culture there is a need for stability, yes, but there is also an unflappable wonder that spurs the child to ask questions beyond the established parameters. The child may feel comfortable with the solidity of established rules, but the exploring mind within still wants to press beyond those barriers. What’s past the establishment? What more can there be? This questing and questioning is how the human being learns and matures, and it is the one constant within the chaotic world of child-culture.

The hyperbolic establishment of structure, paired with the mystery of the foil, creates in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone an irresistible adventure for the child-reader. Within the pages of Rowling’s fantasy about a boy wizard, the child-readers can explore their own worlds, ask new questions, and learn new things, all while still safety within the bounds of the adult culture that surrounds them.

The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan would be easy to critique from a mythological point of view, as it is a modern retelling of the well-known Perseus myth. Yet the very fact that Riordan has managed to capture mythological antiquity in such a popular story for the modern child-reader begs itself to be studied. This can be done best, not by studying the adult myth on which The Lightning Thief is based, but by studying it through the Generationalist lens of its own cultural geography, and child-centered voice and language.

Cultural geography can be described as the physical representation of a culture through the use of environment in artistic media. Geography professor Peter Jackson said in Maps of Meaning: an Introduction to Cultural Geography, “… [culture] is the level at which social groups develop distinct patterns of life and hence are ‘maps of meaning’ through which the world is made intelligible” (Jackson 2). In Cultural Geography: A Critical Introduction, Professor Donald Mitchell adds, “The degree to which landscapes are made (by hands and minds) and represented (by particular people and classes, and through the accretion of history and myth) indicates that landscapes are in some important senses ‘authored’. Hence landscape can be seen as some kind of text” (Mitchell 122).

The literal landscape of The Lightening Thief is modern-day America, with New York City being the primary setting. As a metaphor of American prosperity and might, no city is better suited than New York, the self-declared hub of the western world. Furthermore, the emblematic landscape of the story is based in the ancient Greek culture, an undeniable historic model of supremacy and prosperity. Like New York, ancient Greece has a reputation of decadence and power. As an historic metaphor of the western ideal, no culture is better suited than the Greeks, from whom modern-day western civilization received much of its innovations and philosophes.

This landscape-union of two cultural giants is not an accident, as Riordan explains within the story:

“You mean the Greek gods are here? Like… in America?”

“Well, certainly. The gods move with the heart of the West.”

“The what?”

“Come now, Percy. What you call ‘western civilization’. Do you think it’s just an abstract concept? No. It’s a living force. A collective consciousness that has burned bright for thousands of years. The gods are a part of it. You might even say they are the source of it…” (Riordan 72)

Children are taught of the prestige of ancient Greece in both history and English classes, and shown over and over again in popular media the might of New York City. The power-hub metaphor of the cultural landscape of The Lightning Thief is not lost on the child-reader, even if they cannot yet explain it in logical terms. However, what they do understand is the largeness of these landscapes. New York City is enormous and mazelike, both physically and as a lofty vision of “the big city”; the ancient Greeks are mystical and far-away, towering images of gods, goddesses and dueling heroes of old. Thus, the theme of chaos is personified for the child-reader within The Lightning Thief though the use of its cultural landscape. It dwarfs the child-reader; it is chaotic and huge – much like child-culture views the wider world of adulthood.

Yet the voice and language used by Riordan in The Lighting Thief roots the child-reader within this world, so that it is navigable and relatable. It is simplistic, sarcastic, and often mixed with slang – a safety-jacket to hold on to through the chaotic “big”ness of its cultural landscape.

The Lightning Thief is written in first person, with twelve-year-old Percy Jackson as the narrator. He pulls the reader in right away, speaking directly to them as a fellow member of child-culture:

If you’re reading this because you think you might be [a half-blood], my advice is: close this book right now. Believe whatever lie your mom or dad told you about your birth, and try to lead a normal life…

If you’re just a normal kid, reading this because you think it’s fiction, great. Read on. I envy you for being able to believe that none of this ever happened. (Riordan 1)

Riordan directly pulls the child-reader into his world by making them a part of that world right from the first page. Percy himself is the safety-net. He is the gatekeeper and guide. Like the child-reader, Percy feels lost and confused in his world, even before he finds out that it is far larger than he ever thought:

Am I a troubled kid?

Yeah. You could say that.

I could start at any point in my short miserable life to prove it… (Riordan 1-2)

Like many modern children, Percy lives with one of his biological parents, and doesn’t know the other one at all. His stepfather is abusive, and he himself is awkward and always getting into trouble. By way of his character and voice, Percy tells the child-reader that he understands them, that he knows how hard it is to be a kid. Percy is searching for his identity, wanting to know who he is, and where he fits into his enormous, chaotic world. Finding out that he is “special” within that world doesn’t make things any easier, as now on top of confusion and doubt, Percy is inundated by very real danger:

“Nobody mentioned the hellhound, but I got the feeling they were all talking about it behind my back. The attack had scared everybody. It sent two messages: one that I was the son of the sea god; and two, monsters would stop at nothing to kill me.” (Riordan 127)

The metaphor of the child-culture fear of becoming an adult – of navigating through that chaos all alone – is apparent within Percy’s larger-than-life cultural landscape of monsters and tyrants and evil gods, all who want him dead. Percy is understandably afraid. He is also sarcastic, often weak and small – just like the child-reader to whom he tells his story. Yet in the end he wins the power of self-discovery, a power which every child must use to successfully navigate the often terrifying, mysterious world of adulthood:

Ares came toward, grinning confidently. I lowered my blade, as if I were too exhausted to go on. Wait for it, I told the sea. The pressure now was almost lifting me off my feet. Ares raised is sword. I released the tide and jumped, rocketing straight over Ares in a wave.

A six-foot wall of water smashed him full in the face, leaving him cursing and sputtering with a mouth full of seaweed… I… lunged to the side, and stabbed Riptide straight down into the water, sending the point straight though the god’s heel.

Ichor, the golden blood of the gods, flowed from a gash in the war-god’s boot. The expression on his face was beyond hatred. It was pain, shock, complete disbelief that he’d been wounded.

… I was five steps away when [Poseidon] called, “Perseus.”

I turned.

There was a different light in his eyes, a fiery kind of pride. “You did well, Perseus. Do not misunderstand me. Whatever else you do, know that you are mine. You are a true son of the Sea God.” (Riordan 330-346)

By defeating the god of war – another allusion to adult-culture – and winning the pride of his true father – acceptance into adulthood by a revered adult – Percy proves that he is the ultimate hero in child-culture: the child who steps through the mystical portal into the vast cultural landscape of adulthood and survives triumphantly.

The universal theme of Wonder by R.J. Palacio is acceptance. Social life is an enormous influence in child-culture, with children taking from it everything from their own self-identity to assumptions about the larger world around them. To Generationally explore this theme in Wonder through Palacio’s use of literary devices such as Characterization, Point of View, and Tone is to explore the vitality of community within child-culture.

Ten-year-old August Pullman, the protagonist of Palacio’s story, is a child who stands outside of that vital aspect of his culture for reasons he has no control over. The story opens with his own point of view, explaining in a matter-of-fact way that he looks different than other kids: “I won’t describe what I look like. Whatever you’re thinking, it’s probably worse” (Palacio 3), and his nervousness about entering fifth grade in a brick-and-mortar school for the first time after being homeschooled his whole life:

I can’t say I have always wanted to go to school because that wouldn’t exactly be true. What I wanted was to go to school, but only if I could be like every other kid going to school. Have lots of friends and hang out after school and stuff like that. (Palacio 4)

Wonder takes the reader through many of the basic storyline arcs of Middle Grade books before it, such as Beverly Cleary’s “Ramona” books, and Judy Blume’s Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing. August goes to school, makes friends, makes enemies, dresses up for Halloween, goes on a field trip, etc. But because of his unique look, his everyday life becomes a stark metaphor of the inner-life of the child-reader, all of whom have felt “different” from one time or another:

… suddenly it was my turn to talk [in front of the class].

“My name is August,” I said… “I, um…have a sister named Via and a dog named Daisy. And, um… that’s it.”

“Wonderful,” said Ms. Petosa. “Anyone have questions for August?”

…”I have a question for August,” said Julian, raising his hand. “Why do you have that tiny braid in the back of your hair? Is that like a Padawan thing?”

“Yeah,” I shrug-nodded.

…“Who’s your favorite character?” Julian asked… “What about Darth Sidious?”

… maybe nobody else got the Darth Sidious thing, and maybe Julian didn’t mean anything at all. But… [his] face gets burned by Sith lightning and becomes totally deformed. His skin just shrivels up and is face kind of melts.

I peeked at Julian and he was looking at me. Yeah, he knew what he was saying. (Palacio 43-44)

The fear of being the new kid, the terror of speaking in front of the class, the worry that you’re different – all of these highly-relatable trials in child-culture are magnified in Wonder under the hyperbolic lens of August’s obvious physical deformity. Thus, the child-reader relates to August on a deep, psychological level as being one-in-the-same.

But then Palacio takes the story beyond the mind of the ostracized victim of societal prejudice. Wonder is unique as a Middle Grade book in that the original narrative voice changes throughout the story, as Palacio switches viewpoints from August himself, to those “normal” people effected by Wonder’s place in their own lives: his sister, his friends, even his sister’s boyfriend. With each change in point of view, the child-reader is given a glimpse into their own prejudices. After showing the child-reader a relatable protagonist, the story offers this new idea to children — who often think in terms of their own sometimes imagined or overinflated slights: what do you do when you aren’t the one being ostracized? This question is perhaps the most apparent when August, dressed in a mask on Halloween, overhears a conversation between some of his classmates who don’t know he’s listening:

Julian… was talking to two mummies who must have been Miles and Henry, and they were all kind of looking at the door like they were waiting for someone…

“… Actually,” said the mummy, “what he really looks like is one of those shrunken heads…”

“I think he looks like an orc.”

…“I’ve thought about this a lot,” said the second mummy, sounding serious. “and I really think… if I looked like him, seriously, I think that I’d kill myself.” (Palacio 76-77)

It turns out that the second mummy is August’s best friend Jack. August is, of course, mortified, and as a member of the socially-dependent child-culture, the child-reader feels this keenly as well. But later in the story, Palacio gives Jack’s point of view on the situation:

…And then all of a sudden this picture flew into my head, this memory… Someone in homeroom had dressed up as a Bleeding Scream costume on Halloween…

Oh, man. It was August!

…I was so mean. I don’t even know why. I’m not even sure what I said, but it was bad. It’s just that I knew Julian and everybody thought I was so weird for hanging out with August all the time, and I felt stupid…

…I felt like I was going to puke. (Palacio 152)

Jack has done something horrible and he knows it. He can’t take it back, and he can’t give excuses for it. Just like August, the child-reader has been angry with Jack up to this point. Yet when Palacio shows Jack’s thoughts on the subject, the child-reader is faced with their own actions and reactions to those who may be different in their own world. Would they do what Jack did? No, of course not. Except maybe that one time…

By tackling the ever-present theme of acceptance in child-culture through the use of established literary devices, Wonder epitomizes the vital role of literature as a mirror to our own world, the thoughts that guide us, and the emotions that spur us.

As a scholarly study, modern literature is viewed as innovative, creative, and mold-breaking. The books studied in this chapter have been offered as examples of modern literary studies for children, but these are only the beginning. Modern Middle Grade books such as Lemony Snickett’s “A Series of Unfortunate Events” and The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick also live up to that ideal by their unique stylistic voice, creative visual tone, and willingness to tackle difficult subjects in a way that children can relate to.

Chapter 5

Viewing the Tree from the Ground Up: The Argument for Children’s Literature as Canon

In Critical Tradition and Ideology, Charles Sarland summarizes the criticism of children’s literature, “The values… [used to criticize children’s literature] can be culled from a variety of sources… All of these terms and formulations are offered by their various authors as if they are essentially unproblematic, and they are thus rendered as common sense, naturalized, and hidden in the discourse, and not raised for examination” (Sarland 36). These values are listed as “intelligence”, “sensibility”, “home”, “heroism”, and “friendship”, among others. Yet childhood is not naturalized, and the idea of common sense is difficult to grasp when one is surrounded by the chaos of child-culture. What is “intelligence” to a child? What is “sensible”? What are the definitions of “home”, and “heroism” and “friendship” within the actual mind and heart of a child? Though all adults have been children at one time, it is often difficult to remember what it was like, and even more difficult to assume we can tell the child-reader what they should think and feel. The inability to definitively grasp and define a culture that is forever in-flux and individualized, makes the child-centered study of children’s literature especially problematic.

In The Psychopathology of Everyday Children’s Literature Criticism, Karin Lesnik-Oberstein observes:

Many critics… assume that child psychoanalysis is a body of expert knowledge that has discovered the truth about children and therefore psychoanalysis can help both to locate truthful depictions of children… and to predict with some degree of accuracy the way children will read a book… These assumptions do not allow space for the difficulty of issues such as the relationship between fiction and truth, the status of an author with regard to… the manifest unpredictability of any (adult or child) reader’s emotional response to a text. (Lesnik-Oberstein 225)

Here, Lesnik-Oberstein gets to the very heart of the difficulty in children’s literature criticism. Adult scholars want to explain everything in a rational, quantifiable way, yet child-culture is neither rational nor quantifiable. A “childist” approach to children’s literary criticism is needed to truly understand how children’s literature effects the child-reader for whom it is intended, but that approach cannot ever be black and white.

According to Aidan Chambers, “I would say that, until we discover how to take account of the implied reader, we shall call fruitlessly for serious attention to be paid to books for children, and to children as readers by others than that small number of us who have come to recognize that importance” (Chambers 35). The question, then, is not whether books written for children are worthy of serious canonical study, but whether the readers of those books are important to society as a whole. If the only reason children’s books are not considered vital enough to the study of literature is that their “implied reader” is a child, then perhaps we need begin with a better understanding of the part child-culture plays in the shaping and growing of our entire society. And if childhood is vital to adulthood – if child-culture is vital to adult-culture – then it is time for the adults who study children’s literature to let go of their restraints. To truly study a chaotic culture, one must be willing to step into that chaos and view it for what it is, or else we will forever be viewing it from the outside.

Works Cited

Barry, Peter. Beginning Theory: An Introduction to Literary and Cultural Theory. Manchester University Press, 1995, 2002. Print.

Camfield, Gregg. “Sentimental Liberalism and the Problem of Race in Huckleberry Finn”. Nineteenth-Century Literature, Vol. 46, No. 1 (Jun., 1991), 96-113. JSTOR. Web.

Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004. Web.

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

Cooper, Rose. “Differences Between Middle Grade and Young Adult.” From The Mixed-Up Files of Middle Grade Writers., n.d. Web.

Cuddon, J.A, (ed). The Dictionary of Literary Terms & Literary Theory. London: Penguin (1999): 959. Print.

Dahl, Roald. James and the Giant Peach . New York: Puffin Books (1961). Print.

Daniels, Cindy Lou. “Literary Theory and Young Adult Literature: The Open Frontier in Critical Studies.” The Alan Review. (Winter 2006). JSTOR. Web. 78-82

Franco, Nathalie and Mary J. Levitt. “The Social Ecology of Middle Childhood: Family Support, Friendship Quality, and Self-Esteem”. Family Relations, Vol. 47, No. 4, (Oct, 1998), 315-321. JSTOR. Web.

Hunt, Peter, ed. Understanding Children’s Literature, Second Edition. New York: Routledge. Print.


Jackson, Peter (1989) Maps of Meaning: An Introduction to Cultural Geography: London, Unwin Hyman. Print.


Kramnick, Jonathan Brody. “The Making of the English Canon.” PMLA. Modern Language Association, (October, 1997). JSTOR. Web. 1087-1101

Lesnik-Oberstein, Karín. “The Psychopathology of Everyday Children’s Literature Criticism.” Cultural Critique, No. 45 (Spring, 2000), 222-242. JSTOR. Web.

Mitchell, Donald (2000) Cultural Geography: A Critical Introduction, Oxford: Blackwell. Print.

“NAIBA Book of the Year Awards.” New Atlantic Independent Booksellers Association (NAIBA), n.d. Web.

“Newberry Medal Homepage.” American Library Association, n.d. Web.

Palacio, R.J. Wonder. New York: Knopf Books for Young Readers (2012). Print.

Riordan, Rick. The Lightning Thief. New York: Disney Hyperion Books (2005). Print.

Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. New York: Arthur A. Levine Books, 1988. Print.

Russell, David L. Literature for Children. 5th ed. Boston: Pearson, 2005. Print.

Sarland, Charles. “Critical Tradition and Ideological Positioning” Hunt 30-49.

Spinelli, Jerry. Maniac Magee. New York: Scholastic, Inc Publishers. Print.

Tiedt, Sidney W. “Education and the Novel”. Peabody Journal of Education, Vol. 42, No. 3 (Nov., 1964), 163-165. JSTOR. Web.

Watkins, Tony. “Space, History and Culture” Hunt 50-72.

Zornado, Joseph L. Inventing the Child: Culture, Ideology and the Story of the Child. Garland Science, 2004. Print


3 Responses to “Generationlist Theory: Canonical Literary Criticism for Children’s Books”

  1. […] have posted my master’s thesis introducing literary theory here as a static page. To read it, just click here. My hope is that this new theory will bring the prestige and honor to children’s literature […]

  2. Aaron L Says:

    I really appreciate all the research compiled for your arguments. It’s all very well put together.

    I particularly like the analogy of children’s literature and women’s. Well stated.

    This is definitely a topic in need of some literary review and you put together a great argument about Generationalism.

    • Thank you Aaron. It was a huge labor, but definitely a labor of love. I hope it will be used by other scholars to raise the bar in children’s literature studies.

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