This is the beginning of my master’s thesis on children’s literary theory. I will be putting the entire thesis up as a static page once it is 100% ready. Until then, I have decided to post it in-parts, for your scrutiny. Here, I cover the definition of “good literature” and outline the new literary theory, Generationalism. I will post examples of use later. If you wish to use any part of this thesis in your own work, please use proper citation. Although I retain all copyrights to both the following work and Generationalism itself, I very much encourage its use by any scholars, writers, and other literati as-needed. ~ JR
“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 famous mythologist, writer and lecturer 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”, 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.
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 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. 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 his book, 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.” (Hunt 12) Thus, works written for children have had a deep and profound effect on all aspects of humanity, just as Kramnick and Barry defined canon to do.
Yet despite this logic, books written for children have traditionally been seen as below the worth of 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 it 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 it holds 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. Though Generationalism seeks to define children’s literature as its own entity within the literary world, and thus keep it well removed from its traditional role 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 aspects of itself 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.
- 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.
- Examine the literary devices with which literature written for children directly relates to child-culture, such as allusion, foreshadowing, and cultural landscaping.
- Evaluate the role of whimsy, hyperbole, and metaphor in children’s literature, in-relation to the psychological reflection of child-culture on society.
- Explore the language / voice of children’s books as succinctly eloquent descriptions of life-experience.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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