Enlisting Children's Literature in the Goals of Multiculturalism

By Carpenter, Carole H. | Mosaic (Winnipeg), September 1996 | Go to article overview

Enlisting Children's Literature in the Goals of Multiculturalism


Carpenter, Carole H., Mosaic (Winnipeg)


Following the Canadian government's adoption of the multicultural policy in 1971, the means of achieving the ideal that it established soon emerged as a most perplexing concern. The federal government had acted without a detailed plan, having been prompted either by outright political motives, or by prevailing liberal thought, or by truly humanistic sensibilities or some combination of all three, depending upon which commentator one wishes to believe. Rhetoric prescribed the goal and the legislation empowered some of the means, yet there were no blueprints, no precedents to consider and no exemplars against which to measure results. Even advisory groups did not exist for some years (the Ontario Multicultural Advisory Council, for instance, came into being only in 1979). It would appear that the people's representatives were operating on the premises that multiculturalism was a good idea, that Canadians were good people, that they would make a good thing happen. For many, though, the question remained, how?

One of the means employed -- and the one I wish to explore in the following essay -- was the enlistment of children's literature. My reason for focusing on this area derives not only from the fact that children's culture is a virtually unexplored topic in general theorizing about multiculturalism but also from the way that an appreciation of how children's literature functions to colonize and politicize "minors" can shed considerable light on the dynamics that inform the treatment of other "minorities." In focusing on Canadian children's literature, moreover, and especially by tracing its evolution since the official implementation of multiculturalism, one can see the way that literature functions as a cultural product that both reflects and shapes the culture of those who live it -- and the way that "consumers" or beneficiaries can in turn play a role in the production of culture and its literary artifacts.

Like any other religious, ethnic, regional, linguistic or otherwise identifiable group, children can be seen to share some artifacts, traditions, beliefs, behaviors and the like that effectively constitute a culture -- distinctive though neither entirely isolable nor independent from the larger culture within which it exists. As folklorist Sylvia Grider puts it:

children are separated from the larger society by their age and general

ignorance of adult traditions. In order to become fully functioning, competent

adults they must learn these traditions; or, as we say, they must become

enculturated. But before and during the enculturation process, children have

more in common with each other than they do with the adults who control

them. The response to their shared traditions bonds them together as a

significant folk group within the larger society. (12)

Children's culture thus refers to the dynamic matrix of processes and products that to varying degrees young people experience and share simply by virtue of their being children. This culture comprises three aspects: 1) tangible and intangible artifacts and activities specifically produced for or considered appropriate to children by the surrounding adult world; 2) ideas about children and childhood, particularly as they define child-rearing practices as well as the roles, behaviors and cultural expectations for young people; and 3) children's own culture, being the "secret" or "subversive" world of children (see discussions by Opie & Opie; Knapp & Knapp; McDonnell). The first two aspects constitute a culture of childhood, as distinct from culture produced and/or adapted, manipulated and transmitted by children.

Children's literature comprises part of any literate society's culture of childhood -- the only culture many adults view children as having. Since this literature is primarily produced and bought by adults, the way it interfaces with children's own culture will always be problematic, especially when it is intentionally directed at achieving particular ends. …

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