Children's Literature as Child Pornography

By Nodelman, Perry | English Studies in Canada, September-December 2003 | Go to article overview

Children's Literature as Child Pornography

Nodelman, Perry, English Studies in Canada

WHILE THEY BOTH CENTRALLY CONCERN CHILD CHARACTERS" children's literature and child pornography appear to have nothing to do with each other. Children's literature is writing intended for an audience of children. Child pornography, obviously, is not. That it stages activities involving children for an implied audience of adults is a main reason why child pornography is scandalous, and why we have laws circumscribing it. For a lot of adults, the idea that children might be the audience for pornography is almost as horrifying as the idea that pornography can be about children.

But let me assume for a moment that the provisions of the criminal code might affect children's literature. In economic terms, its implied audience of children is something of an illusion. As well as being the people who write children's literature, adults like you and me are also the ones who edit it, publish it, review it, sell it, and buy it. In she process, these adults are often readers of children's literature. Jack Zipes declares, "My guess is that the largest reading audience of children's books in the United States and England is constituted by those students at the college and university level who take courses in children's literature along with teachers, librarians, and writers, who eagerly and discriminatingly read vast numbers of books for children" (54). As a form of writing that, like child pornography, stages childhood experience for a significantly adult audience, might children's literature, too, be at least potentially pornographic? Might texts of children's literature then come under the purview of the criminal code?

The idea that it might is likely to strike most adults as outrageous--perhaps even unthinkable. Children's literature began when adults started to believe that children needed to be kept from certain kinds of knowledge--to know less. Since then, childhood has been primarily understood as a matter of being less: less knowledgeable, less experienced, less reasonable, less responsible, less capable--and certainly, less sexual. As a result of this focus on childhood as lacking, children's literature is centrally a literature that lacks. It characteristically lacks darkness, violence, moral ambiguity, big words, hard ideas. Most of all, it lacks sex. Sex is what innocence is most essentially innocent about. Children's literature pornographic? Yeah, sure, and there really were weapons of mass destruction.

The unquestioning certainty with which most people connect children's literature with asexuality becomes obvious on occasions when specific texts challenge the connection. Back in the nineteen-seventies, some librarians were reported to be so offended by Maurice Sendak's depiction in his picture book In The Night Kitchen of young Mickey's full frontal nudity, truimphantly displayed as he shouts "Cock a doodle doo" (emphasis mine), that they covered the offending bits with felt marker diapers, lest the sight of a penis shock and distress young viewers as much as they themselves seemed to be shocked (Huck 42). More recently, I read another picture book, Linda de Haan and Stern Nijland's King and Kin" to a University of Winnipeg class of children's literature students. The book describes how a queen's efforts to find a suitable princess for her son to marry fail, until one of the candidates shows up on the arm of her brother, the prince immediately falls in love, and the two princes marry and become king and king. Many of my students were shocked that a children's picture book was acknowledging the possibility of homosexual marriage, because, some said, the audience the book was clearly intended for was too young to need to know about sex. The diaper-drawing librarians' response to Sendak's pictorial acknowledgment that boys actually have penises and my students' response to the fictional representation of young males feeling physically attracted to each other are much like the way the Criminal Code understands pornography--"any publication a dominant characteristic of which is the undue exploitation of sex" (16318]). …

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