Comparative Children's Literature: What Is There to Compare?

By Nikolajeva, Maria | Papers: Explorations into Children's Literature, May 2008 | Go to article overview

Comparative Children's Literature: What Is There to Compare?


Nikolajeva, Maria, Papers: Explorations into Children's Literature


Literary texts do not appear in a vacuum. Literature in Western society has been written for several thousand years, and literature written specifically for children has existed for at least two hundred years. Thousands of children's books are published every year. Writers have usually read books by other writers or are at least aware of them. In the case of children's writers, they are most likely to have read the major children's classics, but they have probably also read mainstream literature. Whether conscious about this or not, writers are affected by what they read and even by what they have not read, but only heard about. Not all people today have actually read Shakespeare, but many know the plots and characters of at least the most famous plays. Literature is also disseminated through other channels, such as film, television, comics and computer games. When we read a book, we are often struck by its similarities to others we know. For instance, if we compare The Lion, the Witch and the Warbrobe and Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone we will observe many similarities: events, happenings, settings, characters, symbols, and messages. At the same time, we will most likely note that in many ways the two novels are different and perhaps contemplate the nature of the difference.

The word 'comparative' originates from the Latin comparare and is defined in Oxford English Dictionary as 'involving comparison between two or more subjects or branches of science'. Comparative literature is a field of literary scholarship focused on comparing aspects of various literary phenomena, such as texts from different cultures and historical periods, texts by different writers, texts from different genres or different texts from the same genre, or two versions of the same text, for instance, in translation, retelling, or adaptation. The purpose of comparison can be a deeper understanding of literary texts in a broader historical, social and literary context; it can also be an examination of influences and intertexts.

In comparing two or several literary works, we pursue the goal of identifying their similarities and dissimilarities as well as providing possible reasons for those. Some straightforward reasons for similarity can be that the two texts are written by the same author; that they are written within the same genre; or that they are written more or less at the same time and within the same culture. A further reason, frequently employed in comparative studies, is the assumption that a writer has been influenced by another, earlier writer. Since the first Pippi Longstocking book, by Astrid Lindgren, appeared forty years later than Anne of Green Gables, it is natural to see the influence of the older book on the later one (although if you read Pippi Longstocking first you may believe that L.M. Montgomery was inspired by Pippi in giving her heroine red hair and rebellious temper). The question of literary influence has, however, been under serious debate during the last twenty years. Harold Bloom discusses in his widely known study The Anxiety of Influence (1973) a pattern of literary evolution in which every writer has a model, The Great Literary Father, from whose influence he (writers are by definition male in Bloom's theory) must liberate himself. A true writer will, according to Bloom, achieve at least some degree of freedom from the model, both by absorbing and transforming his strength. Thus, for Bloom, literary activity basically implies a rewriting-or in Bloom's terms, creative misreading-of a previously existing text. Yet the anxiety of not being able to compete with the Master is an inevitable part of the creative process. The indisputable Literary Father for Bloom is Shakespeare; thus the task of a literary critic is, on the most primitive level, to compare the writer under scrutiny with Shakespeare and state the degree to which he achieves the statute of the Master: knee high or waist high.

Some critics of children's literature take Bloom as a starting point, suggesting that in the case of children's literature, the 'anxiety of influence' is not an issue. …

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