Conventions of Children's Literature: Then and Now

By Coats, Karen | Style, Fall 2001 | Go to article overview

Conventions of Children's Literature: Then and Now

Coats, Karen, Style

As odd as it may seem, one of the most persistent questions posed by scholars of children's and young adult literature is what constitutes our field of inquiry. What exactly defines children's literature? What marks a work as specifically for children? What makes a book for children count as literature, as a poem, not merely as doggerel or verse? In tandem with these questions are questions of method. How ought one to study children's books? What critical methods and theories are appropriate? Should literature for the young be theorized as if it were any other type of literature, or does it have certain distinct features that require a specific method? Does the heterogeneity of the offerings require an equally heterogeneous methodology, or are there persistent, overarching aesthetic, ideological, or linguistic patterns that unite children's poetry, nonfiction, prose, and picture books?

Part of the puzzlement comes from the fact that the critic of children's literature must pass through a series of challenges before she can even begin to specify the literary character of her object of study. The first potential challenge has to do with the fact that children's literature falls into categories other than the literary, namely, the popular and the pedagogical. Indeed, even as the advent of cultural studies and the exploding of the Western canon have created a space for all sorts of literature previously marginalized in English departments, most literary critics are content to leave the study of children's texts to the social sciences of education and librarianship, figuring that the literary value of such simplistic fare is substandard and unworthy of serious theoretical attention. The cross-marketing of products based on children's books contributes to this impression; after all, one doesn't find action figures from Heart of Darkness, say, or Langston Hughes lunchboxes. But the fact is that La ngston Hughes was as much a writer for children as he was for adults. The questions of style and aesthetics worth answering with regard to his and other writers' adult literature are as important to children's texts, if not more so, since, as Graeme Harper points out in his essay for this volume, children are in the process of developing their sense of style and their notions of aesthetic value, of crafting meaning out of and assigning value to sensory experience. Such a process, so closely mediated by adult interaction, demands as well theoretical mediation, or at least meditation.

A second challenge that children's literature scholars must face concerns the ubiquitous concern whether a work is "appropriate for children." No other literature is quite as implicated in the ethics of readership as books written for and marketed to children. The question of appropriateness functions almost as a gatekeeper for the criticism of children's literature, so much so that scholars often find their efforts to detect stylistic patterns or perform aesthetic critique sidetracked by the necessity for undertaking a sort of apologetics for the capacity of children to be adept readers. Can children be expected to grasp the subtle mechanisms of parody and irony? Can children really see and perhaps even resist the offensive implications of rigid gender-role identification? How much can children understand of the horrors of history such as the Holocaust or American slavery? To how much should they be exposed? Do children catch the racist ideologies of their texts like a virus, or are they capable of reading c ritically and hence perhaps building up their immunities? How does one present history without reinscribing potentially damaging ideologies? These questions seem, once again, to demand answers from the disciplines of the social sciences, and yet they are equally implicated in the stylistics and aesthetics of texts, in how authors manage the terms of narrative address and how they position the reader. As Harper points out, children's literature in some important respects necessarily colonizes its reader, but, as Marah Gubar counters, an author's style of address can create the kind of questioning, interactive reader that resists complete subsumption into prespecified norms. …

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