Monday 28 December 2015

What is children's literature II - the politics of nurture from a child's point of view

In recent years, a good deal of criticism - both academic and journalistic - has focused on 'messages' and ideology. There's been a tendency by all of us to try to read these messages off any given book or text. We may have said that a given book is 'racist' or 'sexist' and a lot has been written since at least the 1940s about the 'class' focus of many or most children's books. In a similar vein, people have looked at the representation of disability, sexuality or any group thought to be 'marginalised' by writing for children.

Behind these concerns lie some assumptions along the lines of: 'when we read we are influenced by what we read'. We can all point to books or passages in books which we say influenced us but in truth we don't really know how this happens. After all, books are just inanimate objects. Strictly speaking, they can't influence us. We interpret the squiggles on the page using our previous life-experience and experience of texts. It's possible that the saying, 'the book influenced me' should be 'I influenced the book'! The person who makes the meaning is the reader.

That figure 'the reader' is not a free-floating balloon, above and separate from society though. The reader is 'in' class, gender, race, culture, ethnicity, sexuality and all the other ingredients of social being. The reader brings all that with them to the book.

With children's books, this means that an adult reader can only read it as an adult. This adult might imagine what a child 'might' think of a book, or the adult might remember what it felt like to read the book as a child,  but ultimately, the adult is an adult. At one level, we all know this and there's no concealment or pretence otherwise. But I'll pose a problem: if I am right (or just a bit right!) about the subject of children's books being the relationship(s) between children and adults in nurture, then all adult criticism of children's books is written from one side of this relationship. Is it possible therefore that some of the ideological and emotional content of the books is hidden from us? I once asked some 11 year olds to do some improvisations and writing around the moment of abandonment in 'Hansel and Gretel' - strictly speaking the second moment of abandonment, where the children discover that the birds have eaten the bread that Hansel has been dropping on the route into the forest. I asked the 11 year olds to imagine what Hansel or Gretel were thinking and they wrote internal monologues. One girl wrote 'What have we done wrong?'.

I've often thought about this. In 'adult discourse' about relationships we might find people talking about how children might blame themselves and suppose they are responsible for events that impinge on them, even when none of it is their fault. They might 'introject' the outlook of others. So, when the children in the story hear their parents saying that they can't afford to feed them anymore, introjection would lead a child to say that it's their fault that the family hasn't got any food and so the children (they themselves) 'deserve' to be abandoned.

In all the times I've read or heard 'Hansel and Gretel', I've never had this thought. It's always been one of sadness or terror at the moment of abandonment. This particular child 'played out' a feeling of introjection that is a symptom of adult-child relationships. It's not impossible for adults to know this, remember this or empathise with this. I'm suggesting that a child-reader at that moment had access to that feeling without having encountered (I would guess) any of the psychological discussion that takes place in child psychology journals and the like.

I would argue that this is all ideological. Nurture is not some neutral or natural phenomenon. Nurture is governed and determined by what society or parts of society demand it should be. When we parent our children, this is not separate from what others around us are doing, or what are the 'prevailing ideas' on how best to do it. Education (seen here as part of nurture) is ruled tightly by governments and powerful forces in society so that it does what those governments and groups want it to do. So when a child introjects the adults' needs and desires, it takes place in contexts ruled by adults from within nurture, from within their position - which in relation to the child is 'powerful' but in relation to society is less powerful than the makers of education and the dominant ideologies around child-rearing.

So, one kind of criticism of children's literature can try to unlock the ideologies of nurture from a child's point of view. As I say, this is not simply a psychological question. Any aspect of nurture arises out of social requirements and social structures. In 'Where the Wild Things Are', the mother sends Max to his room. Why? Where does this bit of behaviour come from? For a start, a child has to have a room in order to be sent to it. Second, a parent has to have the authority to be able to do the sending. Third, a parent has to have the ideology (born from these circumstances and others) to think that 'detaching' the child will have some kind of useful or positive outcome. And, because it is a book, and not life (!) the makers of the book imply that they think this too. From a 'childist' point of view, the book could be read as a reinforcement of adult power from within a particular standard of living ('class').  Now, bearing in mind the 11 year old and her response to Hansel and Gretel's abandonment, we could ask, why is Max having to deal with the Wild Things on his own? Why are they HIS Wild Things? He is just a little boy. Whatever his Wild Things are, they are at some level or another a consequence of his relationship with those who are nurturing him, but the book has in a sense 'introjected' this into his own, lone confrontation with his Wild Things. Or, to put it crudely, 'it's my fault that I am angry and only when I am less angry will I be 'good' and deserving of hot dinner.'

But what if bad things had happened to Max (or to the child reader)? What if society's views on how best to nurture are 'bad'? Or at the very least, not good enough, or full of assumptions that we might want to question? Now, we are face to face with the 'ideology of nurture' as expressed through this book. And we might ask, is it possible for a young child to question any of these, as I am doing now? The answer to that will be in part in how that child is being nurtured. A child in a family where being sent to your room is unheard of might indeed be in a position to at least wonder why this has taken place...