Thursday 24 December 2015

What is children's literature?

I've written about this before, but I don't think I've been good at explaining myself.

Currently there are three main theories on who children's books are for:
1) for children
2) for adults
3)...though some have a 'dual audience' .

1. The first theory works on the basis of saying that if a child likes/enjoys/reads/listens to a book that seems to be intended for them, it's a 'children's book'. Fair enough.

2. The second theory is that adults (writers, editors, publishers, teachers, librarians etc) 'use' what we call 'children's books' for their own ends. Writers 'use' the writing in order to live out or play out their anxieties, hopes, desires which in effect means 'using' children to enable them to achieve objectives of their own. Others might 'use' children's books in order to 'improve' the child or 'save' the child or 'improve' society. This might be anything from widening literacy, to encouraging a belief in God, or encouraging 'questioning', or saving the children from sin and so on.

3. This third theory poses the idea that much of children's literature is 'looking over the shoulder' of the child or beyond the child to an adult - parent, carer, teacher. So, from the writing through to the packaging, the reviewing, or the recommending an adult conversation is going on which is in part about the satisfactions that adults get from the books. So there are key moments or scenes or asides which are there for adults' enjoyment.

My theory doesn't negate these but suggests that something else is going on too: so let's call this theory 4.

4. Every day thousands of conversations go on about how we, as adults bring up and educate children. These are the chats we have with each other;  but by 'conversation', I also mean all the newspaper articles, books, college courses, TV programmes etc etc about how we look after, educate, treat, punish, control, entertain, feed children. It's in effect millions of words a day. Mostly, these are conversations that go on between adults without children having a say in them. So paediatricians don't discuss with children what dose to use in an anaesthetic, say. Thousands of articles are written every day about what kind of education to give children. Most of these involve adults observing or researching or commenting on children analogous to a kind of anthropology or journalism or travel writing that observes the 'other' and writes about 'the other'. (Just occasionally, though, people investigating the 'other' are beginning to think up ways in which the 'other' can devise these observations...but that's a different matter). Anyway, all these different kinds of writing and media are a 'discourse' ('conversation') about 'nurture' - that is, how adults care for children.

Alongside these conversations (this 'nurture discourse'), there is 'children's literature'.  I think most children's books are part of this nurture discourse. Either openly or covertly, the adults who make children's books discuss through the books (and TV programmes and films etc) how nurture happens. The one key difference from all the other parts of the nurture discourse is that the bottom line is that they are written and created in ways that will make children want to read, listen or watch them.

What this means is that I think children's books are not simply about or for children; they are not simply about or for adults; not simply about or for a 'dual audience' - I think they are talking to or addressing the nature of the relationships between adults and children. They are really trying to talk about how it is these two sides of the nurturing process go on: children and parents; children and teachers; children and wider family; children and strangers etc. Even when books 'get rid' of the parents or parent figures early on, that very literary 'motif' is about how in real life, most children don't 'get rid' of their parents: in other words it's a fantasy based on a wish or desire. So it addresses the relationships that take place within nurture but it does it in reverse or through its opposite i.e. through what it isn't.

Meanwhile, in hundreds of different ways, children's books tackle questions of how adults 'control' or try to control children or fail to control them or promote the idea that they shouldn't be controlled. Many in the past and some in the present talk to the idea that children can or should or might 'help' or 'redeem' adults in some way or another - in the 19th century in a rather grotesque tradition, they had to die to do that! All the thousands of books about children or pre-teens or teens forging an identity for themselves, 'discovering' themselves pretty nearly all involve some kind of discovery about how the adult world is treating the child world. In other words the 'identity' being forged is in fact being forged through the interactions with people who are trying to nurture (or not trying, or failing to try etc) the person forging the identity - even when the person escapes in order to forge it, the very fact that it's an escape is also part of the 'nurture discourse', part of nurture relationships.

One key consequence of this is that children's literature tends to side with the leading child protagonist(s) in a book. The child is nearly always the agent of the action, the doer, the changer. Even when the child is wrong, or mistaken, or 'bad', in the end it's the child's point of view that will help the book to succeed with readers. This makes it different from all that adult nurture discourse which is almost entirely written from the perspective of what should we adults be doing 'to' the child or 'with' the child. Most children's books are written from the perspective of (in effect) what should 'I', the fictional child do 'to' or with parents, teachers, wider family, strangers etc. But, as we should never forget, 99% of these books are not written by children. So the complicated pattern is: adults write and create books in which they conjure up a child's point of view of the relationship between adults and children.

To take a classic example: Where the Wild Things Are. As many people have pointed out, the book is 'about' a boy trying to deal with his anger. But what is the context: his anger is directed to or against his mother  i.e. his main carer, nurturing him. The first pages are 'about' that relationship. The adult decides that the anger has to be dealt with by separating the child, exiling the child. It is a model of what a punishment can be, might be - perhaps some might think should be. Everything that follows is a consequence of this punishment of separation. It poses the possibility (I'm not saying it prescribes it or even favours it) that by being separated the child has the space and time to 'discover' or 'control' his anger. In fact, 'anger' is manifested by another set of interactions with surrogate adults - the Wild Things. You could conjure up any picture of 'anger' - could be tomatoes, or wasps, or armchairs. So, in some symbolic way, Max ends up controlling some kind of wild adults i.e. an inversion of the usual process of nurture. Then he returns and finds that there is a symbol of attachment waiting for him, some hot food. So, his mother 'detached' him, he 'found' himself, comes back and someone is saying you are now OK to be 'attached' again. It is a model (again I'm not saying whether I agree or disagree with it) of the nurturing process. It addresses the relationship between a child and an adult, (and other adults) rather than being simply or only or purely 'about a child'. In effect, author and book-creators are discussing nurture in such a way that children can get involved, enjoy, speculate, reflect on it - as opposed to, say, this blogpost!

Now, we might say, all this is still 'using' the child so that adults can work out what they think about nurture (are we doing it right? wrong? not enough? too much of this or that or the other? ) but that's a slightly different matter.  In fact, I think this is the 'shadow' hanging over many(most? all?) children's literature: a question we might frame as: what are these adults working out or 'playing out' about the nurturing process in this book or these books? What is the vision or objective behind this 'playing out'? What is the implied ideology about nurture that is going on? (bearing in mind that an 'implied ideology' is not necessarily the one that the reader (child or adult) accepts, takes on board, notices, or is convinced by!)