More mainstream than ever, children’s literature remains hard to define, poorly understood and frequently underestimated

As we pause between the perfect, all-ages storms of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix and the upcoming Lord of the Rings: Return of the King film adaptation, the question of just what constitutes “children’s literature” seems blurrier than ever.

Illustration, from the 1849 edition of *Ole-Luk-Oie, the Dream-God* (1842), is by Lieutenant Vilhelm Pedersen.
Gerald Early notes in a *Belle Lettres* article that, by appealing to both children and adults, Hans Christian Andersen “changed forever the nature of children’s literature.” Illustration from the story *Ole-Luk-Oie, the Dream-God* (1842) is by Lieutenant Vilhelm Pedersen and first appeared in an 1849 collection of Andersen’s work.

Popular clichés about the supposed “simplicity,” “innocence” or “imagination” of children’s literature fail to explain its particular power and broad-based appeal, says culture critic Gerald Early, Ph.D., the Merle Kling Professor of Modern Letters in Arts & Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis.

“In What Is Children’s Literature?” — an essay that first appeared in Belle Lettres, a bi-monthly publication of Washington University’s International Writers Center (IWC) — Early argues that such traditional formulations are largely the result of “adult projections about childhood itself.” (The essay will be reprinted, in expanded form, in Daedalus, the Journal of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences.)

“I firmly believe there is no such thing as children’s literature,” Early writes. “Children’s literature exists as an idea in the adult mind about the ways one speaks to children, about how we adults configure childhood. Children’s literature celebrates the imagination we think is necessary for us to engage childhood as adults. It is a way for adults, in short, to distinguish children from adults.”

Yet clearly there are books written by adults specifically for children.

“We understand the customs and practices of the genre so well that we can usually spot a children’s book without having to be told,” observes Early, who is a professor of English, director of the IWC, and co-director of American Culture Studies at Washington University. “But a children’s book, as with virtually all of our thinking about children, has reality only in relation to how we see something that is not for children. If something is for children, it does not have sex, it does not have graphic violence, it does not have obscene language.”

So what, then, do we really mean when we speak of children’s literature? For Early, the answer lies in the genre’s very ability to communicate between generations — to become a form of “intergenerational art.”

“At their best, books aimed at children express how adults feel conflicted about their childhood — and how this feeling reflects an ambivalence that children, too, feel about childhood,” Early observes. “That is why this literature speaks to adults as well as to children. As adults, we never outgrow childhood. We learn to live with what our childhoods have made us.”

The trouble with canons

Margaret Finders, Ph.D., director of teacher education in Washington University’s Department of Education in Arts & Sciences, concurs with Early that the best children’s literature — Lewis Carroll, Hans Christian Andersen, Maurice Sendak — deserves a place alongside adult literary classics. Yet developing a formal “children’s canon,” she writes in “Children’s Literature: The Best We Have to Offer” (also published in Belle Lettres), is fraught with complexity.

PedersenÕs illustration for AndersenÕs Little Tiny or *Thumbelina* (1835)
Pedersen’s illustration for Andersen’s Little Tiny or *Thumbelina* (1835)

Finders, an associate professor of education, points out that, while there is certainly no shortage of recommendations — a quick Internet search finds lists from the International Reading Association, the National Council for the Social Studies, the National Science Teachers Association, School Library Journal and many others — such efforts typically reveal more about their compilers than the works they cite. Occasionally, they reveal conflicts and even internal contradictions.

For example, Finders found that none of the books on the National Education Association’s (NEA) list of “50 Multicultural Books Every Child Should Know” appear on the TeachersFirst “100 Best Books for Children” list, even though the TeachersFirst list also was selected by the NEA. What’s more, Finders found that the “100 Best” list actually shares two entries with a “Books to Avoid” list put out by the Native American advocacy group Oyate.

Missing the greater point

But Finders, co-author of Literacy Lessons: Teaching and Learning With Middle School Students (Merrill Prentice Hall, 2003), points out that, in a sense, such lists miss the greater point. Of course, children should be encouraged to experience quality works — works that serve both as “mirrors” to their own lives and “windows” to the lives of others.

Yet inevitably, children will begin to make independent decisions about what books (and, for that matter, what films, videos and electronic media) they consume. Rather than obsessing over what children read, parents and teachers should focus more on the question of how children read.

“The issue is what we teach children to do with books — intellectually, culturally, socially and politically,” Finders points out. What is needed, she argues, is “a reading curriculum in which boys and girls learn to examine what is taken as ‘natural’ in any context and to investigate the politics and privileges embedded in their reading, whatever they are reading — be it fiction, non-fiction, textbooks or the larger culture.”

Rather than avoiding “problematic” books or topics, teachers might actually use, say, the dearth of female characters in Lord of the Rings or the stereotyped depiction of Native Americans in Indian in the Cupboard as springboards for classroom discussions about the backgrounds of their respective authors.

“Children can and do develop historical and contemporary understandings of how particular texts get written and get read,” Finders concludes. “We underestimate even our youngest readers when we assume that they are not capable of examining such representations in textual worlds. We overestimate ourselves when we attempt to authorize what our children read.”