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Stories For Children, Histories of Childhood / Histoires d'enfant, histoires d'enfance. Tome II

Rosie Findlay
Sébastien Salbayre

On the Unreliability of Fiction as a Portrayer of Childhood

Peter Hunt

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Metanarratives determine interpretive strategies as well as strategies for text production. In this regard, it is essential to recognise that children’s literature has been, and remains, a crucial repository of humanist ideology.—John Stephens and Robyn McCallum [Stephens, John and McCallum, Robyn (1998), Retelling Stories, Framing Culture, New York, Garland, 15]

1I must begin by saying that I am a great enthusiast for the linking of disciplines that this conference represents. I have for years taken it as axiomatic that history, cultural studies, criticism, psychology, and (especially) children’s literature, can all feed into each other and interact with each other, and so contribute to our understanding of childhood—and vice versa. Thus it has seemed equally obvious to me that one of the richest sources of information about childhood would be the fiction written for children.

2Of course, as a result of the marginalisation of the reader and (especially) the child reader in literary debates, the vast majority of academic critics of children’s literature ignore children and childhood altogether. They are ghosts on the margins of the critical enterprise—or the elephant in the living room: the thing that is extremely obvious and yet we ignore it. We pretend that the child reader outside the books, and the childhoods outside the books on which the childhoods inside the books are based don’t exist.

3This may seem perverse, because there is a widespread basic assumption that there is a natural link between children’s books and childhood—and obviously there is—one is written for the other. But, on reflection, I find that it is not a direct link that is directly useful in an historical—cultural sense. Certainly, texts that portray certain kinds of children and childhoods were and are offered to real children, and read by them, but that reveals nothing about the needs or wants or characteristics of a particular childhood. The evidence of real children is not helpful; it is often said that we can tell what children like (and, by extension, what is appropriate to them) by what they read—but children can only read what is there: they can only want what is available to them, and what is made available depends on decisions about childhood made by adults. Thus the fact that books are written for children does not suggest that what is in the books has much connection with the readers. (The same, as 1 shall demonstrate, is true of books by adults for adults about childhood.)

4Thus if one is looking to literature for a portrayal of either concepts of childhoods in general or the individual lives that constitute individual childhoods, literature is at best a very distorting lens. In terms of helping us to understand childhood, it can only be seen as a corroboration of what other evidence gives us. (There is a exception possible to this, exception, where literature has a symbiotic, creative relationship with real childhood—if it creates or substantially contributes to the childhood it portrays for example, in the British school story, or in the’beautiful child’cult of the late nineteenth—early twentieth centuries that produced Frances Hodgson Burnett’s Little Lord Fauntleroy and Christopher Robin of A. A. Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh).

5There are five inter—related problems which contribute to the unreliability of fiction in helping us to understand past childhoods (and the distinctions between them are necessarily artificial.


6I must apologise to those with a mystic faith in the superiority of fiction to reality (for example, Oscar Wilde: ‘Literature always anticipates life. It does not copy it, but molds it to its purpose.’ [quoted in Jon Winokur (1987) Writers on Writing, London, Headline, 54], Fiction may be’super-true’, representing, perhaps, a higher or different kind of reality, but fiction cannot be a reliable reporter – even (perhaps especially) when it is concerned with ‘realism’ (or, better, ‘naturalism’) – and even if the author intends an honest representation of the world around her. As the British novelist Jill Paton Walsh put it, contrasting realism with fantasy:

A work of realism, on the other hand, permits very literal—minded readings, even downright stupid ones ... Even worse, it is possible to read a realistic book as though it were not fiction at all ...[Jill Paton Walsh (1981), ‘The art of realism’, in Hearne, B. and Kaye, M. Celebrating Children’s Books, New York, Lothrop, Lee and Shepard, 38.]

7In short, writers, are, virtually by definition, deviant (‘[he] was a writer, and consequently, as Kafka, no less, has told us, not a nice man’ [J. D. Salinger (1964) Franny andZooey, Harmondsworth, Penguin, 62]), and fiction deals with the exceptional, the unusual (we read to read about lives not like ours ‘The chief difference between literature and life: in books, the proportion of exceptional to commonplace people is high; in reality, very low’– Aldous Huxley [quoted in Jon Winokur (1987) Writers on Writing, London, Headline, 54]; ‘Literature is mostly about having sex and not much about having children. Life is the other way round.’ [David Lodge (1983), The British Museum is Falling Down, Harmondsworth, Penguin, 56.] And, of course, no writer can be outside ideology, or ideologically neutral, so literature can never hold up an undistorted mirror to nature.

8This leads us to the second reason for distrusting fiction as evidence.


9Children’s Literature is, by definition, a mode rooted in an imbalance of power (see, most famously, Jacqueline Rose, The Case of Peter Pan, London, Macmillan, 1984) and this leads to the inevitable manipulation of the text by, and/or within ideology. Thus children’s literature portrays (that is, creates) in-text childhoods for religious, commercial, social, or personal purposes. For example, it portrays Utopian or dystopian childhoods for social and political reasons—for what is, in effect, social engineering, to encourage emulation by children or action by adults. It portrays society as it wishes to be seen, in its positive aspects, and as it wishes its readers to perceive it, in its negative aspects.

10There are many notable examples from the nineteenth century (although it could be argued that there are no books that are not examples. Sarah Trimmer’s Fabulous Histories (1786) (later The History of the Robins) portrays middle—class benevolence, which argues (sub-textually) for the preservation of the status quo. This is the acceptable face of power and snobbery, just as Hesba Stretton’s Jessica’s First Prayer (1867) gives us the acceptable face of the poor. In the USA, the work of ‘Oliver Optic’, Horatio Alger Jr and many others politicised the ‘self help’ book, and manipulated the American ideal of social mobility (see for example, Gillian Avery (1994) Behold the Child: American Children and their Books, London: Bodley Head; Beverly Lyon Clark (2003) Kiddie Lit. The Cultural Construction of Children’s Literature in America, Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University Press.)

11In the twentieth century, similarly, an apparently ‘realistic’ writer, Edith Nesbit, infused The Railway Children (1906) with a politically-driven myth of the communication between classes, and an ideal of middle-class childhood ‘innocence’; for much of the century, childhood was romanticised as in Burnett’s A Little Princess (1905) and The Secret Garden (1911); from the 1970s it tended to be portrayed as a fragmented and threatened state, as in Gillian Cross’s Wolf (1990).


12Mark Twain observed:’Why shouldn’t truth be stranger than fiction? Fiction, after all, has to make sense’[quoted in Jon Winokur (1987) Writers on Writing, London, Headline, 47], and fiction is about the comprehensible – an important consideration if one is writing for developing readers.

13This means that the structure and content of ‘the children’s book’ are geared to constructed childhoods, to expectations and abilities constructed by adults. Thus one of the most commonly encountered constrictions on the writer for children is that it is assumed that children’s books must have happy endings – a closure that is satisfying in some way. And this leads in turn to the assumption that children’s literature cannot portray real childhood to real children.

14Even the ‘best’ authors have to confront this paradox: here is Ursula K. Le Guin:

But what, then, is the naturalistic writer for children to do? Can he present the child with evil as an insoluble problem ... To give the child a picture of ... gas chambers ... or famines or me cruelties of a psychotic patient, and say, ‘Well, baby, this is how it is, what are you going to make of it’ – that is surely unethical. If you suggest that there is a ‘solution’ to these monstrous facts, you arc lying to the child. If you insist that there isn’t, you are overwhelming him with a load he’s not strong enough yet to carry... [Ursula K. Le Guin (1992) The Language of the Night, Essays on Fantasy and Science Fiction, rev. edn, New York: HarperCollins, 64-5.]

15Adult writers, then, see themselves as carrying a moral responsibility to distort the world: Anne Fine:

The one thing I try to do... is to give children a sense that, even though these cataclysmic things happen ... it’s not as bad as they think—or even if it is as bad as they think they will somehow come to terms with it. [Bryan Podmore (1996), ‘The NAWE Interview: Another Little Spanner?’Writing in Education, 8, insert pp. vi]

16But there is another distorting feature, perhaps unique to this form:


17Very many adults have a very difficult relationship with their own childhoods; in many cases it is nostalgia for a lost childhood, or reconciliation with it, or sublimation, and many books, such as those of A. A. Milne or Enid Blyton show complex and continuous tensions. Writers often wish to re-write their own childhood, or childhoods in general, in terms of an ideal, often an ideal of innocence. As Judy Blume has observed, this is a curious phenomenon:

I don’t know what childhood innocence is supposed to mean. Children are inexperienced, but they are not innocent. Childhood can be a terrible time of life. No kid wants to stay a kid. It is only adults who have forgotten who say, “If only I could be a kid again.” The fantasy of childhood is to be an adult. [Mark West (1988) Trust Your Children: Voices Against Censorship in Children’s Literature, Neal—Schuman, 11-12]

18Meindert DeJong develops this:

You may try to go back [to childhood] by way of memory, but that memory is an adult memory, an adult conception of childhood for adults—and not for children ... When you write for children from adult memory, you satisfy only the other adults who have also forgotten their inner childhood, and have substituted for it an adult conception of what the child needs and wants in books. [John Rowe Townsend (1971) A Sense of Story. Essays on Contemporary Writers for Children, Harmondsworth: Longman Young Books (Penguin), 75]

19Lloyd Alexander also comments on this:

With all the best intentions in the world many adults have a very peculiar view of childhood. It’s strange, because we were all children at some point, though we’ve forgotten that. We sentimentalise childhood. We look upon it very often as a happy golden age. There are a great many writers for children, and splendid writers for children, who are perhaps more interested in recapturing their own childhood; whereas I am trying to come to terms with my adulthood... I speak to the child as a growing person. [Justin Wintle and Emma Fisher (1974) The Pied Pipers: Interviews with the Influential Creators of Children’s Literature, London: Paddington Press, 212,213]

20It might be argued that novels with a strong biographical base, such as Tom Sawyer or Little Women may circumvent this to some extent, but both Twain and Alcott were aware of the modifications that they made. Perhaps the classic example of childhood misremembered is Laura Ingalls Wilder’s ‘Little House’series, fictionalised in her old age with the help of her daughter, and with a specific political agenda (valorising the pioneer spirit over the ‘new deal’ of the 1930s). Even writers who seem at ease with childhood may write no more than an idyll: notable examples are Arthur Ransome in his ‘Swallows and Amazons’ series, and Rudyard Kipling in Puck of Pook’s Hill.

21We can then add the difficulty deciding on quite what readers perceive.


22Texts are only realised through infinitely variable readings, and the reliability of the reading experience for relating to ‘reality’ is affected by many questions of how we read and interpret texts, and what concept of childhood do readers (adult and child) bring to the texts. It may be simply the case that without an historical perspective, a reading of a text can be widely at variance with the reality that the authors thought they were writing about; thus one of the most difficult aspects of reading children’s literature is to negotiate the encounter with an unfamiliar type of childhood. For example, is Little Women a portrait of a happily balanced family, or a portrait of repression deserving a feminist reading?

23The combination of these five factors means that evidence from fiction must be treated very sceptically in terms of any contribution that it might appear to make to the history of childhood.


Cardiff University, UK

© Presses universitaires François-Rabelais, 2007

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