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Stories For Children, Histories of Childhood. Volume II

Rosie Findlay
Sébastien Salbayre

Childist Criticism and the Silenced Voice of the Child: A Widening Critical and Institutional Re-Consideration of Children’s Literature

Sébastien Chapleau


Childist Criticism and the Silenced Voice of the Child: A Widening Critical and Institutional Re-Consideration of Children’s Literature
In my essay, I approach children’s literature from a genealogical perspective. Concentrating on the way one tends to talk about children’s books – be in academic or more general terms – I argue that the genitive case present in the phrase ‘Children’s Literature’ is misguiding. Thus, I argue for some possible institutional changes. The main critical apparatus developed through the essay is that of childist criticism, a theoretical apparatus introduced by Peter Hunt in the 1980s. Whereas Peter Hunt has only concentrated on the reading of books from a childist angle, I decide to deal with issues of production and, thus, engage with texts often marginalised, those written by children themselves.

Texte intégral

The opening of the literary canon to popular culture and the opening of literary criticism to postmodernism and the return of the reader allow for a broader study of diverse kinds of cultural work. (Lundin and Wiegand xii)
Cette université sans condition n’existe pas, en fait, nous le savons trop. Mais en principe et conformément à sa vocation déclarée, en vertu de son essence professée, elle devrait rester un ultime lieu de résistance critique-et plus que critique-à tous les pouvoirs d’appropriation dogmatiques et injustes. [...] Ce principe de résistance inconditionnelle, c’est un droit que l’université elle-même devrait à la fois réfléchir, inventer et poser, qu’elle le fasse ou non à travers des facultés de droit ou dans de nouvelles Humanités capables de travailler sur ces questions de droit-c’est-à-dire, pourquoi ne pas le dire encore sans détour, des Humanités capables de prendre en charge des tâches de déconstruction, à commencer par celle de leur propre histoire et de leurs propres axiomes. (Derrida, 2001: 14-15)

  • 1 I would like to dedicate this essay to Claudine Raynaud, Peter Vernon, Philip Lahey, and Thomas Du (...)

1I believe that childist criticism can destabilise, or at least question, some of the definitions that circulate in the world of children’s literature criticism.1 Not only can it destabilise, or question, the definitions that most commonly circulate in the world of children’s literature criticism, but also, as a consequence, the institution of children’s literature itself.

2The now very widely-known argument of Jacqueline Rose and Karin Lesnik-Oberstein which was mainly concerned with the notion of the ‘constructed child’, can be taken forward using David Rudd’s idea of the ‘constructive child’ which he addresses in his “The Conditions of Possibility of Children’s Literature”. This constructive child is the child I am interested in – the child that is not mute and not totally subjected to the voice of the adult (writer). Thus, as Rudd clearly puts it, ‘while children can be construed as the powerless objects of adult discourse, they also have subject positions available to them that resist such a move.’ (forthcoming) He summarises Jacqueline Rose and Karín Lesnik-Oberstein’s psychoanalytically-informed arguments according to which

[a]dults [when writing children’s books] [...] evoke [the] child for their own purposes (desires, in fact), as a site of plenitude to conceal the fractures that trouble us all: concerns over a lack of coherent subjectivity, over the instabilities of language and, ultimately, existence itself [...]. Barrie’s ‘Peter Pan’ texts are seen as perfect examples of this, purporting to be about the eternal child, but actually acknowledging the problems of such a construction, especially in the way that Barrie himself had problems producing a final version of his text [...]. (Rudd forthcoming)

3Rudd then takes another path and addresses the concept of the’real child’who produces his or her own literatures – these literatures being what this essay is going to be about. He argues that one should go beyond the idea of the ‘constructed’ child, which ‘deological implications [sees] the child as a priori “muted’” and consider, rather, the reader as’constructive’(forthcoming). Thus, Rudd starts disrupting the binary opposition between childhood and adulthood upon which the institution of children’s literature tends to base itself and which has it that children’s literature is something that is written by the adult, for the child. In the light of childist criticism, one can say that the only way to move the institution of children’s literature towards the acknowledgement of the presence of the child lies in the notions of the constructive child and childist criticism: childist criticism and the constructive child are inseparable.

4The notion of the constructive child is one that David Rudd borrowed from the Stainton Rogers’s Stories of Childhood: Shifting Agendas of Child Concern. Giving the child a voice, he writes that ‘[t]he Stainton Rogers’ more Foucauldian notion of power, seen as not only repressive but productive, too, allows us to overcome what is otherwise a problematic shift; that is, from the spoken-for child to the controlling adult.’ (forthcoming) By approaching the child from such an angle, Rudd argues that

[t]he fact that children are seen not to have a stake in this is, once again, a product of the way children’s literature (in its texts and its criticism) has become institutionalised, such that – ironically – only commercially published work is seen to count; or, to put it another way, only adults are seen to “authorize” proper children’s literature. Certainly, more work needs doing on this [...], but it does not help when scholars underwrite this culturally dominant version of events. (forthcoming)

5Children’s literature, described in such terms, is something that the adult is in charge of as far as its institutionalisation is concerned (see also Zipes 2002: 40-41). This process of definition is the result of ‘various institutional apparatuses’ (Rudd forthcoming) which have shaped ‘children’s literature’ as most people conceive it now, that is something one can buy in any bookshop where there is a ‘children’s section’. But, unfolding the history – or genealogy – of children’s literature as an institution can reveal where such an institution becomes, in the words of Rose, a fraudulent enterprise (1).

6Children’s literature, as an institution, became what it is, that is something that more or less excludes the child, because, as Jack Zipes writes,

[f]or a children’s book to be recognized as a book for children, a system had to be in place. That is, a process of production, distribution, and reception had to be instituted within which places where assigned to different groups of people. Gender, age, and social class played roles. Indeed, it was not possible for a broad range of books to be approved and to reach children in specific ways until the system of production, distribution, and reception was instituted and became focused on how to socialize children through reading. Children’s needs were not necessarily taken into consideration. It was and still is the need of socioeconomic order that dictates how children will be formed and what forms are and are not acceptable. (2002: 46, latter emphasis added; also partly quoted in Rudd)

7Similarly, Rudd adds: ‘the more that children’s literature became institutionalised (in texts and its criticism), the more it filtered out, or ignored, that which didn’t fit [...].’ (forthcoming) Thus children’s literature, as an institution is, indeed, something that belongs to the adult, and within which the child is voiceless. But, is that the whole story? Is their – adult – story the whole story? As far as childist criticism is concerned, I believe that an alternative definition of children’s literature is possible. In this sense, I would suggest that childist criticism wishes us to engage in a rather mind-stretching exercise and play with institutional – or definitional - boundaries.

8As Rudd points out, children do have their own literatures that they produce themselves. He notes:

[i]n terms of children’s literature, [...] it might still be argued that, unlike women and other minority groups, children still have no voice, their literature being created for them, rather than creating their own. But this is nonsense. Children produce literature in vast quantities, oral and written, both individually wrought and through collaborative effort (sometimes diachronically) and in a variety of forms: rhymes, jokes, songs, incantations, tall tales, plays, stories and more. Yet, apart from a few collections and studies [...], it goes largely unrecognised [...]. (forthcoming)

9Following such a statement, what is at stake is a possible reconsideration of an institution which, for the reasons we have just seen, named itself ‘children’s literature’, pretending that the grammatical genitive it uses is a legitimate – adult – one. What is at stake, therefore, is a reconsideration of the binary opposition between childhood and adulthood, a binary opposition which, so far, and as the argument shows, conflicts with some of the principles of childist criticism.

10Epistemological similarities can be found in some examples of feminist criticism. Canadian critic Lissa Paul, in her “Enigma Variations: What Feminist Theory Knows about Children’s Literature”, writes that

[t]here is good reason for appropriating feminist theory to children’s literature. Both women’s literature and children’s literature are devalued and regarded as marginal and peripheral by the literary and educational communities. Feminist critics are beginning to change that. By tracing the history of women’s writing, and especially in the nineteenth century, feminist critics are giving definition and value to women in literature and literature by women. As it happens, the forms of physical, economic and linguistic entrapment that feminist critics have been revealing in women’s literature match the entrapment in children’s literature. (187)

11Similarly, there is good reason for appropriating childist criticism to the domain of children’s literature studies: children and the literatures they produce are devalued and regarded as marginal and peripheral – if regarded at all – and observing such an issue from the angle of childist criticism has inevitable politico-cultural consequences. This is what Peter Hunt also addresses in “The Decline and Decline of the Children’s Book? – The Problem of Adults Reading Children’s Books and What Can Be Done About Them”. Reflecting on the ways in which some adults tend to consider the cultures of childhood, and marginalise them, he writes:

teaching at San Diego State University, I asked students to give me a list of the five “best” children’s books, and I got Charlotte’s Web, Where the Wild Things Are, Winnie-the-Pooh, The Wind and the Willows, Alice in Wonderland, which is more or less what I might have got in the UK [...]. Does this mean that they are universal standards? I don’t think so. [...] [W]hat relevance can [these books] have to children, who belong to a different kind of culture? [...]
[T]his is important because [the institution of children’s literature] favours and legitimises certain forms over others, and parts of its tenets are that certain kinds of experience, certain complexities, are necessarily more valuable than others.
To sum up: we need to stop judging children’s books – which means stop producing children’s books in the context of cultural and formal definitions that are irrelevant to the readers. I am not throwing out that culture; I am only asking that it be seen as only one culture, and that others are equally valid. Almost all contemporary theory points to a freedom in the audience, to define and produce a literature that is not forced into the linear, beginning-middle-end-resolution “middle-aged” cultural mould. [...]
The position of women and women’s writing in the world has changed, and is changing radically, because the implications of the theorists are, slowly, being followed through. If we want to do the same for children’s literature, to make sure that the decline and decline does not continue, then we have to follow up some implications, and if we do not, then I think we have betrayed the children. (13-14)

12Hunt’s concluding paragraph is crucial here, for it insists on the necessity of taking childist criticism – as a theoretical-critical apparatus – forward. His approach, focusing on the reading of books for children, argues that the canon that is (un)consciously held up by adults should be reconsidered. This is similar to my own argument because, the way in which I wish to use childist criticism-focusing on the production of literature by children rather than by adults-I believe that adopting childist criticism is the only way to make sure that, as far as the institution of children’s literature is concerned, we have not betrayed the children, totally forgetting or ignoring them.

13Jack Zipes’s, David Rudd’s, and Peter Hunt’s arguments demonstrate that the way in which the institution of children’s literature defines itself seems to be consequential to the way adults tend to consider childhood. Hunt points at the way some adults tend to legitimise certain texts over others, and he claims that this can be described in terms of disrespect towards the child’s own culture. This is what Perry Nodelman (1992) describes in colonial terms in his reading of the institution of children’s literature through Edward Said’s Orientalism. Similarly, I believe, the fact that what children really produce in terms of literature is being ignored by the institution of children’s literature is a direct consequence of the way childhood is defined by adulthood. This is what Beverly Lyon Clark also argues in her Kiddie Lit – The Cultural Construction of Children’s Literature in America. In a chapter devoted to the study of literature for children within the academy, she writes:

[n]or do the Jacques Derridas or Henry Louis Gateses or Stephen Greenblatts of criticism theorize about literature for children. The reasons for this lack of attention include [...]: our cultural anxiety of immaturity, our unwillingness to take children seriously. (49-50)

14Children, when defined like this, that is, as immature, are bound to be often dismissed by adulthood. So, unless we reconsider the place and the value of childhood – and therefore the place and role of adulthood vis-à-vis childhood – in our society, children’s own literatures will never be truly acknowledged. This implies that the adult should go beyond the controlled-controller and immaturity-maturity binaries that most commonly epitomise the relationships between adulthood and childhood, and bring forward the notion of (cultural) respect.

15This disruption of the binary opposition between childhood and adulthood is something that has sometimes been touched upon, for instance, as regards the study of sexuality. In an article called “Feminism, Child Sexual Abuse, and the Erasure of Child Sexuality”, Steven Angelides argues that the child’s sexuality has often been placed under erasure (142) and that ‘many people still believed [in the 1970s] in the notion of childhood asexuality or sexual innocence.’ (146) Angelides’s article shows how childhood sexuality has been approached through recent history, and how discourses about the powerlessness of the child have (slightly) shifted towards a recognition of the child’s (sexual) identity. But, Angelides insists that in most cases the sexuality of the child is maintained within adult discourse and is therefore silenced.

16Even though adult discourse has changed as far as certain issues are concerned (for instance, the age of consent, as well as the voting age, have been lowered in recent years), it has been argued that, regarding the domain of children’s literature, there is still a tendency to maintain certain ideological structures which keep the child’s identity away from the institution of children’s literature. For instance, Ann Alston, in an essay focusing on the ideological construction of homes and houses in some examples of books for children, argues, alongside Jacqueline Rose’s reading of J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan, that the institution of children’s literature often turns childhood into a mythological haven. She writes that

[t]he home is presented as a haven of family and idealised domesticity; it is an adult construct, an image that is so prominent that it has become naturalised. While sociologists and politicians often chart the demise of the family, the signs in children’s books constantly reaffirm the position and importance of the family home: the dresser still appears, ordered and homely; the table comes complete with clean cloth; the houses often have four windows and a central door. The ideal home, like the ideal child, or indeed the ideal family is trapped in a past ideology, and adult writers, publishers, illustrators and readers [sic] seem to have little intention of letting the ideal of a ‘good’ family home grow into a fifteen storey tower block and indeed, if it were so, then it is highly probable that in it there would be a dresser, or cloth on the table, a symbol of domesticity and thus harmony. (55)

17Within the domain of children’s literature, the image of the idealised child seems to be untouchable, locked up in a sort of ivory tower somewhat detached from reality.

18In order to disrupt the binary between reality and fictionality, between the constructed child and the constructive one, and between absence and presence, thus allowing children’s own literatures to exist in the eyes of the adult (and therefore allowing them to be part of the institution of children’s literature), the relationships between childhood and adulthood should be reconsidered. Following Peter Hunt’s comments, it is therefore the notions of respect and recognition that should be brought to the fore (1991 (b): 13-14). Similarly, writing about sexuality, Steven Angelides strongly argues that

[w]e must actively reaffirm a social discourse of child sexuality and rethink the question of power in connection with subjectivity and adult-child relations in a much more complex manner than the binary of powerful/powerless allows. Children’s subjectivities ought not to be figured on the model of the tabula rasa, as the effects of a juridical inscription of power. Children’s beliefs and experiences ought to be taken seriously, seen as shaped by and shaping adult knowledges. We must provide children with discursive spaces and subject positions that enable them to negotiate their own emerging sexualities and to empower them to act on their own behalf. (161)

19Virginia Woolf s A Room of One’s Own is also useful here, and it allows me to further emphasise the link between feminist criticism and childist criticism. Woolf s feminist manifesto is also concerned with issues of recognition and respect, and it is easy to draw a parallel between the place of women within the institution of literature and that of the child within the institution of children’s literature. As Woolf writes about the place of women in literature in contrast to their place in ‘real’ life, she claims that

if woman had no existence save in the fiction written by men, one would imagine her a person of the utmost importance; very curious; heroic and mean; splendid and sordid; infinitely beautiful and hideous in the extreme; as great as a man, some think even greater. But this is woman in fiction. (44-45, emphasis added)

20I could replace the word ‘woman’ in Virginia Woolf s text with the word ‘child’. If it is true that when adults write for children they give children a great importance – an extraordinary importance: think of Harry and his friends defeating the forces of evil in J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, or of Matilda’s and Charlie’s subversive positions in Roald Dahl’s Matilda and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, or think of the centrality of children characters in most, not to say all, books labelled children’s books – this importance remains fiction. Taking Woolf s argument further, we can argue with her that

[a] very queer, composite being thus emerges [out of the situation where woman, or child, has a voice only in fiction]. Imaginatively she [or the child] is of the highest importance; practically she [or the child] is completely insignificant. [...] [I]n real life she [or the child] was [is] the property of her husband [and the child of the adult], (45)

21The child exists without really existing. Jack Zipes and Beverly Lyon Clark, thinking along the same lines as Woolf, worry about the disparity between reality and fictionality for political reasons. Just as Woolf worried about the conditions in which ‘real’ women – that is, women outside fiction – lived, Zipes writes that ‘[t]he richer and more tolerant children’s literature has become, both in criticism and in the writing for children, the poorer children and adolescents are becoming in their material and social conditions.’ (2002: 31) Similarly, Clark also argues that,

[a]dvertisers foreground images of babies even when their product has little to do with children (automobile tires? interior painting? nursing homes?). Every package of toilet paper in my local supermarket features the head of an adorable baby, too young to use the product herself [sic]. Presidential hopefuls traverse the United States kissing babies and seize photo ops that capture them hugging their children. Yet the position of the country’s children provides little cause for jubilation. There may be recent small gains – fewer teen pregnancies in the past couple of years, a decrease in juvenile homicides. But for many years children in the United States have been overrepresented among those living in poverty, at a rate of almost 50 percent higher than the national norm. In 1999, when the U.S. poverty rate was 11.8 percent, 16.3 percent of the nation’s children were living in poverty. (1-2)

22It appears to me that children do not really own a room of their own, or if they do, this room remains rather insignificant, a mere Wendy house, in the middle of a gigantic real edifice owned by the adult. The way Woolf develops her feminist critique as regards the place of women vis-à-vis the institution of literature is, I believe, essentially similar to the way childist criticism approaches the place of the child within the world of children’s literature. Children, as far as the institution of children’s literature is concerned, are often confined to a fictional world, as if reality did not exist, as if children had no sexuality, never took drugs, never fought in wars, or anything of the sort. Although things can be said to have slightly changed lately with the production of neo-realist books such as those of American writer Robert Cormier, or British writer Melvin Burgess, especially with the latter’s ‘extremely controversial’ Doing It, published in Great Britain in 2003, it remains true that such books are still considered as a deviation to the acceptable norm. That norm, in Great Britain, and at the time of the publication of Doing It, a novel overtly concerned with teenage sexuality, was exemplified in former Children’s Laureate Anne Fine, the figure of the Children’s Laureate, one could argue, being one of the public faces of the institution of children’s literature (at least as far as the production of books for children is concerned). Before the book was even available in bookshops, Anne Fine wrote a review of it for The Guardian. Her review – unsurprisingly entitled “Filth, which ever way you look at it” – was extremely severe and called for censorship. She describes the book as an’assault on teenage morals’ (n. p.). She believes that in reading it, ‘[y]oung girls will be begging their parents to send them to single sex schools. Reading [Burgess’s Doing It] will put many off dating for years.’ (ibid.) She also writes, towards the end of her review, that

[a]ll of the publishers who have touched this novel should be deeply ashamed of themselves. Astonishingly, they are almost all female. It’s time they sat round a table, took a good long look at themselves and decided that it was an indefensible decision to take this book on. (ibid.)

23Here, some strong conservatism is expressed in the way Fine comments on the publishers’choice to publish the book. This conservatism, it also seems to me, is reinforced as she finds it astonishing that the publishers are all female. Childhood, in Fine’s review, is domesticated and, for that reason, she finds it hard to believe that it is another figure that also belongs to the realm of the domestic – the female – that allows the book to be published. Destabilising the established order clearly bothers.

24Some children’s literature critics – whether they see themselves as childist or not – are beginning to destabilise the status quo that childist criticism wishes to challenge. By tracing the history of the institution of children’s literature, and especially the socioeconomic politics that have given it shape, childist criticism is giving a definition and some value to the literatures produced by children. Just as Paul argues that uncovering the genealogy of what she calls ‘women’s literature’ is important, David Rudd also seems to suggest that understanding how children’s literature has become – and is still being – institutionalised can help us realise that children do produce their own literatures and that these literatures have been marginalised, so far, but that they are nonetheless worth exploring. Such reconsiderations also – and inevitably – lead us to reflect on what generates such debates, that is, the place of childhood vis-à-vis adulthood and vice versa. For children to really exist in a world controlled by adults, and following what Roland Barthes argues in an essay on toys, in his Mythologies, adults must stop looking for themselves – or for what they want – in children. Barthes writes:

[l]es jouets courants sont essentiellement un microcosme adulte; ils sont tous reproductions amoindries d’objets humains, comme si aux yeux du public l’enfant n’était en somme qu’un homme [sic] plus petit, un homunculus à qui il faut fournir des objets à sa taille. [...] [L]’enfant ne peut se constituer qu’en propriétaire, en usager, jamais en créateur; il n’invente pas le monde, il l’utilise [...]. [All the toys one commonly sees are essentially a microcosm of the adult world; they are all reduced copies of human objects, as if in the eyes of the public the child was, all told, nothing but a smaller man [sic], a homunculus to whom must be supplied objects of his [sic] own size. [...] [T]he child can only identify himself as owner, as user, never as creator; he does not invent the world, he uses it [...].] (55-56)

25Adults, I wish to argue, should try to look at the child for what he or she is, and not for what they want him or her to be. This is a matter of respect: cultural respect. Let children be what they are, for even though it is easily noticeable that children’s identities are strongly influenced by adulthood, it is nonetheless true that they are still individuals, not totally subjected to adult control: and we are back to the constructed/constructive issues I started with.

26David Rudd provides us with a good basis for a childist reconsideration of the institution of children’s literature, a reconsideration the main purpose of which is to include what the child produces in terms of literature into the domain of children’s literature studies. It must be noted, here, that even though David Rudd and I seem to agree, it is only partially. Indeed, as he tries to negotiate his way through both the constructed child and the constructive one, it appears that he still wishes to maintain the status quo which I wish to destabilise. Indeed, as he finds a way between the notion of the constructed child (as present in Jacqueline Rose and Karín Lesnik-Oberstein) and that of the constructive child, he argues that the conditions of possibility of children’s literature reside in the acknowledgement of the child’s unpredictable reactions to the literature produced for him or her. In that sense, I believe that Rudd’s argument is very similar to Peter Hunt’s early childist approach to children’s literature. As they both engage with the place of the child in the study of the books that are produced for him or her, they believe that more emphasis should be put on the constructive child. Both Hunt and Rudd wish the cultures of childhood to be respected as far as the act of reading is concerned. As they insist on the necessity to respect how the child approaches the text he or she reads, they want to include the reading child in the criticism of children’s literature, but this is where their criticism ends.

27Therefore, and even if I consider David Rudd’s argument extremely important, particularly because, as he says, ‘this makes children’s literature studies far more messy and complex, and challenges traditional forms of scholarship [...]’ (forthcoming), I also wonder why he decided not to consider children’s own writing.

28While Rudd marginalises the texts produced by children, these literatures that children produce in vast quantities are what I consider real children’s literatures, and these literatures are what my childist argument is most interested in. This is why what I now wish to do is to define the conditions of possibility of these children’s literatures, more particularly in terms of academic possibilities. For even if ‘arguing that the child is necessarily both constructed and constructive, and that this hybrid, border country is worthy of exploration [...]’ (Rudd forthcoming), considering the constructive child in more depth also seems to take us towards new areas of investigation and towards an even more messy reconsideration of the institution of children’s literature. Otherwise, and even if one decided to follow Rudd’s hybrid criticism, critics like Jacqueline Rose and Karín Lesnik-Oberstein will never be satisfied and will always claim, rightly, that children’s literature does not belong to the child, but is still based on adult constructivism/colonialism.

29So, to take on David Rudd’s claim that children do produce their own literatures, I believe that his argument – if taken further – could offer interesting alternatives as far as the domain of children’s literature studies is concerned. As lona and Peter Opie wrote in their introduction to their study The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren, published as early as 1959,

[children’s] fun [about their linguistic games] is the thought, usually correct, that adults know nothing about them. Grown-ups have outgrown the schoolchild’s lore. If made aware of it they tend to deride it; and they actively seek to suppress its livelier manifestations. Certainly they do nothing to encourage it. And the folklorist and anthropologist can, without travelling a mile from his [sic] door, examine a thriving unselfconscious culture [...] which is as unnoticed by the sophisticated world, and quite as little affected by it, as is the culture of some aboriginal tribe living out its helpless existence in the hinterland of a native reserve. Perhaps, indeed, the subject is worthy of [more academic attention]. (1-2)

30The literatures that children produce are absent from the domain of children’s literature studies – or if they are present, it is only in published collections that have little to do with the way children’s literature critics currently define the institution of children’s literature – and I strongly believe that they pose a challenge to the status quo that defines the state of children’s literature as an institution, and, as far as most of my argument is concerned, as regards the way the phrase ‘children’s literature’ is perceived and understood in adult academic terms.

31Similarly, as Zipes reflects on the way children’s literature became institutionalised in North America and Great Britain, he writes that ‘[t]he institution of children’s literature served a function in acculturating the child and molding his or her reading habits in the lights of specific socioeconomic needs.’(2002: 47) He also comments on the commercialisation of books for children:

[a]lthough production and sale of children’s books are dominated by large corporations, which produce books largely to lure adults and children to buy their trademark, and although the books themselves take second place to movies, TV shows, and even commercials, the institution of children’s literature is seeing a flowering of innovative books and illustrations for readers from two to sixteen that are not simply economic ventures. Children’s literature needs and thrives on the work of fine writers and artists and fosters experimentation and challenges to the market. (ibid. 48)

32So, as the institution of children’s literature needs to resist – or challenge – the capitalist market it finds itself in the middle of, I also believe that the institution should challenge some of the principles upon which it is based. This argument, similarly to Zipes’s, is essentially revolutionary, or counter-hegemonic – if one sees the institution of children’s literature as basing itself and putting forward hegemonic – adultist on my part, capitalist on Zipes’s part – discourses defining its current existence.

33Because childist criticism, as far as the production of literature is concerned, challenges the state of the institution of children’s literature as it is now, it could engage us in interminable debates focusing on the notion of literature. But here, my focus is elsewhere, so I simply see literature as meaning a wide variety of things, from written and oral texts to drawings. For this, David Rudd’s non-exhaustive list is rather helpful: literature, I believe, can mean things like stories, songs, jokes, plays, but also drawings, e-magazines, fanzines, diaries, letters, and so on. I wish to remain open to what children can, and do, produce. In the same way as Peter Hunt defines childist criticism as somewhat anarchistic (forthcoming) – as far as the act of reading is concerned – I also believe that the production of literatures by children should be approached in the same way, unconditionally: this is, after all, what happens in adult criticism (see Belsey).

34Other epistemological similarities can be found in, for instance, Catherine Belsey’s work. In her “Towards Cultural History”, Belsey is concerned with English as an academic institution. She starts her essay by asking: ‘Is there a place for English in a postmodern world? Does an academy where twentieth-century textual practice breaks down the nineteenth-century boundaries between disciplines offer English departments any worthwhile job to do?’ (551) As she wishes to reconsider what constitutes English as an academic institution, her essay allows me to draw some crucial parallels between her own argument and the way my childist argument asks for a reconsideration of the institution of children’s literature. She writes that

[m]uch of the work of the institution [of English] has been [...] a process of exclusion. The canon of great books by great authors has been important not only for what it affirms – the value and the coherence of admissible readings of those works it recognizes. [...] The relegation of certain authors, of particular texts and [...] specific textual practices helps to police the boundary of truth. Texts which are most obviously difficult to recuperate, which most obviously challenge conservative assumptions about race, class, or gender, have been systematically marginalized as “flawed,” or banished from view [...] as inadequate [...]. (552)

35This argument is not foreign to the world of children’s literature studies. For instance, as Peter Hunt notes in his Criticism, Theory, and Children’s Literature,

although the list of accepted ‘major’ authors who have contributed to children’s literature is, perhaps, surprising, it is no accident that you can look in vain through many major critical works on these authors for mention of their work for the young. Among these authors are Hardy, Joyce, Woolf, Dickens, Thackeray, Wilde, Huxley, Ruskin, Eliot, Greene, Rossetti, Day Lewis, Twain, Masefield, Graves, and Jefferies. This is an impressive list, but not if their writing for children is dismissed as being necessarily inferior. [...] [I]f ‘literary merit’ is in the eye of the literary establishment, then no textual evidence is admissible. (19)

36Fighting against the conservatism and the prejudices that have shaped English as an academic discipline, Belsey argues for an approach to the institution of English which would tend towards what she calls ‘cultural history’, a new institution that would ‘refuse nothing’ and that would take ‘all signifying practices as its domain.’ (553) As she wishes the institution of English to shift its focus from what one could call ‘traditional literature’ towards a greater variety of texts (what Belsey calls ‘signifying practices’), I wish the institution of children’s literature to follow a similar move. And this is the very reason why I just argued that the notion of ‘literature’ is insignificant as far as my thoughts are concerned. I just wish the notion of literature, quite similarly to Belsey, to remain polymorphous and tend towards what I could also call textual signifying practices. Children’s literatures are the texts written by children; and here, the notion of ‘text’ is also rather unstable, and, therefore, essentially polymorphous.

37This argument, which wishes to broaden the domain of English studies (in Belsey’s case) and children’s literature studies (in my case) also finds some echoes in what Perry Nodelman writes in his “The Other: Orientalism, Colonialism, and Children’s Literature”. He argues:

I find it hard to imagine a world in which children have the right to vote, serve on juries, and control their own destinies. But then I remind myself of all the people in recent history who found it hard to imagine a world in which women [...] could do these same things.
Treating children as if they were really just human beings like the rest of us might have some specific consequences unfortunate for readers of [The Children’s Literature Association Quarterly]: it might mean the end of something specifically identified as children’s literature. It might do us out of a job.(1992: 34)

38Even if I find it hard to imagine a world where children have the same rights as adults (or do I?), I nonetheless think that adults should constantly rethink their dominant position as regards that of children. And as far as the literatures children produce are concerned, I believe that they could be given equivalent attention as that given to the literatures that adults write (for children). If not, I want to ask: why not? Can we not learn from what children produce in terms of texts? As a man is different from a woman, a child is different from an adult: what can we learn from that difference?

39Personally, I do not find it hard to imagine that the domain of children’s literature studies will eventually open its doors to the constructive child and that more studies (following the work of lona and Peter Opie, as well as the implicit institutional reconsiderations present in Hunt, Zipes, Rudd, and Nodelman, for instance), that is, books, articles, surveys, courses, Ph.D.s, and so on, will become available on what children do produce in terms of literature. Children’s literatures do exist and should therefore, I believe, be considered as part of children’s literature studies, and not only as marginalia as is usually the case. Their cultural existence and importance should be acknowledged and studied. Following the Opies’s research and Belsey’s theoretical argument, I believe that focusing on children’s practices would enable us to interpret children’s varying subject positions and engage with them. One sometimes wonders why children are most likely to reproduce heteronormative discourses as far as gender is concerned, thus ‘othering’ gay and lesbian practices (see Mitchell; see also Epstein), and why there is ‘a high correlation between the adjectives and traditional ideals of masculine and feminine: [for instance,] pretty, delicate, sweet [are traditionally attributed to females]; [and] practical, robust, jaunty [are traditionally attributed to males]’? (Belsey 2003: n. p.)

40In a similar way, focusing on children’s own literatures, one will surely be led to wonder about many other things which, because of the fact that they are kept silent, are so far ignored and, consequently, unknown. And because a childist reconsideration of the institution of children’s literature leads us to ask such questions as regards what children produce, it could also lead us to engage with the reality that the institution of children’s literature seems reluctant to accept and see. Extending the sort of questioning I just suggested above, one could therefore also wonder why and how children tend to perpetuate the sort of schemas Margery Hourihan’s Deconstructing the Hero denounces – for instance, a situation where a passive girl awaits for her prince charming to rescue her (197-202). This could also lead us to see how one could resist such phenomena. As subjects we are located within certain discourses (discourses about gender, race, economics, and so on): this constitutes our constructed and constructive self (see Rudd forthcoming; see also Lecercle and Shusterman 36). Catherine Belsey’s argument suggests that addressing our – or, in our case, children’s – subject positions has important pedagogical implications. She writes that

our own position as individuals is [not] determined for us in advance: that too is a site of struggle, of subjections and resistances. There are choices constantly to be made, but they are political choices of subject-position [...]. And perhaps this above all [has some] pedagogic and political importance [...]. The project, then, is a history of meanings, and struggles for meaning, in every place where meanings can be found – or made. Its focus is on change, cultural difference and the relativity of truth. And its purpose is to change the subject, involving ourselves as practitioners in the political and pedagogic process of making history, in both senses of the phrase. (561-562)

41Children’s own literatures should be part of Catherine Belsey’s project, for studying children’s own literatures could allow critics to reflect on children’s own cultures, and enable us to reflect on children’s own constructive subject positions. As Rudd insists, therefore, ‘it should be emphasised that all [these literatures come] from reworking the discourses around them, through which children negotiate their social and embodied positioning.’ (forthcoming)

42The notion of children’s literatures, the way I have approached it, from the angle of childist criticism, can provide us with considerable insights into the cultures of childhood. For instance, as lona and Peter Opie’s work often argues and demonstrates, it can enable us to realise that ‘the remarkable feature of schoolchild lore is how comparatively little it alters considering the usage it receives.’ (1959: 11) What interests me, as far as their work is concerned, is not so much the content of their research – which, to a great extent, also relies on issues of constructivism – but more the epistemological possibilities it offers. As they focus on specific playground rhymes, for instance, they realise that studying the language used by children as part of their games can help in the understanding of the certain historical linguistic transformations or, and sometimes surprisingly, linguistic perpetuations. About dialectal lore, for example, they write that

[i]t belongs to all time, but is limited in locality. It is so timeworn indeed that it cannot be dated, and words of which Shakespeare would have known the meaning, as ‘cog’, ‘lag’, and ‘miching’, are, in their particular districts, still common parlance; while the language which children use to regulate their relationships with each other, such as their terms for claiming, securing precedence, and making a truce, vary from one part of the country to another, and can in some instances be shown to have belonged to their present localities not merely for the past two or three generations, but for centuries, (ibid. 14-15)

43In contrast, and about some other precise examples they observed over their years of investigation, they also write that

regional variation in the children’s dialectal lore has been as unexpected as the slavish uniformity of their slang lore; and when the children’s customs and superstitious practices are examined, in particular their calendar customs, the regional differences are remarkable. While some children role eggs at Easter, or nettle the legs of classmates on the twenty-ninth of May, or leave little gifts on people’s doorsteps on St. Valentine’s Day, or act under the delusion that they arc above the law on the night on 4 November, other children, sometimes living only the other side of a hill, will have no knowledge of these activities. It is not perhaps of much consequence that in different part of England children have different ritual ways of disposing of their milk teeth, that there are no more than sixty names for the illegal pursuit of knocking at doors and running away, that in some places walking under a ladder can be lucky and seeing a black cat can be unlucky, and that some children make fools on the first of May with more zeal than on the first of April; but the children’s loyalty to local customs and forms of speech is at least evidence that the young in Britain do not take as their authority only what they hear or see on the wireless and television and at the cinema, (ibid.)

44What is interesting to notice is that whereas some certain customs are maintained, some others are not. Gaining insight into children’s cultures enables these cultures to be addressed. And within the potential publicity of these cultures resides the possibility of criticism. In an essay on gay and lesbian literature for children and young adults, Claudia Mitchell quotes Deborah Britzman:

Educators would significantly benefit from acquainting themselves with the field of gay and lesbian studies, not because it would access some distant other, but more immediately, reading gay and lesbian scholarship, representations, and expressions might compel a second look at one’s own constructed sexuality and a different look at what it is that structures how the sexuality of another is imagined. (112)

45A better understanding of children and childhood, for more appropriate pedagogical practices, which could engage us in some quite fascinating debates, especially as regards the interrelations between the notion of respect, culture, education, and democracy, something which calls for more time, space, and consideration within the institution of cultural criticism and children’s literature studies in a truly post-modern twenty-first century.



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ANGELIDES Steven, “Feminism, Child Sexual Abuse, and the Erasure of Child Sexuality” in Gay and Lesbian Quarterly 10, 2, 2004. p. 141-177

BARTHES Roland, Mythologies. Paris, Editions du Seuil, 1957.

BELSEY Catherine, “Towards Cultural History” in A Postmodern Reader, Natoli Joseph, Hutcheon Linda (eds.). Albany, State University of New York Press, 1993. p. 551-567

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———, Peter Hunt. “Childist Criticism Revisited: A Room of One’s Own” (unpublished essay)

CLARK Beverly Lyon, Kiddie Lit – The Cultural Construction of Children’s of Children’s Literature in America. Baltimore, The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003.

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———, L’Université sans condition. Paris, Editions Galilée, 2001.

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HOURIHAN Margery, Deconstructing the Hero – Literary Theory and Children’s Literature. London, Routledge, 1997.

HUNT Peter, Criticism, Theory, and Children’s Literature. Oxford, Blackwell, 1991 (a).

———, “The Decline and Decline of the Children’s Book? The Problems of Adults Reading Children’s Books and What Can Be Done About Them” in Children’s Literature and Contemporary Theory, Michael Stone (ed.). Wollongong, University of Wollongong Press, 1991 (b). pp. 1-14

———, “Futures for Children’s Literature: Evolution or Radical Break?” in Cambridge Journal of Education 30, 1. Cambridge, Cambridge School of Education, 2000. pp. 111-119

LESNIK-OBERSTEIN Karín, Children’s Literature – Criticism and the Fictional Child. Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1994.

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MITCHELL Claudia, ““What’s Out There?” Gay and Lesbian Literature for Children and Young Adults” in Lesbian and Gay Studies and the Teaching of English-Positions, Pedagogies and Cultural Politics, William Spurlin (ed.). Urbana, Illinois, National Council of Teachers of English, 2000. pp. 112-130

NODELMAN Perry, “The Other: Orientalism, Colonialism, and Children’s Literature” in Children’s Literature Association Quarterly 17, 1, 1992. pp. 29-35

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———, Children’s Games in Street and Playground. London, Oxford University Press, 1969.

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Said Edward, Orientalism. London, Penguin Books, 1995 (1978).

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1 I would like to dedicate this essay to Claudine Raynaud, Peter Vernon, Philip Lahey, and Thomas Dutoit whose passion for literature has had a major impact upon my thinking.


Cardiff University, Wales – UK
Vit et travaille à Londres. Il est chercheur en littérature enfantine et en théories littéraires à l’Université de Cardiff. Il est membre de l'Association Française de Recherche sur les Livres et Objets Culturels de l'Enfance (Université de Paris XIII), ainsi que de l’International Research Society in Children’s Literature. Il est aussi Reviews Editor pour The Journal of Children's Literature Studies. Parmi ses publications sont New Voices in Children's Literature Criticism, ainsi qu'une série d’articles traitant de la critique enfantiste.

© Presses universitaires François-Rabelais, 2007

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