Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Is Children’s Literature Moving Beyond the Pedagogical?

I'll start with a quote from Peter Hunt’s essay, “Children’s Literature”:

“Children’s literature” is a term used to describe both a set of texts and an academic discipline—and it is often regarded as an oxymoron.  If “children” commonly connotes immaturity, and “literature” commonly connotes sophistication in texts and reading, then the two terms may seem to be incompatible.” (42)

Over the past few days, I’ve been thinking about the line drawn by academics between “adult” literature and “children’s” literature.  I’m a bit perplexed by the idea that one of the reason children’s literature is considered inferior by some is because they believe that it’s pedagogical nature trumps all, if any, aesthetic qualities it may hold.

I started thinking more in depth about this the last few days because I’ve been reading essays in Phil Nel and Lissa Paul’s “Keywords for Children’s Literature”, in this post I’ll mostly be addressing issues that were raised in Peter Hunt’s essay. 

“A defining characteristic of children’s literature is that it intends to teach what it means for girls to be girls and boys to be boys,” Hunt writes, quoting Perry Nodelman.  This implies that all texts written for children have the intention of serving as pedagogical texts for children, that their main intent is to teach children how to be children.  And perhaps this was so in the past; but does this statement really still hold today?  

Moreover, in the “sophisticated” world of so-called adult literature (the stuff you study in English classes in college for, example) are we as adults so past learning and simply perfect that we can merely view these texts as objects of pleasure and aestheticism?  I would say no, since life is a journey of continual learning and so even in this sophisticated literature we are still learning, we are sill being exposed to different perspectives and broadening our understanding of who we are as individuals and of the world we view through the lens of the novel; we are learning how to be people. 

However, it is evident that in this literature aimed at adults, the learning that inherently comes from reading does not negate the pleasure of living in the written word, the aesthetic nature of the work.  So why is it that in children’s literature, the fact that children are learning something seems to overpower the aesthetics of the written word?

Is it perhaps that we still believe that authors who write for children are intentionally intending to “teach” children and impart lessons to them?  I would think that most authors of children’s or young adult books, if asked, would say that there were no specific lessons they were try to teach to their readers, they were just writing a story just like any author and their story happened to appeal to younger readers, perhaps because their main character was also a young person.

I’m also interested in this idea of the “hidden adult” that thus makes children’s literature lesser or perhaps incapable of truly existing according to Nodelman and Jacqueline Rose among others…  Don’t almost all children have adults in their lives?  Does this fact make their lives any less theirs?  I think this idea that the “hidden adult” found in most children’s books makes them “belong” to children less, whether it’s actual adult characters or the narrator or the author, is odd.  Moreover, it seems this stems from the stereotype that has thrived especially in American and perhaps Western culture more generally, that children dislike authority figures, especially their parents.  Thus this feeds the idea that since children’s books feature this “hidden adult”, children are not able to own the literature they’re reading, that they are dependent on these adults.  Especially in terms of the child reader’s dependence on their adult author, aren’t all of us as readers dependent on our authors, whatever age they or we are?  Yet adult books are not accused of not belonging to their readers.

ALL literature is trying to teach and enlighten; however this is equal to its stylistic qualities and aesthetics.  Aren’t all those “classics” we read throughout high school and college conveying themes/lessons, at least one?  And yet we don’t question their artistic sophistication.  However in children’s books where authors and illustrators are testing the limits of their craft, where they are experimenting, where they are also imparting universal themes (although the term theme is usually replaced with didactic lessons), many throw out any artistic merit and focus on the fact that they unfortunately supposedly “carry a burden of perceived simplicity that sets them outside the complexities we associate with literature for adults” (Hunt quoting Roderick McGillis, 42).

Literature is literature.  There is good literature and bad literature.  However why build more barriers, why refute a work’s merit simply because it’s audience happens to be children…children who happen to, at times, perceive literature better than we “adults” can.

 "I have written eleven books for grownups and ten for children.  I like to write for children.  I think they are the best readers."
          ~Isaac Bashevis Singer

(And I won’t even delve into the phenomena of so many adults choosing to read children’s books, not for their children, not for didactic purposes but in order to find pleasure in it for themselves)

Also, would love to hear others thoughts on this...


  1. What thoughtful work, Jessica! I'm going to Facebook it!

  2. You make excellent points.

    I love your final statement about barriers.

  3. Thanks for such an interesting post, Jess - I really enjoyed reading it and will definitely be sharing it!
    I like the fact that you highlighted the simple distinction between 'good literature' and 'bad literature' and I agree that this is perhaps a more useful way of organising texts in this context than trying to separate them according to their intended audience.
    As you rightly identify, many adults - myself included - choose to read children's books for their own merit as well as to entertain (and I chose that word quite specifically over 'teach') young children.
    In picture books, I enjoy the illustrations in a different way now that I'm also able to understand the immense talent required to produce them. I appreciate the way the words intertwine with the pictures to potentially layer subtly different meanings upon the story depending upon the experiences and mood of the reader.
    However, most of all, in 'good' children's literature, whether it be illustrated or not, I am especially in awe of the word and grammar choices the author has had to make in every single sentence. Of course, I am aware that all 'adult' authors make complicated decisions about which words to include and how to phrase certain things, as well as the fact that they all engage in an intense editing process for each book that they create. It could be said, though, that are they are given more licence to express themselves in the language they choose, which is a wonderful thing, but they aren't necessarily subject to quite the same constraints as children's authors when it comes to the number or type of words they write.
    I suppose I would use the analogy of a well written blog post and a well written tweet. Both can be artfully and eloquently done, but the restriction on the number of characters in the tweet will potentially require more thought when it comes to choosing exactly the right words, punctuation and other devices used for emphasis (hashtags, emoticons, asterisks, etc).
    I also think that both children's and adult's books can be used for teaching, both implicitly and explicitly. My elder son currently adores a 'Topsy and Tim' book about safety risks around the home, which is quite clearly teaching him something. However, both my children and I also enjoy many stories with no overt message but which always manage to spark discussion. In fact, I am genuinely struggling to think of any 'good' book that *doesn't* convey some message about life, however light-hearted it might be.
    As you say, adults are not perfect and are always able to adjust and reevaluate their thinking and their behaviour according to books they read, films they watch, people they talk to, and so on. It would be sad if we were so set in our ways that we couldn't engage in a lively argument (whether it be with a real-life person or a character in a book) and be persuaded to change our mind from time to time.
    For all of us, stories are a brilliant way to access the world and to understand emotions and ideas that we might struggle to discuss in direct relation to our own lives. The fact that children's books can make me laugh, cry and question things tells me that in my opinion, they are most definitely 'good' literature. I know nostalgia plays a part in why I like revisiting books from my own childhood, but I also know that I see different things in them now that I'm an adult and I often empathise with different elements of the story now.
    Anyway, all this rambling is merely my long-winded way of saying that I agree with you wholeheartedly that good books are good books, no matter what the age of the reader at which they're aimed!

    1. Wow! Thank you, thank you, thank you for such a thoughtful comment! I of course agree with everything you said :) The biggest thing for me is the idea that for some reason children's books would be considered lesser because they are didactic, which they are all not didactic in that negative connotation of the word. However adults books have as much to "teach" as do children's books and I agree that both do it in implicit and explicit ways, because life what is it if not a continue journey of learning and discover and seeing things through new perspectives!

      So thank you again for taking the time to read my post and for writing such a thoughtful comment!

  4. Dear Jess,

    great job! I'm a portuguese student, currently doing a PhD in Children's Books.

    I had to write a paper on "Children's Literature: Art or Pedagogy?" and didn't know where to begin... I googled the subject and I came across your blog!
    I got some inspiration and you just earned a follower ;)

    Thank you so much!!

    1. Hi Isabel!

      Thank you so much for your message!! I'm so glad that my blog could be of some help. Hope your paper writing went well. Good luck with the rest of your PhD! Are you doing it here in the States? Children's Lit is one of the fields I'm considering going into if I finally decide that I will continue on after a Masters and get a PhD.

      Thanks again for stopping by and for becoming a follower of the blog :)