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John Holbo - Editor
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Amardeep Singh
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Thursday, June 08, 2006

Kiddie Lit

Posted by Bill Benzon on 06/08/06 at 10:07 PM

Two or three years ago I read Kiddie Lit:  The Cultural Construction of Children’s Literature in America by Beverly Lyon Clark. I had just gotten interested in manga and anime and figured that, as many titles are produced for children, that scholarship on children’s literature would be useful. I was attracted to Clark’s book because it addressed the institutionalization of children’s literature, which I figured would help me think about the institutional landscape in which manga and anime must make their way in America, along with homegrown comics, graphic novels, and cartoons.

Clark argues, and demonstrates, that our (that is, American) fairly firm distinction between adult literature and children’s literature did not exist in 19th century America (probably not in the UK either).  Writers would write for both children and adults, the reviewers would review (what we now think of as) children’s books as well as (what we now think of as) adult books. And magazines such as The Atlantic Monthly assumed their audience included children as well as adults.

As one case study, Clark considers Mark Twain, in particular, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.  These days we think of Huckleberry Finn as an adult book and Tom Sawyer as a boys book.  But that distinction was not a firm one for Twain and his contemporaries.  In his own statements on both books Twain vacillated in his sense of his audience and so did his reviewers.  Similarly, Louisa May Alcott and her audience did not think of Little Women as a specifically girls book.  It was a book that could be read with pleasure and edification by both children and adults.  In fact, at the time, some considered it a mark of excellence that a book was accessible to children as well as to adults.

The move to differentiate the adult from the children’s audience came in the first and second quarters of the 20th century and succeeded so well that we now assume it without question.  And children’s literature has been, for the most part, marginalized.

Clark devotes her final chapter to Disney.  She makes the point that prior to the 40s Disney and his work was quite highly regarded in intellectual circles.  Some even thought his cartoons were more aesthetically significant than contemporary live-action films.  She also points out that anyone going to the movies assumed they would see cartoons before the feature. It didn’t make any difference whether the feature was a light-hearted comedy or a serious drama, you’d see cartoons first.  Cartoons became children’s fare, she argues, after WWII and as a side-effect of TV, which made it easier to develop niche audiences.  Families went to the movies, but it was easy to let kids watch cartoons on TV while mother went about her duties elsewhere in the house.  As for Disney, Clark argues that opinion turned on him when he introduced human figures into his cartoons (with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in the later 1930s, his first feature-length film).

One issue looms large: How can we properly value children’s literature?  Is the study of children’s literature a proper part of the general study of literature or should it remain the province of schools of education and developmental psychologists?


Comments

Two things:

First, I absolutely agree with you on the marginalization of children’s literature, and how sad that is. Take a look at any newspaper or magazine’s book review pages and see how many pages are devoted to children’s lit. Then compare that to the relative book sales of kids and adults literature.

Second, the fragmentation continues. Young Adult is a distinct market, apparently, but is it a meaningful way of thinking about books? I don’t think so.

And third, because no one expects the Spanish Inquisition, let’s just say that when I think of the books that have most influenced me, or the books I’ve re-re-re-read, not many of them are from my adulthood.

As for “how can we properly value children’s lit?”—well, it looks to me like that’s a bit coy and you have a pretty strong opinion there, and I agree with you.

By tom s. on 06/08/06 at 11:31 PM | Permanent link to this comment

It’s great that you brought this up. I’ve thought about the question before while I was reading Alice in Wonderland for a Lit class a few years ago.
At first, I didn’t see a reason to separate children’s lit from general lit. Children and adults experience different levels of appreciation while reading a piece of work, but doesn’t a literary work stand on its own? But then I realize the problem in that. When academics study general lit for example, they tend to look at it like adults would and the child’s perspective is neglected. The child’s point of view however would be taken up in the realm of education and developmental psychology. It all depends on what the researcher is looking for in a text. The text remains the same but the reader chooses his/her own field, based on disciplinary frameworks.

On another note, I’m curious as to why Disney’s audience did not favour his depiction of human figures.

By Fadzilah on 06/09/06 at 12:53 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I just came across an interesting piece about the importance of manga in the lives of Japanese girls. Here’s a summary statement:

Through countless discussions with readers, as well as with artists, editors and retailers, and through my own experiences, I have identified a number of features in the way readers engage with shôjo manga that make the genre important to them in ways that transcend simple entertainment: it is a “long engagement” . . .  that can only be fully understood in the context of a reader’s biography; it is a vehicle for a reader to define her individual identity; it is a vehicle for socializing that binds friends and family members; it provides a frame of reference, a repertoire of idioms through which a reader can interpret and model experience; it can be a source of inspiration and catharsis; and its nature has changed subtly over decades in response to broader historical changes.

By Bill Benzon on 06/09/06 at 11:40 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Aren’t we talking about the place of the roman as much as children’s litterature?

My chronology is fuzzy : was the roman already in the 19th a matter serious enough, and a form popular enough for authors to differenciate adult and children audiences?

Oulipian homework : include the anti spam code into your reply.

By on 06/09/06 at 04:38 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I don’t know about the Americans, but the German book industry in the 19th century certainly had a special children’s genre. This beautiful, digitilized library of the University of Oldenberg allows you to go through a good selection of old illustrated books: http://www.bis.uni-oldenburg.de/retrodig/. The English ones look very much like children’s literature to me.

Children’s literature is not, of course, only read by children. It is assigned by teachers, it is read by parents to children, it creeps by a hundred ways into the adult world. But the texts, the pictures, the imaginary addressee, are all child oriented—that is, the child is the primary consumer. And in the lives of the great nineteenth century chidren’s writers, like Hans Christian Anderson, there are distinct markers that indicate that Anderson separated certain of his texts, which he wrote for adults, (like the Improvisatore) from certain of his other texts, which he wrote for children. (Granted, that he wrote the Red Slippers for Children does indicate a certain odd idea of child appropriateness).

By roger on 06/09/06 at 05:55 PM | Permanent link to this comment

My take on this is somewhat similar to that of tom s. - albeit, I don’t agree w/the “coy” bit. Much of my very favourite literature is (still) that which I read when young (some “children’s books”, some not)...however, I don’t think the developmental issues can be swept under the carpet.

I’d suggest that the most fruitful way to approach these is probably via Kieran Egan’s work - my review here: http://www.thenewhumanities.net/books/Book%20Reviews5.html - as he is highly insightful re the trade-offs we necessarily make in developing our analytical perspectives on the world.

Still, I would also suggest that those of us who keep one foot firmly in the world of “kiddie lit” probably trade-off less than most...which makes it a real shame that this balancing act isn’t more actively promoted…

Oh...and re Disney - the highbrow appreciation of his work was actually already in decline before “Snow White”...as it was built upon the notion that animation was genuine world-creation, and the gradual gentrification of Disney cartoons throughout the 30s made it increasingly evident that said world was getting closer & closer to the conventional. Try watching any very early Mickey Mouse cartoon, and then follow it with any from a few years later, and you’ll easily understand what the critics were on about. And, if you want a genuinely insightful book on American theatrical animation, the best (by far, and I speak as a fan) is Norman M. Klein’s “Seven Minutes:the life & death of the American animated cartoon”.

By John Henry Calvinist on 06/10/06 at 12:52 PM | Permanent link to this comment

In asking how we “properly value children’s literature” I didn’t mean to be coy, but I was unclear. The question wasn’t a personal one, it was an institutional one. Schools of education have a perfectly good rationale for the study of children’s literature, and there are lots of textbooks on the subject. So do developmental psychologists, many of whom are schools of education. Beyond that one can certainly justify the study of children’s literature on more general grounds. It’s part of our culture and it plays an important role in people’s lives. So, let’s study it.

What does it mean to put children’s literature in the canon along with Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, Pope, Austen, Flaubert and so on? What about an aesthetics of children’s literature?

By Bill Benzon on 06/10/06 at 04:52 PM | Permanent link to this comment

My non-literary background is obviously showing. I see what you mean now. Thanks for explaining, both BB and JHC.

By tom s. on 06/10/06 at 11:33 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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