TLG 14.2 Introduction

Frame of Reference


David Beagley

Recently reported research [1] suggests that children growing up in homes with many books are likely to get 3 years more schooling than children from book-less homes, regardless of their parents’ education, occupation, or class. This difference is as great an advantage to those children as having university educated rather than unschooled parents, and twice the advantage of having a professional rather than an unskilled father. Not only that, it is consistent internationally; it holds equally in rich nations and in poor; in the past and in the present; under Communism, capitalism, and even Apartheid.

Of course we all knew that! Yet it is good to have it demonstrated in full, scientifically researched terms. The next step, obviously, is to work out why.

Is it that these children grow up seeing reading as a normal and essential everyday activity, modeled by caring adults? Do they have access to more information for homework and, by achieving success there, apply themselves more enthusiastically at school? Could it be that children’s quirky whims and fancies for knowledge and understanding are more easily satisfied by serendipitous searching of what is to hand? Perhaps the same desire in parents to have books filling the house drives them to persist with (and make sacrifices for) their children’s schooling.

Whatever the reason(s) the link is there. More books = more schooling = more successful children growing into adults.

Yet it is not just in didactic or literacy terms that children’s and YA books demonstrate just how fundamental they are to the socialization of their readers and the building of their personal and social identities. As I note, in the review of Dennis Butts’ new critical text Children’s Literature and Social Change, children, childhood and children’s literature are not created in a vacuum, but are affected by the historical and political tenor of their times. The adults who create, publish, promote and purchase children’s literature may intend a specific learning or cultural experience when they construct the story or its reading; but, for better or worse, they are opening up the wider world to those young readers and they cannot avoid the sub-texts and nuances of a broader social awareness.

All the articles in this issue emphasize this precept. As Alice’s Academy editor Caroline Jones explains in her introduction, both the feature articles this issue consider not just how sensitive and adult concepts may be demonstrated in young readers’ literature but how contentious issues may be voiced. In both these articles marginalization in society is the focus yet both also suggest that young readers should not be patronized with simplistic approaches to ‘serious’ social issues.

Brooke Collins-Gearing and Dianne Osland consider political representation in their “Who will save us from the rabbits?: rewriting the past allegorically”, drawing on Australia’s colonial and post-colonial situation. The Rabbits, by John Marsden and Shaun Tan, is an award-winning and powerful text that offers an experience of colonization and invasion. Collins-Gearing and Osland look at whether the social divisions that such history creates might be so ingrained that a text like this actually might reinforce them.

Jennifer Miskec and Katherine G. Schmidt explore how formal religious belief is (or is not) represented in their “Catholicism in YA Literature: A Theological Perspective.” Through a study of several texts, they highlight how the common socially constructed divide between secular avoidance of spirituality and overly proselytizing evangelism might be bridged.

In Emerging Voices, Rebecca Lennon examines the definite instructional intention of the Dora the Explorer television programs and spin-offs through their claimed interactive and participatory structure, but argues that the child reader/viewer’s experience is actually passive and predetermined. The lack of engagement inherent in the mass medium in which the show is presented creates a distance between the viewer and the story or educational experience.

Both our reviews focus on the history of literature and children’s reading. As already mentioned, Dennis Butts takes a broad sweep through social change, in his essays on features of British publishing of the last 2 centuries - Children’s Literature and Social Change: some case studies from Barbara Hofland to Phillip Pullman. The beautifully produced Bottersnikes and Other Lost Things: a celebration of Australian illustrated children's books shows a century of change in style, content and attitudes.

When John Donne wrote “No man is an island” he could not have imagined the connectedness of the digital world. In his society, the printed book was still a novelty for many. Yet it was just as true in Donne’s time as it is now that no child exists in isolation. While many might be isolated by adult choices, books and stories are still there as a bridge for them to the wider world. The more young readers have them, and use them, and are encouraged to value them, the better those young lives will be.



1. Evans, M.D.R., et al. "Family scholarly culture and educational success: Books and schooling in 27 nations." Research in Social Stratification and Mobility 28.2 (2010): 171-97. Print.


David Beagley

Volume 14, Issue 2 The Looking Glass,May/June 2010

Site design and content, except where noted, © The Looking Glass 2010.
"Frame of Reference - Introduction" © David Beagley, 2010
Send general correspondence regarding The Looking Glass c/o The Editor

The Looking Glass: new perspectives on children's literature

ISBN 1551-5680