TLG 11.3 Editorial

Frame of Reference

The Looking Glass, Volume 11, Issue 3, 2007

Editorial Essay – Discovering Children's Literature: A Personal Journey

David Beagley

David Beagley lectures in Children's Literature and Literacy in the School of Education at La Trobe University's Bendigo campus, Victoria, Australia. He has also experienced children's literature as a high school teacher, a librarian, a book reviewer and a parent.

I am almost inclined to set it up as a canon that a children’s story that is enjoyed only by children is a bad children’s story.  The good ones last.  (CS Lewis – “On Three Ways of Writing Children”)

When did I first become interested in children’s literature?  Tricky question.  Does it mean when did I first notice children’s literature, or when did I first study children’s literature, or when did children’s literature first fascinate me? 

Notice?  One of my earliest memories is my mother taking my brothers and me to the State Library of South Australia on North Terrace, Adelaide, on Saturday mornings and my wonder that all these books were there, and for me!  My visit to Paris, decades later, was largely informed by the images from then of Bemelman’s Madeleine.  I have not yet been to Africa to look for Babar.

And then I discovered Biggles!  Ah, the far horizons that Johns’ hero opened up for me, the excitement, the adventure, even the aircraft.  The planes were the real characters to me, not the wooden stereotypes that sat in their pilot seats, and they took me everywhere!

But the education system soon had hold of me and, while an occasional teacher or librarian would smile approvingly at my voracious reading, essays and analysis and critical understandings gradually imposed their demands.  So, I moved on to Study.

Thankfully, as I saw little connection between those demands and my real reading, they had little impact.  Still, university brought some eye-openers.  TS Eliot, WH Auden and the soldier poets of World War One suddenly made sense of structural analysis; Beowulf, the Wanderer, and Old English studies opened startling new horizons, just like Biggles ten years earlier.  And of course, there was Tolkien!

But such self-indulgences were soon subsumed by the professional imperatives of teaching and, later, librarianship.  So, I made others study and all the big words tripped off my tongue: form, structure, narrative, character voice, authorial voice, symbol, metaphor, hyperbole, onomatopoeia (and how to spell it!), post-modern, post-structural, post-millenial, inner realities and outer realities.  I spoke with the tongue of Expert!

But when did I realise that there was something going on here that was bigger, much bigger than me?  As with so many of our Great Realizations, it took another to open my eyes.

I can trace my Fascination with children’s literature to the year that my daughter was 7, going on 8. 

Being the dutiful parent (and Expert setting the example) I had read with her, night after night, since she could sit up listening.  We shared the pages, one reading out loud to the other, in turn.  Dr Seuss’ rhymes gave way to Sendak’s wild things and Waddell’s Little Bear, Anna Fienberg’s marvellous Tashi took us adventuring, as gradually my daughter read more and I read less.  And then, when she was 7, going on 8, a big change took place.

She wanted more.  Not just more books, more characters, more ticks on her reading list, but more IN the books.  She wanted more substance, she wanted more meaning; she wanted to be challenged.  She wanted to READ.

So we browsed the library shelves for the latest older-child/young-teen best reads with the substance and the more words and pages that she wanted.  Plenty on dealing with the school bully, plenty on the first stirrings of young love, plenty on dealing with new town/new step-parent/new social problem.

But she was 7, going on 8!  She was just not interested in the issues of early adolescence.  We tried a few, but they fell flat.  So, “Daddy, what can I read?” with the unspoken addendum “You are the Expert, you should know, I trust you!”  And Daddy was taken aback.

For years I had been teaching how the experience of a story is a conversation between author and reader, and how the proposals of one and the interpretations of the other create the whole.  But now I was looking at it in action and I was not in charge.  The authors were proposing what they saw as what kids want/should have, and this determined little reader did not want it.  So, I sought help from other experts.  At a conference, I asked some authors what they might suggest for a reader, 7 going on 8, keen for substance.  Many gave advice, mostly self-promotion of their latest young reader titles.  But one, James Moloney, said something so obviously sensible, “I have two daughters just a little older and they felt the same.  I will ask them!”

And when the list came from the Moloneys, young Miss 7, going on 8, led Daddy the Expert through stories that still make him shake his head at how he missed them.  For we went through Narnia, and to Neverland and Wonderland and Oz, we lived in Little Houses on prairies and boated under the Willows with Ratty and Mole, we got spots for leopards and trunks for elephants (“Oh, my best beloved!”) and we waved to the trains with the Railway Children.  We read the Classics, together.

And here my Fascination began.  We read the Classics, and we enjoyed them.  But our enjoyments were very different.  Young Miss 7 found the new and exciting worlds, with the substance she craved – vocabulary, characters, times, places, events – while the Expert (ticking off the “Good Books I Should Read … One Day” list) wondered at what the stories were saying to him – the continuities of the human condition, the sympathy and indignation and hope that we can feel for a fictional character, the beautiful surprise of a poetic phrase.  We looked at the same thing, her through her eyes, I through mine, and saw different things.  They were related, of course, but I suddenly felt for what I had lost.  Had I grown too old for children’s literature? CS Lewis again:

Those of us who are blamed when old for reading childish books were blamed when children for reading books too old for us. No reader worth his salt trots along in obedience to a time-table. (Lewis, p. 28)

This is the nub of the Fascination.  What IS children’s Literature?  What makes one book a children’s book and another an adult book?  When I read the one, must I read as a child while the other must be seen only in adult terms?  Lewis would say “Not at all!”  Arguing the definition of growth, he took the direct replacement of one’s enjoyment of children’s literature by “grown-up” literature as simple change, not proper growth.  Growing involves expansion and development, not just substitution.  Learning to like wine as an adult, he said, should not stop one continuing to enjoy lemon squash.

Even if it were merely a taste for grown-up literature added to an unchanged taste for children’s literature, addition would still be entitled to the name ‘growth’, and the process of merely dropping one parcel when you pick up another would not. (Lewis, p. 26)

Certainly, our reading matures as we do.  We know more words to allow for shades of meaning, we have more life experience to give contexts, and we should have read many more books to provide comparisons.  But watching my daughter’s eyes shine with the delight of discovery showed me, more than anything, what should define children’s literature.

The adult world’s view of the purpose of children’s literature is framed as the Great Dichotomy: Education or Entertainment?  If it is not the one, it must be the other, or it must maintain a healthy and appropriate balance of the two.  Children’s literature, written by adults, published by adults, reviewed and promoted by adults, must serve The Purpose.

Education?  Child readers are to learn of the world around them, they can explore its possibilities and be exposed to its good and bad sides, they are inoculated against later emotional and moral turmoil by small doses of vicarious experience.  Their language, their judgement skills, their social awareness can all be trained and developed and grown away from the natural propensities of childhood.  At least, that is how it is supposed to happen.  “Childish” is a negative to adults.

From the time of John Bunyan and his cautionary tales of Puritanism, writers for children have been mindful of the effect their work would have on their young, tender readers.  The young must be formed into the image of the adult, as if childhood is some nasty foreign place from which they must be helped to escape. 

Perry Nodelman examines this wonderfully in postcolonial terms by describing childhood as a state of otherness that is inherently adult-centred – we encourage in children those values and behaviours that make children easier for us to handle.

“… child psychology and children's literature are primarily for the benefit of adults. … we write books for children to provide them with values and with images of themselves we approve of or feel comfortable with.” (Nodelman, p. 30)

Childhood is a dangerous place for adults with its lure of child-ish-ness, “childlike irrationality, lawlessness or carelessness is attractively lax, a temptation to be less responsible, less mature, less adult.” (Nodelman, p. 31).  It is easy for adults to ‘go native’ and that must be resisted.  Better that we should bring the natives to ‘the light’ of adulthood!

“… our attempting to speak for and about children in these ways will always confirm their difference from, and presumably, inferiority to, ourselves as thinkers and speakers.” (Nodelman, p. 29)

Nodelman describes the colonisation of childhood by adults and it is difficult to argue against the similarities in paternalism, evangelism and exploitation (Shrek merchandise anyone?)

Does this make The Purpose of Education in children’s literature a bad thing?  Of course not!  Every reader learns from reading, adults as much from their adult books as children from their children’s books.  But, as any educationalist will tell you, there is Learning and there is Teaching, and the two are not the same thing.

Poor Teaching is often the biggest handicap to good Learning.  What the teaching 'authority' determines must be presented, and how, and when, can bear little relation to what the individual on the other side of the equation actually learns.  The best learning is discovery, not force-feeding.  What I saw in the eyes of little Miss 7, going on 8, was the wonder of reading, not the rigour of social informing.

She was discovering these new worlds for herself, in her terms, just as I was, in my terms.  We both were learning, but it did not matter that it might not be the same lesson, the same moral-to-the-story.  We read, we discovered, we learned.

And that is what I find fascinating.  That is when I really became interested in children’s literature.  I am interested in how an author launches a story into the world, carefully crafted with clear (adult) aims and intentions.  But then it immediately takes on a life of its own, different in every child reader.  Certainly this happens with adult texts as well, but children are supposed to do what we adult Experts decide for them!  Well, I am afraid they don’t.

The Education–Entertainment dichotomy of children’s literature is an adult construct.  Children do not see one as the antithesis of the other.  They are the same thing.  Enjoy, discover, learn!!  Miss out on the enjoyment, miss out on the discovery … Boring!!

As an adult I cannot read as a child.  This does not prevent me from reading and enjoying children’s stories, but it is not a child’s enjoyment.  However, I can watch children read and delight in their enjoyment.  And, as an Expert, I can try my hardest to make sure that they get as many opportunities for that enjoyment as possible.  That is my job, as an adult.

Where has Young Miss 7’s reading taken her?  A long, long way.  Over the next few years, she struck out strongly on her own (a little sadly, it must be admitted, for Daddy the no-longer-needed reading companion).  Parvana and Asmir have led her to Anne Frank and Oskar Schindler and a fierce social conscience.  The strong female heroes of Tamora Pierce and Garth Nix have counter-balanced Tolkien’s boys in saving the world.  Terabithia and Gallipoli have opened worlds of emotion.  She is 16 now and facing that same corralling by study that her father experienced.  Perhaps she will ask for guidance on a way through. 

But it is her journey, not mine.  I am still on my own journey.


Reference List

Lewis, C. S. "On Three Ways of Writing for Children." Of Other Worlds: Essays and Stories. 1952. Ed. Walter Hooper. San Diego, CA: Harcourt, 2002. 22-34.

Nodelman, P. "The Other: Orientalism, Colonialism, and Children’s Literature." Children’s Literature Association Quarterly. 17.1 (1992): 29-35.


"Editorial Essay" © David Beagley, 2007.

The Looking Glass: new perspectives on children's literature

ISBN 1551-5680