What is Children’s Literature For?

I began to think about this in the context of a canon of children’s literature, which I discussed in April.  I wasn’t going to blog more about this – blogging time needs to go to my pending teaching and the next Wild Spaces, Wild Magic trip in November. However, three ideas have surfaced this week that need a bit of rethinking for me. I referred on Twitter to the last time the “shouldn’t be allowed” argument drifted my way, which I discussed in this blog post.

The most recent – that is, today, is this Guardian article on children’s literature and empathy by Alison Flood.  The research is based on children’s responses to an anthropomorphic Little Raccoon – and I have to be honest and admit that this YouTube representation doesn’t endear me to the text for starters.  Note however, (5 min 09 sec) the explicit message “When you share with others they share with you.” So first of all, let’s just get that out of the way: that’s not a moral message, or the moral of the story; it’s an aspiration.  The moral of the story is “sharing is good.” It is a heavy-handed delivery at best, and do bear in mind the comments made by @zudensachen on Twitter, his best being, I think

I’m critical of the psychology research approach that expects moral stories to ‘work’ as exemplars. Stories are wriggly.

Wriggly. Brilliant. And here is the first flaw in the research: poor quality literature is no better as a guide to children’s ability to infer, critique and wonder than a bowl of nutritious slop is a guide to their ability to discern healthy food.  Bluntly put, there is no wriggle in the cute raccoon.

I do share Dave Aldridge’s general disquiet about the kind of study referred to in the Guardian that explores the tricksy interface between psychology and literature, but that’s my problem. Patricia Ganea’s work is itself interesting  (I am in any case grateful for the nudge away from my knee-jerk reaction to actually looking at her work that I got from the inestimable Hamish Chalmers). Her “Do cavies talk?: The effect of anthropomorphic books on children’s knowledge about animals” is a fascinating study, useful for my own research because of the landscape issues it throws up , and I need to come back to her “Toddlers’ referential understanding of pictures” which I have just seen.  The problem really comes down to the bigger question about “using” children’s literature. In the article Alison Flood bases her own work on, “Do storybooks with anthropomorphized animal characters promote prosocial behaviors in young children?” – linked here, if it works – Larsen, Lee and Ganea explore issues around children’s understanding of choices and actions through the issues of identity and anthropormphism. It is good to see the Marriott “Red in tooth and claw?” cited; they know their stuff. There is, I think, a big problem with quality: Little Raccoon Learns to Share is, as I’ve suggested, not the best: heavy-handed morality and wordy, and the “humanised” Photoshop version the team produced consequently can’t be much better. The comparability of texts is assured, but only, it seems to me, at the cost of the text being engaging.  That the control book is by Eric Carle is almost worth a methodological reflection in its own.

The Guardian article ends with voices from authors. I am unsure whether the article’s author is missing a tone of irony or whether I am searching, desperately, for something that isn’t there, but the final paragraphs suggest we are all a bit lost:

Picture book author Tracey Corderoy said that in her experience, “where the main characters of a moral tale are animals as opposed to humans, the slight distancing that this affords the young child does a number of important things. It softens the moral message a little, making it slightly more palatable. Some would feel that this waters it down and makes it less effective. But the initial ‘saving-face’ that using animals brings quite often results, I feel at least, in keeping a child reader engaged.”

Kes Gray, the author of the bestselling rhyming animal series Oi Frog and Friends, was unperturbed by the researchers’ findings. “Authors and illustrators have no need to panic here, as long as we keep all of the animal protagonists in all of their future stories unreservedly cuddly. Big hair, big eyes and pink twitchy noses should pretty much nail it,” he said.

Here we are into this idea that children’s literature has qualities that are only to be measured by the message, by the use an adult can get.

The second is my finishing (again today, on the bus) Joan Aiken’s personal take on writing. There are things about the child reader’s reading of significance :

…The child may draw conclusions from the actor’s face and general demeanour, but he won’t have any certainty about it And such experience as he has to draw on will be limited…

that I might query, and other pithy comments I want to stick on my wall:

A child reader is very like a wary and agile fish – to keep his attention you have to bait your hook with cunning…

If you can pluck out some small common denominator of experience that will instantly register with the reader, you have made yourself a friend…

Personally, I believe that an overt moral message is to be avoided like the plague… A book is supposed to be for pleasure, isn’t it? Who are you, anyway, to preach morals to the young?

And the third is the arrival of Pam Smy‘s book Thornhill, and the kerfuffle it has caused. This is her blog  and Mat’s thoughtful review (avoiding spoilers as Ella in the story avoids brambles) is here and (of course) well worth a read.  My comments here aren’t going to contain spoilers either, because I haven’t read it to the end; the thoughts here aren’t about what promises to be (and people warn me that it will be) a troubling denouement, but about the language people are using about the book. It comes down, in many cases, to the notion of suitability – and this in turn seems more to be about classroom use and where it is marketed in bookshops. Fight your way, then, first off, past the BBC sign-in system and listen to this http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b07jlm30 posted by @rokewood on Twitter this morning as a timely reminder on the general picture and then consider these statements:

  • Bloody hell!That is one hell of a book. How to teach with it?
  • Certainly wouldn’t use at primary; not for whole class and prob not with an individual child unless I knew very well indeed. Powerful though.
  • Totally unsuitable for under [age range specified].
  • We read stories precisely in order to help them grow emotionally, morally and spiritually.
  • Why teach that life is hopeless?

I’ve selected and anonymised them, and they are presented here with only one (sort of) judgmental comment: that under all of them is the assumption that books are there specifically to help adults do something., and that misjudgment around this can be damaging. It is a schoolified view of literature. “We read stories precisely in order to…”

So much here, it’s hard to know where to start, so I shall go back to my beginning. Is the dilemma about “using” Thornhill about the authority and/or moral purpiose of the teacher? Is children’s literature fundamentally a socialisation process involving text? Is it there so that this book or that can be a vehicle for a curricular aim? Where does the responsibility lie in the chain of author/illustrator>publisher>bookseller>adult supplier of money for books (parent, headteacher)>adult chooser/proposer of this book or what? Whose job is it to approve of the books children access? Why ask children to read, to be engaged with narrative and character in fiction?  What is literature for?

Answers on a postcard.

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