Gardens and children’s literature

Anne Lundin, in Constructing the Canon of Children’s Literature (Routledge 2004) makes an interesting claim:

Children’s librarians created a dominant ideology that privileged certain texts within a romanticized construction of the literature of childhood. The idea of nature, a romanticized nature, offered an acceptable critique of industrialized society and search for utopia, a familiar and popular passion of this late-century … Popular Romanticism in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century sent families “back to nature” in the suburbs, national parks, in scouting, and in consumption of innumerable literary evocations of Arcadia. So close to Nature, children must grow like a garden and their books a child’s garden of fanciful fiction and verse.

Actually she makes a lot of interesting claims, but this one in particular seems to me to need unpacking.

Lundin deliberately uses what she calls a Garden trope to explore the prevalence of Romanticism in the choices made by librarians, and the interest I have in her argument comes down to a really quite skillful use of Garden as a place of cultivation. While she talks (2004:4)  of Romanticism’s search for an Absolute through personal freedom, and makes a point that it became a “persistent myth” (2004:5), some of her sources see the Garden as a place as much of control as of free exploration.. She cites one writer as talking about guiding children’s reading as extirpation of undesirable traits, rooting out the tares (to use the image from Matthew 13 without really understanding the message), and talks of “the weedy growths that weaken and hamper the healthy development of character.” In other words, even then, we find the child outdoors – or the symbol of the child as an outdoors phenomenon – at the nexus of a power struggle between a freer model of development and self-actualisation and a more adult-directed one.  Lundin sees the “child as synecdoche, a small significant part representing the whole,” (2004:9), that whole being the struggle between what we might very generally call (as she does) art and commerce.

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