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date: 17 June 2021


Abstract and Keywords

This article presents the handbook's purposes and organization, and then briefly outlines some of the field's history, highlighting a number of key principles and important scholarly works. Finally, it turns to important issues related to four general rubrics. These rubrics, which serve as the structuring apparatus for the handbook, emerged organically from the essays and point to key areas of inquiry in children's literature study: Adults and Children's Literature; Pictures and Poetics; Reading History/Learning Race and Class; and Innocence and Agency. The discussion of these categories is designed to introduce the essays that are grouped under each of these rubrics (chronologically within each thematic section) and to situate the issues they raise within scholarship and literary history. The essays collected serve less to demarcate the field of children's literature than to push at the generic and gatekeeping boundaries that cordon off “children's literature” as a field of study.

Keywords: children's literature, pictures, poetics, reading history, learning race, class, innocence, agency

The growing attention given to childhood as a category of analysis has infused the academic study of children’s literature with new energy. It has also highlighted the exciting and innovative aspects of children’s literature scholarship, which today benefits from the insights of historians, sociologists, psychologists, media studies scholars, political scientists, and legal scholars, as well as literary critics, education specialists, and library professionals. Focusing their analyses on children’s texts and children’s culture, contemporary scholars are producing theoretically sophisticated, politically engaged, and historicized yet wide-ranging work that marks this field as exceptionally dynamic. To mention only a few examples, recent work interrogating the roles of children and childhood in social, cultural and literary history includes studies of “boyology” and queer theory; child-rearing manuals and the Walt Disney company; radical children’s literature or the radical possibilities of children’s literature; African American children in slavery; the history of babysitting; postcolonial theory and American, Canadian, and Australian children’s books; and the “hidden adult” in children’s literature.1 But even as the study of children’s literature attracts new scholars in a range of fields and gains in academic prestige, scholars in the field nonetheless can find themselves on slippery ground, experts in something that, arguably, kids might know more about than they do.

Back in 1984, Jacqueline Rose’s assertion in The Case of Peter Pan, Or, the Impossibility of Children’s Fiction that children’s literature was itself “impossible” startled children’s literature scholars: written by adults for children, children’s literature, she argued, is never “children’s;” instead, it represents an adult projection of what childhood is or ought to be.2 Rose’s claim was not simply provocative; it also invited literary critics to presume grounds previously ceded to children were rightfully theirs. But many—laypeople and scholars alike—continue to believe that (p. 4) children’s literature is for children. If that is the case, arguably, it must be simple, transparent, and hardly worthy of analysis, which is to say, might children’s literature criticism itself be “impossible”?3

Although clearly the growing body of sophisticated children’s literature criticism belies these assumptions, a scholar new to the field might understandably suspect that there is very little to know in order to read children’s books critically or that this expertise ought to be easy to come by. Conversely, of course, he or she might find a children’s book’s apparent simplicity—or perhaps its unexpected complexity—baffling: how, and where, to begin approaching the children’s text? We believe that if he or she is willing to leave preconceptions and prejudices about the complexity and literary value of children’s literature behind, in reading children’s literature critically a scholar new to the field is likely to discover unexpected richness in both children’s literature itself and in the range of scholarship that addresses, analyzes, or incorporates it. Certainly, we hope that the Oxford Handbook of Children’s Literature will help address the needs of this beginning scholar—as well as the interests of those well established in the field.

Thinking about the unexpected pleasures—and risks—taken when adults read and analyze children’s literature, that is, when adults presume a higher order of expertise over a body of literature that has been codified (by design or by adoption) as “children’s,” one of this book’s editors is reminded of a time she was seated in an airplane next to a child traveling alone. She tried to make small talk with him—to make him more comfortable (so she imagined). After looking up several times from his book to answer her questions, he finally said, with exasperation, “This is the brand new Harry Potter book, which I waited a long time to get, and I really just want to focus on reading it now. I hope you don’t mind.” Chastened, the adult so-called expert in children’s literature was reminded not only of how easy it is to make assumptions about what children need but also of that almost holy bond that can be formed between child and book. In reading children’s books critically, as many of the essays included in this handbook remind us, it is important to acknowledge the phantom child—implied, addressed, represented, assumed—always lurking, though perhaps never quite possible (as Rose would say). Although our interest in creating the Oxford Handbook of Children’s Literature is scholarly rather than sentimental, anyone interested in exploring children’s literature confronts the haunting presence of childhood and the child reader within every text written for or adopted by children.

We begin the discussion that follows by outlining this book’s purposes and organization, and then we briefly review some of the field’s history and highlight a number of key principles and important scholarly works. Finally, we turn to important issues related to four general rubrics under which we have grouped the essays that follow. These rubrics, which serve as the structuring apparatus for the book, emerged organically from the essays and point to key areas of inquiry in children’s literature study: Adults and Children’s Literature; Pictures and Poetics; Reading History/Learning Race and Class; and Innocence and Agency. Our discussion of these categories is designed not simply to introduce the essays that are grouped (p. 5) under each of these rubrics (chronologically within each thematic section) but also to situate the issues they raise within scholarship and literary history.

Organizing Principles: Canons, Contexts, and Classrooms

This handbook attempts to reveal the possibilities of children’s literature criticism. In creating it we avoided replicating existing reference works that survey the various genres in children’s literature, offer national literary histories, or define important terminology.4 Our goal was to create an interdisciplinary book that uses literary texts to introduce theoretical, methodological, and critical approaches, as well historical, political, and sociological themes. This makes the book valuable both to those wishing to gain a basic introduction to the field and to scholars seeking clear models of interdisciplinary approaches that have been enriching the field. The essays address a representative sampling of texts, in various genres, from the colonial era to the present, and from Britain, the United States, and Canada, that regularly appear (or arguably ought to appear) on syllabi of children’s literature or childhood studies courses. The contributors provided headnotes that introduce the individual authors discussed, as well as lists of further reading that point readers toward the broader implications of each essay. Taken together, all of these features make the handbook a practical companion for graduate and undergraduate courses in which literary texts themselves (not abstract theoretical paradigms, generic formulas, or historical rubrics) are the focus of study.

The essays collected here serve less to demarcate the field of children’s literature than to push at the generic and gatekeeping boundaries that cordon off (and can marginalize) “children’s literature” as a field of study. By introducing works that may not immediately spring to mind as “literature”—including film, children’s writing, comics, and musical recordings—but that belong to children’s culture more generally, we hope to expose all of the messy possibilities of children’s literature scholarship and encourage readers to go beyond this handbook and make connections between children’s literature and other cultural arenas.

As scholars who came to children’s literature from different disciplines—Lynne Vallone from literary studies and childhood studies and Julia Mickenberg from American studies with training in cultural history—in approaching our task as editors, we have tried to make our disciplinary differences a virtue. These disciplinary differences affected how we initially sought to shape the volume, our choices about scholars whose work we hoped to include, and the topics we wanted to cover; they also had an effect upon what we brought to the editing process itself, in the sense that each of us encouraged contributors to think expansively and in interdisciplinary ways.

(p. 6) We approached some of the top scholars of children’s literature to become contributors, also stretching the boundaries of the children’s literature field to bring it into dialogue with exciting work being done in the broader area of childhood studies, a burgeoning interdisciplinary arena that incorporates work related to children and childhood from history, media studies, anthropology, sociology, psychology, legal studies, politics, literature, and other disciplines. Instead of giving contributors a predictable assignment typical of many reference works, for example, to characterize a genre (the school story; fantasy; primers) or a critical approach (feminist, Marxist, postcolonial), we let our contributors propose “wish lists” of accessible, in-print texts from the Anglo-American tradition that they felt were particularly “teachable” and flexible and that, if not readily classifiable as canonical, rightly deserved a place within the canon. We felt that if scholars were encouraged to write about a work about which they felt passionate, then exciting and perhaps unpredictable—in the best sense—scholarship would ensue, scholarship that organically addresses many of the forms, approaches, and issues that in a traditional handbook format might be explicated in a more mechanical fashion. What emerged confirms the value of our unconventional approach: a book of original, innovative essays that use individual texts of various genres, historical eras, and national traditions to model critical approaches to reading and analyzing children’s literature or to explore historical and/or sociological themes.

This book was constructed with the notion of “canonical” children’s literature as a guiding principle but also as something contributors should actively call into question. In asking contributors to choose a “canonical” text as the centerpiece of their essays, from which they could address larger issues and showcase various theoretical frameworks or methodological approaches, we operated on the assumption that canonical works—especially those that are taught at the college level and also assigned in primary schools—are thought to embody qualities worth preserving and/or attitudes worth refuting. As such, these texts may be particularly revealing of the culture from which they emerged, especially in terms of how childhood is constructed. But we also asked our contributors to think about neglected texts that were popular in their time, retain a following, or can be said to be worthy of inclusion in a canon.

Although many of the children’s works considered in the following essays are widely accepted as canonical—Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Tom Sawyer, and Peter Pan, for example—not all of the texts discussed continue to be “works for children” anymore: some are too far removed from the lives of contemporary children (the Evangelical best-seller Froggy’s Little Brother) or have long ago fallen out of classroom use (the New England Primer). However, each of the works discussed in the handbook—whether novel, film, comic strip, picture book, poem, memoir, primer, or play—may lay claim to the status of the “classic” or deserve to be placed there. Certainly, one person’s “classic” might be another’s “trash,”yet we felt that a classic children’s book should be in print or readily available and embody qualities that had at one time communicated something essential to an understanding of childhood of a certain era.

(p. 7) Deborah Stevenson clarifies the qualities of a children’s literature classic in this way: “a text need not be popular with a multitude of contemporary children in order to be a classic. It must, however, speak of childhood, not just of literature, to adults” (119). Some of the works analyzed in this handbook may be considered to have recently achieved “classic” status in the canon of children’s literature—Charles Schulz’s Peanuts cartoons, Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred Taylor, or the Frog and Toad books—and others may be classified as “classics-in-the-making” (the Harry Potter books or Gene Luen Yang’s award-winning graphic novel, American Born Chinese). While the Oxford Handbook of Children’s Literature does not attempt to create a canon of children’s literature, it engages with many of the same questions of value, significance, and boundaries.

History and Approaches to Children’s Literature

Children’s literature has come rather late to the canon-formation game; it was not thought important enough to be included in the “high stakes” canon wars of the 1980s. Children’s literature first began to be recognized as a specialty in some university English departments in the 1980s and 1990s; previously it tended to be taught only in schools with strong elementary education programs or in library schools. Anthologies of national literatures (e.g., The Norton Anthology of American Literature) still mostly ignore children’s literature. If they do include works such as Little Women or The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, these stories, as Beverly Lyon Clark has discussed in Kiddie Lit: The Cultural Construction of Children’s Literature in America (2003), are no longer labeled “children’s literature,” for the term is still often viewed as something of an oxymoron in the context of Great Books. Even when children’s literature is recognized within literary history it is often classed as a genre in and of itself: the forthcoming Cambridge History of the American Novel, for instance, has a single chapter on “the children’s novel,” even as it recognizes the generic diversity of novels for adults.

Although only recently has this study begun to earn serious recognition within the academy, the critical study of children’s literature has a well-established history. Scholarly works on children’s literature began to appear in the early to mid-twentieth century, in works such as F.J. Harvey Darton’s Children’s Books in England: Five Centuries of Social Life (1932) and Paul Hazard’s Books, Children, and Men (published originally in French in 1944), which sought to place children’s literature within a larger cultural context. Within literary studies, the study of children’s literature gained a significant foothold in the 1970s: the British journal Signal was established in 1970; the U.S. journal Children’s Literature was established in 1972; and the Children’s Literature Association was formed in 1973, holding an annual (p. 8) conference beginning the following year and promoting scholarship in the field. And numerous colleges and universities developed programs in children’s literature study, based in English departments, library schools, and schools of education. Foundational works published since the late 1970s have shaped the field in important ways, helping define its contours and unique qualities,5 bringing theoretical perspectives to bear,6 creating essential historical overviews,7 highlighting the intersection between ideologies and politics,8 opening the canon of nineteenth-century literature (and other time periods) to include works for children,9 and attending to the child reader/writer.10

Beyond its academic history, children’s literature has developed in conjunction with a long tradition of critical evaluation that followed the development of children’s book publishing itself. Experts in the field have offered advice on what books to give to children since the late eighteenth century (see, for example, Sarah Trimmer’s The Guardian of Education and Charlotte Yonge’s influential three-part essay in Macmillan’s Magazine, “Children’s Literature of the Last Century”). “Treasuries” of children’s stories and popular anthologies have appeared in Britain and the United States since the late eighteenth century as well.11 With the advent of library services to children in the late nineteenth century—special reading rooms for the young, staffed by librarians (most of them among a new cadre of college-educated women) trained to select books for children—new standards of quality in the field developed. Librarians, booksellers, and critics began to publish regular lists of recommended children’s books (Booklist, for example, began publication in 1905, and The Horn Book, devoted to the critical evaluation of children’s books and scholarship in the field, first appeared in the United States in 1924). Macmillan established the first juvenile division in a U.S. publishing house in 1919, and most other publishers followed suit within the following two decades, continuing the field’s professionalization. In Britain, which had a long legacy of children’s book publishing going back to the printer John Newbery, the Puffin imprint of Penguin published its first children’s books in 1940, thus inaugurating an Anglo-American tradition of high-quality but affordable children’s books that would be continued in the United States with Little Golden Books.

Author and illustrator awards for children’s books have grown in number and prestige in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Canada and have contributed to the process of canon formation in the field. Awards include the Newbery Medal (est. 1922) and the Caldecott Medal (est. 1937) in the United States and the British Carnegie Medal (est. 1937) and Kate Greenaway Medal (est. 1955). In Canada, the Governor General’s Literary Award for Children’s Literature and Illustrators was established in 1937. Peter Hunt’s Children’s Literature: An Anthology 1801-1902 (2000) and the comprehensive Norton Anthology of Children’s Literature (2005) point to the fact that children’s literature, while perhaps not integrated within a larger literary canon, has certainly developed a canon of its own, a point that returns us to the essays in this volume, which are organized under the general rubrics discussed below.12

(p. 9) Adults and Children’s Literature

The creation of a children’s literature canon interests literacy specialists, parents, librarians and scholars—not children, without whom there would be no “children’s literature.” The first part of the handbook explores both the differences as well as the surprising affinities between adult and child audiences that are fundamental to the very project of children’s literature criticism. In narrating his responses to children’s books of the 1960s and 1970s in his memoir The Child That Books Built, Francis Spufford makes a compelling case for the benefits of reading as a child and rereading children’s literature as an adult: “The book becomes part of the history of our self-understanding. The stories that mean most to us join the process by which we come to be securely our own” (9). Like Spufford, a growing number of adults find themselves (often despite themselves) engrossed by children’s fare—be it the Harry Potter series or the Twilight books or the Wes Anderson film adaptation of Fantastic Mr. Fox. The many reiterations of children’s books in Western children’s culture—in films (from The Cat in the Hat to The Polar Express to The Golden Compass), toys (Fancy Nancy dress-up kits, American Girl dolls, and Harry Potter trading cards), amusement park rides (think of much of Disneyland), cultural references (“down the rabbit hole,” a “Grinch”)—attest to the powerful presence that children’s books hold in today’s world. But this very ubiquity can make it harder to pin down just what we mean when we talk about children’s books or children’s literature. What might these terms mean today, and what have they meant in the past? What might “children’s literature,” variously defined, tell us about childhood(s) and culture(s)?

Peter Hunt’s opening essay for the volume, centered on the Alice books, asks foundational questions about children’s literature that help orient any scholar or adult reader of children’s books, starting with the basic issue of defining “children’s literature.” Spufford suggests a children’s book is whatever a child reads, whether it is The Hobbit, To Kill a Mockingbird, or Where the Wild Things Are, all touchstone books for him. Interestingly, all three of these books may be called works of “cross-writing” as described by U. C. Knoepflmacher and Mitzi Myers.13 Put simply, cross-written books engage both the child and the adult, whether through dual readership or by reflecting the interplay of voices or images that either simultaneously or differently address both adults and children.

The “cross-written” nature and formative effects of children’s literature—or at least many works of children’s literature—make its study inherently interesting and also make a project such as ours especially difficult. As Spufford’s memoir reminds us, all former book-loving children may be considered “experts” in children’s literature and may bring this expertise to any new reading of a children’s book. But this seeming easy access to children’s books can produce stumbling blocks to critical reading—especially for students who have only recently left childhood behind. Yet, children’s literature is well suited to introduce students to the pleasures of analyzing literature and culture because its texts tend to be readily accessible.

(p. 10) Bringing children’s literature to the college-level classroom goes some way toward fulfilling Knoepflmacher’s and Myers’s prognostication about the fertility of reading children’s books when readers, and critical practices, are all grown up: “Cultural studies itself, as most centrally the study of relationships within and between cultures, has to go back to how cultures produce and construct citizens and consumers” (xv). Knoepflmacher and Myers claim a kind of partnership between adults and children in cross-writing that might provide more nuanced and sophisticated views of children and childhood in literature and in life: “Cross-writing may even help us revise, once and for all, the notions of a ‘Romantic’ natural childhood which still tend to dominate most readings of children’s literature and the child” (xvi). Indeed, the idea of cross-writing has proven to be instructive in many of the essays gathered here and is foundational to our purpose of bringing new scholarship on important children’s works (as a means for highlighting significant historical, critical, theoretical, or methodological issues) to an adult audience of students and educators. Yet, although cross-written, or “cross-over,” fiction, as Karin Westman calls the Harry Potter books in her essay for this volume, is not universally appreciated by some critics—she cites A. S. Byatt’s now notorious New York Times editorial that denigrates the “childish adult” reader of Rowling’s series—we agree with Westman that the increasing tendency of “children’s literature” to attract adult readers and serious scholarship is indeed energizing, as the essays collected here indicate.

The first four essays in the handbook wrestle with the following fundamental issues in children’s literature study: the meanings of “childhood,” “children,” and “children’s literature” and the power dynamics inherent in these terms (Peter Hunt); the politics of children’s literature and its analysis (Richard Flynn); the ways in which children’s books can serve in the college classroom as primers for critical literacy (Teya Rosenberg); and the significance of children’s literature’s growing popularity with adults and increasing intertwining with consumer culture (Karin Westman).

Pictures and Poetics

We grouped together a seemingly diverse set of essays that discuss aspects of visual or poetic forms, both of which traffic in images, visual or verbal, to communicate information succinctly, often in playful ways, to a child audience. Visual imagery has special resonance for the field of children’s literature. Most obviously, both illustrated books (in which pictures supplement the text but are not integral to it) and picture books (where the text, if any, is incomplete without reference to illustrations) are among the forms most likely to be labeled “children’s books,” and this has been the case for centuries: among the earliest Western texts published for children, such as Comenius’s Orbis Sensualium Pictus (1658), illustrations were used to (p. 11) engage young readers’ attention. Comenius wrote, “Pictures are the most intelligible books that children can look upon” (qtd. in Zipes et al. 1051). The picture book as we know it, with interdependent text and imagery, is primarily a twentieth-century form, and, as the essays by Nathalie op de Beeck and Kenneth Kidd suggest, relating picture books to modernism and psychoanalysis respectively, the history of the picture book cannot be separated from intellectual and artistic paradigms and practices that have helped define twentieth-century culture. Pictures provide an important mode of communication with preliterate children who can understand visual cues earlier than verbal ones. But visual images also distill a great deal of information. The old cliché that a picture tells a thousand words simultaneously suggests the form’s appropriateness to children and childhood but also reminds us of visual imagery’s beguiling complexity and the challenges of acquiring vocabulary sufficient to analyze it.

Discussing picture books’ complex modes of communication, Perry Nodelman notes in Words about Pictures (1988):

[Picture books] imply a viewer with a mastery of many skills and much knowledge. Yet for the most part they also imply a viewer who is innocent, unsophisticated—childlike. Picture books are clearly recognizable as children’s books simply because they do speak to us of childlike qualities, of youthful simplicity and youthful exuberance; yet paradoxically, they do so in terms that imply a vast sophistication in regard to both visual and verbal codes. Indeed, it is part of the charm of many of the most interesting picture books that they so strangely combine the childlike and the sophisticated—that the viewer they imply is both very learned and very ingenuous. (21)14

The idea of cross-writing again becomes useful in thinking about how to approach picture books critically, for the picture books that become family, library, and classroom favorites are typically those that sustain a dual appeal, particularly given the fact that younger children, usually without purchasing power of their own, gain access to picture books through the various intercessions of adults and older readers who read aloud, select books, buy them, or check them out of the library. Thus, picture books often operate at several different levels that appeal differently to adults and children. Take, for example, the 1999 picture book written by Philomen Sturges and illustrated by Amy Walrod, Little Red Hen Makes a Pizza. Adapting the classic tale of the Little Red Hen who repeatedly seeks assistance in baking a loaf of bread but whose appeals fall on deaf ears until the bread is ready to be eaten, Sturges and Walrod upend the didactic imperative of the traditional tale with a laid-back urban hen who is happy to let her goofy animal friends (a duck wearing a bathing cap and inner tube, a beatnik cat wearing a beret and playing the saxophone, etc.) enjoy the fruits of her labor. Although the friends predictably are willing to help Hen eat the delicious pizza when it’s done, they are also happy to clean up after dinner while the hen relaxes. In addition to revising the original plot with enough familiar details that children as well as adults will recognize the humorous aspects of the conscious revision, Sturges also plays with language in ways (p. 12) that adults will appreciate perhaps more than children. Even as the familiar “Not I!” refrain of the original story is retained, a new twist is added: when the hen realizes she has no pizza pan (and, later, flour and, still later, mozzarella cheese) she exclaims, in each instance, “Cluck!” (“I need a pizza pan” or flour or mozzarella cheese)—“fowl” language that is (hopefully) more likely to induce chuckles in adults than in young children. So too are adults more likely to see the humor in a beatnik cat or in the can of dolphin-safe tuna visible on the hen’s pantry shelf.

Attention to visual imagery and iconography, along with an awareness of the sophisticated and multiple layers of address in works for children, is essential not simply because children’s books often contain pictures but also because in our mass-mediated contemporary culture, the visual reigns supreme. This also means that any study of visual imagery in children’s culture must move well beyond picture books. It is not only fruitful but also necessary to approach the category of “children’s literature” as inclusively as possible to include all forms of media aimed at children, from children’s books to films, television programs, comic strips, graphic novels, and even websites and video games. And as with picture books, these forms are also quite often cross-written to engage adult and child audiences, especially in the case of box office films that young children may attend only if there is an adult to take them to the theater.

Attending to these other forms of visual media, the handbook includes essays (not exclusively in the Picturebooks and Poetics section) that discuss children’s film (Nicholas Sammond); comic strips (Charles Hatfield); graphic novels (Lan Dong); and the multimedia record album/television program/book, Free to Be … You and Me (Leslie Paris). Children’s films, as Ian Wojcik-Andrews has discussed, operate in close dialog with children’s literature, and thus critical frameworks developed by scholars of children’s literature bring important insights to the studies of these films. Although comic strips are rarely understood as literature, Charles Hatfield argues in his essay on Peanuts that they represent an ideal example of cross-writing. And in a striking contrast to comics, the graphic novel—somewhere between a comic book and a novel—is increasingly recognized as an ascendant literary form that, once again, is difficult to classify in terms of audience but that tends to attract young readers in part by virtue of its visual codes.

The image as a structuring category encompasses not only visual texts but also poetry, which relies on the evocativeness of language to fashion carefully selected words into dense snapshots of meaning. A number of important works in the field of children’s literature criticism such as Zohar Shavit’s The Poetics of Children’s Literature (1986) and Roni Natov’s The Poetics of Childhood (2002) argue that both childhood and children’s literature have associations with the notion of the poetic—that is, with creativity, innocence, fluidity, purity, or essence. Although such notions are hotly contested (much of the scholarly work in the field is devoted to challenging them), there is a great deal to be gained from investigating the very notion of poetry through the lens of childhood. Poetry and poetics figure into children’s literature both in forms clearly demarcated as verse—as in Langston Hughes’s The Dream Keeper, a collection of poetry for children, which Katharine Capshaw (p. 13) Smith discusses in her essay here, or The Bat-Poet, which Richard Flynn discusses in an earlier section—and in rhyming, rhythmic, or metered texts such as Dr. Seuss’s The Cat in the Hat, the vehicle for Kevin Shortsleeve’s essay on the politics of nonsense.

Reading History/Learning Race and Class

Covering a wide range of children’s books, from historical fiction (Michelle H. Martin and M. O. Grenby) to autobiography (Phillip Serrato), from Evangelical “street arab fiction” (Kimberley Reynolds) to the domestic novel (Kelly Hager, Mavis Reimer, and Beverly Lyon Clark), to the coming-of-age story (June Cummins), the chapters in this section of the handbook are all concerned with how child characters are invited to belong, or are kept from belonging, to familial, class, racial, ethnic, religious, and/or national groups. Moreover, as “unwritten” or untainted by culture, and as the object of contrast or comparison with adults or “others” (who are often described as childlike), the child makes a natural figure upon which ideas of national and racial identities may be draped, as Mavis Reimer, Kelly Hager, Beverly Lyon Clark, and June Cummins discuss in their essays for this volume. Recent scholarship in childhood studies has, for example, brought to light the central placement of the figure of the child within social, political, scientific, and theoretical discourses of the nineteenth century. Claudia Castañeda, in her book Figurations: Child, Bodies, Worlds (2002), argues that the “child-body” functions as a potent “figuration” of development with significant implications for nineteenth-century European ideologies supporting racial hierarchies and imperialism. In scientific discourses such as Spencerian evolutionary biology and physiological psychology, the white, Western, middle-class adult male was viewed as the final standard of the completed, developed body and self, leaving children and racialized “others” behind. The child represented, for many, the savage past of human life, a position that put colonial and racial others at the bottom of social structures, outside of normalcy and into “pathology.” In Herbert Spencer’s published essays on education (collected in one volume in 1860 as Education: Intellectual, Moral, and Physical), he refers to a biological history of human development in which the physiological, emotional, and instinctive natures of the child are reflected in the savage: “During early years, every civilized man passes through that phase of character exhibited by the barbarous race from which he is descended. As the child’s features—flat nose, forward-opening nostrils, large lips, wide-apart eyes, absent frontal sinus, &c.—resemble those of the savage, so too do his instincts…” (qtd. in Castañeda 21).

Such ideas about the relationship between the child and the childlike savage may be traced in nineteenth-century American constructions of childhood as well. In Dependent States: The Child’s Part in Nineteenth-Century American Culture (2005), Karen Sánchez-Eppler comments, “Inchoate, children are often presented (p. 14) as not yet fully human, so that the figure of the child demarcates the boundaries of personhood, a limiting case for agency, voice, or enfranchisement. Hence, for people who are not male, or white, or American, or considered sufficiently sane or sufficiently rich, exclusion from civil rights has often been implemented through analogies to the child” (xxiv). Essays in this volume that focus on texts about immigrant or minority children directly confront the question of what it means to be socialized for citizenship and to retain a sense of personal dignity in a society in which they are likely to remain infantilized in the eyes of those who are part of the dominant culture.

In Cradle of Liberty: Race, the Child, and National Belonging from Thomas Jefferson to W. E. B. DuBois (2006), Caroline F. Levander illustrates the ways in which, in the conflict between righteous young colony and corrupt parent nation, notions of children and childhood played essential roles in young America’s rhetoric of rebellion, rights, and liberty. Dependent, in part, on the same discourses of developmentalism and the importance of whiteness described in nineteenth-century evolutionary biology, the child, according to Levander, functions as central to “key political debates crystallizing national identity that enables the child to act as a persuasive vehicle through which individuals come to affiliate with the nation at pivotal moments in its development …” (12).

By the 1970s, when Mildred Taylor first began publishing the Logan family series of historical novels (discussed here in an essay by Michelle Martin) based on stories from her family, nineteenth-century discourses of “racial science” promoted in anthropometrical studies and in physiological psychology, and unconsciously influencing authors such as Twain, had been rethought and discarded. However, the United States continued to show deep racial divisions, and persistent racial intolerance threatened to overshadow the legal gains of the recent civil rights movement. Just as living children played an essential role in the civil rights movement itself—marching in Birmingham or serving as martyrs for the movement (in the latter instance as the cases of Emmett Till or the four girls who died in the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham make clear)—so multicultural children’s literature has played an essential role in socializing the young to reject notions of white supremacy or narrow nationalist thought, as discussions in the handbook of Taylor’s Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, Francisco Jiménez’s The Circuit, and Gene Luen Yang’s American Born Chinese suggest.

In addition to informing illuminating notions about the child within discussions of racial and national identity, the figure of the child provides a lens through which class identity can be interrogated. As Troy Boone argues in Youth of Darkest England: Working-Class Children at the Heart of Victorian Empire (2005), both the conflation of the working classes with the idea of the juvenile and working-class youth themselves were essential to the ideological enterprise of imperialist Victorian England, themes explored in other chapters in this section in essays by Kimberley Reynolds and Kelly Hager, respectively, on two nineteenth-century novels: the British Evangelical novel Froggy’s Little Brother by “Brenda” and Five Little Peppers and How They Grew by Margaret Sidney.

(p. 15) Innocence and Agency

We have collected the final group of essays under the category “Innocence and Agency,” two key terms in the study of childhood, children, and children’s literature. Perhaps no concept related to childhood is more contested than the notion of children’s innocence, understood both in terms of lack of knowledge and lack of sin. The idea of innocence as a defining feature of modern childhood forms a basis for innumerable programs and policies affecting children, including censorship, which has historically been undertaken under the guise of protecting children. As legal scholar Marjorie Heins demonstrates in Not in Front of the Children: “Indecency,” Censorship, and the Innocence of Youth (2001), industry codes among producers of films, comic books, and television programming were established as a way for these producers to show their commitment to children’s best interests and as a way to preempt censors.15 The very category of children’s literature comes not simply from the recognition that children are cognitively less developed than adults, not fully literate, and less experienced—and therefore in need of simpler materials that will be comprehensible and relevant to them—but also from the belief that certain material is inappropriate for the young: for example, explicit sexuality, violence, political exhortation, or discussions about drugs, rape, or murder.

But the idea of childhood innocence is relatively recent, a product of the romantic era. In what became a landmark if controversial text in the study of childhood, French art historian Philippe Ariès argued in Centuries of Childhood: a Social History of Family Life (1962) that the concept of childhood did not exist until the seventeenth century, and then only for the middle and upper classes. Although his historical evidence has been called into question, what remains striking about his findings, which others have corroborated, is the fact that until relatively recently, most children were not shielded from sex, death, or other realities, and they were expected to work and add to the family income from a very young age. In other words, the idea of childhood innocence is a distinctly modern phenomenon and not something inherent to the child’s being.

The Puritans believed in infant depravity or the doctrine of original sin. As Courtney Weikle-Mills’s essay on The New England Primer reminds us, the Puritans emphasized literacy in the young as an essential means for transmitting religious belief and for promoting penitence, prayer, and piety, all seen as keys to salvation. In a time when infant mortality rates were extremely high, children were taught repeatedly in the few reading materials to which they had access that death could come to them at any time. The danger was not simply the loss of life itself but, worse, the threat of eternal damnation if one had not been saved. The title of James Janeway’s A Token for Children: Being an Exact Account of the Conversion, Holy and Exemplary Lives and Joyful Deaths of Several Young Children (1671) makes clear the emphasis on child death: this highly influential work remained in print in Britain and America for more than two hundred years and spurred imitations of triumphant child deathbed scenes into the Victorian era.

(p. 16) In Pricing the Priceless Child: The Changing Social Value of Children (1985), sociologist Viviana Zelizer’s examination of life insurance policies helped her make the argument that children became emotionally priceless (i.e., valued in sentimental terms) as they became economically useless. This transformation of the child from performing important economic work to performing affective roles essential to a family’s emotional well-being was completed for children of the working classes only in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, after child labor was strictly curtailed and education mandated. This shift went hand in hand with the assumption that childhood was a unique and sacred stage of life that merited special protection, nurturance, and guidance. In Childhood, Culture, and Class in Britain: Margaret Macmillan, 1860–1931 (1990), Carolyn Steedman emphasizes the reach of this change, as poor and working-class children, like their more affluent counterparts, were granted the “right to childhood.”

With the movement toward a construction of the child as innocent—and a waning of patriarchal authority—came a shift in children’s literature away from didactic and religious instruction and toward works written for children’s enjoyment as much as for their edification. This process began in the eighteenth century, as educators and theorists of childhood ranging from John Locke to Jean Jacques Rousseau emphasized the pedagogical value of children’s play and stressed that children would learn more if they were interested in what they read. Such thinking applied primarily to middle- and upper-class children, but as Karen Sánchez-Eppler’s essay on Swiss Family Robinson and child book makers would suggest, it would filter into children’s literature as well as educational practice. The idea that children’s reading should be a pleasurable activity would dominate by the late nineteenth century.

As Eric Tribunella’s reading of Tom Brown’s Schooldays in terms of the “schoolboy crush” would suggest, ostensible innocence can grant a kind of agency—within bounds—to the child who can be seen as unaware of the sexual context in which he/she operates, thus marking those relationships as unthreatening. If Peter Pan, the topic of Marah Gubar’s essay, has become a flashpoint for thinking about notions of childhood innocence, the long 1960s are often seen as a turning point in thinking about childhood innocence. Rising divorce rates, the questioning of authority, the women’s movement (which some believed contributed to the breakdown of traditional family structures), as well as the sexual revolution itself all produced commentary in the 1970s and 1980s on “the disappearance of childhood”—a discourse that assumed the increasing intrusion of the “real world” upon children’s lives constituted a threat to childhood.16 Changing perceptions of childhood were manifest in transformations in children’s literature, particularly as expectations about appropriate content for children’s literature also shifted. Discussions of the sea change in children’s literature brought about by the 1960s typically focus on the rise of adult themes in the ascendant genre of adolescent literature—themes such as drug abuse, divorce, rape, homosexuality, teenage pregnancy, masturbation, alcoholism, and gang violence—which would have been taboo in children’s literature only a decade earlier.17 Claudia Nelson’s essay centering on the historical novel Jade (p. 17) and Leslie Paris’s discussion of Free to Be … You and Me in different ways both come to grips with the impact of the sixties revolutions, particularly the sexual revolution, on children’s literature and notions of child innocence and agency.

As suggested above, in the contemporary moment we seem to be at a point where the lines dividing children’s literature and literature for adults often cannot easily be drawn, which may come down to the fact that without “innocence” as a clear demarcation of the line between childhood and adulthood, we are losing a sense of that boundary as well as the need for it. Exceptions remain, of course (the motion picture rating system is alive and well, as are Internet filtering devices and other vehicles for protecting children from media content considered by many to be inappropriate), but Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, the subject of the handbook’s final essay (by Naomi Wood), is a good example of a set of works that engages both child and adult readers, in part by interrogating the very idea of childhood innocence.

Concluding Comments

Given the limitations of space and the fact that contributors were afforded significant leeway in their text selections, the final collection of essays is not comprehensive in terms of national traditions, historical periods, genres, social issues, theoretical traditions, or methodological practices. Still, we believe the handbook demonstrates the complexity and richness of scholarship in children’s literature and points readers toward other important work in a range of fields. The four rubrics under which the essays are grouped not only highlight themes fundamental to the study of children’s literature, but as categories they are also flexible enough to encompass a wide range of key issues, and the essays cover a diverse array of topics and genres (from children’s writing to the history of the book to African American, Asian American, and Mexican American children’s literature), theoretical/methodological approaches (including postcolonial, psychoanalytic, Marxist, feminist, and performance studies), and historical and sociological issues important to children and childhood (from religious indoctrination, modernism, child-rearing advice, consumerism, and the relationship of second-wave feminism to children’s media in the 1970s).

In forming this handbook we have attempted to tackle some questions essential to understanding children’s books, questions that both engage the phantom child and situate children’s books within literary history and culture more generally: Where do children’s books belong? How do children’s books engage with and create culture? What makes children’s books especially useful vehicles for understanding the past and the present? If this handbook does more to raise questions than to provide answers, it will have succeeded in its goal of demonstrating the richness of children’s literature scholarship at a moment of great possibility within the field.

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(1) . See, in order, Kidd; Sammond; Mickenberg; Reynolds; Mitchell; Forman-Brunell; Bradford; Nodelman, The Hidden Adult. This list, of course, simply gestures at the richness of work being done on the topic of children and childhood and is not meant to convey the entirety of excellent recent work in literature, history, American studies, or childhood studies.

(2) . See Rose.

(3) . Karín Lesnick-Oberstein makes a related argument in Children’s Literature: Criticism and the Fictional Child. She claims that children’s literature criticism is based on a fictional construct, “the child,” and by virtue of this fact, children’s literature criticism in fact has no real ground to stand on.

(4) . See, for example, Hunt and Ray; Rudd; Zipes, Oxford Encyclopedia; Grenby and Immel; Nodelman and Reimer. See also comprehensive websites by academic librarians such as David K. Brown’s site (from the University of Calgary, Canada), the Children’s Literature Web Guide:, and Professor Emerita of Rutgers University Kay E. Vandergrift’s Special Interest Page on Children’s and Young Adult Literature:

(5) . See Hunt, Criticism, Theory, and Children’s Literature; Nodelman, Words about Pictures; Nikolajeva.

(6) . See Rose; Bradford; Dusinberre; Wall; Paul; Zipes, Breaking the Magic Spell.

(7) . See Avery; Pickering; MacCann.

(8) . See Stephens; Richards.

(9) . See Nelson; Griswold; Knoepflmacher, Ventures into Childland; MacLeod, A Moral Tale; Plotz.

(10) . See Steedman, The Tidy House; Wolf and Heath.

(11) . Some influential American examples include Charles Herbert Sylvester’s multivolume Journeys through Bookland and May Hill Arbuthnot’s Arbuthnot Anthology of Children’s Literature.

(12) . See also Stahl, Hanlon, and Keyser, which is a kind of hybrid anthology of primary texts and criticism.

(13) . Knoepflmacher returns to the topic of “generational dynamics” in children’s books and discusses Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are (along with Mary Norton’s The Borrowers) in particular—in “Children’s Texts and the Grown-Up Reader.”

(14) . See also the following scholarship on picture books, picture-book theory, and visual literacy: Bang; Doonan; Lewis; Nikolajeva and Scott; Sipe and Pantaleo.

(15) . See Gilbert for additional information on comic book censorship and youth.

(16) . See Postman and Polakow for further discussion of this topic.

(17) . See MacLeod, American Childhood, and Townsend.