by Peter Hunt
Children’s literature can describe both a corpus of texts and an academic discipline—often confidently and apparently unproblematically, as in the title of this volume—but the term is what Raymond Williams (1976) would have called “difficult.” Its elements cover a huge range of cultural meanings synchronically, diachronically, and internationally. It is still widely regarded as an oxymoron: if children commonly connotes immaturity, and literature commonly connotes sophistication in texts and reading, then the two terms may seem to be incompatible. Equally, its meaning varies considerably across the world—for example, kinderliteratur, børnelitteratur, letteratura per l’infanzia (or letteratura giovanile), dje_č_je književnosti, and literatura infantil are not exactly equivalent. How can they be, when the concept of child varies culturally in terms of cognitive and physical development, responsibility, relationship to the adult world, and along many other axes? Across the years, the child has been seen as inherently evil, or as a tabula rasa, or as an innocent, “trailing clouds of glory.” Today, children leave school (childhood’s end?) at the age of ten in Bangladesh and eighteen in Argentina; children go to school (perhaps another childhood’s end) at the age of seven in Finland and five in Australia. In Western countries, the concept of childhood as a protected space occupied by a protected, distinctive creature—the child—may be a predominantly twentieth-century phenomenon whose time is past. Similarly, literature (or its “equivalent”) does not always have the primary connotation of cultural value that it carries in British and American English; it is widely used to mean any written text or specialist material, and there are also considerable differences in attitudes to, and the status of, the concept (Williams 1976).