Aesthetics

There is perhaps no more vexing, fraught, and neglected concept in the study of children’s literature than aesthetics. No doubt the neglect of a serious, theoretical inquiry into the aesthetics of children’s literature stems from our contemporary understandings of the discipline of children’s literature itself. The study of children’s literature has, historically, been the work of librarians and educators of children. Children’s literature came to be seen as an appropriate site of purely literary study only after the rise and fall of mid-twentieth century New Critical and formalist modes of criticism, a state of affairs made possible by the inchoate canon-busting/expanding cultural studies movements of the late 1960s and 1970s. Thus, the discipline of children’s literature was shaped in a theoretical milieu suspicious of objective claims of aesthetic value, suspicious even of the unproblematic category of “literature” itself. Occupying itself, therefore, with ideological criticism, the discipline has largely—but not …

African American

From the beginnings of African American children’s literature around the turn of the twentieth century, the parameters of what should be included has been as much of a source of conflict as the terminology used to label this group of people. Commenting on the contested nature of this genre, Dianne Johnson (1990) asserts in Telling Tales: the Pedagogy and Promise of African American Literature for Youth:

Like children’s literature, as a broad category, African American children’s literature is a label which refers to the intended audience. On the other hand, like Afro-American literature, Black children’s literature refers to the ethnic and racial identities of the authors. When the two categories are combined into one, the parameters of the new category are much less clear. This confusion in definition is important, largely because of the deliberate uses to which the literature is put.

In this passage, Johnson highlights the shifting …

Audience

The term “audience” has only relatively recently come to acquire its dominant modern meaning, referring to the viewers of an entertainment or readers of a book. The earliest such usage listed in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) dates to 1855. Earlier meanings include “[t]he action of hearing” (dating from c. 1374) and a “[f]ormal hearing,” often with royalty or with a judge (from 1377). Derived from the Latin audire, to hear, the term has a special resonance for children’s literature, for the youngest children are not readers but rather auditors of literature, truly an audience. Indeed the broad term “audience” better captures the many ways in which children consume literature—and other aspects of culture—than does “reader,” the generally preferred term in literary criticism.

Raymond Williams (1976/1983a) did not include “audience” in his Keywords. The term does receive an entry in New Keywords, edited by Tony Bennett, …

Body

The Oxford English Dictionary’s (OED) definition of “body”—”the material frame of man (and animals)”—immediately sets before us one of the term’s principal controversies in children’s literature. That is, what Peter Hunt (1984) would call the adultist, not to mention the sexist, nature of the OED’s language reminds us that the matter of the corporeal is often not deemed proper for the consideration of children and is frequently bound up with questions of gender and the adult body. But when we consider the OED’s elaboration on this definition—“the material body and its properties”—the physical nature of the human body becomes more clearly a matter of interest and importance to the study of children’s literature and culture. David Macaulay’s picture book The Way We Work: Getting to Know the Amazing Human Body (2008) describes the parts of the body and its functions. The American Girl Just Like …

Boyhood

Along with childhood and girlhood, boyhood is central to the definition of children’s literature. John Newbery’s A Little Pretty Pocket-Book (1744), frequently credited with igniting the children’s literature industry, addressed boys and girls separately as distinct audiences: The book was available for purchase with a ball for boys and a pincushion for girls. Filled with descriptions of games specifically for boys and referring to boy players, the 1787 edition published by Isaiah Thomas in the United States paid additional attention to boys by including a prefatory address to adults about how to raise a healthy, virtuous, and wise son, thereby connecting the “birth” of children’s literature with lessons on how to be and have a good boy.

“Boys,” wrote Philippe Ariès in his controversial Centuries of Childhood (1962), “were the first specialized children.” Sixteenth-century Europeans used clothes as markers to distinguish boys from children. As infants and toddlers, boys …

Censorship

The earliest reference to “censor” appears as “one of two magistrates of ancient Rome” (Oxford English Dictionary [OED]), who in addition to taking the census (that is, the registration of citizens, originally for tax purposes), supervised public morals and censured the population (Columbia Encyclopedia 2008). The English words “censor” and “census” are from the Latin censere, which means to appraise, value, judge, consider or assess; “censure” is from the Latin censura, meaning judgment. During the era in which these terms originated, Cato the Elder (234–149 b.c.e.) undertook a vigorous campaign to stem the infiltration of Greek culture (Knowles 2006).

According to the OED, the first modern use of “censor” applied to people whose job it was to ensure that “books, journals, plays, etc.” were free from anything “immoral, heretical or offensive to the State,” and arose in relation to the theater. That is …

Character

The concept of character has two uses in children’s literature discourse. One use belongs to literary criticism, as the critic and reader observe the people in a story or novel as “characters,” that is, as agents or actors (Burke 1973) whose actions move a story through time. The other use refers to the moral qualities of a person. These uses of “character” are related, as the root of the English word lies in a Greek word for a tool used to mark or engrave a material (Oxford English Dictionary [OED]).

By the seventeenth century, the English word came to mean both “the individuality impressed by nature and habit on man or nation; mental or moral constitution” and a “personality invested with distinctive attributes and qualities, by a novelist or dramatist” (OED). In his 1927 lectures later published as Aspects of the Novel, E. M. …

Childhood

“Childhood” is an ancient word in English, not a young one. The Oxford English Dictionary takes as its earliest example for “cildhad” an English gloss inserted during the tenth century between the lines of the Lindisfarne Gospels. The meaning expressed there appears consistent with the most literal strand of our contemporary usage: this passage from the Gospel of Mark (“soð he cuoeð from cildhad”; 9:21) employs childhood as a temporal marker: a father explains to Jesus that his son had been wracked by fits since the earliest years of his life. The miraculous cure Jesus performs stands as a test of belief and a compelling instance of the power of prayer. The gathered crowd, the disciples, and generations of interpreters since have voiced many questions about this scene and what it means, but no one questions the meaning of childhood. This apparent clarity—the confident unanimity over the implications and significance …

Children’s Literature

“Children’s literature” is a term used to describe both a set of texts and an academic discipline—and it is often 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. Henry James, in “The Future of the Novel” (1900b), observed that “the literature, as it may be called for convenience, of children, is an industry,” but not one to be taken seriously: “the sort of taste that used to be called ‘good’ has nothing to do with the matter; we are demonstrably in [the] presence of millions for whom taste is but an obscure, confused, immediate instinct” (quoted in Hughes 1978). As recently as 1997, Roderick McGillis wrote: “[B]ooks for the young still carry a burden of perceived simplicity that sets them outside the complexities we associate with literature for adults.” This view …

Class

The word “class” comes to English from the Latin classis via the French classe. It first appears in Thomas Blount’s Glossographia (1656), where he defined it in the language of the times as “an order or distribution of people according to their several Degrees.” Citing Blount, the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) traces the term’s origins to its use by Servius Tullius who, seeking to raise funds for the Roman military, conducted a census for the purpose of taxing citizens according to their means. He created six categories or classes, based on property or net wealth (Kostick 2005). In spite of the strong resonance of its etymology with contemporary socioeconomic understandings of class, when it first entered the English language classe had greater purchase in reference to a division of scholars or students, and later as a natural history term. According to the OED, its use in …

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