By Philip Nel

About Philip Nel

Philip Nel is Professor of English and Director of Kansas State University’s Program in Children’s Literature. His most recent books are Tales for Little Rebels (co-edited with Julia Mickenberg); The Annotated Cat; and Dr. Seuss: American Icon. His critical biography of Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss is forthcoming.


For their work on and advocacy for this book, our thanks to Eric Zinner, Ciara McLaughlin, and Despina P. Gimbel at New York University Press. For providing a model for Keywords for Children’s Literature, thanks to Bruce Burgett and Glenn Hendler, editors of Keywords for American Cultural Studies, and Tony Bennett, Lawrence Grossberg, and Meaghan Morris, editors of New Keywords. Extra thanks are due to Hendler, whose presentation at the 2007 Futures of American Studies Institute inspired this project.

Thanks to our agent, George Nicholson, for his support and guidance, and to George’s assistant, Erica Silverman, for hers.

We are grateful to Rachel Parkin for her meticulous work, tidying up formatting, compiling the Works Cited section, and assembling final queries for each contributor. Thanks to Jon Eben Field for indexing. For helping us evaluate cover designs, thanks to Stephen T. Johnson, Mark Newgarden, and Megan Montague Cash. We …


Since about 1970, scholarship in children’s literature has brought together people from the fields of literature, education, library and information science, cultural studies, and media studies. “Children’s literature” itself has become a kind of umbrella term encompassing a wide range of disciplines, genres, and media. One of the challenges of children’s literature studies is that scholars from disparate disciplines use the same terms in different ways. As a result, meanings can be blurred and cross-disciplinary conversations confused. Drawing on the expertise of scholars in many fields, Keywords for Children’s Literature responds to the need for a shared vocabulary by mapping the history of key terms and explaining how they came to be used in conflicted ways.

As Beverly Lyon Clark points out in Kiddie Lit: The Cultural Construction of Children’s Literature in America (2003), the (often male) “professoriate” in English literature departments treated librarians “more as handmaidens than as fellow …

Note on Classroom Use

Each entry in Keywords for Children’s Literature maps a series of questions, rather than providing conclusive answers. In the spirit of Raymond Williams’ Keywords and of Bruce Burgett and Glen Hendler’s Keywords for American Cultural Studies, our book invites exploration, discussion, and challenge. When using the book in a classroom setting, teachers embrace these generative possibilities to get their students thinking more deeply about the contradictions, problems, and complexities that circulate within and around children’s literature.

Since the publication of Keywords for Children’s Literature in 2011, instructors have used the text in both graduate and undergraduate courses in Library and Information Studies, Education, Social and Cultural Studies, Comparative Literature, and English (notably, Young Adult Literature and other Children’s Literature courses). By structuring courses so that primary texts are read in conjunction with specific keywords essays, instructors encourage the interrogation and application of terms used in their particular disciplines. Instructors …


“Postmodernism” denotes an historical period, a style, or a cultural logic. If an historical period, then the word means after modernism—although when, precisely, modernism ended is debatable: 1939, 1945, and 1950 are common dates, but the term “postmodernism” crops up well before then. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) finds J. M. Thompson in 1914 using “Post-Modernism” to describe a shift in Christian thinking that would “escape from the double-mindedness of Modernism.” A still earlier example eluded the OED: circa 1870, the English painter John Watkins Chapman spoke of “postmodern painting,” which he alleged was more avant-garde than French impressionism (Storey 2005). To denote a new period in literature or architecture, however, the term gained wide use in the 1960s, with the earliest such uses occurring in the 1940s.

In the 1980s and 1990s, children’s literature witnessed the rise of a postmodernism characterized by three different but …

Sample Assignment #1

Through the 2016-17 academic year, we—Phil and Lissa—were soliciting authors for our second, more international edition of Keywords for Children’s Literature, co-edited with Nina Christensen and slated for publication by New York University Press in 2019. With the parameters we had outlined for the established authors we solicited so clearly in our minds, we both set “keywords” assignments for our students in our respective master’s level classes. Lissa’s assignment was for students in the winter 2017 session of EDUC 5P01: Introduction to Social and Cultural Contexts of Education: Developing a Critical Language, Phil’s for English 703: Critical Approaches to Children’s Literature in Spring 2017. In pedagogical terms, we had both decided to give our students “problem-based learning” assignments, that is the tasks we assigned to our students closely resembled the ones we gave to established scholars. Phil and Lissa gave similar assignments to their students, though Lissa designated hers …

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