The word “theory” appears in Raymond Williams’s original Keywords (1976). He traces its origins back to the Greek theoros, meaning “spectator,” with its root in thea, for “sight,” which also gave us “theater.” As more recent commentators put it, “[T]he literal sense of looking has then been metaphorized to that of contemplating or speculating” (Wolfreys et al. 2006). The term became increasingly opposed to “practice,” not only as something removed from the everyday, but also as something involved in attempts to explain and model the everyday. Although the title of Williams’s work—_Keywords—_implicitly underwrites the importance of language, his own humanistic approach became more and more at odds with the “linguistic turn” in literary and cultural studies.
Regardless of the recent shift toward making it more explicit, theory has always been present both in discussions of literary texts and in the texts themselves, even if an awareness of this has been lacking. Readers who declare that they are atheoretical, limiting themselves to the words on the page, are deceiving themselves. Readers always “frame” texts; merely to see a work as “literary” involves certain theoretical assumptions, as does presupposing a text is for “children”—let alone that it is “Romantic,” “realistic,” “allegorical,” “unsuitable,” or whatever.
In a similar way, primary texts are themselves interwoven with theoretical notions. Sometimes these are relatively overt—as, for instance, in the many allusions to Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution in Victorian works. In Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865), for instance, we find the various creatures (including a Dodo and an ape in the illustration) swimming around in the pool of tears where the talk is of predation; and, like the first species to leave the sea, once on dry land they engage in a seemingly meaningless, competitive race. At other times, theoretical notions are less obvious, especially with the sort of theory that is linked to commonsense knowledge. For example, philosophers from Aristotle on (males, mostly) have theorized the inferiority of females to males, aligning the former with nature rather than culture; empirically, of course, such an argument could even be supported by pointing to women’s comparative absence from the cultural landscape. And such notions are further underwritten in countless social scripts, including many children’s stories—think, for example, of the realistic, human characters in E. B. White’s Charlotte’s Web (1952).
Women, standing slightly apart from the cultural center, are more likely to view things differently. And it is this notion of seeing from a particular vantage point that informs much theory; indeed, we are taken back to the word’s roots in spectatorship and its links to “theater.” Theorizing, therefore, involves the framing, or staging, of a bit of reality, in order to pay it more attention—precisely what we do when we place a word or phrase in quotation marks. Moreover, we could argue that this is precisely what fantasy does: it takes us to another realm, giving us some sort of critical distance on our world. Again, Carroll’s work, this time Through the Looking Glass (1871), comes most readily to mind, but there is a far older tradition of “topsy-turvydom,” of stories where the world is turned upside down, from Ann and Jane Taylor’s Signor Topsy-Turvy’s Wonderful Magic Lantern (1810) right through to modern stories where animals replace humans in society (as in the books of Richard Scarry). Returning to the example of Charlotte’s Web, then, we might profitably note that the fantasy realm is where gender stereotyping is queried, Charlotte being situated squarely within the realm of culture (as author, manipulator of words, web-designer even), and Wilbur exhibiting a more maternal, nurturing side.
Although Marxist critics had long pointed out that our notions of reality are shaped by our sociocultural situation, it was only in the late 1960s that the theory-laden nature of all discourse was made explicit. Words that had once seemed innocent were increasingly placed in quotation marks (“scare quotes”) in order to scrutinize their provenance and implication. Of course, the field of nonsense writing is premised on just such attention, playing up the physicality of words: their shape, the way they can be broken into independent syllables (often containing other words), or have their letters transposed in spoonerism, or simply have their sound prioritized over sense. James Thurber’s The Wonderful O (1957), Norton Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth (1961), and Dr. Seuss’s Fox in Socks (1965) are eminent examples of works that celebrate the materiality of words, acknowledging precursors like Carroll and Lear, who pushed language toward the limits of signification.
While such verbal games and inversions of reality are undoubtedly fun, they also have a subversive dimension, which Mikhail Bakhtin (1968) most explicitly theorized in his notion of the “carnivalesque.” In other words, simply creating a space in which the normal coordinates of reality are altered opens up the possibility that things could be otherwise—that, for instance, females (like Charlotte) might indeed build, write, or hunt. The Russian formalists, with whom Bakhtin was connected, had the related notion of “defamiliarization” which, in making the familiar strange, captures for many the essence of literary text. Nonsense and fantasy make this process most explicit (and, notably, are particularly associated with children), but realist texts do the same, albeit in a subtler manner. That is, they bracket off a portion of the world, making us view it afresh as a result of the framing. The book itself is a frame, of course, but it contains other lens-like devices, such as narrators, who also help mediate our view; and then there is the framing of the “chronotope,” which organizes the story within a particular envelope of time and space.
These mediators perhaps make it clearer why theory is forever present; for, even if not explicitly articulated, each text sets out a certain way of ordering the world according to particular ethical considerations. So if it is claimed that a text is realist, we need always to ask “Whose reality?” Karl Marx, of course, claimed that the ideas of the ruling class always prevailed, that our reality was always ideologically charged. It is certainly the case that most children’s books are written from a middle-class perspective, and some critics, building on F. J. Harvey Darton’s (1932/1982) seminal work (e.g., Leeson 1985; O’Malley 2003) have even suggested that their very origin as a separate commodity lay with the rising bourgeoisie, who sought to define and promulgate new codes of behavior, as exemplified, for instance, in Thomas Day’s History of Sandford and Merton (1783–89).
What we now think of as theory, sometimes termed “critical theory,” emerged in the late 1960s on the back of the Civil Rights movement in the United States and, both there and elsewhere, the general challenging of elitist higher education—most vociferously in Paris in May 1968, where an alliance of students and workers sought to overthrow the government. Different social groups then began to theorize their situation. Aside from class, race was a key area. Why were there so few black characters in books for children, for example, and even when present, why were they represented in such stereotypical ways (see Broderick 1973; more recently, Martin 2004; Smith 2004)? Concerned readers scrutinized classics previously seen as respectable, such as Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn (1885) or Helen Bannerman’s Little Black Sambo (1899), sometimes resulting in revised versions. This focused attention led to wider questions about the treatment of different races and nations, with works such as Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719) being seen as archetypal in establishing the initial colonizer/colonized relationship—though the books in question were by no means historical only. Roald Dahl’s original Oompa-Loompas in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (1964), for instance, were revised to avoid the criticism that they were effectively black slaves.
Women equally protested their second-class status and, like the other groups mentioned, found that Marxism provided a useful terminology with which to articulate (that is, to show linkages, to spell-out) their situation. They reworked (and often removed from their original economic context) notions of ideology, false consciousness, hegemony, consciousness-raising, and fetishization. Clearly, this process of a group protesting its marginalization will continue as long as people experience injustice: they frame their situation, to use that term again, separating themselves out from the background. So, out of disability arose disability studies (see Lois Keith’s Take Up Thy Bed and Walk ), from the gay community came queer theory (see Bruhm and Hurley 2004), and so forth.
While these theoretical concerns arose from particular interest groups (that is, they all had humanist roots), at the end of the 1960s there was a shift towards an antihumanist way of thinking. This shift could itself be rooted in Marx, with many separating out an earlier, more humanist Marx (the one preferred by Williams) from a later, structuralist thinker, the latter being most prominently theorized by Louis Althusser (1971); in the latter’s hands, ideology becomes all-pervasive, with individual agency downgraded.
Structuralism modeled itself on linguistics, attempting to read everything in society as though it had an underlying grammar. The movement was influenced by the work of Russian formalists like Vladimir Propp (1928), who explored the structure of Russian folktales, noting that they all made standard moves, and that they featured a select few, functional character types (a hero, a helper, a villain, and so on). Jean Piaget, another well-known structuralist, sought to show how humans at different stages of their development understood the world. His work was particularly popular with children’s literature critics (Tucker 1981), as it seemed to answer the vexed question of what books might be suitable for children of a particular age. If, say, a child thinks in “preoperational” terms (as Piaget argued was common before age seven), then it should appreciate characters in books who do the same. Winnie-the-Pooh regularly exhibits preoperational thinking, imagining that “living under the name of Sanders” must entail Pooh being situated precisely under just such a named sign (Singer 1972). Unfortunately, Piaget’s model could not explain why many children did not enjoy these texts, or why many adults did. Moreover, because Piaget’s theory was extensively used in education, influencing the age-grading of classes and even the structure of the curriculum, studies conducted in his name almost by default found supporting evidence (Walkerdine 1984).
However, although these early structuralists tried to understand the human mind—Claude Lévi-Strauss, for example, pointing out how we ordered the world in terms of binary opposites—later writers picked up on the theory’s latent antihumanism. Namely, if the categories of language precede individuals, then people are actually just “subjects” fulfilling society’s functions, much like the folktale characters Propp analyzed. Notions of individuality and agency are undermined; rather than instigating action, we are, as Althusser puts it, “interpellated” or “hailed” by society, with ideology simply making us believe that things are otherwise.
In retrospect, structuralism’s lasting contribution seems to have been in terms of story analysis, building on the insights of the formalists in what is now known as “narratology” (e.g., Stephens 1992; Nikolajeva 2002c). But for children’s literature, especially, structuralism was also liberating in challenging the sanctity of the canon, showing that the humblest folktale might be structured just like a classic. In the process, the words “text” and “reading” were extended to artifacts other than books (e.g., pictures, films, toys), allowing analysts to read across various forms (Mackey 1998). In short, a way of examining texts was discovered that set aside their pedigree, the continual need to evaluate and rank: literary theory morphed into a more general cultural theory. Furthermore, structuralism not only opened up the textual landscape, it also democratized reading itself, allowing new and innovative interpretations to challenge old orthodoxies. As Roland Barthes (1977) put it, the death of the author comes with the birth of the reader.
This, more playful, antihierarchical approach led to poststructuralism (although the shift was always implicit). Structuralism ultimately depicted a static world, structured around binary oppositions, whereas language—where structuralism’s insights originated—is open-ended and creative. Moreover, structuralism tended to be conservative in other ways, always prioritizing one side of a binary opposition: man over woman and culture over nature (as we saw earlier). Jacques Derrida drew attention to this, and to the fact that each term actually depends on its supposed opposite for meaning. He thus showed not only the interdependence of words and their constituent signifiers, but also their slipperiness, resulting in the notion that readings of texts are always provisional, dependent on systems of thought and concepts that also lack any final grounding (whether in God, King, or country—to name but three ideas, certainly powerful in Victorian England, and in the ascendant for writers such as G. A. Henty).
But if theory was seen as more democratic in this regard, in other ways it was becoming more hieratic (“high theory”), requiring considerable time and energy to master. It became the preserve of the university, leaving behind many of the interest groups that had initially sought it out. Certainly there was a tension here. For some critics of children’s literature, theory seemed a way of gaining academic credibility. For others, such as Peter Hunt (1984), adult-oriented approaches betrayed the exceptional status of children’s literature; his “childist criticism,” therefore, demanded that we, as critics, try to read as might a child—in other words, the child itself became the framer of readings. However, for critics influenced by poststructuralism, the idea of uncovering some special “childness,” to use another favored term (Hollindale 1997), was seen as a retrograde step. Rather than a “childist” perspective framing our readings, the child itself needed to be put under the microscope—especially the “Romantic child,” which, it was argued, had for too long given theorists an overly simplistic perception of children as innocent and asexual (Rose 1984; Higonnet 1998). Moreover, these and other critics (Kincaid 1992; Honeyman 2005) argued that such a conception actually made children more vulnerable.
For some writers, “reader-response criticism” seemed to provide an answer in its recognition that children read texts in different ways (Benton 2005). A number of critics consequently examined the reading practices of their own progeny, situating these in the children’s wider social world (of siblings, television, toys, family life; e.g., Crago and Crago 1983; Wolf and Heath 1992; Lowe 2007). In ethnographic terms, these studies provided excellent “thick description,” although the theoretical premises of the movement—for example, Wolfgang Iser’s (1974) notion that readers fill preexisting “indeterminacies” in a text—were often neglected. Ironically, the latter readings were mostly conducted by adults in the absence of actual children (e.g., Chambers 1985b; Steig 1998). It should also be noted that ethnographies of reading don’t address the deeper issues of children’s literature: why, for example, children are being presented with these particular texts in the first place. What did their writers imagine they were doing? And how do these children’s reported readings, themselves usually mediated by their adult observers, begin to capture the pleasures, obsessions, and terrors of texts?
The key theoretical area that has tried to address these issues is, of course, psychoanalysis. Given that childhood experiences are so central to psychoanalysis, it is hardly surprising that Freud’s insights have been applied to children’s texts (e.g., Phillips 1972; Rollin 1992), with fairy tales being subjected to this form of criticism more than most. Critics, however, are divided. Some argue that the prevalence of stepmothers and abandoned children is a result of contemporary social conditions (high mortality rates for mothers in childbirth, extensive poverty; Darnton 1984), whereas others find more deep-seated concerns revealed by these motifs: a split between good and bad mothers, fears of abandonment, and so on (Bettelheim 1976). Whatever its intrinsic merits, however, psychoanalysis had a particular appeal to marginalized groups precisely because of its lack of respectability and official acceptance; it therefore fed into much feminist theorizing and, perhaps for the same reason, into children’s literature criticism (e.g., Wilkie-Stibbs 2002; Coats 2004).
This more strategic approach to theory makes an important point: whereas this entry has attempted to tease out distinct approaches, in practice most critics are more eclectic, using whatever seems apposite. Obviously, for those new to theory it takes a while to come to terms with the different strands, but thereafter one does not apply theory as one might a poultice. Williams, in his original Keywords, notes that theory is sometimes seen as opposed to practice, but he points out that this need not be so and suggests a more fruitful way in which we might see the relationship. That approach is to see theory not as separate—as optional, or as off-the-peg—but as something one practices in the course of criticism: speculating, making connections. One might here adopt Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s (1988) notion of a “rhizomatic” form of criticism, one that is antihierarchical, that is not interested in trying to uncover underlying meanings, but, rather, simply wishes to make connections. In this way we can see that children’s books are not only illuminated by theory, but that theory is itself informed and enlivened by the literature—as Freud found with Sophocles’s Oedipus, and as many theorists have found with Carroll’s Alice, Russell Hoban’s The Mouse and His Child (1967), or Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea series (1968–2001).
After the end of “grand narratives,” as Jean-François Lyotard (1984) famously called them, which morphed into decades of equally high, but more disparate theory (the “theory wars”), some have argued that theory is over (Cunningham 2002; Payne and Schad 2004). It was suggested at the outset that this could never be so. However, theory has undoubtedly become more embedded, more eclectic; for example, those calling themselves New Historicists celebrate a blend of approaches (e.g., Myers 1995; Vallone 1995). Queer theory is particularly interesting in this regard, first growing out of gender studies, then gay and lesbian studies, before emerging as something that not only questions our sexuality but, for many practitioners, is a way of engaging with the continual queering, or querying, of interpretation (Huskey 2002; Bruhm and Hurley 2004; Rabinowitz 2004). This would seem as good a definition as any: theory helps us see how a particular constellation of linkages throws into relief particular elements of a text, and how productive this can be for our understanding of society, its people, and its artifacts. Fantasy, in its seemingly playful way, does much the same, helping us question the everyday and its prejudices, while also letting us speculate on possibilities and alternatives.