My rating: 4 of 5 stars
To make an ineloquent (and possibly disturbing) comparison, what’s been said to be true of pornography is also true of children’s literature – i.e. we take for granted that we’ll know it when we see it, but trying to define its boundaries runs into difficulties at every turn. One imagines an illustrated book, simple of language and subject matter, featuring a child as protagonist, and avoiding the most traumatic or shocking subjects and themes, but none of those conditions has proven necessary and / or sufficient. Reynolds presents a landscape of children’s literature (and the debates swirling about it) through history, one that keeps in mind that the subject is slippery.
The book consists of six chapters and some ancillary matter. The first chapter sketches an overview of the history of children’s literature [restricted to English language books.] Here we see the changing face of kid’s lit over time, and learn how children’s literature only gradually became a distinct field, moving from the earliest English translation of “Aesop’s Fables” in the 15th century to the multimedia literary experiences of today.
Chapter 2 is the longest chapter and it investigates the many ways children’s books have been studied, and to what ends. As with adult literature, there are many different perspectives by which literary works can be analyzed, and many that apply to adult books are also seen here with their own child-oriented considerations: e.g. psychoanalytical, gender-centric, linguistic, stylistic, and historical. There are also some uniquely child-applicable considerations that are presented as well, such as how well adults can write in ways which optimally resonate with kids.
Chapter 3 investigates how the field has moved beyond the book to convey stories – old and new – in ways that might be more effective in reaching a diverse body of children. Emphasis is given to how the story experience can be more interactive and flexible to the needs of a broad audience.
The fourth chapter is about genre. In one sense, children’s books are considered a genre, but then there are many cross-genre books such as science fiction or fantasy books directed at a youthful readership. Special focus is given to the family story. The advantage of the family story genre is that it’s one area in which the child can be expected to have some level of experience. [Even orphans will have some sense of interpersonal dynamics by which they can relate.]
The penultimate chapter is about children’s literature as a means to prepare children for a future, from personal level considerations of mortality to societal level issues like ecological tragedy. Children’s fiction that looks to the future has become an increasing trend in the modern era.
The final chapter is where Reynolds gets to the most controversial aspect of children’s literature, which is whether (and, if so, how) subject matter should (or shouldn’t) be limited. One worrying concern is that children’s stories can become thinly-veiled means of indoctrination into political or religious (or anti-religious) dogma. It’s not just a matter of adults having greater discernment, but also that they have greater freedom to choose what books are available to them. The other major issue is to what degree children should be protected from traumatic, complex, or controversial subject matter, e.g. sex, suicide, etc.
The ancillary matter mostly consists of graphics (often historic art / artifacts of relevance) as well as a references / further reading section that is arranged by chapter.
If you’re looking for a concise overview of children’s literature and the debates and challenges that exist around it, this book provides a quick outline of the subject which references many exemplary works that can be looked into for more in-depth investigation.
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