Children’s Literature Offers Something

Earlier today I wrote a post called “Danger: No Children.” It offered an overview and critique of Doris Lessing’s novel The Four-Gated City.  While the meat of the blog may have been drab (you know, a review of sorts), the title was damn sexy.  Danger: No Children.

Driving to Londonderry today I had time to think about that title.  Particularly, I had to come back to an earlier piece of writing that I did about children’s literature and the importance of children as revolutionary actors in the national framework.

Like children, children’s literature has a lot to offer. Both are vital to understanding the culture of literacy, the relationship between aesthetics and language, and the pursuit of imagination in the modern world. Like children, too, children’s literature has been considered inferior in numerous academic circles despite the fact that some of the most celebrated authors have contributed, not only to the literary canon of great works, but also to the large body of children’s literature. “Speaking to the child” is something that, perhaps, adults feel they must do with force or intention. Adults tend to approach children’s literature the way that they approach children: looking for heuristic value, searching for signs of moral decomposition, and hoping that they might find a key to imagination. Adults think they are different from children, and so require a different literature. This fantasy of difference is dangerous because children, in some ways more than adults, have the potential to challenge the rationalistic, empirical thought-processes that threaten to stagnate cultural progression.

Children’s literary theory gives adults the rare opportunity to reassess formative literatures that work silently in the underbelly of modern politics; children’s literature threatens to deconstruct “realistic” perceptions of the materialistic world through a celebration of fantasy, dreams, and possibilities. What would our government, our school systems, our families, look like if the law which governs children’s literature were the law of the adult world? We tend to fear the open-endedness of this world.

My interest in children’s literature and theory comes from my lost faith the governing body of philosophical thinking that rules our academic institutions. As an educator, I want to open doors and challenge social and cultural constructs. To do this well, I believe we need to approach these constructs as outsiders – and who are bigger outsiders in this world than children?

Peter Hunt claims that “it is clear that adult readers can never share the same background as children.” He identifies three primary ways that adults read children’s books: as if they were peer-texts, on behalf of the child, and with an eye to discussing them with other adults. But these ways of reading feed into the exact constructs that children’s literature has the potential to deconstruct. In order to dismantle the politics that restrict our modes of creative thought most, adult readers need to approach children’s texts as children would: with a willingness to disjoint the ego, displace the rational mind, and embrace the possibilities that lurk in the obscure distance for human evolution.

Danger: Children.

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