Keeping “Kiddie Lit” in Its Place

HarryPotterRead

On July 23, 2000, the New York Times Book Review changed the rules. While the Harry Potter books were being read by children and adults, in a fit of gerrymandering meant to give commercial space to other books, the Book Review created a separate children’s bestseller list and bumped Rowlings to there.

NEW YORK TIMES BEST SELLERS: July 16, 2000. Fiction

 1  THE HOUSE ON HOPE STREET, by Danielle Steel. (Delacorte, $19.95.) A woman with five children must cope with the loss of her husband, who dies on Christmas Day.
2 HARRY POTTER AND THE PRISONER OF AZKABAN, by J. K. Rowling. (Levine/Scholastic, $19.95.) A British boy’s life at a school for witchcraft is threatened.
3 HARRY POTTER AND THE CHAMBER OF SECRETS, by J. K. Rowling. (Levine/Scholastic, $17.95.) A British boy finds trouble when he returns to a witchcraft school.
4 HARRY POTTER AND THE SORCERER’S STONE, by J. K. Rowling. (Levine/Scholastic, $16.95.) A British boy finds his fortune attending a school for witchcraft.
5 CRADLE AND ALL, by James Patterson. (Little, Brown, $25.95.) A former nun turned private eye works on a case involving two virgins who become pregnant.

On July 23, 2000, the New York Times Book Review changed the rules. For 82 weeks previously, J.K. Rowlings’ Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone had appeared on their Bestseller List and her two subsequent books also occupied two more positions on that treasured list of fifteen. But Goblet of Fire, her fourth book, was about to appear and the Times felt something must be done. Despite the fact that the Harry Potter books were being read by children and adults, in a fit of gerrymandering meant to give space to other books, the Book Review created a separate children’s bestseller list and bumped Rowlings to there.

What if, instead of Rowlings, the bestseller spots had been occupied for weeks by works by Toni Morrison or Judith Krantz or Stephen King? Would the New York Times have created a separate list for African-American Fiction, Women’s Books, or Popular Reading? Why does it seem so unthinkingly acceptable that if a “separate but equal” ghetto should be created, if the concept “bestseller” needed to be redefined and skewed, that it would be okay to do so in terms of age but objectionable if done in terms of race, gender, or class?

BevClark

In her terrific and important Kiddie Lit: The Cultural Construction of Children’s Literature, Beverly Lyon Clark indicates this wasn’t always so. A little more than a hundred years ago, the great writers wrote books for an audience composed of both children and adults: Mark Twain, Robert Louis Stevenson, Louisa May Alcott, Rudyard Kipling, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, et al. And the bestseller lists of the time were headed by the likes of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Little Women, Tom Sawyer, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, Heidi, The Call of the Wild, and Anne of Green Gables. And these books were prominently reviewed by leading critics in the Atlantic Monthly, Harper’s, and other popular magazines. What happened to those days?

Following Felicity Hughes, Clark symbolically lays blame at the doorstep of Henry James. In a bid for respectability, James divided a shared American literature by creating a kind of complex and adult fiction that would be disassociated from the vulgar and popular reading of women and children. He appealed to a cognoscenti, a coterie largely composed of adult white males of a certain social station, the Eastern Establishment nuanced by British inclinations. As Clark points out, James’ heirs eventually came to occupy the men’s clubs at ivy-league universities, the boys in blazers whose highbrow tastes and iron canon ruled throughout most of the twentieth century.

ColumbiaLitHist

Then came the “culture wars” of the last few decades where everybody else asked, “What about us?” In that regard, the Columbia Literary History of the United States (1988) was a milestone, widening the canon to include women and people of color as well as previously unacceptable genres and authors. Now mention could be made, for example, of detective fiction and science fiction, Mexican American and Asian American literature, Zora Neale Hurston and Pearl Buck. But what was still unacceptable?

In some 1300 pages of a Literary History of the United States, no essay concerns Children’s Literature; and since no mention is made of it, you would never know that anyone in America had ever read, for example, The Wizard of Oz or Charlotte’s Web. As Leslie Fiedler has observed, what distinguishes America’s masterpieces from those of other nations–what is central to our literature–is that our classics (e.g., Red Badge of Courage, Huckleberry Finn, The Last of the Mohicans) are notoriously at home in the children’s section of the library. Consequently, to conceive the magnitude of the omission of Children’s Literature in Columbia Literary History of the United States, one would have to imagine a 1300-page study of transportation in China that makes no mention of the bicycle.

In her book, Clark tracks the various moves by which “Kiddie Lit” has been diminished and kept in its place, and she does this by tracing the historical reception of a half dozen or so representative works. As she notes, “childishness” is a dismissive often mixed with slurs on race, gender, and class. In the United States, to call a black man a “boy,” others easily recognize, is to insult an African-American; but Clark would have us recognize, as well, the other insulted party in that slur and the obligation put on African-Americans to forcibly disassociate themselves from that other group in order to rise. In a similar fashion, one of the most immensely popular children’s books in America, Little Lord Fauntleroy, was undermined when it was labeled “effeminate”; why that should be a stigma is worthy of consideration. Finally, for the socially elite, popularity and profitability are equated with vulgarity, so the highbrow write off Harry Potter and Disney’s movies in a supercilious way as things for the hoi polloi and children; Dickens’ books, we might add, suffered a similar fate until they were repositioned and “rescued” by academe.

Huckleberry Finn was also repositioned and “rescued” from “Kiddie Lit” by the arbiters of taste when (in 1950) T.S. Eliot forcibly separated it from Tom Sawyer (its companion boy’s book) and declared that this work “does not fall into the category of juvenile fiction.” Mark Twain would have been surprised. Nonetheless, since that time, an entire industry has grown up of critics who completely ignore Twain’s own notion of that novel as a children’s book and who busily construct arguments for Huck’s maturation in order to get him out of childhood (and that genre) as soon as possible. Now, Huckleberry Finn is generally seen as an adult book, a classic “too good” to be a children’s book, and so (paradoxically) required reading for high-school students.

As Clark suggests, the case of Little Women is more complex. Beloved for a hundred years but never mentioned in histories of American Literature, Louisa May Alcott’s novel began to enter the canon in the 1970’s with the rise of Feminism. Regrettably, the first step was to “rescue” this novel from Kiddie Lit; Elaine Showalter’s Introduction to the Penguin edition (1989), for example, essentially steps on one group to raise another, arguing this “women’s novel” is better than the puerility of a “children’s book.” Indeed, in feminist circles, Alcott was first “rehabilitated” by the discovery of her adult thrillers; Alcott’s work for children was slower to receive acceptance and it was only in the second edition of the Norton Anthology of Literature by Women (1996) that excerpts from Little Women appeared and with the publisher trumpeting the introduction of “a genre new to the anthology: children’s writing.” Only recently have feminists come to realize that there are two groups that traditionally share the lifeboat, and that to step on children and their literature is to do the same to women and their works.

Clark’s book, then, is a “must read” for scholars in Children’s Literature, a group already with a chip on its shoulder, a literary specialization whose leading journal was once called The Great Excluded. In an era when they teach books like those of Harry Potter which the masses read, and in an era when the New York Times goes through extraordinary contortions to keep their genre in its place, Children’s Literature enthusiasts can become, via Clark’s study, more articulate about their righteousness. At the same time, those who should read this book–the nabobs gloried at the plenary sessions of the MLA convention, the grandsons of Henry James in their ivy-league blazers and the few women and people of color they have now allowed into their club–will not and that is a continuing shame.

Kiddie Lit, then, is an account of the discipline thus far; and as this review has indicated, Clark suggests how its development has followed models arising from interrogations of issues of class, race, and gender. If I may, let me suggest the agenda likely to be followed in the future.

The study of Children’s Literature has one more model to absorb before coming into its own and that is postcolonial thinking. Clark hints at this by noting, for example, that while no essay on The Wizard of Oz has ever appeared in the PMLA, several have appeared on the Alice books because (she opines) they are British; she observes that the Alcott revival was first prompted by an appearance of a front-page essay on Alcott in 1965 in London’s Sunday Times which granted her acceptability; and Clark wonders whether the open-mindedness proffered Harry Potter in some intellectual circles may arise from the books’ old school ties and British imprimatur. It is not a far step from this, as some critics have begun to discover, to postcolonial criticism and the transfer of tropes found there to the special status of children and their literature; indeed, let me go further and add that the situation of adults writing about Children’s Literature resembles that of the emigrant and, say, Irish-Americans writing about Irishness.

Finally, it’s worth noting that each of these prior models has come in two phases: the first is a parsing of victimization, and the second a recognition of distinctness–so, for example, we now discuss what is particular to African-American literature or sources of feminine pride in “old wives’ tales.” That day is coming in the study of Children’s Literature. At the moment, however, the talk is all of the “constructions” of childhood, as if to suggest age boundaries are entirely arbitrary and/or hurtful. But just as we all aren’t the same color, when it comes to age, we all aren’t essentially the same; if it were otherwise, we would see adults setting up “camps” under tables and seniors playing on the rug with tiny figurines. Discussions about what is distinct to childhood and particular to its proud literature–that second phase is still coming. Clark’s Kiddie Lit: The Cultural Construction of Children’s Literature in America is poised on the cusp of that change.


Kiddie Lit: The Cultural Construction of Children’s Literature in AmericaBy Beverly Lyon Clark. Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003. This review originally appeared in Children’s Literature Association Quarterly, vol. 28 No. 4 (Winter 2003-2004) [requires subscription].

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09. March 2016 by Jerry Griswold
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