The Study of Children’s Literature

The future of the profession ca. 2002 (from Children’s Literature in Education)

For two days last August [2001], nearly a hundred international scholars met at the National Centre for Research in Children’s Literature at the University of Surrey in Roehampton (U.K.) to discuss “The Future of the Subject.” Kimberly Reynolds (the Director of NCRCL) invited me to attend, probably because of my gray hair. That gray hair served me well since the attendees soon discovered that you can’t discuss the future of the discipline without examining its past.

Me and my gray hair.

Now in my fifties, I count myself among a second generation of scholars in the field; and while there are others in my generational cohort, out of consideration to sensitivities they might have about my mentioning their ages, I will not identify them (though they will know who they are). I studied under Francelia Butler at the University of Connecticut, who was one of the great pioneers in the field and someone I would identify as part of a first generation of scholars in Children’s Literature. And now, there is already a third generation on the scene: young scholars amending and criticizing what their predecessors have done.

In my experience, general discussions of our profession always begin in the same way, and that was the case in Roehampton. Individuals complain that they have to defend the legitimacy of their field to their colleagues, that they and their discipline get no respect, etc. And often these complaints are accompanied by striking anecdotes of others’ obtuseness or unfairness, to which the assembled respond with expressions of sympathy and outrage.

I understand the sociological reason for such complaints, and how this litany of woes creates a community among the aggrieved and the righteous. But I must also admit that, by this point, discussions that amount to a Defense of the Discipline fill me with both weariness and nostalgia. Many of us, it seems to me, have gone quite a distance beyond Square One and don’t feel a real need to constantly revert to justifications of our specialty.

My generation fought those battles years ago and (in ways I will soon qualify) I’d say we won. Children’s Literature is now taught by hundreds of universities in their literature departments, the Modern Language Association has given the field status as a division and routinely hosts a number of panels at its annual convention, the leading journal in the field is published by Yale University . . . other evidence might be supplied, but I don’t wish to travel again this well-worn path of arguing for the field’s legitimacy. As the contemporary expression has it: “Been there. Done that.”

But in saying “We won,” let me make two qualifications. First, I can only speak with familiarity about developments in North America and certain parts of Western Europe; I know that in other areas the evolution of the discipline has been uneven and is at different stages. Second, let me say that I am (and have been) unusually fortunate at my own university to be surrounded by colleagues also engaged with Children’s Literature; I realize that there are others elsewhere who are the sole scholar in their field and who may still need to defend their interests and pursuits among skeptical colleagues. But setting aside these geographical and individual situations, and looking at the discipline in a general way, it seems to me that issues of legitimacy are now more or less moot and that, at this point, other issues have arisen that are more pressing when we consider the Future of the Profession.

In talking about Children’s Literature we are often only talking to ourselves and our protégés.

For those genuinely interested in this topic, I recommend Jack Zipes’s new book, Sticks and Stones: The Troublesome Success of Children’s Literature from Slovenly Peter to Harry Potter. I came away from that book with a worry. For our purposes here, Zipes essentially argues that Children’s Literature is a genre maintained by a circle of scholars, that the profession constitutes a kind of closed club, and that in talking about Children’s Literature we are often only talking to ourselves and our protégés.

As much as these ideas might seem hyperbolic, and as much as Zipes himself might object to this horrible simplification of his book, I worry that there is a degree of truth in his observation that “we are only talking to ourselves.” But before recommending some remedies, before discussing some possible Futures of the Profession, I think it is important to notice a context — what you might call an historical dialectic.

In the early days of this discipline, certain measures were absolutely necessary. At this later point, however, some of these remedies have now become problems themselves and the pendulum needs to swing in the other direction; trends have to be reversed or at least questioned. Let me mention five areas in a more or less anecdotal manner.

1. The Great Excluded?

In bygone days, there were few places where scholars in Children’s Literature could publish their work and, for that reason, Francelia Butler created a journal — the one now called Children’s Literature and published by Yale University Press. But before it was taken over by a university press, that journal (for several issues) was known by another name, and I believe that name is symbolically significant. Francelia called the journal The Great Excluded. That is really a revealing phrase, with its attendant feelings of persecution and righteousness. In Francelia’s eyes, if this nascent field of Children’s Literature was not accepted by the powers-that-be, then it would glory in its exclusion and prize its separation.

Those were the necessary conditions that gave rise to this and other journals in the field. But at this point, it may be worth wondering whether such exclusivity is still valuable. To reshape Zipes’s critique in a more specific manner: Are scholars in Children’s Literature only writing for their peers in the discipline when they publish exclusively in journals dedicated to this subject area?

Needless to say, in a now more enlightened time, specialists in Children’s Literature could (and perhaps should) be endeavoring to see their work published in other and (I hesitate to use this word) mainstream journals. Whether one is writing about Frances Hodgson Burnett or picture books or countless other subjects, there are journals outside those of our own discipline that might provide venues for this kind of work and reach audiences outside our own club. Submissions of this kind would also allow Children’s Literature scholars to play with the Big Boys and Big Girls in a less insular world. Please understand me: I do not wish to see journals in our own discipline fail for lack of submissions; I am only suggesting that there are opportunities to expand beyond the realm of the Great Excluded.

2. Discussions in a Wider Literary Context

Recently, I have been reading Italo Calvino’s marvelous collection of essays, Six Memos for the Next Millennium. I was struck that in making his points about different ideas or themes, Calvino makes reference to Dante, Borges, “A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream,” Kafka, Lucretius, and more. When I compare, however, Calvino’s essays to the kind of essays written by scholars in our own discipline, a worry arises — a worry prompted by Zipes’s critique that we are only speaking to ourselves and our protégés.

Sometimes, essays on Children’s Literature give the impression of having been written in a closed system. It needn’t be that way. When someone writes, for example, about colonialism in Burnett’s The Secret Garden, all the references or comparisons need not be to Kipling or Babar or other literature intended for children. Surely, references might be made, for example, to Shakespeare’s The Tempest or Aphra Behn’s Orinooko or other works; and in this way, such an essay might be more valuable, comprehensive and accessible.

While scholars in our discipline are ready to import theories employed with different literary materials, in other ways they seem less willing to practice what they preach. If Children’s Literature rightfully deserves its place at the banquet table with other kinds of literary study, then we might act as if it were so and position our discussions in a wider literary context.

Related to this is a complaint I sometimes hear from students: that there are few places where one might do specialized study in Children’s Literature. I agree that this is the case and that such specialized programs need to exist. On the other hand, my sympathy only extends so far because in addition to Charlotte’s Web and the Brothers Grimm, I believe it is important that students have a wide familiarity with literature in general — with Shakespeare, Melville, Brontë, Voltaire, Borges, Kafka, and others.

3. Conferences: Literary Critics & Public Intellectuals

I used to have a beef with people who organized conferences in Children’s Literature. Too often, it seemed to me, they invited creative writers as their featured speakers rather than literary critics — or people who do what we do. There are, of course, exceptions: writers (Maurice Sendak, for example) who also have the interpretative skills of a critic. But too often, I have sat though after-dinner speeches by authors who have had no sense of their audience and what we do, who gave talks that they must have given to parent groups or would-be writers on a Saturday afternoon at the public library.

Things have changed, and now more often we see literary critics featured at conventions and conferences. But when I see at these affairs the same faces over and over again (my own among them), I wonder whether Zipes might be right in painting our discipline as a closed circle in which we are talking to each other and our protégés.

Some of the most interesting work with Children’s Literature is now being done by individuals who are not often seen at these conventions and who might be described as “public intellectuals.” Marina Warner, Alison Lurie, Iona Opie, Humphrey Carpenter, Leonard Marcus, and others — these are people working in our disciplinary area but (with one recent exception) not being featured at our conventions. It is as if in our feelings of being the Great Excluded, we have turned our backs and formed a circle that has shut them out. I think this is something that should change, if we are concerned with the Future of the Profession and wish to address Zipes’s critique. Conference organizers, please take note.

4. Reaching Out to Education & Library Science. Speaking to the Public.

For quite a few years, in organizations and at conferences and in other ways, literary scholars in Children’s Literature have put out the welcome mat for their colleagues in Education and in Library Science, and have said that there is a place for parents and schoolteachers and like-minded souls. But in terms of translating words into action, a lot of this has amounted to lip service — sincere but empty expressions of goodwill. I think there is an historical reason for that.

In the early days of this profession, literary scholars needed to establish the field of Children’s Literature as an area of literary study, and that meant discussions among ourselves and distinguishing ourselves from our cousins in Education and Library Science so that we (and our colleagues) might see how we were different. Too often, colleagues in literature departments thought we might be working, say, with puppets in our classrooms. And too often, instead of recalling works like Treasure Island, colleagues wondered whether we were discussing the kind of children’s books found in supermarkets. As a result, a certain distancing of ourselves from our cousins in other disciplines was an historically necessary phase in self-definition.

Now that we have a firmer understanding of who we are and in answer to Zipes’s critique, the time may have come for a genuine reaching-out to our counterparts in Education, Library Science, and elsewhere. Having entered into discussions of this kind, let me suggest that two things are important: a need to search for areas of shared interest and, simultaneously, a clear understanding of how our interests are different.

At Chula Vista, California, Learning Community Charter School.

What I am arguing for, in other words, is a larger social role for scholars in Children’s Literature; and let me add that among all the various specialties in literary studies, our own field may lend itself more to these kinds of good works. The shape of this social participation will, of course, differ according to the individuals involved. Some may be comfortable in schools, working with children, others working with schoolteachers. Still others might find yet other ways.

What I am suggesting, as a remedy to Zipes’s critique about our exclusivity, is that Children’s Literature scholars take a more public role. Let me explain by way of example. At the moment, thousands of people want to understand the Harry Potter phenomenon: what is it about these books that makes them so popular, and why is it at this time that we need such books? For my part, I am grateful to read about J. K. Rowling and her books in essays published in journals within our speciality. At the same time, however, I think the occasion is right for scholars within our discipline to be introducing their ideas in more public forums and to be writing for newspapers and magazines.

5. What Makes “Children’s Literature” Literature?

I have left for last the most troubling area in which I think the pendulum should be swung the other way. I think the time has come to begin separating children’s books or children’s reading from children’s literature. Again, there are historical reasons for this situation.

While it may be difficult for young scholars to believe this, there was a time when literary studies were narrowly confined to canonical works, and any attempt to widen that canon was resisted as an attempt “to get comic books in the classrooms.” Those of us who were Young Turks then fought to widen the canon to include Popular Culture, Women’s and African-American Literature, unacceptable genres like Science and Detective Fictions, as well as other kinds of literary work. And we won. And Children’s Literature was carried along in this rising tide of new acceptability.

Now, at this phase of historical development, we are faced with a harder question: Is everything equal? Teen magazines and just about anything written for children may be proper subjects for specialists in Popular Culture and in the new field of Childhood Studies, but what is the case with us in that discipline identified by two specific terms — Children’s / Literature? The harder question we need to reckon with, needless to say, is this one: Is it literature? And that means making choices.

Of course, what makes this difficult is the historical and democratizing impulse that led to the widening of the canon and the establishment of our discipline. For aging Young Turks, it is difficult to consider making needed choices without worrying that one is becoming a reactionary. Perhaps the new generation of scholars in the field will have the courage to bring these issues to the fore and make these choices, weaving their way between the Scylla of a needed openmindedness and the Charybdis of worries about becoming reactionary. It seems to me that when we are able to talk about Children’s Literature as literature, we will be able to address others outside our discipline with genuine confidence and authority.


I have been suggesting here that we can understand the development of Children’s Literature in an historical and dialectical way. When we were the Great Excluded, we needed to turn our backs on others — speaking among ourselves and reinforcing each other — as a necessary step in self-definition. Now we are at another phase and, as Zipes’s critique indicates, we need to consider the dangers of narcissism. In the various remedies mentioned here, I am imagining a Future of the Profession that is expansive so that we don’t end up a closed club, talking only to ourselves and our protégés. In suggesting a widening of venues for our scholarly writing and the manner in which we write, in proposing the opening of our conferences to public intellectuals and genuine overtures to those in other disciplines, and even in intimating our need to consider where kinship lies in reckoning with the second term of the phrase “Children’s Literature,” I am envisioning a new phase for the profession, in which we might consider ourselves the Great Included.

This essay originally appeared as “The Future of the Profession” in The Lion and the Unicorn (April 2002)–requires a subscription. Subsequently, Kenneth Kidd rightfully challenged my defensiveness in this essay, suggesting that I was still sensitive to issues of the legitimacy of the profession. On my part, in retrospect, I now feel most uneasy about section #5 above–where I suggest others might take up distinctions between Children’s Literature (qua Literature) and Childhood Studies–because it is in that intermingled area that I have spent the most time since this essay was published in 2002.

If you liked this, click the💚 below so other people will see this here on Medium.


21. October 2016 by
Categories: , , , , | Comments Off on The Study of Children’s Literature