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Signs of Childness in Children’s Books

June 5, 2012

“Almost without noticing it, in using the term [children’s literature] we find ourselves prioritizing either the children or the literature…” (p.8)

are we adults, in reading children’s literature, reading the same text but a different book?” (9) Hollindale compares the reading of children’s literature to the reading of women’s texts by men. He also points out that we make “…allowance for children’s social, emotional and linguistic inexperience” (10) but asks us to consider what this means. “The analogy [to women’s writing] has manifest limitations,” Hollindale explains, “but just how severe these limitations are depends on our degree of willingness to accord childhood a status, a value, an experiential uniqueness, in its own right.” (10) One crucial limitation to this comparison, Hollindale points out is that the “transaction between woman writer and woman reader is one of equals.” (11)

The author must construct childhood from an amalgam of personal retrospect acquaintance with contemporary children, and an acquired system of beliefs as to what children are, and should be, like. Between the author and the child there is a cultural and historical gap, almost always of at least half a generation, usually much more…. The author’s textual negotiations with the child about the meaning and nature of childhood are a distinguishing feature of children’s books, and an intrinsic part of the critic’s terms of reference. … Exactly how this cultural time-gap matters depends again on our politics of childhood and our sense of the status of children. If we see childhood as essentially preparatory and developmental, a long and gradual rehearsal for maturity… then we shall emphasize the process of learning and growing and acquiring which the early years entail: a child will always for us be in transit, on the way to being something more developed [-p.13] and advanced (our adult selves). If, on the other hand, we see childhood as an autonomous part of life, and its passage as entailing some losses as well as many gains, if we see it as a phase of experience which cannot be curtailed or repressed without lasting harm to the adult, we shall place less store by the developmental usefulness of children’s activities and more by the help they give in enabling the child to be a child.” (12-13) The way we view childhood, Hollindale argues, “will strongly affect the way we evaluate children’s books.” (14)

[Note that one question implicit in Hollindale’s discussion here is: What is the purpose of humanity? …of the adult? …of the child? … and there are a few different ideologies that could shape very different answers to these questions. Another question worth pursuing is: What is our view of adulthood? Is it a developmental period? What makes it different from childhood? (Middle Age: A Natural History by David Bainbridge might be relevant here…) How might a Buddhist view, or a Darwinian view, of the world shape answers to these questions differently? ]

Hollindale asserts that “the only secure grounds for definition are those that rest in the exchange between adult author and child reader of complex constructions of childhood.” (23) (One might add the other figures that feature in such a transaction to this definition… librarians, parents, teachers, etc.  – whom Hollindale surely hasn’t forgotten, but doesn’t mention)

It is commonplace in the post-Romantic western sensibility to value the residual childhood that is carried into adult life. This is why most of us would put some of our childhood books in the personal bookcase, and it is one reason why many adults read children’s books. They do so because they want to read about children, and thus refresh the links with their own childhood.” (31) “…it may be irrelevant to many adult readers whether a particular text is ‘for’ children or adults, when what matters is that it is a transaction with childhood. … Once we are adults, the child in ourselves may not be dead, and we may be able to reconstruct a childhood of the mind and imagination, but childhood itself is over. Its presentness is irrecoverable.” (32)

“For the child, childness is composed of the developing sense of self in interaction with the images of childhood encountered in the world (including adult expectations, standards of behaviour, grants of privilege and independence, taboos, goals, and offerings of pleasure). For the adult, childness is composed of the grown-ups’ memories of childhood, of meaningful continuity between child and adult self, of the varied behaviour associated with being a child, and the sense of what is appropriate behaviour for a given age, of behavioural standards, ideals, expectations and hopes invested in the child as a child.” (49)

Ref: Peter Hollindale Signs of Childness in Children’s Books


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