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  • The Play of Comparison
  • Margaret R. Higonnet (bio)
Comparative Children's Literature, by Emer O'Sullivan. Trans. Anthea Bell. London and New York: Routledge, 2005.

"Maman, 'soleil' et 'courir'—ça ne rime pas."

Children are natural comparatists: they build their vocabulary by comparing day to night, apples to pears, and loud to quiet—and they build a world by pairing themselves not only with other children but with adults. If bilingual, they begin to play with rhyme across as well as within languages: how do you connect "sun" to "run" in French? It is not surprising, therefore, that children's literature is a realm that has attracted many comparatists. Emer O'Sullivan's German dissertation on comparative literature and children's literature, which won the IRSCL book prize in 2001, has now made its mark in an English edition as well, winning the Children's Literature Association award for the best book published in 2005. One reader, who calls it "monumental and momentous," argues that by outlining a comparative approach to children's literature O'Sullivan has given gravitas to a field that has long struggled to gain respectability in academic circles (Hermans 383).

This is not, of course, the first comparative study of children's literature, an approach that has been taken by many scholars, some of them holding posts in institutes dedicated to children or to comparative literature. Sandra Beckett, Klaus Doderer, Hans-Heino Ewers, Göte Klingberg, Gertrud Lehnert, Maria Nikolajeva, Ganna Ottevaeravan Praag, Jean Perrot, Zohar Shavit, and Jack Zipes figure among the predecessors whose theoretical contributions are cited in this study, many of them comparatists by training. The French have been particularly active, as Perrot pointed out in the bibliographic chapter on children's literature that he contributed to the Précis de littérature comparée (1989), edited by Pierre Brunel and Yves Chevrel. In addition to Perrot's own prolific work, Marc Soriano, Isabelle Jan, Denise Escarpit, and Isabelle Nières have all added tomes to our library not only on the poetics of children's literature but on comparative topics such as myth, the links between oral culture and children's culture, translation and adaptation, and the place of visual narrative in children's books. [End Page 238] Two aspects of O'Sullivan's book, however, distinguish it from those by her predecessors: her effort to establish a classification scheme for comparative work ("the first proposal," as she puts it, to "divide up the field"), with lists of critical tasks that lie ahead of us under each topic (12), and her emphasis on translation. Indeed, setting aside the useful critical apparatus, which fills one quarter of the book, almost two thirds of this study is devoted to the translation of children's books in theory and in practice.

What does the title Comparative Children's Literature mean? While the blurb emphasizes the way that children's literature "has transcended linguistic and cultural borders," and has been "translated throughout the world," the book is much more interested in locating differences across national and linguistic boundaries. From the outset, O'Sullivan declares, "'The child' can't be spoken about as a singular entity; class, ethnic origin, gender, geopolitical location and economic circumstances are all elements which create differences between real children in real places" (8). Her conception of the methods of comparative literature corresponds to the dominant strand of theory by comparatists such as René Wellek, Claude Pichois, A. O. Aldrich, and Ulrich Weisstein, or more recently Claudio Guillen and Manfred Schmeling. Like them, she stresses comparison pursuing similar genres, images and themes, intertextuality, international contacts, and "reception." All these are important for children's literature as well as for literature in general; if we were to single out one aspect, however, it would have to be "reception," since the very concept of children's literature depends upon the assumption of a distinctive audience. (If I may put a stick in the wheel here, I would suggest that the inclusion of oral culture might unsettle that assumption.) In addition, she proposes that our model include a "comparative historiography" that would analyze the different ways in which our literary histories have been compiled, working at...


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