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  • Patterns of Sound, Sight, and Story:From Literature to Literacy
  • Betsy Hearne (bio)

In the same way that the child shapes the adult, childhood literature stays with and affects the adult relationship with literature throughout a lifetime. Children's literature is as aesthetically and culturally important as adult literature, projecting patterns of language, narrative, and graphic imagery that are playfully simple and often rhythmic or repetitive—even musical—at the earliest stage. These patterns progress in sophistication through folkloric conventions to complex forms of literature and art, and I would like to suggest for this spectrum a theory of literary development that explains why literature precedes literacy in an aesthetic and emotional as well as a cognitive sense.

Literacy is the experience of culture in literary forms; illiteracy is a deprivation of culture. That was not always the case. In most preliterate societies, culture was enjoyed and maintained by the oral tradition of storytelling, as well as by ritual art, dance, song, and ceremony. The material was made memorable by story elements and storytelling techniques. But the oral tradition was not unaffected by the literary. The story of "Beauty and the Beast," for instance, is an ancient folk narrative that was adapted as part of the Mahabharata and Jataka tales, returned from there to the oral tradition, rewritten as "Cupid and Psyche" by Aurelius in the second century, returned to the oral tradition, written down as a didactic fairy tale by French aristocratic women of the eighteenth century, returned again to the oral tradition, and broadly disseminated, most recently, in film and children's literature (Hearne, Beauty and the Beast 5). The interchange between oral and art forms is continuous, and the perpetually shifting versions of old stories in new editions resemble, in many ways, the patterns of oral variants.

Since the nineteenth century, children's literature has passed on myth, folklore, fairy tales, and cultural motifs through a relatively new art form that bears some resemblance to the oral tradition in both content and context. In preliterate cultures, people learned and expressed what they knew by oral communication, a process that involved gesture, expression, [End Page 17] and other visual aspects, as well as nuance of intonation. Today, preliterate children and their caretakers still learn and express what they know orally. One developmental psychologist has documented personal storytelling as a cross-cultural phenomenon, with adults and children narrating or conarrating from four to thirteen stories an hour in some family situations (Miller, in press). A climate this hospitable to socializing through narrative is rich in family mythology and folklore. Of course, television has an especially strong oral impact on children, whose heavy exposure to TV shapes their culture.

The oral tradition involved audiences in very mixed stages of development, as does the children's book audience. Therefore the great story held something for every age level, as does the great children's book. Folktales and children's books have in common compressed structure and selective detail. Every word or line counts in a concentrated form shaped to withstand repetition. In an age of literacy, children still demand to hear and see the stories they love over and over. Children's literature is both iterative and interactive, with reading aloud in the early years introducing an extra dimension of narration, a storytelling voice that often serves as commentator on the authorial text. Like stories in the oral tradition, children's books represent active, adaptable, practical, negotiable literature. Just as the oral tradition is a constantly changing one, so is the tradition of children's literature, and the contemporary must be considered along with the classic.

Children's literature is sound and sight. Children's books engender a call-and-response mode; they both instill and evoke semiotic patterns in young listeners. Children appropriate and imitate what they hear and see. The children's book is absorbed visually, as well as orally. The art of graphic narrative is important to a child's literary landscape. Illustration has become a forum for fine art. Read aloud, the children's book serves as imagaic springboard. Of course, graphic narrative is not new, witness prehistoric cave paintings and pictograms. But Ruskin observed in the...


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