- The Politics of Children's Literature Criticism
The first priority is to understand how the ideology of any given book can be located. Above all, such an understanding is important for teachers, especially primary school teachers and English specialists. Their task is to teach children how to read . . . so . . . that child will not be at the mercy of what she reads.Peter Hollindale, "Ideology and the Children's Book," Signal 55 (1988): 19.
To what extent does contemporary children's literature criticism infantilize rather than politicize the child? To what extent does it articulate a classic power struggle (this time over language) between the haves (adults) and the have-nots (children)? John Stephens's Language and Ideology in Children's Fiction, an intellectually challenging book that uses many modern critical theories to explore the efficacious relationship among language, ideology, and children's literature, raises a multiplicity of (perhaps unanswerable) questions. Is the book too difficult, too theoretical? For whom was the book written? What is its intended audience? What is its relation to the child reader, ideal or real? Does Language and Ideology, and other similar critical studies—Nodelman (1992) and Hunt (1991)—articulate the kind of contradiction Jacqueline Rose eloquently spoke of in The Case of Peter Pan; or, The Impossibility of Children's Fiction, the fact that "Peter Pan . . . gives us the child, but it does not speak to the child" (1). And if children's literature criticism is likewise an impossibility because it speaks in an unspeakably difficult language that only literary specialists might decode, precisely what language must young people be armed with in order to protect themselves in an increasingly violent new world order? What language will produce a more equable redistribution of the world's resources, from the elites to the masses? Where is the critical language—of resistance, struggle, and empowerment—that politicizes rather than infantilizes young people, and [End Page 220] what is the role of the intellectual Left in the dissemination of that critical language for the young?
Such questions belittle neither John Stephens's work in general nor Language and Ideology in particular. Stephens has made several valuable contributions to children's literature in the Children's Literature Association Quarterly and in Children's Literature (1993). Language and Ideology in Children's Fiction continues those worthwhile contributions. Stephens's thesis and overall aim—clearly set out in his introduction—is an important one, particularly in these days of political correctness: language, ideology, and children's literature are intimately related, he argues. Further, "[a] narrative without an ideology is unthinkable: ideology is formulated in and by language, meanings within language are socially determined, and narratives are constructed out of language" (8). Childhood is a function of adulthood meaning. Adulthood is a function of childhood meaning. Both are a function of language. Moreover, we would argue, they are related not in any kind of unspoken relationship, as the gay and lesbian children's literature that articulated the egalitarian and thus controversial vision of New York's Rainbow Coalition curriculum dramatically showed. Whether it be a liberal or Leftist agenda looking to articulate a socialist vision through the lens of a humane and caring curriculum or a conservative, right-wing rejection of both that vision and its humane embodiment in a democratic curriculum, the triumvirate of language, ideology, and children's literature shapes and organizes the socialization of the child into the adult. Young people must know that while children's literature is immensely enjoyable as art, it is also immensely powerful as ideology—what Althusser called an ideological state apparatus.
Subsequent chapters in Language and Ideology, though often difficult ironically because of Stephens's wide-ranging use of complex theoretical terminology, nonetheless convincingly argue that, "[a] narrative without an ideology is unthinkable" (8). For example, in chapter one, "Ideology, Discourse and Narrative Fiction," Stephens incorporates the theoretical work of Aidan Chambers, Peter Hollindale (the summary of Hollindale's essay on ideology is good), Wolfgang Iser, and Wayne Booth to discuss the relationship between narrative and ideology in Steven Kellog's The...