Exit Children's Literature?
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Exit Children’s Literature?

I would like to start my discussion of contemporary trends in international children’s fiction with a quick reiteration of some common prejudices about children’s literature, maintained not only by its adversaries but even by its most ardent supporters.

In his book The Pleasures of Children’s Literature, Perry Nodelman enumerates several features that in his eyes characterize children’s literature:

  • • simple but not necessarily simplistic

  • • action-oriented rather than character-oriented

  • • presented from the viewpoint of innocence

  • • optimistic and with happy endings

  • • didactic

  • • repetitious in diction and structure (190).

At first glance, most of us will certainly agree. However, if we take a more thorough look at some renowned contemporary children’s authors—the British Alan Garner, Aidan Chambers, or Diana Wynne Jones; the Americans Robert Cormier or Patricia MacLachlan; the New Zealander Margaret Mahy; the South African Lesley Beake; the Swede Peter Pohl; the Norwegian Tormod Haugen; the German Michael Ende; the French Michel Tournier; and the Russian Radi Pogodin—we see that, given the above characteristics, none of their works would fit into the definition of children’s literature. I have deliberately chosen examples from different national literatures in order to demonstrate that the phenomenon I am going to discuss is indeed not limited to any particular country or language. When confronted with these writers, we must either admit that they do not write for children—which some of them have declared they do not, although their books are marketed as books for children—or re-define our notion of children’s literature. [End Page 221]

My thesis is that an ever-growing segment of contemporary children’s literature is transgressing its own boundaries, coming closer to mainstream literature, and exhibiting the most prominent features of postmodernism, such as genre eclecticism, disintegration of traditional narrative structures, polyphony, intersubjectivity, and metafiction (see Nikolajeva, “Haugen”; Children’s Literature). None of these features is normally associated with children’s literature.

Let us start with the statement that children’s literature is simple. It is challenging to define a “simple” narrative, but the different aspects of simplicity should involve both story (what is narrated) and discourse (how it is narrated). The criteria for a “simple” story might be concrete and familiar subject matter; clear distinction between genres and text-types (adventure story, family story, school story); one single, clearly delineated plot without digressions or secondary plots; chronological order of events; a limited number of characters who are easy to remember; “flat” characters—that is, characters composed basically of one typical feature to whom can be readily ascribed either the quality “good” or “evil”; closed characters who are easy to understand from their actions and speech; settings familiar to children such as the nursery, home, school, playground, summer camp, etc.

The criteria for simplicity of discourse would be a distinct narrative voice; a fixed point of view—preferably an authoritarian, didactic, extradiegetic narrator who can supply the young reader with comments, explanations, and exhortations without leaving anything unuttered or ambiguous; a narrator possessing larger knowledge and experience than either the characters or the readers. Complex temporal and spatial relations are excluded. Naturally, the verisimilitude of the story, the reliability of the narrator, or the sufficiency of language as the artistic expressive means cannot be questioned.

Obviously, most of these criteria match traditional children’s literature as well as much of what is written and published as children’s literature today. However, let us contemplate what some contemporary children’s writers offer their readers.

Traditionally, certain subjects, characters, and settings are believed to be suitable for children; for example, the abundance of animals and toys in children’s books is particularly striking. However, if we regard these figures as metaphorical representations of the weak and the oppressed or as the child’s projections of his or her own desires, we should not be misled by the outer form. The death of a pet in a children’s book may just as well be a disguised depiction of the death of a close relative; the trials of a doll may be a camouflaged story of a child’s suppressed fear of his or [End Page 222...