- Children's Literature: A Reader's History from Aesop to Harry Potter
In Children's Literature: A Reader's History from Aesop to Harry Potter, Seth Lerer explores the long history of books written for and read by children, paying special attention to how certain books have been received over time. Lerer's scope is broad; his consideration spans from antiquity to the contemporary. Regardless of era, the production and reception of books that children read speak to the societal truths surrounding children and childhood. How those texts influence future texts is the thread that ties together Lerer's ambitious narrative. From a comparative literature perspective, Lerer also approaches seemingly banal stylistic patterns—such as the catalogue of ships in the Iliad, images of performance in Anne of Green Gables, and the food in Kate Greenaway's illustrations—as value-laden artifacts ripe for analysis. Taking up revised adult texts to texts written explicitly for children and considering at content as well as the physical concerns of bookmaking, Lerer's work speaks to the intersections and reflections of life, society, and children's literature.
Though a commendable project, from the start there are a few concerns. In the introduction, Lerer makes clear his primary goal: to write a history of the reception of children's literature. But while it seems reasonable to consider the ways in which a book is "used, taught[,] . . . excerpted, copied, and sold" (3), it is suspect to speculate how a book was or is "read" (3). For children's literature scholars this approach is deeply flawed, although it is legitimate to draw on an individual's specific response as it is reported at one moment in time. How children "at times suddenly, at times subtly . . . found themselves changed by literature" (I) seems outside of what can be known without relying on pure speculation and is surely outside the scope of analysis. Children, like other readers, are different from each other because of their different experiences; their responses to texts are unpredictable, ungeneralizable, and varied. About his approach Lerer asserts, "I have attended primarily to [End Page 555] scholarly, rather than popular, ways of engaging with the literatures of and for childhood" (II), though his dedication to reception seems to reflect popular ideologies about children as inherently knowable rather than a scholarly respect for children as people. Despite this problematic premise, Lerer's study achieves in other ways. Those who are not familiar with the history of children's literature and the discourse of children's literature scholarship might find Lerer's obvious love for the subject matter and privileging of classic forms a meaningful introduction to the long and rich history of the genre.
Lerer begins his study by considering the texts as well as the cast of characters connected with antique literature and children. He discusses the role adapted literature, in which Homer and Virgil, for example, were excerpted in books and performed on stages, played in a child's life and education. Lerer also describes from whom the children—who had become the center of civic life—would get instruction, who would perform for them, and for what reasons. Lerer points out that while the privileged child learned about power and control and the rigidity of one's station of birth, quite ironically, the slave was largely responsible their education. This founding section of Lerer's study establishes a larger argument: contemporary ideologies about children and childhood, especially the role children's literature played in a child's life, specifically as morality tales, have roots in the oldest education systems. In his second chapter, Lerer further explores how Aesopica remains inextricably tied to children's literature." My purpose here," Lerer writes, is to "show how the fables constitute a literary system, a world through which the child may reimagine the institutions, individuals, and idioms of everyday experience" (37). Broadly generalizing, of course, Lerer asserts that Aesop's fables appeal to children because the "subjects of his fables remain childlike...