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The Perversions of Children's Literature
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The Perversions of Children's Literature

I read children's literature as a queer theorist and am attached to it in much the same way that Judith Butler reads and describes her attachment to the term "lesbian." In "Imitation and Gender Insubordination," Butler points out that she is not unwilling to appear at political occasions "under the sign of the lesbian" as long as it is "permanently unclear what that sign signifies" (308). There is a value to treating the category of children's literature as likewise unstable or "permanently unclear." This is not because we should not "abandon" the task of defining children's literature as Marah Gubar argues (210), but because it is precisely the debate about what counts as children's literature in the first place that opens up spaces for fictional as well as actual children to be just as full of possibility as the books and reading practices they encounter. This space of debate and possibility creates the conditions for reading children's literature perversely and, in turn, for understanding the perversions that have populated it.

Reading perversely has been central to the work of queer theory, and I would like to suggest here that we can do more with perversion in our theorizations of young people and their texts than we have yet dreamed of. Perversion obviously has a much longer history than queer theory, but uncovering this history precisely as a history of perversion has been contemporaneous with—if not a motor of—the very development of queer theory. Long taken to oppose the natural and defined by Richard von Krafft-Ebing as "that [which] [End Page 118] does not correspond with the purpose of nature" (52-53), perversion came to be understood less in terms of opposition to normative frameworks and more as a feature or an effect of them (a version of them, if you will). In Sexual Dissidence, for instance, one of Jonathan Dollimore's projects is to "retrieve the lost histories of perversion" (27), which returns him to the theology—and not just the sexology—of perversion. Dollimore concludes that this theological history reveals a central, persistent facet of modern perversion: "the shattering effect of perversion is somehow related to the fact that its 'error' originates internally to just those things it threatens" (121). What had seemed deviant, insubordinate, or perverse originates in the very thing to which it seems opposed.1 This insight has been key for other theorists such as Mandy Merck, whose own "deviant readings" build on Dollimore's work in order to advocate that "willfully perverse misreadings" (6) be seen as a condition of all reading, a universalizing rather than a minoritizing move, as Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick would have it.2 To read perversely is thus to account for the perversions that find the kernel of their origin in what we take to be normative.3 It is a way of locating perversion at the centre of Western life and thought.

In turn, this kind of reading has allowed us to see what is wonderfully perverse in texts that have been staples of the canon of children's literature. One of the aspects of children's literature that I have always found fascinating is its insubordinations: its sites of dissident or non-conforming children, its failures, its surprising circulations, its appropriations—even its misuses—and especially, to invoke Jacqueline Rose, its impossibilities.4 The stretch for impossibility makes for some of the best and most unruly works of children's literature. We get children who never grow up (Peter Pan), children who sail in and out of weeks (Max), children who fall through rabbit holes into the centre of the earth (Alice), and children who can pass through wardrobe walls into entire other worlds (Narnia). Who does not love it when the White Queen from Through the Looking Glass insists that she has sometimes "believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast" (Carroll 153)? These are what we might call the normative perversions of dailiness within children's literature: the kinds of perversions that contravene our usual ways of thinking but that we have delighted in accepting as features of the...